by Carter Ratcliff
Form, color, texture—every painting has all three. David Row’s paintings expand this basic inventory by showing us two kinds of form. We see the first in the straight lines that define his irregularly shaped canvases and reach across their surfaces from edge to edge. Some- times there is just one internal line (Chameleon, 2020, p. 15) and sometimes they appear in pairs (Acid Rain, 2019, p. 9). When there are two, they always meet at one of the painting’s edges to produce a pyramidal outline. Whether they shape a canvas or zip over its surface, these linear forms look stable and decisive— you could even say, authoritative. The second kind of form in Row’s paintings is more changeable.
The large X in Fallout, 2021 (p. 8), is one color on the right side of the thin, greenish line and another color on the left. This change in the X brings about correspond- ing changes in the background, and as we trace these shifts in the pattern of shape and color we notice how adroitly the artist has blurred the usually dependable distinction between figure and ground. To every painting we bring expectations about form’s behavior. By undermining them, as he does in Fallout, Row focuses our attention. And he does something similar in Counter Clockwise, 2018 (p. 29). This painting is dominated by a wide black arc, a powerful form with a clear trajectory—clear, that is, until its sweep is abruptly interrupted by the two lines that descend from the upper edge of this canvas. Elsewhere, Row lets a curtain of dripped color render a muscular arc or bar unexpectedly tentative. Occasionally, he allows forms like these to fade to the point of ghostliness.
So that is how Row’s paintings work, playing distinct form against elusive form, clarity against ambiguity. And they do this with such finesse that there is no end to our looking. Row’s subtleties are pleasurably inexhaustible. But what do they mean?
Traditionally, we make sense of an artist’s work by tracing its lineage. We note that the early Cubists gave a geometric look to the brushwork of the late Cézanne, and then Mondrian clarified Cubism’s geometries. History of this familiar sort prepares us to see a family resemblance between Row’s truncated X’s and the blocky letters—the N’s and D’s—too big to fit within the edges of Al Held’s early canvases. Further, the interplay of curved and linear elements in Row’s work recalls the juxtapositions of rectangles and ellipses in the paintings of Robert Mangold. Each generation of painters is in a conversation with earlier ones and it seems that Mangold and Held are among the predecessors Row has engaged. In a conversation, it is of course never enough simply to echo whatever the other person has just said. You must add something—to say, in fact or in effect, “Yes, and furthermore . . .”
In reply to Held’s images, Row says, yes, it is effective to deploy forms so massive that the edges of the canvas cannot contain them. For the result of this pictorial tactic is a monumental immediacy. Going further, Row generates a more intimate kind of immediacy with lively paint textures and the flecks of color I mentioned earlier. Giving even his most imposing forms—the large X’s—a welcoming air, he brings the monumental close to us. Scale becomes elastic, allowing this imagery to move with ease from the scale of the body to that of architecture. The viewer feels no need to choose one option at the expense of the other and in that latitude lies a clue to the meaning of Row’s art.
To the delight of those of us who find Robert Mangold’s arrangements of form a bit too quiet, too thoroughly worked out, Row energizes similar arrangements with agitations—some subtle, others more spectacular. The textures of his paintings, as well as their dripped colors, require close looking. More visible from a distance are Row’s vivid, sometimes almost dissonant color juxtapositions. See, for example, the play of hot orange against bright green in Acid Rain, 2019, or the jolt given to slate blue by another bright green in Storm Warning/Breakdown, 2019 (p. 11). And dissonance can be an exercise in subtlety, as shown by the abutment of two not-quite-identical yellows in How the Light Gets In, 2020 (p. 17).
Departing from the serene clarity we find in Mangold’s paintings, Row produces a wide range of pictorial climates, each implying a particular time and place. It is no surprise, therefore, to find references to meteorological events in the titles of his paintings—not only Storm Warning/Breakdown and Acid Rain but also Heat Wave (p. 13) and Straight Down Rain (p. 25). The last of these names a painting with vertical drips of bluish and silvery paint we see as raindrops. As faint as they are, these streaks of pigment impose right-angled sobriety on bars of gray—forms of the kind that, in other paintings, avoid rectilinearity with vigorous determination. In Straight Down Rain, the weather (which is changeable) shapes structure (which is permanent) and in this power of the mutable over the immutable is another clue to the meaning of Row’s art.
With their static geometries, Mangold and his Minimalist predecessors take us to a realm of Platonic calm, a kind of heaven of pure thought where all is clear and certain. I invoke Plato because he was the first to make a systematic argument to the effect that absolute clarity and unqualified stasis are signs of Truth with a capital “T”—Truth that transcends the small, contingent truths of ordinary life. His vision has tinged much in Western culture, from subsequent philosophy to theology, art, literature, and our everyday attitudes toward the world. For we tend to assume that, yes, change is constant and yet the change we experience is superficial. If we only took the time to look deeply into the nature of things, we would see our way to the Real, transcendent and unchanging. A different view emerged in America, first in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A persistent Platonism shows in the idea—common sense to most of us, an article of faith among many latter-day poets and philosophers—that language at its best corresponds to the True and the Real. It puts us in touch with the Absolute. Emerson believed, rather, that language is “vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance.” (From “The Poet,” 1844). To talk or to write is to begin in one place and end up somewhere else. The point of language is not to deliver Truth but to generate meaning as it does its “vehicular” job. From Emerson descended those American pragmatists—Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and their descendants—who did away with Plato and the metaphysical tradition he founded. The pragmatists are sometimes seen as modest, settling for down-to-earth truths in place of Platonic Realities. Yet they were anything but modest in their dismissal of Plato, and that brings me back to the grandly ambitious art of David Row.
Euclid, the founder of geometry, aspired to ultimate clarity. Row is a geometer, but he is no Euclidean. Improvised with great flair, his geometries are, as we’ve seen, subject to the energies of such things as paint drips and color clashes. In his paintings, a seemingly incidental detail can be, if only for a instant, the crux upon which an entire image turns. An instant later, another detail or play of form and color becomes salient or one steps back and sees the intricate balance that holds all the elements together. Never—and this is vital—never do Row’s paintings settle into the stasis that implies an unchanging and transcendent Truth. They are always on the move, changing as one continues to look, arriving at fresh meanings from moment to moment. Thus his paintings are, in their pictorial way, as “vehicular” as an utterance in the Emersonian mode.
Let us say that we see the blue arc in Storm Warning/ Breakdown as flat against the picture plane. This is not just a legitimate reading, it is inevitable, and yet there will come a time when we see this form as tilted away from of us. Or toward us. These too are legitimate readings and perhaps even inevitable, given the arc’s interactions with the green line and the outline of the canvas. Mutability reigns, for Row’s is an art of open possibilities, not one of which precludes any other. Consequently, the vertical and horizontal lines in this painting are able to do two things at once: anchor the image firmly to the surface of the canvas and, as their colors shift and they intersect with other forms, add to the ambiguities that make this painting so absorbing. In short, these lines do their part to put everything up for grabs. None of this is ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. Rather, it is the source of the pictorial forces, the visual currents, that carry us to an endlessly engaging place. Here we come alive to our capacity for making sense of what we see, and that awareness of our power to generate meaning does not stop at the painting’s edge. It carries over to the rest of life and, as it does so, Row’s art fulfills its larger purpose.