A LETTER TO MOIRA DRYER from David Rhodes
On a visit to New York last November, I visited Carol Szymanski and Barry Schwabsky. On the walls of their apartment are many beautiful works, though the one that had me immediately walking over to take a closer look was a small gouache on paper. It was one of yours. Although we never did meet, I know that you thought of these gouaches as private and not as inevitably destined for a gallery exhibition.
It was through Barry’s reviews in Arts Magazine and Artforum that I first heard about your work. Like your early supporter Ross Bleckner, you were taking a long look at abstraction and quickly coming up with something fresh and new. You looked back to the black paintings of Frank Stella, the absorbent surfaces of Clyfford Still, and the veils of Morris Louis. From the vantage point of London, where I was then living, it was clear that New York had done it again; a tradition was being recoined and revitalized. The door was open again. That’s the thing with your city; that sense of urgency does not go away for long. In Ted Berrigan’s words, “For my sins I live in the city of New York / Whitman’s city lived in in Melville’s senses, urban inferno / Where love can stay for only a minute / Then has to go, to get some work done” (“Whitman in Black,” 1976).
In a review in Artforum (April 1994), Barry wrote that he had called your studio telephone two days after you died and had been astonished to find your voice, still there, on the answering machine. He suggested that we think of your paintings continuing like messages. An exhibition at Santa Monica’s Fred Hoffman Gallery, in the year before you died, saw you splitting the space with Ellsworth Kelly. This was appropriate, as he is another artist who shapes the supports of his paintings, maintaining emotion and rapture, whilst stepping back to craft the work with an involved objectivity.
During an interview for Journal of Contemporary Art in 1989, you told Klaus Ottmann, “Once an installation is together, the contrast of one piece to another brings in another element.” And you said of the individual paintings, “I see them very much as characters.” Your paintings take the space in a rather theatrical way, active and adaptive. Always extending their effect beyond the framing edge, they exist not simply as windows or objects—the two principled readings of Western painting from the Renaissance to Modernism. The stance of your work engages the audience by “establishing an arena,” as you put it. Like Philip Guston, who talked of staging his paintings, you sought more complexity than one might find in a passive image requiring sympathetic interpretation.
Your work both preceded and expanded the themes of the group exhibitions in which it was included, even years after your last paintings were completed. Don Desmett curated Charismatic Abstraction in 2008 at the University of Western Michigan, in which works by Mike Cloud, Chris Martin, John L. Moore, and Dona Nelson were shown alongside yours. In the text accompanying the exhibition, Desmett stressed the activity possible in the work’s physical form and presentation; he acknowledged a “theatrical process” in the making of each painting.
Only last year, A Painting Show, an exhibition of 35 artists organized by Laura Raicovich and Jessie Washburne-Harris, included both your teacher Elizabeth Murray and stand-out examples of your continuing relevance—visible in Wendy White’s grooved wooden additions to her tough, ambiguous, sprayed layering and in Jacqueline Humphries’s streaked fluid surfaces. This was one grouping of artists—though there could be many others—that did not beg the inclusion of a single male artist.
It’s tragic that you are no longer here to participate in new painting; you were certainly prescient of the current abstraction. What you made during your lifetime was fully realized, but what might you have done in reaction to subsequent modes of painting?