A Painter’s Ultimate Challenge: Embracing the Palette Pariah

How do you distinguish a colorist from a painter who hasn’t a clue? The answer is, in the way he handles black. That’s not the only criterion, but black poses a significant challenge: It tends to be read as an absence of color and, as such, a spatial void. Couple that with the inevitable association we make between black and drawing and you have a color that resists painterly advances. Ask any artist and they’ll tell you: Black easily dominates and topples a picture. Most painters worth their salt banish it from the palette altogether. You can count on your fingers the number of artists who have used black as a color -Frans Hals, Henri Matisse and practically any painter of note hailing from Spain.

The American artist Doug Ohlson knows enough about black to use it judiciously; only two paintings included in the exhibition of geometric abstractions at the Andre Zarre Gallery contain black: Sevastopol (2003) and Acoustic Shade (2003). In each, black anchors Mr. Ohlson’s signature arrays of floating vertical bars, providing dramatic and spatial counterpoint to the colors surrounding it. The rest of the palette is various and subtle, creating enticing and, at times, eye-popping elisions of tone, temperature and intensity. Smoldering pinks, livid aquamarines, implacable grays, dull blues-they shift, shimmy and stutter within an embracing field of light and space.

Horizontal formats bring out the best in Mr. Ohlson; you sense a sharpening of focus when he’s attempting to relate a fleshy orange on the right side of the canvas to a blue-gray over on the left, and both to everything else in between. That doesn’t mean Mr. Ohlson shakes the expertise that dogs him; his next show of paintings will be just as satisfying as the last. Blessed with an automatic grasp of the possibilities of color, Mr. Ohlson can pump out the paintings in his sleep. Then again, considering what most artists accomplish when fully conscious, we should be thankful for pictures as attractive and true as Gallipoli (2004), Spandrels (2002-3) and-for the regal expanse of black alone- Sevastopol .

Doug Ohlson is at the Andre Zarre Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, seventh floor, until June 30.

Radically Limited

PaceWildenstein describes the paintings as “a radical departure.” The New York Times lauded them for “pushing at the extremes of cause and effect.” Artists I’ve bumped into while making the rounds extol the paintings’ daring turnabout in style. We will undoubtedly hear more of the same when further word comes down on the recent efforts of Agnes Martin, on display at the 57th Street branch of PaceWildenstein.

Ms. Martin, now 92 years old, has spent the better part of a lifetime painting stripes-a pictorial motif that suits her spare and gentle meditations on rhythm, light and the land. Examples can be seen in this exhibition.

But people aren’t excited about those pictures; they’re buzzing over the five canvases, segregated in the north section of the gallery, in which Ms. Martin breaks with the stripe. Triangles, trapezoids and squares-the vocabulary of form opens up and becomes concrete. The palette, typically wan, now includes a muddied field of burnt orange, furtive moments of yellowish green and a prominent, recurring black. To an artist for whom nuance is everything, changes in pictorial motif are not inconsiderable, and Ms. Martin’s decisions deserve attention and commentary.

But do they merit all the fuss? I mean, come on : Ms. Martin’s recent art isn’t “radical” or “extreme”-it follows the ruminative path she’s been treading since Day 1. The painterly approach is unchanged; the canvases are characterized by grainy washes of acrylic paint, ruled yet sentient lines, and a sense that the smallest mark carries with it the tremendous burden of sensibility. The compositions continue to be predicated on symmetrical arrangements of form. The tenor of the work is ever tender, unkempt and awestruck. But is this a revolution in style? It’s more like a tempest in a teapot.

We’re told that the paintings reiterate themes found in Ms. Martin’s formative work from the late 1950’s and 1960’s, which are the subject of an exhibition at Dia:Beacon. Whether a jaunt on Metro-North is required to better appreciate the recent pictures is a question I’ll leave to the reader-I don’t get paid enough to waste an afternoon at the Temple of Doom. More fascinating are the questions prompted by the limited scope of Ms. Martin’s oeuvre and its ardent following. The ephemeral emotions she gives body to are fluently set forth, and the paintings have their attractions. Yet consistency of style and integrity of vision are meager compensations for an art that does barely something with almost nothing. Ms. Martin is capable of asking from herself only so much as a painter; that’s her lot in life. Our lot is a culture that should ask more of its artists-and doesn’t.

Agnes Martin: Homage to Life is at PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, until June 30.

Confounding Space

“Sublime” is a word that should set off alarms when it’s used in connection with the visual arts. Few artists deserve the accolade-after Fra Angelico and Vermeer, the list peters out. As for embodying the sublime, the noble pursuit finds its most convincing realization in the work of the Old Masters, who had the painterly goods to give shape to the ineffable. For the New Masters, most of whom have resigned themselves to an aesthetic of diminishing returns, the sublime is a pretext for making skimpy art-as if the closer an artist comes to God, the less responsible he is for the exigencies of craft. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are the paradigms of this phenomenon-the bad examples, too. (Ms. Martin is among its wispiest adherents. The sculptor Christopher Wilmarth is the exception that proves the rule.)

The current heir to this dubious tradition is the Bombay-born, London-based artist Anish Kapoor. The word “sublime” pops up three times in the press release accompanying Whiteout , an exhibition of Mr. Kapoor’s sculpture at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. The work, according to the artist, involves itself with “issues that lie below the material … the non-physical things, the intellectual things.” Looking at the two new major pieces at Gladstone, Whiteout (2004) and Carousel (2004), you know what he’s talking about.

Whiteout is a rectangular block, roughly six feet in height, with concave sides that seem to arch inward unto infinity. Carousel is made up of two large discs, covered with stainless steel and situated on the horizontal, connected with a sloping, centralized column. Both pieces are blindingly white. Mr. Kapoor uses the color as an agent of intense spatial flux. The eye strains in an attempt to discern where solid form ends or, for that matter, begins. The distinction between illusion and fact is stretched so taut that it loses its meaning. Is the interior of Carousel like a bowl, or is it like a table? Visitors to the gallery crane their necks, peer intently and (contrary to the sign at the gallery entrance) touch the sculptures in order to figure out just where the pieces are .

Confounding actual space is, in Mr. Kapoor’s hands, a neat and spectacular trick-the work rates high on the gee-whiz scale. Yet there’s no satisfaction taken in its making. Enthralled by the “non-physical” and “intellectual things,” Mr. Kapoor is oblivious to art as a sensual pursuit, as a material challenge. The perceptual conundrums in which he trades generate headaches, not delight. In the end, neither pleasure nor pain is the issue; indifference is. Immaculate and self-sufficient, the work couldn’t care less if you looked at it. Mr. Kapoor’s art renders the viewer unnecessary-and it makes us feel … impure. How dare we intrude upon its sanctity! The sculptures can’t be troubled to acknowledge us. At which point, we begin to wonder if we should acknowledge them.

Anish Kapoor: Whiteout is at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, until June 25.

A Painter’s Ultimate Challenge: Embracing the Palette Pariah