Isensee’s Cheery Abstractions Mine Mid-Century Nostalgia

Having chanced upon Warren Isensee’s tidy brand of abstract painting seven years ago—one of his canvases, glimpsed in the window

Having chanced upon Warren Isensee’s tidy brand of abstract painting seven years ago—one of his canvases, glimpsed in the window of a Soho gallery, made a happy impression from across a traffic-congested street—I’ve followed the development of this promising young artist with some interest. Mr. Isensee’s latest paintings, on display at the Danese Gallery’s new space in Chelsea, continue to build upon that promise. His recent work buzzes with momentum, as if Mr. Isensee had only just begun to realize its expressive possibilities.

That’s something, given the rather narrow pictorial vocabulary he employs. The new paintings—some of them quite large—feature puzzle-like groupings of rectangles fitted snugly within the parameters of the canvas. In a couple of pieces, bulbous doodads, thingamajigs and doohickeys—well, you try to describe them—bump and shimmy across a field of clutter. The pictures are baby-friendly: Mr. Isensee rounds off the sharp corners of his rectangles, and the palette is, if not Fisher-Price exactly, then sunny and synthetic. Brash and punchy tones predominate, sunny oranges and reds in particular. The paintings are squeaky clean.

Mr. Isensee mines the conventions of mid-20th-century design for inspiration. He does so with an appreciative eye for its cheery optimism, discernible not only in the palette but also in the cartoonish co-opting of modernist precedent. Biomorphic abstraction—or, at least, its commercial offshoot—has informed Mr. Isensee’s art in the past, but here it’s downplayed and offset by harder, more robotic forms.

Straight lines and mechanical rhythms are the rule, but that doesn’t make them pictures for our virtual age. Retro-futurism is more like it: Mr. Isensee’s recent efforts demonstrate a taste for Pop and high culture of the 1960’s—Kenneth Noland and Bridget Riley as much as Carnaby Street and Roy Lichtenstein. At the rate he’s going, Mr. Isensee will reach the 21st century round about 2056.

The press release claims that Mr. Isensee’s “nostalgia for … [the] suburban appropriation of Bauhaus architecture” and “the perfect world of ‘Ozzie and Harriet’” is “ironic.” He certainly takes a quiet pleasure in the kitschy flavor of his sources. Yet the winning thing about the paintings is that they’re bereft of commentary. Mr. Isensee doesn’t draw on outmoded styles of design (or art) to set himself above them—the typical Pop artist’s ploy. Mr. Isensee evokes them because he can’t help it. Precedent, in whatever guise, is inextricable—indeed, vital—to his vision. It’s not irony; something like love permeates Mr. Isensee’s art.

Nonetheless, the pictures are resistible. The compositions may have gained in ambition and clarity, but they never thrive in their crafting. It can be difficult to discern when an artist is giving weight, body and meaning to his materials and when an artist is merely marking time, but it’s not impossible. Mr. Isensee brings due diligence to the act of putting brush to canvas, but little more. Meticulous and steady but ultimately impersonal, the paintings are all image and no body. Oil paint does Mr. Isensee’s bidding, but it is not his partner. Painting, alas, is beyond his ken. His work can only improve in reproduction—a harsh fate for any painter. Not until he brings a sensuality of means and material to his abstractions will Mr. Isensee fulfill the promise he so cheerfully radiates.

Warren Isensee: Paintings and Drawings is at the Danese Gallery, 535 West 24th Street, sixth floor, until Feb. 11.

Hey, Ho, Let’s Not

You had to be there. That is, I think, the only reasonable response to The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984—at least for anyone who didn’t directly participate in that scene. On display at N.Y.U.’s Grey Art Gallery and in Fales Library, you’ll find residual artifacts from a subculture whose “vernacular … was a disjunctive language of profound ambivalence, broken narratives, subversive signs, ironic inversions, proliferate amusements, criminal interventions, material surrogates, improvised impersonations, and immersive experientiality.” That’s from Carlo McCormick, the show’s curator. If you prefer language that’s less highfalutin, listen to the performance artist and actress Ann Magnuson tell it: Downtown—the place and the mindset—was about “not giving a fuck about The New York Times or anything north of Fourteenth Street.”

Would that The Downtown Show had not given a fuck. Alas, Mr. McCormick and his colleagues burden their subject with academic folderol and drain it of whatever vitality, charm or humor it retains. The ephemera on display—a menu, photos, videos, drawings, posters, paintings, zines, sculptures; what have you and lots of it—is treated with kid gloves, in direct violation of the raucous, rebellious and, in the end, unsustainable spirit in which it was created. Once adolescence is codified, it becomes a victim of sentiment and, as a result, something dead and certain. The Downtown Show comes to praise sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but only ends up burying it. How punk is that?

Wistful fantasies of cheap rents, endless parties and beautiful young people treating their bodies (and each other) with reckless abandon can’t redeem this pretentious hodgepodge of in-your-face knick-knacks. The only credible visual artists with work on display are Robert Kushner, Duncan Hannah and (maybe) Nan Goldin—none of whom are seen at their best. The rest of it will have period charm for those who are fans of the period. Others will wonder what the fuss was all about.

Poet and musician Richard Hell sums it up best: “It was the bands that were exciting, innovative, inspiring things.” But music is in short supply at N.Y.U. For that, walk east a few blocks to Tower Records and pick up the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia, Mr. Hell’s own Blank Generation or (God help us) the Dead Boys’ Young Loud and Snotty. Posterity will, to one degree or another, reward each one of them. The Downtown Show, in contrast, has already been shown the door: It’s ancient history.

The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984 is at the Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library, 100 Washington Square East, until April 1. Isensee’s Cheery Abstractions Mine Mid-Century Nostalgia