Françoise Gilot, "Compositions, 1980-2005," Oct. 18-Dec. 1, 2007, at the New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
The straightforward reward, the simple satisfactions of a modest, discrete exhibition of radiant abstract paintings is probably the antithesis of the contemporary art world’s current appetite for excess and overkill, the fever of Art Basel Miami, the VIP soirées of "auction week," Damien Hirst at the Lever House. Much as those things are highly enjoyable, and they are, of course they are, one needs a balance, one requires a very basic white room with just eight canvases to remind oneself what art can also be, has to be, otherwise it will be subsumed by the static of social activity, noise of prices and parties.
And so at the New York Studio School on West 8th Street, to merely enter the show by Françoise Gilot grants an immediate jolt of energy, a reassuring sense of the order of the world, the possibilities of its patterns and their harmonious resolution. The works on display were relatively large and recent, "Compositions" from 1980-2005, and were ideally installed by Louise Tolliver Deutschman, hung sparsely, no more than two together, while echoing and complementing each other, the visitor in the midst of this call-and-response as if happily between quadraphonic speakers.
A dialogue is at play in such a hanging, and one might even be lured toward that hoariest of all old abstract art analogies, the musical motif. If painters instinctively hate the "pattern" word, with its connotations of the decorative, they are also resistant to the notion that the shapes and forms they deploy must be analogous to anything at all. Why must these entirely independent visual elements, a geometry that comes from the solitary imagination alone, always be likened and compared to extraneous matter -- whether to soi-disant "classical" compositions or modernist atonality -- to any sort of music, to nature or indeed to traces of recognizable figuration? Why, to pose the fundamental tautological problem that even this piece of prose embodies, does every human attempt to create something autonomous, truly exclusively personal, genuinely "abstract" in the widest sense, have to be roped back, confined if not hog-tied by the net of our language itself?
Still, hunting such crass correspondences one might suggest that these paintings, with their circles and spheres accosted or interpenetrated by arrow-like, dynamic bolts and bold lines-of-force, the sense of an attack or lure between the ovals and the triangles, have a fundamental if unconscious "structure" (perhaps in the psychoanalytic sense) akin to female and male. In On the Way the masculine forces, the straight lines, the triangular "wedge" worthy almost of El Lissitzky’s martial abstractions, attack or probe the central broken oblong from every direction, while April Sunshine and The Tree of Life surely suggest the womb and seeds. Mapping the body upon the canvas it is easy to sense those central spheres as germinal by their placement, both under threat and in harmony with the dynamic lines that converge upon them, the painting Blue Sky proffering an analogical cotyledon. The identification of the female with the circular is perhaps furthered by Gilot’s distinctive signature device, a marvelous graphic logo that while recalling Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s own monogram also implies its author is both self-contained and well-rounded.
The attraction of these paintings is in their perfection of scale in relation to their composition and luscious tactile tones. A beautiful blue is recognizable as the azure of Nicolas Poussin, while on close inspection the flat matte surface offers an entirely elegant if not edible treat. These paintings are so well-scaled and well-made, so self-sustaining in their proportions and balance, even their simple, excellent frames adding to their surety, that they seem almost effortless. Only the example of the one "failed" painting here demonstrates just how difficult it was to get it so right in all the others.
For in Cosmic Night the combination of clunky format, a square as opposed to the other rectangles, an uncertain, unresolved composition, and a plain mean color-scheme -- two shades of brown equally unappealing (with an odd amount of craquelure for a work only three years old) -- all add up to an instructive error that outlines all the elements Gilot has elsewhere mastered, and explains the exact dynamics of her successes, just as the notably different colors in the reproductions in the exhibition catalogue make the reality of her actual painting palette all the more enjoyable. The perfect pitch, the pure puissance and proud purpose of these powerful paintings, are all more than enough to not have to even mention the usual PP that seems always obliged to top-or-tail any writing about Françoise Gilot.
ADRIAN DANNATT is a New York-based critic and writer.