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Saul Leiter: Paintings

Knoedler Project Space
September 17 – November 7, 2009

Although he is best known as a photographer, Saul Leiter is also a diligent painter. Luckily, his paintings, which are rarely exhibited, are now seeing the light of day at the Knoedler Project Space in a show entitled Saul Leiter, Paintings, curated by Carrie Springer and Marella Consolini.

Any biography of Saul Leiter will surely mention his past reticence towards exhibiting. If this were to raise any suspicion about his work, I’d rejoin that his very shadowiness is what gives his work its particular mystery. Subtlety, butterfly-like as it is, is easily frightened away or dispersed when attention is turned towards it. Despite this, Leiter, wherever he has gone, seems to have stepped lightly enough to have been granted full audience.

Saul Leiter: Paintings,
Saul Leiter: Paintings, "Book" (1980s). Gouache, casein and watercolor on board. © Saul Leiter/ Courtesy Knoedler & Company in association with Howard Greenberg Gallery.

If his photographs disclose a glimpse of a world that is so close to his private experience of the everyday¾it is as if one were viewing through some mystery hatch a tactile, sensual instant from another’s waking dream¾the paintings have a similar effect. They straddle an uncannily lucid relationship with the texture of day-to-day life and internal feeling. The first aspect one notices about them is that many seem to have been painted in medias res, and have often been done on loose fragments of cardboard, on the pages inside of books, package paper, and sometimes on the spindrift of material one accumulates while traveling: cards, hotel stationary, travel journals. The strokes are often calligraphic: he fuses gesture with linguistic expression, twisting the paint through a slippery middle ground between the poetic phrase and a casual elaboration of pure brushwork.

Two of the paintings on view are entitled “Book,” and are composed on book covers. Mallarmé once said that the world would eventually find its way into a book; these works evoke a similar sense, one in which the world is arrested by painting as language. Another instance of language’s involvement with experience is at work in a set of colorful, square-like forms that appear to have slid open at the bottom of “Snow Scene. They evoke a quality of diffuse color focused into almost primary tones, distilled by an intuited, arithmetic process of quadrant and number: the division of colors into boxes. It is as if while looking at this landscape one were to count colors off on one’s fingers very rapidly, perhaps to remind oneself that things are passing while one looks.

This quality also occurs in a set of paintings entitled “Early Window,” “Window,” and “Broken Window.” In “Window,” the square panes of glass are painted with colors far more solid than Leiter’s usual matte, chalky palette; set in atmospheric fields of lavender and pale green, the window is a solid form hovering in air. It is implied that the panes are the building blocks with which the world appears to us as a construction, pointing out that to the imagination, seeing is an act of invention. But when do we see the world more accurately; when we are brought into an amplified relationship with it through the window, or when we break the window and recognize the urgently fragmented, immediate nature of actuality, unframed by art? In “Early Window, a window-like form sits at the bottom edge of the frame, surrounded by swathes of sky blue. Before pure space is eaten up by pigment, flooding the world with things and appearances, the window is already there.

Leiter loves to work with what’s at hand, and in the same manner he also tends to remain within the range of color one sees in day-to-day experience, filtered through his fantastical synesthetic gift, squeezing from that range an incredible variety. His compositions are often open responses to the oddness of shape whatever fragment he’s painting on provides. In “Paris Package, he uses the irregularity of the scrap on which he is working to designate the placement of two triangles, red and blue, in relation to the painting’s median. In “Souvenir, on a small postcard, he develops a complex world of abstract gestures; what one is looking at may be a world compressed into a series of gestures, and mailed as a memento to the viewer from some far reach of the painter’s adventures. More fundamentally speaking, that he would paint such an elaborate picture on a postcard gives it a casualness and sense of detachment; not carelessness, but a care-free lack of preciosity. He is by no means going to miss out on the pleasure a particular moment offers because he’s too hung-up on making “sublime art”. Angst and anxiety aren’t allowed to obscure the lucidity with which he intends to make a painting, and they don’t cloud the élan with which he goes about his habit of making one either.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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