Totally Dedicated: Leonard Contino, 1940-2016Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, NY
Like a retablo in electric hues, a wall of 17 abstract paintings (1966-1977) by Leonard Contino arranged in three tiers, towers over the viewer and echoes in the reflection of the polished floor of the Dorsky Museum. With their zig-zagging geometry, hard-edge execution, and nested shapes radiating out into each corner, each square painting has its own inorganic life, defying fixed orientation. In their totality they create a sacred space of ecstasy. We witness their lives unfolding in the present like a vision. Their futures remain undetermined.
Curator Anna Conlan organized this retrospective of Contino’s work thematically, appropriate since the artist dedicated himself to several concurrent series over decades: checkerboard paintings, black-and-white geometric line paintings, relief sculptures and maquettes, and even erotic collages. Resisting chronological classification, the work pulls us into a perpetual present that was paradoxically forged over the course of the artist’s 50 years of labor. Contino’s art was informed by contemporary movements like hard-edge abstraction and Op art, which the self-taught artist encountered as he ran among the circle exhibiting at the artist-run Park Place Gallery in the late 1960s and which included his life-long friend and champion Mark di Suvero. However, it is marked by a distinct devotional fervor, perhaps an expression of Contino’s dedicated process: working at his kitchen table, he committed himself to making art every day. Although he investigates the nature of the picture plane and abstraction, the intricacy of the work resulting from his daily devotional practice reveals a deep spirituality, making it more akin to Kandinsky at the Bauhaus or Hilma af Klint than any of his peers.
This spirituality was already overt in his early mandala paintings. Symmetrical along both the vertical and horizontal axes, the paintings, such as Untitled (1966), a 29 × 24 in. acrylic and sand painting, induce hallucinatory pulsations with their simultaneous contrast of highly saturated colors, dislocating the viewer in space and time. This is amplified in Contino’s subsequent, lifelong series of checkerboard paintings which oscillate between a perspectival space and a flat modernist grid superimposed over each other, as in RE (1977). Layered over that spatial drama is a column of arcs, like sunrises stacked on top of each other, compressing infinite days in the space of one canvas. The only point of stability is a dark brown void, a timeless circle whose power is echoed in the concentric yellow circles emanating from it.
Contino’s “floaters” series, made in the last two decades of his life, consists of nested isosceles or equilateral triangles with metallic appendages branching out from their sides. In Splintered (2009), blue triangles float in an orange ether painted in a thin wash that creates a sense of openness and light. But Contino never sacrifices the geometric precision of his forms, even when employing what looks like a post-painterly application of color. In fact, the spirituality of the work comes from our sublime experience of their absolute geometric otherness. He gives his forms “life and the right to individual existence”—as Malevich wrote that painters should—leaving us to try and grasp the movement and temporality of his paintings.
Although recognized by critic Barbara Rose, who included him in her book American Painting: The Eighties, a Critical Interpretation (1979), Contino mostly led a quiet career and exhibited infrequently, in part because he did not want his work viewed in light of his disability. In 1959, aged 19, Contino had been injured in a diving accident that rendered him quadriplegic. (He first met Mark di Suvero at New York’s Rusk Rehabilitation where they were both patients and where Contino first began to make art.) Contino had some mobility in his arms but very little strength in his hands and produced the paintings we see by holding his brush in a metal brace attached to his forearm. We need not project narratives of pity or inspiration onto his work. He rightly resisted this, wanting his artwork to be seen on its own terms. If disability plays any role in Contino’s work, perhaps it is as the disabilities studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has formulated, with disability representing something that goes beyond actual people with disabilities. She writes, “…we [people with disabilities] embody the unpredictable and intractable nature of temporality. We frustrate modernity’s fantasy that we determine the arc of our own histories.” “Disability’s contribution—its work—,” she argues, and which we can see as parallel to Contino’s spiritual art practice, “is to sever the present from the future… [It] contributes a narrative of a genuinely open future, one not controlled by the objectives, expectations, and understandings of the present.”