A LETTER TO MARTIN MULLIN from Carter Ratcliffby Carter Ratcliff
Thanks for having me over the other day to look at your new paintings. It’s a great place! Not very many painters have an oblique view of the river to the west and in other directions a sky filled with high-rise buildings. And it is indeed amazing the way the sunset over New Jersey bounces off the buildings to the east and then back through your windows. Not that one can follow the light’s trajectory. It’s more as if you are suspended high in the air and immersed in a calm ocean of light.
That ambient calm illuminates your paintings—a fancy way of saying that you never indicate a light source. You simply make the image luminous; even the dark colors glow, and it’s tempting to say that of course the patterns in your paintings often reflect the grid-work of the buildings standing outside your windows. It’s amazing how abstract painting can indicate the scale and the style and even the details of the architecture where it lives.
Somehow we know from de Kooning’s abstractions of the late ’40s and early ’50s that his studio was in an old warehouse-factory district where the buildings are rarely more than six stories high and groan a bit under heavy ornamentation—his Chelsea, which is not as far west as the art world’s present-day Chelsea. Anyway, your westside New York is filled with towers who-knows-how-many stories high, each with a facade I’d call blank if it weren’t so laden with squared-away busywork. Taking off from this architectural given, you transform this busy blankness into something inhabited by a lively, ever-shifting intention. So your paintings are nothing like pictures of high-rise buildings. But one sees in them the world where they were made, just as one sees “Chelsea” in those paintings by de Kooning.
I confess I couldn’t follow everything you told me about your process—the masking, the layering, the “reveal”—though it confirmed what I sensed about the complexity of your paintings. And their clarity. A consistent method builds a structure, sturdy and reliable, and then the latitude built into the method generates surprises. I see the grid compartments as windows—it’s impossible not to—with something different going on in each one. Each is its own, distinctive micro-environment. Of course, I’m not charging you with the high crime of narration. Nor do your paintings ask to be seen as “pure” abstractions, though they could be seen that way—as formal inventions that take line and shape and texture to the point where these “pictorial resources” seem self-sufficient. In other words, compelling on their own terms, because of the way you have deployed them.
Which is all very well, or would be if your imagery didn’t remind me of a basic truth, which the usual drift of art criticism tends to obscure—by “truth” I mean that the notion of “pure form” or “autonomous painting” is nonsense. We wouldn’t even be able to see an abstract form as any sort of form whatsoever if it weren’t reminiscent of some experience of form not as “pure” but as a thing, and it is the way you let your paintings be so reminiscent of massive things—New York City buildings, for example—that makes this point. Not that the point of painting is to make art-critical points.
What I am saying is that your paintings are so strong because they let us see, at first glance, what they are about, and then persuade us, at second glance, that they are not about that at all—are not “evocations of the urban landscape,” but a means of conveying not only your experience of that landscape, but also your feeling for what goes on there. After all, an environment, no matter how micro, is inhabited, and I always have the feeling that your syncopated grids are very densely inhabited.
There is much more to say, but for now I want to add only that I was happy to see those monotypes from the early ’90s—as wonderfully “organic” as the recent work is “geometric,” and as concise in their way as the Satie texts that accompany them.