Pat Passlof: Paintings from the 1950’s at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York.
The current exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York City presents abstract oil paintings by Pat Passlof from the early 1950’s through the end of the decade. At the time this work was made, Passlof was only in her twenties. Born in Brunswick Georgia in 1928, she sought out and studied with Willem de Kooning at the famous Black Mountain College. Soon after, she took his advice and moved to New York City, embarking upon a painter’s life. In Manhattan, Passlof continued to receive private painting instruction from de Kooning and became close with the painters that populated the 10th Street artists’ community in the early 50’s. Through de Kooning, Passlof met the painter, Milton Resnick, whom she later married. Resnick no doubt introduced the young Passlof to the painting philosophy of Hans Hofmann, whose ideas, collected in The Search for the Real (not published until 1967) influenced a whole generation of painters. The New York art scene of the early 50’s was a hot bed of contention, influence, and personality. And it seems the young Passlof was for a time caught up in the wave, producing strong and ambitious, if derivative, work.
In works such as Crown (1959), Untitled (ca. 1950’s), and Ionian (1956), Hofmann’s tendency to begin with a studio view or still life is promptly detected. In Ionian, the ready pictorial convention of an interior room that opens to an expansive outdoor view is abstracted to the point that portions of the picture plane begin to function non-objectively.
While the upper right corner seems to recede into a blue expanse, this reading is quickly subverted by a form, flattened by pattern, that seems to enter the room space from a distance but upends the traditional perspective by immediately bringing any such reading to a halt as it is cross cut by a thick, black line. This line induces an abrupt, sharp change in the reading of the space by yanking the yellow and red striped form into the interior space and smashing it flat. De Kooning often created similar speed bumps when he used collaged elements to disrupt any comfortable spatial reading. A tabletop form juts upward from the bottom of this medium-sized canvas into the center of the picture plane. This gives the viewer something concrete to hold onto before the left side begins to dissolve into a field of dappled, frenetic brush strokes that seem at once to merge with and hover above the tabletop. The harsh, alizarin strokes dissolve on the right into one of two truly non-objective portions contained in the work. The thick, white smear, in the lower right joins with scumbled and stained corners whose dirty greens and yellows anchor the composition’s corner one moment and seem to slide under its ghostly neighbor the next. The second non-objective element locks into the tabletop’s far edge at the bottom right of the upper left quadrant of the work. This palpable, white form is bordered and given weight by thick black outlines. The shape itself, the paint application, and the black, white and gray color scheme would feel right at home in one of de Kooning’s black and white paintings from the late 40’s. All of these elements; interior and exterior, natural and plastic, pattern and uninterrupted expanse, all work together to disrupt a common reading of space or to blend that reading with plastic concerns to jolt the viewer from a state of complacency and sureness.
Other paintings shove the viewer harder and further into the waters of abstraction. Sutbury 2 (1957) is a beautiful wreck of a painting. But even the scribbled and muddy grays that border the work on two sides before barreling into the center contain enough subtly to delineate form and mark off space creating enough surface and vacuum in what would otherwise be a mess. On parts of the surface paint is scraped away so the under painting becomes a form. While in others shape and mass are delineated when a topcoat is painted over a surface carefully so that the under painting then becomes a form and an integral part of the composition. Quickly applied strokes add to the urgency of the work, as does the artist’s signature hastily scrawled across the bottom. These last elements borrow heavily from de Kooning, while the palette combines color combinations often found in the formidable abstractions of Alfred Leslie and Grace Hartigan.
Panoras (1954) also recalls Hartigan with its clearly outlined forms and its palette of saturated primary and secondary colors. But by the time the viewer is confronted with Promenade for a Bachelor (1958), at an imposing 68 x 68 inches, we find Passlof’s palette softening and her thin staccato brushstrokes burring together. Now in place of quasi-surreal and solid abstracted forms we find an all-over compositional approach, reminiscent of Resnick’s, beginning to take over and threatening to smother the lines and boxlike forms that only a couple of years before were taking center stage. This work is particularly interesting because it quickly paves the way for 1959’s Lookout and Stove. These works act as a bridge to Passlof’s later work and remnants of Stove in particular can be detected in mature, later pieces like the intensely monochromatic Untitled from 2011.
In both early and late paintings mentioned, larger expanses of quickly applied color overtake the entire picture plane. All references to a traditional reading of space are blotted out by what can often appear as a pig-headed gauze that is more rational, clean and directed, as well as more satisfyingly Passlof’s own. Gone are de Kooning’s scrawling and scraping, Hartigan’s clunky stained-glass-like forms, and Resnick’s primordial soup.
In all, Painting’s from the 1950’s leaves the viewer with an incredible understanding of a painter’s development. To see early works by this very young, but directed, artist gives a clear sense of just how focused and intense Passlof was in pursuit of her goal to become a painter in her own right. We can follow her path as she first sought out de Kooning for instruction, then relocated to New York City to continue her studies, and continued to paint doggedly for a decade and more. During that time Passlof consumed and digested her influences. Learned to filter them through her own personality and refined her painting aesthetic until she came into her own as a painter. Just as it should be.
Pat Passlof: Paintings from the 1950’s is at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York from October 16 to December 20, 2014. All images courtesy of Elizabeth Harris Gallery.