David Novros' paintings don't exhaust speculation quickly and are not quite so easily consumed as many contemporary artworks are. They complete themselves in the details. Spending time with them disperses their solemnity and this makes the Paula Cooper Gallery space seem less churchlike, when one would expect the opposite.
One might also assume that these paintings, done about 40 years ago (they range in date from 1965 to ’69), are from a time when artists were confident that painting could carry meaning, but they reveal uncertainties as well. On the one hand, the paintings are steeped in the western art-historical canon; on the other hand, this referentiality may have been an expedient way to draw attention away from the foregrounded subjectivity of the artist, the inheritance of Novros' generation from the previous one.
Untitled (1969), one of the later works (hung in the small gallery), painted with oil on raw canvas, has more playful charm, or is just less reserved, than most of the others. It is made up of eight panels, all fitted closely together: a wide olive drab horizontal is in the center. It splits the work into two subsets, made up of three panels above and four below. Each subset has an inverted L-shaped panel that fits in like a partially supported lintel.
The relatively demonstrative color seems to touch a part of one's color memory palette: chocolate, ketchup, Gauloises blue, etc. The airy, matte surfaces, only occasionally retaining the impression of the brush, step subtly lighter in tone through the mid-ranges as the eye scans up from the bottom to the top of the assembled canvases.
The painting across from it (also Untitled, 1969) reveals some of its sources a bit more readily. Its 15 panels of bleached teal, airy plum and slate gray amid various shades of earth colors summon up both Chiricoesque and Siennese Quattrocento associations. The fitted panels are gathered in three vertical stacks separated by a narrow channel of white wall. In its overall dimensions (108 x 108 in.) it is a perfect square. The central group is only partially complete -- it uses a large section of white wall. Some of the panels were perhaps taken away after being put here, put there and moved around. As in all of the work in the exhibition, a lot of trial and error over an extended period seems to have taken place.
Novros built up his richly downbeat color in lots of thin layers of paint. The visible sides of each of the panels reveal underpainting. There is often a discrepancy between the color on the side and that on the frontal planes with the exception of the one six-panel lacquer-on-fiberglass painting in the main room (again, also Untitled, 1969). The L-shapes that exclusively make up that work have no sides, they are only an inch or so thick and have rounded edges. That work functions like a very low relief.
The two other paintings in the main room are also assembled from attenuated l-shaped stretched canvases (Untitled, 1965-67) or incomplete brackets (Untitled, 1965). The artist recently repainted this latter work in deliberating, horizontal brushstrokes across the spindly panels in two different shades of indigo, one per each support. Their edges reveal a lovely red-oxide underpainting.
Looking around at these three works, interpenetrated as they are by the white of the walls, it occurs that these paintings as much about negation as shape. Another way of attempting to go beyond his forebears, Novros' shaped and assembled canvas paintings seem to scoop out rectangular troughs of picture plane as if at pains to avoid reiterating the painted color fields of Newman and Rothko, the textured surfaces of Johns and Held or the expansive soaked planes of the painterly and post-painterly abstractionists.
This approach distinguishes him from contemporaries exploring similar territory such as Brice Marden and Jake Berthot, who were both working with smoky color and on canvases with adjoined panels. By contrast both tended toward treating the support as an inflected slab of indefinable oil color. Novros was able to more freely polychrome his paintings as he simultaneously made the wall a nearly equal participant in each work. One should note that five of the six paintings shown exist within a rectangular perimeter.
This also allowed for more inadvertent visual incident, such as in Untitled (1965-67), on the largest wall in the main room. The six individual panels vary in their contrast between monochrome surfaces that are uniformly painted to look almost sprayed and those slowly revealing the scumble of a brush over the surface. The long sides of a number of the stretchers are slightly bowed, and the corners of them bulge slightly due to the canvas being double-folded in the corners. The uncertainties of construction become part of the content, similar to the way painters such as Jo Baer who made hard-edged paintings during the same period used masking tape that they allowed to curve slightly, a result of the bounce of the taut canvas, rather than attempting to deny one of its intrinsic aspects.
Scrutinizing this rare and pleasurable exhibition, metaphor quickly departs, the work is so strong that the viewer doesn't stray far for long from its physical actuality. But upon leaving, on an overcast day, looking at the varied brick and stone buildings and being reminded of some of Novros' color, one cannot help but think about how these works were produced in a dingy, increasingly dangerous city for a small, informed audience. Not a golden age, perhaps but not so bad a moment, either.
"David Novros," Sept. 1-26, 2009, at Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
JOE FYFE is a New York artist and critic.