Carol Sutton's New Paintings (1983)
Catalog essay for the exhibition at Gallery One, Toronto, Canada, November 19 - December 8, 1983.
Abstraction carries an uncomfortable authority these days, uncomfortable in the making, uncomfortable in the market, forced, Atlas-like, to carry the weight of the art of painting against the odds. Painting which operates only on its own terms doesn't give much of a handle to grab, doesn't let appreciation come in at different "levels," doesn't make it easy. The market has long recognized the pre-eminence of abstraction, implicitly at least, but insists on vulgarizing if for the sake of sales. The "New Expressionism" like Pop Art before it, is watered-down, middle-brow abstraction with illustration hung on it. It should be called "de-abstraction"; the straight realist painting today, as any sensitive observer knows, is far better than the pseudo-abstraction now so much in favour, and operates, from the inception, on a much higher plane of integrity.
Being an abstract painter is a courageous commitment, assuring exquisite frustration in the market. But it is easier for us than it was for Abstract Expressionists. The market sees us as hopelessly out of touch, beyond earshot, even, off the bandwagon. But at least they don't think we're loonies. Some of us even make a living from art. And there is an evolving environment of support and professional encouragement, if not sales, manifested, for example, by the Triangle Workshop in Pine Plains, NY, where I saw some of the paintings in this show.
If abstraction has a hard time in the market, it's hard in the making, too. Realism serves up two made-to-order ingredients which do half the job for the artist: a "scene," which tells in detail what the painting will look like, or can look like, and deep space, a place to put the pieces where they can relate easily across an open interior. This doesn't make it easier for realist painting to be good, just easier to get started, and it clarifies what has to be done to work it through. The Abstract painter has to invent everything. I think that's why most of the best painters of the first generation of abstractionists matured so late, and why so few of them were consistently good. The first maps of any new territory are the roughest.
The first job of the abstract painter is to work out a scheme to make elements on a visually flat surface relate convincingly across the natural resistance of that surface: de Kooning expanded Cubism, Kline built black and white skeletons, Pollock wove airy nets, Rothko scrubbed on fuzzy, symmetric rectangles. Then came Frankenthaler's pastel stains, Louis' centrifugal streams, Noland's bright targets, Olitski's crammed edges. Each contrived a structure to replace that of depicted reality. Each left his invention in the inventory of form. There's a lot available to us now. That's one reason why there are so many artists of Carol Sutton's generation painting so well, so young, without the painful blocks and disruptions that plagued the older painters.
Sutton's paintings of the last few years show us what a sharp, practical talent can do with what's come down to us. They give the impression of an untroubled inheritance, an art of enrichment rather than extremity, with a felicitous, unaffected directional structure, soft, pungent colour, surface open and breathing inside and around the edges, values often close but unforced, the stroke casual, unhurried, rippling carelessly like a banner in an easy wind. I know this doesn't give away what went into the pictures. All painters, certainly all young, serious painters, spend their days agonizing over their art, It is to Sutton's credit that the character of her paintings belies the effort that went into them. There's a very fine long, horizontal asymmetric picture called Titian in the Edmonton Art Gallery which sums it up. Its easy going three-part composition is made up of one long diagonal jammed up with thick brushed acrylic greens, an opposing diagonal, very open, lightly swiped with orange and blue, and shots of yellow and lilac spray here and there, alongside and between the other colours. A sensual charge flows from the colour, intensified by the compression of the horizontal edges, which also precludes any left-over space around the attenuated diagonals.
Left-over space has been a problem for Sutton. The horizontal/diagonal pictures all have that nice colour-charge, sensual sweep and sparkling value change. But while a squarish painting filled top-to-bottom with horizontal layers will overload and short-circuit the expressive effects, a squarish painting with a few layers asks that the remaining space be brought into the picture. There is nothing wrong with this situation. Olitski took it to an extreme in his great spray paintings of the 60's. Sutton handles this "extra" space skillfully but often as an afterthought, a necessity. And in art necessity can kill invention.
It may be fair to say that the two constituents of the superior artist are talent and seriousness - the ability to make good art plus the determination to make better art. And often it seems that the latter is 99% of it. Seriousness is what makes an artist fight herself and mess up a perfectly good style or method and go on to things unexpected, unfamiliar and usually unwelcome, losing customers and critical favour along the way. It's scary, and it is wasteful and destructive, But it's also the way art gets better. I'd guess that Sutton's new paintings will dismay many of her fans, because she has taken the familiar layered formation and rolled it up like a pile of rugs, a loose spiral which is ungainly, lacks clarity and certainly sits more awkwardly inside the painted rectangle than the familiar landscape form.
I think Sutton instinctively recognizes that her art, though carried by structure, gets its life from variety of effect. The horizontal format tempted her to decorate, to lay on some handsome, arbitrary stroke or puff of spray, to get that space filled up with nice colour. By folding the layered horizontals over on themselves the painting was de-attenuated, concentrated, stuffed. The rectangle had to go back toward the square, and the "left-over" areas, though still a problem, diminish, hide in corners, and pick up various compositional duties and the structure, clustered rather than dispersed, offers a more fully rationalized environment for the playful bits of paint which enliven the picture.
Sutton made this change late in 1982, painting a number of pictures which look like the earlier pictures rolled up. But something else began working its way into the paintings, something for which it now seems the new format was designed. For want of a better word, I'll call it "indelicacy." The colours got dark, puddled and smudged, the strokes coarsened, the intermediate passages clogged up. The paintings in the show, most of which were painted at Triangle workshop this summer, take it even further. Without knowing all of Sutton's work I'd bet they are the best paintings she's done.
They are not perfect. Xenophora Exutus, though I saw it unstretched, seems too complex to be so symmetrical. Stretched up it might work - that marvellous breaking light might hold it. The rolled section of Venus Rang divides off just a bit too much from the rest of the picture. Wobbly Keyhole goes a little dark in the centre. There are arguable conclusions, based on slides and memory. And perfection is not the aim of good art. The paintings are first-rate, and new, and that's enough.
One of them, Cassie Linne, gets out a little further than the rest, into another mode of picture-making, one that may be quite fruitful in the long run. The good thing about making changes is the oddities that come up. Cassie Linne is colouristically duller than the other show paintings, less rich even than the grey and white Imperial Delphinula and Charonia Tritonis, and it lacks the usual jivey surface embellishment. The spiralling darker areas turn ponderously until they hit the lighter centre, which seems to come from behind, to break through, like the moon through night clouds, This pushes the slow, smokey, smudged surround into the foreground, vitalizing it and vitalizing the picture, just as a stone hole shocks the glazed placidity of a window pane. It is a fine effect, and fine painting.
The titles, incidentally, are seashell names, which are appropriate even if they encourage the misunderstanding of the "meaning" hounds, the people who still think the title comes before the painting and the critics who ran out of things to say before they learned to talk. Maybe you've got to hand these people something to deal with, because it looks to me as if these pictures are going to be tough to swallow. Well, the tougher the better. It only testifies to their quality and originality.
Rocky Hill, N.J.
October 16th, 1983