A Headstrong Loner’s Paradox: Transformations Fixed in Time

Some day, an intrepid curator from one of our museums will organize a retrospective of paintings by Pat Adams. It won’t be soon, I’m afraid: As long as cultural institutions continue to celebrate contemporary artists who titillate or bore-and condescend either way-Ms. Adams will remain a marginal figure. Her abstractions have nothing to offer those who chase the fleeting gratification of spectacle or strike the nihilist pose. The paintings, predicated on either the circle or the square, unfold deliberately, slower than slow. They’re also, in their own vexing way, immediate. Ms. Adams insists on material sensuality: She mixes shells, beads and sand with her oils and acrylics.

The metaphysical underpinnings of these dense and delicate pictures divulge themselves gradually. She illuminates what are often abstruse avenues of philosophical thought, yet doesn’t put a fine point on them. Her pictures are as particular as they are elusive, and she thrives on paradox.

The extremes her art encompasses would make one dizzy if she weren’t grounded by a stern and tender diligence. Her compositions are blessed with clarity, weight and solidity. You can’t imagine that they’ll budge. Yet they do-or, rather, they evolve. Whether it be an array of cosmological spheres or squares that ascend like the steps of a Mayan pyramid, Ms. Adams’ motifs are forever in the process of transformation. These paintings are verbs ; they have titles like Give Rise To , Here Occurring , What Follows and Slow Start .

An unclassifiable artist, Ms. Adams deserves to be included in the fine American tradition of headstrong loners. (Think Ryder, Eakins, Dove and Hopper.) She’s also elemental enough that one could imagine her standing side by side with our most distant ancestors, painting bison on the cave wall. When that overdue retrospective finally comes around, New Yorkers will ask themselves where this wonderful artist has been all their lives.

Pat Adams: Paintings is at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until June 7.

Lovely Litter

How much does Olive Ayhens worry about urban sprawl? To judge by Crashing the Canyon (2003) and Sinking into Geysers (2002), two outstanding paintings included in her show at the Gary Tatintsian Gallery, I’d say Ms. Ayhens worries plenty, but not to an obsessive degree. In her pictures, teetering skyscrapers and gridlocked highways rub up against nature’s bounty-canyons, forests, rivers and beaches. She infuses her cramped and crumpled landscapes with an exuberance that approaches the malevolent, yet they’re winsome as well. Though in her malleability as a painter she resembles Soutine, her pictures are less cathartic than eccentric, closer to folk art than to Expressionism.

Indeed, the more starkly the pictures juxtapose the man-made and the natural, the more fantastic they become, which is a good thing. However much she may bemoan environmental degradation-this is an artist who titled her last show The Aesthetics of Pollution -she still finds our fallen world capable of provoking wonder. Ms. Ayhens obeys the aesthetic logic of her eye and thereby compromises her eco-politics, and this makes her a more interesting painter.

Olive Ayhens is at the Gary Tatintsian Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, until May 24.

Shape Up!

Not long ago in these pages, I inveighed against the use of shaped canvases, arguing that they stifle rather than amplify the life of a painting. Yet here I am, about to laud Ruth Root, whose recent paintings on shaped aluminum panels are on display at the Andrew Kreps Gallery.

Actually, I want to laud the jettisoning of the bleary eyes and furtive cigarettes that previously peeked out from inside her blocky, geometric abstractions. Ms. Root’s slipping and shifting rectangles, keyed to a sleek and homely palette, generate considerable vitality without reference to last night’s bender or a nasty nicotine habit. She doesn’t need cartoons to put her paintings across. Good riddance to self-conscious rubbish, I say.

So why did Ms. Root find it necessary to abandon the humble rectangle? She was inspired, I suppose, by her own irregularly shaped collages, yet the difference between the two media is telling. The bumpy silhouettes of a collage are arrived at organically, from the cutting and pasting of paper. Shaping an aluminum panel, on the other hand, is extrinsic to the painting process; it’s a calculated move on Ms Root’s part, and it tends to hobble the interior life of the painting. She gets away with it twice: Pictures No. 2 and No. 6 on the gallery checklist (all of the pieces are untitled) locate a tenuous rationale between image and format.

Ms. Root is clearly willing to subjugate her art to the dictates of presentation: She sticks one picture on the floor, another in the corner and one at the edge of a wall. Do you get the feeling that this strong and lively artist is antsy about what her friends would think if she pursued something so retrograde as plain old painting? I get the feeling that Ms. Root could use some new friends.

Ruth Root is at the Andrew Kreps Gallery, 516 West 20th Street, until May 24.