Max Kozloff: The Atmospherics of Interruption: Paintings 1966-2018
New YorkDC Moore Gallery
December 13, 2018 – January 26, 2019
Perhaps best known for his canonical essay linking Abstract Expressionism to America’s postwar hegemony, Max Kozloff has left an indelible mark on art history and art criticism, informed by his own practice as a photographer and painter. Kozloff has exhibited his photographs, but The Atmospherics of Interruption isthe first show to feature his abstract oil paintings. Here we see in the flesh his heartfelt conversation with the medium since the 1960s. These works present a man fascinated by the possibilities of color, mark making, and the light effects of landscape painting.
Kozloff owes a debt to Pierre Bonnard, and has said so in his artist’s statement for this show. Barnett Newman once quipped about Bonnard’s paintings, “The nude is never going to get out of that bathtub,” essentially branding the work as merely sensual, and unfortunately this popular characterization has stuck. To the contrary, Bonnard deserves credit for the radical structure of his mature paintings based on color arrays across the spectrum. In effect each painting reads as a pattern of undulating rainbows, which gain in intensity the longer you look. A series of four works from the 1990s show how Kozloff makes use of Bonnard’s chromatic logic in slightly altered form, using color schemes that are composed of adjacent hues on the color wheel. The palette of The Sphinx in Hell (1996) occupies the red/orange end of the spectrum, while Autumn Frolics (1997) stands in the blue/indigo/violet quadrant. In each case we experience waves of color similar to Bonnard.
Kozloff goes full Bonnard, so to speak, in Creatures from the Orange Lagoon (2002) where his color choices sweep through the whole spectrum, moving from blue to violet, bottom to top, and side to side. As with Bonnard, his hues cohere as a unit, rather than breaking down into sections that don’t communicate, as is typical of most colorists working today. However Kozloff moves away from the Frenchman’s high chroma in the late work by mixing down his colors; further, Kozloff is working in an abstract idiom that relies on the movements of the brush rather than the syntax of the representational image to guide the viewer’s eye across the surface. In that respect Kozloff emulates another of his avowed models, Philip Guston, particularly his underrated impressionist abstractions of the early 1950s. We see this most clearly in Intermezzo (1973) which echoes the metronomic pulse of Guston’s brushstrokes from that period.
Kozloff clearly delights in the process of putting paint to canvas, alternating between thick and thin applications. He notes in his statement that the brushstroke took on a musical quality in compensation for the onset of a severe hearing disability. Just as hearing orients us in space, Kozloff’s marks orient us in the paintings, giving direction and shape to his compositions. His paintings from the mid-2000s onward really sing when the systems of his color and facture find a delicate balance.
Kozloff achieves this counterpoint by softening his colors with white, while making his marks more regular. In Climate Change (2017) at 30 × 32 inches, the brushstrokes are less varied than in his 90s works, and more casual. The relaxed quality of his brush movements accentuates the breezy feel of the watery blues, dark greens, and grays that dominate the work. Kozloff gives his palette some contrast with mixed-down violets, pale pinks, and bright greens. The colors and openness of the image—sections of the surface are unpainted—suggest the temperate air of a northern seascape during the warmer months. This quality of light brings to mind another artist Kozloff mentions by name in his statement, the American landscape painter George Inness. Inness’s 19th century works owe much to the Hudson School, with a mystical intensity all of their own, and this is precisely what Kozloff, through a tight control of color, surface and scale, somehow manages to channel in the best of the late works.
A dramatic synthesis of Kozloff’s stated influences, Storm (2018) blends Bonnard’s color scales with Guston’s vigorous surface, conjuring in their interplay the charged atmospherics of one of Inness’s tempestuous landscapes. Evidence of a deep and deliberate dialogue with the medium of oil painting, Storm andthe other paintings in this exhibit seem distant from the hyperactive gimmickry that dominates abstraction today. Instead, we see an artist who has already made his mark, and, with nothing to prove to the public, has no ulterior motive other than to satisfy his own lines of inquiry, which stem from a rich understanding of painting, photography, art criticism, and art history. How refreshing.