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Black Power

Two exhibitions explore the deepest of hues

Most DIY interior designers have it all wrong when it comes to picking out what paint color will make a room seem bigger. White, the traditional wisdom goes, will make your room larger, while black will shrink it down to a dismal matchbox. Wrong. An all-black room might seem a little bit on the macabre side, but it'll look big. Don't believe me? Well, then take a look at the some of the paintings on the wall at New Gallery's latest exhibition, "The Heroic Gesture: American Abstract Painting 1950-1970."

Primarily devoted to the San Francisco school of abstract expression, the exhibition features a good smattering of lesser-known abstract expressionist and color-field painters, all of whom, it seems, hung out with someone more famous than they were. An excellent wall of paintings is devoted to the students of Clifford Still, who was a visionary and vituperative teacher at San Francisco's California School of Fine Arts and one of the few West Coast artists with a lot of cred in New York.

Still's students' paintings aren't clumped together just because they all worked under him. One work is black. Another's black. The third is white -- at least for the most part.

Ernest Briggs's May (1958) is dark and cool. A large flow at the top lends the work a naturalistic quality, as if a pool of really dirty mud were lapping its way onto the rest of the painting. Hell, even the work's title screams nature, calling to mind the rain-drenched rebirth of spring. Briggs was reputedly a big fan of Asian art and philosophy, and May softly meditates upon some of the themes most oft explored on the other side of the Pacific. His piece demonstrates that black isn't necessarily a color of negation. It can be a generative color, a fount of possibility.

Talk about potential: George Abend's Black Blue (1953) is a portal to another world. Larger than its neighbor, it's a color-field work with a multicolored undercoat. Considering the coolness of Briggs's work next to it, Black Blue gently turns up the heat with rough paint handling and rugged textures, making it more typical of the San Francisco school. It lures the viewer into an indeterminate vanishing point. Gaze at it with a blank stare and you'll be drawn into an abyss of profundity.

Abend's White (1951), on the other hand, pops off the wall. Dominated by its title color, it predates the work of Robert Ryman by more than a decade, making it a forerunner of the polar-bear-in-a-snowstorm motif. Closer inspection reveals that the final coat of white -- the color of all colors -- was painted on top of many other hues. A solitary splotch of dingy yellow pierces through the alabaster veneer, as if the polar bear has begun to write his name in the snow.

Sure, you could say that Abend's White has a lot of depth, but that would be critic-speak for saying something is visually appealing in a multilayered kind of way. The two black paintings have depth. They point to other, darker worlds full of possibility. Maybe that's why goths dig the color so much. That, and the whole vampire thing.

When you see the bounce-back effect of White next door to the vacuum effect of May or Black Blue, it becomes evident that white isn't a size-enhancing color. Black, on the other hand, is a receding color that sucks up the light as it retreats. White reflects everything, penning you in. Black might be depressing, but it's all about depth.

As far as the other paintings in the exhibition go, the show features some good examples of the splattering, gesturing technique which -- thanks to Jackson Pollock -- many people think of as the epitome of abstract expressionism. The works are appealing in themselves, but regretfully some of them come off as derivative, especially in this age of corporate art, when countless explorations of abstract expressionism can be seen in the lobbies of downtown buildings. Granted, the works of second-generation members of the San Francisco school hold a definite place in the continuum of modern art, but there's just a little too little innovation a little too late. By the mid- to late '50s, pop and funk art were banging on the door, and some of these paintings were relics before they were even finished.


When it comes to the power of black, George Grochocki has got it all figured out. As a matter of fact, if you buy into his system, he's got a lot more figured out, like, oh, the sum totality of the visual universe. "George Grochocki: Mysteries of the Square: Explorations in Systemic Art," now on view at Anya Tish Gallery, serves up a good-sized helping of his elegantly simple system.

Grochocki works in only four colors. Black is the sign of an unlimited plane and is typified by its ability to subdue tensions. The color of no color is the calmest of hues in the eyes of Grochocki. Next comes gold, the sign of a surrounded plane, a color that suppresses tensions. While gold is the embodiment of warm colors, silver is the avatar of cool colors, and hence is the next step in his scale of tension. Finally, say hello to tension itself, the color white, the sign of a divided plane, all of the colors at once.

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