Cool Judith Rothschild’s Return to Abstraction

American painters with an affinity for the aesthetics of abstraction have often grappled with the problem of influence-the influence, that is, of the European masters of abstract art. Total resistance to that influence was not, after all, an aesthetic option for painters of this persuasion.Thebasic modalities of abstract art were set early on in the work of Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich, Miró and a few other European masters. Or so it often seemed, anyway, from an American perspective-especially in New York, where major examples of their paintings could be studied in the collections of the Museum of ModernArtandtheSolomonR. Guggenheim Museum, as well as the galleries that specialized in European abstraction.

What has commonly remained a problem for American talent has been the task of creating an individual vision in the face of what was inherited as a powerful modernist tradition. It is in this respect, as well as others, that the work of the late Judith Rothschild (1921-93), currently on view at Knoedler & Company, is both interesting and appealing. From the outset of her career-she was 24 when she had her first solo exhibition at the Jane Street Gallery in 1945-Rothschild brought a cool, thoughtful, undoctrinaire authority to the problems of pictorial abstraction. Surrealism, which was very much in vogue in New York in themid-1940′s,waslargelyrejected, though an exception was made for Miró. Certain exponents of Dada, however-Jean Arp andKurtSchwitters-werefirmly embraced. Expressionist exuberance, another vogue of the 40′s, was similarly avoided in favor of formal rigor.

In the front room of the current exhibition, Judith Rothschild: Image and Abstraction , there are 12 examples of the small-scale abstract paintings and collages the artist produced between 1945 and the mid-1950′s. This was, of course, the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, yet Rothschild appears to have remained untempted by its innovations in scale and style. She opted instead for a purer, more discreet mode of abstraction, combining certain elements of Arp, Mondrian and Miró, and an occasional foray into a Schwitters mode of collage, with what in music is called “perfect pitch.” It was a remarkable achievement,andallthe moreimpressive when one realizes that the artist was not yet 30 years old when she produced this early work.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, we discover that Rothschild had also succumbed to certain other influences at the time without the same success. Picasso’s figurative Cubism could scarcely be avoided, but it yielded the artist little more than abject imitation. It also signified a growing loss of conviction in the aesthetic efficacy of pure abstraction. So did the even less promising influence of the American painter Karl Knaths, whose own milquetoast version of Cubism led her further astray.

Far more promising was an abstraction like Scaffolding of Tyre (1948), with its bold, black structure that is akin to some of the open-form metal sculptures that David Smith was producing at the time. But the current exhibition, which concentrates on early and late work, skips the middle years of Rothschild’s development, when she was drawn to literary and other subjects as her interest in pure abstraction faltered. Fortunately, the few examples of the late work in this show mark a distinct recovery in conviction and quality, and do so under a wholly new influence-that of Matisse’s late cutout compositions.

What is remarkable, however, is that it was Matisse’s cutout method of composition, not his brilliant command of color, that seems to haverestoredRothschild’sinterestin abstraction, while also subtly satisfying her appetite for what she described as “the world of visual appearance.” In constructing these collage-reliefs of foam-board cutouts and other materials (aluminumand cardboard),with minimal touches of acryliccoloron mostly stark white surfaces,she produced some of her most original work.

Still, it is to that front room in the exhibition, with its amazing succession of small-scale, nearly perfect abstractions, that the visitor to this show happily returns before departing. It represents a precious and rather poignant moment in an otherwise turbulent period of American painting, and one is grateful to have seen it.

Judith Rothschild: Image and Abstraction remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through March 2.