On ViewCheim & Read
September 26 – November 15, 2019
Eight of Ron Gorchov’s classic paintings on shields, executed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are currently on view in the new uptown gallery of Cheim & Read. Two of them arch out vertically, while the others are horizontally oriented. None, needless to say, are either rectangular or flat. Like Gorchov, the European old masters painted on surfaces of varied shapes, on cupolas and in fresco upon curved church walls, and icon-makers worked on solid wooden surfaces. But then modernist European artists focused upon a single norm: the rectangular easel painting, intended to be movable to a museum or a collector’s home. In the late 1960s Frank Stella’s abstractions, composed from the frame inward, deconstructed this well-entrenched convention. Stella’s pictures attracted attention because they were not rectangular. And in that era, a great many other figurative and abstract artists, mostly working in more intuitive ways, experimented with shaped supports. No longer, it seemed, need easel pictures be organized solely in relation to a rectangular frame.
Gorchov has devoted his career to exploring another related, but very different, option: the saddle-shape. On ocher, yellow or white backgrounds he floats irregularly shaped vertically oriented forms, some reminiscent of those found in Clyfford Still’s pictures, but in a lighter, higher pitched tonality. Sometimes, as in Moulage (1982), he lets the blue paint drip to the bottom edge. Occasionally he creates ‘L’ shapes, running left to right, as we see in Logic (1982-1983). And also—Lens (1981) is such a picture—his shaped forms may be set in a monochromatic field. But in other cases, like Overture (1982), the foregrounded forms dominate the image. Gorchov sometimes floats his forms at the center of the composition, but often runs them down or up to the edge. Usually the background color does not extend entirely all the way to the wooden support, whose brown edge thus functions visually as a framing device. These are very buoyant pictures, marvelously effervescent.
Were Gorchov to use normal rectangular canvases, these works would have been normal, attractive, but in honesty, somewhat banal abstractions. As it is, however, the shape of his supports changes dramatically how we see the pictures. To understand their significance, we need a historical perspective. In the exhibition catalogue Thomas Micchelli instructively compares them to “primitive” masks, Australian Aboriginal shields and Gauguin’s carvings. Without necessarily rejecting any of these suggestions, I call attention to another precedent, which may be more suggestive.
Caravaggio’s Medusa (1597), his recreation of a lost picture by Leonardo da Vinci, depicts Medusa on a convex shield.
Her eyes turned men to stone, but Perseus tricked her by showing her her own reflection in a mirror, so that she herself petrified. Caravaggio shows the precise moment in which Medusa catches sight of herself, and with a shriek of appalled terror senses her stony fate… 1
And Caravaggio, in turn, tricks you, the viewer, by creating the illusion that this painting is on a concave surface, so that his image appears projected towards you. Like everything by Caravaggio, this work has been much discussed, but the story is also useful for understanding the situation at the time these Gorchovs were made. In New York of the early 1980s, contemporary painting was beleaguered. Gorchov responded to that situation: as Perseus overcame Medusa, so Gorchov overcomes this rejection of painting by presenting his abstractions on shield-frames. To continue the parallel, just as Caravaggio permits us to see a forbidden sight—the head of Medusa—so Gorchov’s saddles make possible a forbidden activity: abstract painting.
Stella’s shaped canvases focus on the relationship between illusion and literal shape. This product of an essentially formal way of thinking focuses on the intrinsic nature of painting as painting. Saying this is not to criticize Stella (I admire formalism!), but only to highlight Gorchov’s distinctive use of shaped canvases, which is all about constructing a working space. And this may explain why Gorchov has remained faithful to his saddles, while for Stella the use of shaped pictures was but a brief episode. Having solved the pictorial problem, Stella moved on. Having discovered a new way to develop abstraction, Gorchov found his signature style. Who would have thought that Stella’s stately and irregularly shaped pictures would become high modernist classics belonging to the museum culture, while Gorchov’s works speak primarily to artists? Some painters close down tradition, while others open up visual strategies and ways of thinking that engage others. And sometimes the tortoise outruns the hare.Note: This review extends my essay “Outside the Box: David Carrier on the Legacy of Shaped Canvases.”
- Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998), 120. My account of Medusa borrows from discussions long ago with David Reed.