Yvonne Thomas “Windows and Variations (Paintings 1963 - 1965)”

Berry Campbell

poster for Yvonne Thomas “Windows and Variations (Paintings 1963 - 1965)”
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Berry Campbell presents an important exhibition of paintings by legendary abstract painter, Yvonne Thomas. This historic exhibition is a finely curated group of sixteen paintings from 1963 to 1965. The repetitive footprint rectangle shapes in these works are intriguing: some seem meant to be distinct shapes, gone over by the artist additively to define and clarify their contours; others are subtractive, consisting of scraped rectangles. Still others appear to consist just of direct strokes of paint applied with wide brushes. These forms derive from the more defined elements that began to emerge in Thomas’s Abstract Expressionist work in the 1950s, but here she took what had been spontaneous marks and made them conscious and deliberate.

In 1963, a significant change occurred in the art of Yvonne Thomas. Whereas in the 1950s, she had let her paintings lead her in the ways they evolved, following their logic, she now took control of them through a more consistent and systematic approach. The works she produced concur with the ethos of the abstract art of the time. In the view that the gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism had foreclosed the mental and preplanned methods that had been important in the art of the past, artists began to bring conceptual ideas back into their works. This sea change is reflected in a wide body of work, from the blackened squares of Ad Reinhardt, to the solidly colored panel paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, to the one-image chevrons of Kenneth Noland, to the fields of color with inflected color disks by Larry Poons, to the infinite repetition of Yayoi Kusama’s mark-making, to the work of minimalist sculptors who chose to establish strict, self-imposed, modular systems.

The ideology of the time was articulated by critics. The main art theorist of the era, Clement Greenberg, argued in his promotion of Color Field painting in the catalogue for the 1964 exhibition, Post-Painterly Abstraction (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), that Abstract Expressionism had degenerated into mannerism. He advocated that artists “move toward a physical openness of design or toward linear clarity, or toward both.”1 The influential writer and curator, Lawrence Alloway stated that a systematic approach could be just as creative and freeing as one that was existential and primal. Beyond that, Alloway argued that the artist’s conceptual order, rather than being distant and detached, was actually personal and autographic, because it represented an artist’s ideas and way of seeing the world. For Alloway, the use by an artist of a consistent system provided a point of reference by which he or she could move deeply into a subject and continue a train of thought, rather than starting anew in each work. He remarked in the introduction to the 1966 Guggenheim Museum exhibition, Systemic Painting: “The artist who uses a given form begins each painting further along, deeper into the process, than an expressionist, who is, in theory at least, lost in each beginning.”2

These ideas clearly resonated with Thomas. As a participant in the intellectually oriented Subjects of the Artists School, founded by William Baziotes, David Hare, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell, she adhered to the emphasis in the school on the importance of the artist’s selection of subjects, and a consideration of how they were arrived at, over art that was impersonal and detached from what an artist felt and experienced.3 Her transition to a more methodical approach was not a departure from this point of view. What it afforded her was a way of probing her ideas and feelings, beyond just expressing them. This, of course, involved color, which she called her “strongest joy and enigma.”4 Understanding the impact of color was Thomas’s career-long aim.

In her paintings from 1963 to 1965, Thomas chose as her method of inquiry a repeating pattern of footprint-like rectangles or elongated lozenges that float in loose rows against grounds that are similar in tone, or reveal related tonal modulations. The choice of a design that has a textile look to it may have derived from Thomas’s work during her early career as a fashion illustrator. The approach is not unlike that of Leon Polk Smith, who chose the stitching patterns on drawings of tennis balls, footballs, and basketballs as a means of suppressing modeling and textural variation. Some of the works in this exhibition belong to a series called The Window, implying more of the process of looking and having a sense of distance than the direct gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism. One of the paintings is entitled Variations, attesting to the seriality of the work.

The lozenges in these works are intriguing: some seem meant to be distinct shapes, gone over by the artist additively to define and clarify their contours; others are subtractive, consisting of scraped rectangles. Still others appear to consist just of direct strokes of paint applied with wide brushes. These forms derive from the more defined elements that began to emerge in Thomas’s Abstract Expressionist work in the 1950s, but here she took what had been spontaneous marks and made them conscious and deliberate. This enabled her to consider the difference between just applying paint to canvas and working with it to create form more decisively. A similar considered quality is apparent in the grounds on which the lozenge-shapes are situated. In some instances, Thomas used the staining approach, pioneered by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, to acknowledge the materiality of a work in the uniting of paint and support. In other instances, it appears that she laid down the shapes first and then painted around them, so that what seems to be ground is actually shape and surface itself. The works are thus ultimately about the process of creation as a constructive act by which an artist can do proactively what is needed for a painting rather than what is expected or expedient. The consistency of her formats enabled her to delve into this inquiry. The result is a sense of control, but not rigidity.

The paintings are also about the power of color. By emphasizing the unity of a work by the patterns that repeat across the entirety of a surface—even if they are not uniform—the images are meant to be read as totalities rather than compositions. Even when there are coloristic transitions, often occurring toward the middle of a work in a yin-yang effect, there is a wholeness to each image. The colors within them have a vibratory quality, as light seems to emanate from their depths as well as to be reflecting off of their surfaces. They keep the eye of the viewer engaged in their luminosity. It seems likely that Thomas was drawing on her memories of her early years in France, as the paintings are reminiscent of the experience of the stained-glass windows in French cathedrals through which sunlight is transformed into spiritualized color, while the windows in the dark walls of cathedrals, produce an overall shimmer of their own. At the same time, the vibrancy of the color in the paintings evokes the artist’s early memories of her grandmother’s Provençal garden, where she remembers being rocked in a cradle beneath “the cloud-yellow Mimosas, orange trees, and a pale green Eucalyptus.”5
By limiting the colors in each of the paintings, Thomas makes color their subject, drawing the viewer into a consideration of how color is both associative and visceral. In seeing a group of these works together, this question becomes apparent. As viewers, we discover that certain works hold our attention more than others. If we respond more to a blue painting than a red-orange one, is this because it reminds us of the sea, or something else to which we free-associate, or is it just the color itself to which we are innately drawn?

Thomas varied the format of some of her works beginning in 1964, incorporating geometric structures into her Night Window series, in which some of the squares include contrasts with the ground while others are absorbed into it.6 Of her May 1965 exhibition at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, a critic for Art News observed: “All areas of the canvas are functioning and vital, with no neutralized spaces. These may be ideologically related to [Hans] Hofmann, but they are sufficiently different from his absolute squares of color to achieve uniqueness.”7 A reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune commented on Thomas’s “handsome abstractions in which the manipulation of the square is the predominant theme. These appear on the canvas like some clearly articulated piano fugues which stress color more than technique.”9 The reference to piano fugues, with their contrapuntal compositions, expresses the essence of Thomas’s paintings of 1963 to 1965, when she used repetition and reoccurrence not to limit her art but to broaden it.

Media

Schedule

from September 05, 2019 to October 05, 2019

Opening Reception on 2019-09-05 from 18:00 to 20:00

Artist(s)

Yvonne Thomas

Website

http://www.berrycampbell.com (venue's website)

Fee

Free

Venue Hours

From 10:00 To 18:00
Closed on Mondays, Sundays

Access

Address: 530 W 24th St., New York, NY 10011
Phone: 212-924-2178

Between 10th and 11th Ave. Subway: C/E to 23rd Street.

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