David Row (1993)
by Raphael Reubenstein
John Good Gallery

Return to Orbit

Warning! Anyone who has been following David Row’s painting, particularly his work of the last five or six years, should be prepared for the unexpected in confronting his most recent body of work. Immediately wild thoughts may run through the mind. Has Row undergone one of those overnight conversions from abstraction to figuration? Has he suddenly started stabbing holes in his canvases or making giant bronze sculptures? The change in Row’s work is nothing so sensationalistic, and yet is just as dramatic as any such extreme strategies and in real terms far more difficult.

With each succeeding show over the last several years Row has been refining and complicating his work. The 1989 canvases, those intricate expanses of black-on-black and white-on-white led to the multicolor, multi-panel paintings of 1990-1991 in which the wide elliptical bands, curving this way and that, proposed the painting as a kind of artistic particle accelerator. As the paintings developed, their details grew in subtlety. The surfaces for instance became ever more nuanced, adding layers of poetic interference to the solid interlocking forms underneath. The colors also grew in complexity, jarring and harmonizing in unlikely combinations that at times looked back wittily to DeKooning’s mid-1940s work.

The most natural thing in the world would have been for Row to continue along a straight line, building logically on his achievement, fine tuning details, further twisting the mind-and-eye bending interplay of the various elements in his paintings. Certainly he received enough critical attention and success to encourage him in this direction.

But along the way something happened; Row began to grow dissatisfied with his own work. Of course dissatisfaction is a vital ingredient of any ambitious work of art, but Row’s dilemma was more specific. The truth is, he may have been getting just too good at what he was doing. Painting is the result of an easily disturbed balance between craft and imagination, between the facility of the materials and the mirage of the image in the artist’s mind, between hand and eye. One of the greatest dangers for any artist is facility. We can all think of those who have given up challenging themselves (and us) and become content with producing example after example of finely made objects which have the look of art but are really just high priced handicraft. David Row was not as yet in danger of coasting on his experience and ability but somewhere there was a force for radical renewal that could eventually no longer be resisted. Like a satellite at the outer edge of its orbit, Row began to turn back towards the center.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, something else was happening which also would begin to change the way many people looked at contemporary art. This is not the place to go into the sweeping global changes that began in 1989 and still continue today. Suffice to say that since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, all bets have been off. The economic and ideological landmarks of a whole era were swept away almost overnight, and as history heated up it suddenly seemed impossible for art to compete with nightly news. In the artworld, as confused as any other sector by the resulting chaos, much of the response to these changes was shrill and reactionary as people scrambled to renounce the recent past. The “80s” became a convenient scapegoat and making, showing, and supporting a different kind of art became a way of seeming to make amends for past wrongs. 

It may seem far-fetched to those who think that the only way for art to respond to social change is to become issue-specific, but in its own way David Row’s new work is made in direct response to the end of the Cold War, the election of Bill Clinton, the promise of majority rule in South Africa, the dramatic cultural sift in priorities that has been underway since 1989.

Row is not the only artist, nor the only abstract painter, to respond to our altered environment, but where others might be simply tailoring their suits to fit the fashions of the day, Row’s change of art is sincere. He is a painter, not a propagandist. To me, a clear sign of his sincerity is that much in the new work goes back to what Row was doing early in his career, in the mid-1980s.

In his reconnection to an earlier moment in his work, Row has not been motivated by nostalgia for lost innocence, rather he is going back to pick up an idea that was always there waiting for him. The first work of Row’s that I remember seeing was Sound, a 1987 painting made with oil and wax on canvas. That painting is recalled in the recent work because of its two equal-sized canvases abutted side by side, each carrying a vertical ellipse. (In Sound the ellipses were also overlaid with a horizontal geometric structure.) After Sound Row began to break the symmetry, to take the ellipse apart, and create jagged, fragmented structures of increasing complexity, becoming an expert choreographer of the missing parts. The memory of the way the previous work was broken into sections is visible in the grids (a new element) which seem to show how the ellipses had once been separated, like bones that have been broken and set.

Row has been using the ellipse as the central element in his painting for a long time. It is impossible to imagine how many times his eyes must have traveled that flattened circle, following its high-speed loop, spinning out or clocking lap after lap. And then one day something completely unprecedented happened: this familiar form, this mute shape suddenly stood up on one end and announced itself as a thing with a name: a zero, a 0.

What does it mean now that Row has returned to wholeness ? That seems to be the central question of these paintings. No longer fragmentary, no longer out to seduce us with their repertoire of ingenious painterly devices. And yet there is also something that says that this is not mere wholeness. Or it is a wholeness which is also a lack; a generosity which is also austere.

The titles of the new paintings — Double or Nothing, Ground Zero, Nothing for John Cage — often speak of absolutes but the paintings themselves are unexpectedly open to transformation, to a variety of interpretations. When I look at them I begin to think about round numbers, those zeros that mark off decades of our lives and I wonder if Row, in mid-life, has begun to contemplate mortality. They also wait like mirrors, to each other and the viewer. At the largest scale they could be perfect frames for full length portraits.

Surprisingly, there is something of Warhol in these paintings. Not so much in the repetition as in the relationship of image to technique. The appearance of the painting is the result of how it has been made, the irregularities of surface and shape occur and are left as they occur. Row accepts but does not make too much of them because he is focused on something more important, on the totality of the painting. The paintings are, accordingly, non-fetishistic. Instead of fetishizing the process, Row has found a back-to-basics approach that gives formal decisions an ethical weight.

A concise way of describing the change in Row’s work is to say that he has discovered (or rediscovered) gravity, that he has found a way to make the center hold.