In Search of the Miraculous
On ViewMarlborough Gallery
January 24–March 11, 2023
This fascinating exhibition, curated by Gerard Mossé and Sebastian Sarmiento, leads us through physical, spatial, and spiritual realms to speculate on the nature of mostly abstract art in its many manifestations. It takes us through the variegated present, from the poetic expressions of artists like the Lebanese-born Etel Adnan to the young, Indigenous painter Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe—whose painting here, Yamira III/Lightning (2021), renders lightning strikes into space that seem to reach out for the intangible—and to the Russian émigré painter Yulia Pinkusevich, notable for the subtle lyricism in her work that touches on the psychological perception of our physical environment. At the same time, In Search of the Miraculous leads us back to modernist classics, such as the work of Arthur Dove with his roots in landscape and music, and Charles Burchfield, with his delicate, fantastic watercolors. Both show us wherein lie the bones of abstraction and where we go from there.
Extrapolating from the show’s title, we wonder if can we detect the miraculous in the apparent rebirth of Marlborough Gallery’s program, finding its footing in a revitalized appreciation of abstraction and its connections with the old and the new, with the geometric, the minimal, and the maximal. We see it in the stark, otherworldly light emanating from Mossé’s paintings, as well as in the unstoppable marks of Jacob El Hanani’s drawing Between Dot and Linescape (2020), which penetrate the surface of his composition and propel us out of it, revealing contiguous patches of empty space. The compulsive markings of Yayoi Kusama, submerged in a sea of yellow also reveal the miraculous, as does Giorgio Morandi’s still life Natura Morta (1950), stretching the notion of marking concentration even as it shows a stasis that threatens impending but never-to-be-realized motion.
Is it miraculous that people still care about abstraction when it might be regarded as something about nothing—that is, undefinable? Is it the fact that it is often in pursuit of something it doesn’t know or plan? And from whence does it spring? As we sit and ponder space in pursuit of ideas is the heart of creativity, from which inspiration comes, a miracle?
Consider, in this show, Dorothea Rockburne’s large, white 1979 construction on folded linen, titled Egyptian Painting: Scribe. In its formal purity with provocative vertical thrusting geometry, it holds court over an entire wall. Having seized its place in space so as to embrace its surroundings, which include the profound darkness of an Ad Reinhardt monochrome and the repetitive horizontal lines of an Agnes Martin painting, it suggests both an internal and external landscape. From there we can segue past Nancy Haynes’s pair of enigmatic, uncannily colored, almost-green canvases, with their rippled edges that seem to lead in and out of nature.
One comes away from this show realizing that abstraction is always striving to go beyond the canvas or platform. It stretches out in the manner of the late Denzil Hurley with his hard-to-place but satisfyingly composed minimalist effort, Variant A (2002–04), in the form of a tablet-shaped beige canvas punctuated as if by buttons, and to Bob Thompson, whose exciting neo-Baroque paintings, such as Bird Party (1961), are not really abstract, but speak the language of music, sex, and yearning and are as flat and exotic as a Paul Gauguin canvas. As Tim Gihring, editor at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, once wrote of Thompson, who indeed stands out in this grouping, he was “the Black artist who deconstructed old white art for a hipper, groovier time.”
The show is not about spiritual miracles but more about efforts to communicate, and the forms that take us through descriptive, evocative shapes to formal constructions in space. As if making a guest appearance to more literally convey the miraculous, there is Gisela Colón’s sculpture Parabolic Monolith (Perseus) (2022), consisting of, as the online exhibition catalog beguilingly lists: “aurora particles, stardust, cosmic radiation, intergalactic matter, ionic waves, organic carbamate, gravity and time cosmic radiation, intergalactic matter, ionic waves, organic carbamate, gravity and time.” More concretely, Olafur Eliasson clearly and simply tackles vision with his large oil color wheel, reading a third of the way clockwise against a black ground, from a thin shaft of red to blue to green to yellow to red again, titled Colour experiment in no. 29 (light spectrum) (2010), while Richard Pousette-Dart pulls us into his cabinet of abstract curiosities that evoke everything from Native American patterning to Middle Eastern mysticism in his rich, densely painted and symbol-packed Window, Cathedral (ca. 1941–42). Among the few borderline-representational works hangs the startlingly beautiful Mondrian painting Three Chrysanthemums (ca. 1899–1900), which serves as punctuation for the show, demonstrating how little there may be that separates the actual image from the idea of it. And that, in turn, is the miracle of the conception lying at the heart of this complex exhibition.