David Row (1987)
by William Zimmer
John Good Gallery
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Simplicity is not an objective in art, but one achieves simplicity despite oneself by entering into the real sense of things.
-Constantin Brancusi

The above observation is not this writer’s device for linking David Row with art history; rather it’s Row’s working motto these days. Simplicity isn’t a massage. The entering into these paintings is a little dizzying at first; at first encounter they’re op art webs. But once inside one senses the breadth of Row’s work, how much it ramifies what we already know.

For the most part these paintings are diptychs in which the halves aspire to mirror each other. But it’s not a case of perfect symmetry—there is bracing tension when lines don’t meet across the division line—or crisp geometry. Much is gained by the scruffiness of the surfaces brought about through scraping away encaustic. The process lends dynamism and we feel in touch with life.

Yet the essential forms Row spins out are taut and purposeful. Concentric curves and repeated chevrons, the helix and the chain of forms that is Brancusi’s Endless Column—art appropriated not reverentially but rather put to work—seem to have a basis in science and technology; they might be computer generated.

But Row isn’t interested in the marriage of science and art. He finds pertinent a reading of his art made by Win Knowlton, the sculptor, who commented to Row about the sculptural nature of his paintings. The surfaces seem hard as if they are wood and there is often an implied three-dimensionality, as forms seem to advance as in “trompe lbeil.” Row has remarked that he’s not a Greenburgian, that he’s interested in creating a space. But he does this economically; Sound, the painting with the two prominent frontal ellipses, for example, reads as if the ovoids are squeezing the network of lines in front of them and they seem to enter the viewer’s space.

If this simplicity appears to embody some kind of utopian optimism, the artist denies this by loading the work with enigma. There is both clarity and mystery in Row’s observation that “symmetry is a real structure which our bodies need” and although there is no surface resemblance between this body of work and Jasper Johns’ landmark series of hatchmark paintings from the mid-1970’s, one is impressed by the underlying similarity of energy in both. Johns mined the device of mirroring but gained palpability through the avoidance of perfect symmetry. And, as in the painting Scent, Johns poetically exploited after-images.

In Row’s paintings there is a passage from relative clarity to relative mystery between the two halves. Atmosphere is central to Row’s concerns and clues the viewer in to how much he takes from the observed world. Row’s icon is the water tower, that grand stately urban construction, still, of necessity, made of wood in this era of abundant synthetic materials. Although their manifestation in the paintings is, in Row’s words, “very filtered,” one can relate the force of these inviolable forms etched against the New York sky to the shape and gritty boldness of the art. For this writer, this adds up to a tonic modern “swagger,” a jauntiness like Stuart Davis’ vision of the city.

One views these “simple” paintings from a range of viewpoints, but they harmonize through Row’s having been painting vigorously and investigatively for some time. To witness his simplification over time has meant a simultaneous watching of his referents and antecedents as they widen like ripples.