Stephen Posen, "Dancer/Mirror," May 6-June 10, 2006, at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013
Stephen Posen has described his art in terms of a journey, a sequence inspired by inner necessity. His art is cumulative, linked together like footsteps on a path, yet prone to leaps and disjunctions that bring boundaries into clear focus as they are transgressed. This quality is made quite clear in "Dancer/Mirror," Posen’s current exhibition at the Drawing Center’s Drawing Room space in SoHo.
In "Dancer/Mirror," Posen’s drawing extends way past the edges of the paper. It fills the entire gallery, the sheets of paper shifting and multiplying as the lines skip across their surfaces, the drawings scattering up the walls and across the ceiling like wind-swept leaves, until the art takes leave of its container entirely and flows out through the door onto the sidewalk and street. "I think the piece is about the intimacy of being in a drawing," Posen said the other day. "And one should experience it that way."
What kind of space is this, Posen asked, and what is necessary to link to it? His Drawing Room installation engages color and transparency as well as line, casting the back of the gallery as a kind of cave of opacity -- in fact, the show has an "originary" drawing, hidden in a small rear alcove, which is a source for the rest of the work -- that gradually gives way to sunlight at the front of the room, which is marked by a large garage door with a grid of small windows.
The zones of color shift, too, from a chrome oxide green (where a real water pipe seems to plunge into a black pit of drawn lines) to Post-It Note yellow, dark blue and red. The different shades of paper are accented by touches of paint and pastel playing off the vigorous tones of the charcoal. Each individual unit within the whole of "Dancer/Mirror" consists of a drawing on three joined sheets of paper.
Posen has always been interested in what he calls "the transition from wall to object to illusion." Two years spent in Florence on a Fulbright grant in the 1960s (along with fellow Yale students Richard Serra and Nancy Graves) imbued him with a profound sense for "construction" -- the disegno championed by Vasari as the cerebral and technical underpinning of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. Giotto, Masaccio and Piero provided Posen with examples of the physicality of painting based on drawing.
Yet, Posen arrived in Florence with an Abstract Expressionist sensibility that has never left him. For decades he painted cogent, meticulously considered works exploring the tension between the inside and outside worlds. His earliest mature works from 1964 are vigorous shaped-canvas abstractions. In 1969-74 he made a splash with striking Photorealist-style paintings of boxes covered with cloth -- except that the images were painted from life, not from photographs -- that were included in the "realist" Documenta of 1972.
Later works in the ‘70s pushed the issues of painterly illusionism even further, rendering -- in oil on canvas -- black-and-white photographic images of the studio with brightly colored ribbons and pieces of cloth on their surfaces, trompe-l’oeil elements often tracing or countering the contours of objects in the photographic scene. In the 1980s, his paintings reflected a fascination with cartoon characters like Krazy Kat, another expansion of the layering of disparate images. (Works can be viewed at www.stephenposen.com.)
In the last three years, Posen has again broken out -- departing from the canvas and devoting more attention to drawing. For the exhibition at the Drawing Room, Posen created a world of drawing, not a show of individual pieces. The leaps and pirouettes of the installation have the concentrated energy of a dancer -- in fact, Posen invited a dancer into his studio and had her add pigment to her dancing shoes, as an experiment that was ultimately discarded in favor of his own dance, his own control.
Carefully mapped out ahead of time in his studio, "Dancer/Mirror" is an exhilarating total environment. The drawings themselves dance before our eyes, unframed and spilling beyond their edges, rotated at angles and brought together in overlapping clusters. "Dancer/Mirror" also plays upon imagination, impulse and the nature of illusion -- here, a reference to the mirror that reflects the dancer’s movements.
As Posen describes it, he "starts at a point in the air" and sees where it leads him, seeking a realm of spontaneity beyond logic. Posen’s drawings reach out into our space and pull us into their own world -- a rigorously structured one with its own physicality a la Masaccio and Piero and at the same time running free with unconscious joyful vitality and a winking sense of humor. "Disegno" has never seemed so exciting, paradoxical and thought-provoking.
VIVIAN GORDON is an art historian who lectures for the Metropolitan Museum's Education Department.