Ruth Rootby Nora Griffin
Andrew Kreps Gallery February 7 – March 16, 2008
From afar Ruth Root’s painting is not easily recognizable as painting. Its slick surface calls to mind metal, plastic, or some unknown medium of the future. Ultra thin, brightly colored, variably shaped aluminum set flush against the gallery wall creates the impression of an object naturally merging with the wall space; an organic extension that could perhaps rearrange its contours if you turned your back for a moment. A uniform smoothness and rounded corners radiate a friendly aura that draws the viewer into the object’s orbit. On closer inspection, its hard-edged blocks of color and curved corners are coated with subtle layers of paint and a barely perceptible texture suggesting the movement of a brush across the surface.
The five paintings exhibited at Andrew Kreps (all Untitled, 2007-2008, enamel on aluminum) constitute Root’s fourth solo show at the gallery. Situated on the wall as either horizontal or vertical compositions, the paintings assume an enigmatic authority, encoded with an unknown yet familiar meaning, like signs at a foreign airport. There is a specific musicality found in Root’s work that can be traced to earlier forms of jazzy mid-century abstraction. The rarely-seen 1950s paintings of avant-garde animator Robert Breer and the urban shapes and movement of Stuart Davis come to mind.
Like sci-fi mutations, the physical weight of material and support is effortlessly zapped into a paper-thin sheet that wouldn’t be out of place in the Jetsons’ living room. Root’s colors, too, are oddly familiar and alien at the same time. The high-contrast juxtaposition of lemon yellow and deep maroon vibrate like a freshly painted subway station. Mint green and lavender are set against slabs of industrial Army beige and construction site orange. Hot pink corners edged against warm gray rectangles call to mind Philip Guston’s late paintings of rounded frames and stretched canvases. The choice of colors, like the unique configuration of each painting’s shape, seems at once personalized and manufactured. It is as if Root is sampling from an assembly line of Minimalist slickness, while throwing in a painterly wild card to mix things up.
The connection to Guston was explicit in Root’s earlier paintings, in which Guston’s totemic staring eyes and cigarettes punctuated abstract color blocks. In the newest paintings the same quirky lightness is wholly present and able to stand on its own without the help of an occasional figurative riff.
Ruth Root’s press release, a work of art in itself, is a welcome rejection of the typical jargon-laden texts that so often accompany exhibits in Chelsea. The artist has chosen 35 source images laid out in the form of a mathematical equation. Her more obvious points of reference—Blinky Palermo, Lynda Benglis, Ellsworth Kelly, Mary Heilmann, and Paul Feeley—are mixed in with neon ski socks, the color schema of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and shaped bath mats. It’s not surprising that a similar visualization of a painter’s references appeared in Artforum’s November 2007 profile of Mary Heilmann. Both Heilmann and Root share the same definition of “cool,” in the original 1960s sense of the word—an aloof sophistication that easily connects design sensibility with disparate forms of culture and art-making practices.
Root’s paintings are so unabashedly “fun” and visually consumable that it would be easy to overlook the seriousness of the artist’s commitment to recharging painted abstraction. Like white-sheeted ghosts (one of Root’s references on her press release), their slightly goofy formal structure belies deeper personal and historical dimensions. The paintings eschew wearing antecedents on their sleeves, but instead carry them embedded within their seamless structure. Like an invisible memory chip in a computer’s shell, Root’s paintings almost magically transcend our perception of their limits. The lessons of abstraction are back from the dead once more, this time traveling in style, carried towards the future on their own private spaceship.