I See a Canvas And I Want It Painted Black

Perhaps it’s the long-dormant Rolling Stones fan buried within the recesses of my psyche, but the title of Betty Cuningham’s summer-group exhibition rankles: Paint It With Black? Come on—who isn’t familiar with “Paint It Black,” as raucous an avowal of nihilism as ever blared its way through an AM radio? If curator Phong Bui, publisher of The Brooklyn Rail and a practicing artist, wants to trade in pop-cultural allusions, he doesn’t need to encumber them with grammatical niceties.

The Stones reference sticks all the same, and it seems somewhat misconceived. The thrust of the show is, after all, inherently optimistic: to prove that black is a color and not merely a void, that it can have (in Mr. Bui’s words) “a richer and more various emotional range.” Given black’s tendency to deaden a palette and/or elicit a readymade gravitas, such an enterprise is fraught with more than a few pictorial and symbolic perils. You might even call it foolhardy, particularly if it’s done without the aid of Francisco Goya, Frans Hals and Henri Matisse.

Mr. Bui doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls along his curatorial path, but on the whole, he pulls himself out of them relatively undirtied. Paint It With Black features a baker’s dozen of painters, most of them contemporary, with a couple of historical figures thrown in for ballast. Among those providing Mr. Bui with considerable help are Elisa Gerber and the redoubtable Thomas Nozkowski. Ms. Gerber’s two selections—lumpish and elusive abstractions that nonetheless feel predicated on observed phenomenon—connect through surface, tone and musculature. Mr. Nozkowski brings his customary grit and elegance to a pair of canvases in which heraldic forms appear to mutate right before our eyes.

There are also two paintings by Terry Winters, a biomorphic abstraction from early in his career (it’s dated 1983) and an accumulation of linear patterning typical of his recent attempts to tap into the technological zeitgeist. Color has never been Mr. Winters’ forte, but he has—or, I should say, once had—a gift for using black. The difference in how black is employed in the two pictures is devastating: A palette that trades in murk is more itself when applied to microcellular life forms found in the natural world than to one man’s notion of virtual reality.

Certainly it’s no favor to Mr. Winters to hang a Philip Guston painting, however minor and transitional, within a stone’s throw: The master’s touch shines an unflattering light on his disciple. Norman Bluhm, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who despised the label, is represented by a late canvas, a billowing array of sinuous gestures and distended shapes. Black defeated him, I’m afraid to say; sumptuous hothouse colors are better suited to his explosive melding of Abstract Expressionism and Asian art.

Works by Helmut Federle, Don Voisine, Joan Waltemath and Robert Storr, the former curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, seem to be included as tokens of a dour brand of geometric abstraction rather than for any special quality they bring to the color black, though there is an impressive richness in Ms. Waltemath’s scarred and burnished surfaces.

Chris Martin, whose starkly configured, iconic abstractions are also on view in the back room at Feature Gallery, is, I am told, an artist with a significant following. Drawing on the current of mysticism traceable to Modernist pioneers like Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma Af Klint (the latter of whom has her name scrawled along the bottom of the canvas at Cuningham), Mr. Martin is also prone to the genre’s defining liability: a woozy reliance on self-expression. The pictures don’t hold true. The big painting is too big, the small painting too small, the portent in both simultaneously undeveloped and overcooked. A throwaway picture by Forrest Bess, the poor man’s Myron Stout and another cult favorite, is a model of clarity by comparison.

Paint It With Black rights itself with Bill Jensen’s Death’s Door (2003-4), an enticing if not altogether coherent tangle of deep alizarins, cadmium yellows, oranges, greens and—oh, yes—a modicum of black. A vexing though eminently watchable painter, Mr. Jensen knows enough about the color to keep black at a minimum.

Nicolas Carone, on the other hand, knows enough about black to employ it whole hog. Two of his canvases roil with Ab-Ex painterly tics that come across as dated. But the classical foundations inherent in both paintings still make for a compellingly ambitious art: More than a whiff of the Renaissance pervades his scribble-scrabble. From what I’ve seen of his recent output, he seems increasingly certain of where he stands. The result is work that has become more refined and less mannered. At age 88, Mr. Carone is still going strong. That’s not to say he wasn’t good then or that he wouldn’t benefit from a retrospective now. Having succumbed to his jones for black, Mr. Bui is free to pursue other interests. An overview of Mr. Carone’s art might be a good place to start.

Paint It With Black is at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until July 29.