Several weeks ago, on a night flight from Chicago to LaGuardia in foggy conditions, our pilot came on and said something unusually simple: “Look outside.” His voice was edged in awe. We were lost in the haze—but a good kind of lost, and the best kind of haze. As we made our way up the Hudson, along that magnificent approach that takes you up the island of Manhattan, the city was a sea of iridescence, its lights diffused in murky mist. Space formed, vacillated, then dissolved. Buildings, shiny and hard, loomed out of the fog, then disappeared into shimmering darkness. I consider myself a connoisseur of New York City landings, and this was one of the most stirring I’ve seen.
This experience of alternating effervescent distortion and hard-edged clarity came back to me the next day, albeit more prosaically, in two totally different exhibitions, by artists who seem to illustrate some of the extremes of current painting. One, Peter Doig, is a radical traditionalist who reaches back to Bonnard and postimpressionism to make hallucinatory urban-pastoral landscapes. He is intrigued with atmosphere and the vagaries of space. The other, Sarah Morris, is in love with the city’s spectacle. Drawing on a much younger tradition (’60s geometric abstraction, when tape was king), she connects the far-flung dots between International Style architecture, Nicholas Krushenick, Robert Venturi, Victor Vasarely, and Peter Halley.
Doig and Morris make extensive use of the camera and all kinds of photographic spatial tricks and ambiguities. Both have an optical purity and make you aware of craft. When you compare them, each artist seems to have something the other could use more of. Morris has retinal firepower; her work flashes at you like a neon sign, then it fades. Her new grid paintings give you something to look at but nothing to think about. In contrast, Doig’s paintings are accomplished but drab; even so, they have a strange staying power.
The grid is the vampire of modern art; it never dies. Just when you think it’s fading away, along comes a James Sienna, Ruth Root, or Terry Winters. Joining this company from the cybered-up side of things is Morris, 33, whose shiny paintings recall Gary Hume’s work. But where Hume is a decorative realist, Morris recycles reality through a Neo-Geo accelerator. Photographing fragments of buildings and JumboTron signage, she angles her images this way and that, then applies electric, Donald Judd-like color.
These paintings have presence, and a vertiginous frontality, but Morris, who clearly knows the language of art, does nothing with her formula but repeat it. The show could almost have been cooked up from a ready-made recipe called “1999 painting”: slick, architectural, abstract but referential. Though jazzy to look at, these works cease to exist when you turn your back on them. Morris eschews development for peripatetic flings with styles; she seldom sticks with an idea for more than a season or two. Consequently, it’s unclear if she can make these paintings grow or if they are just another fashionable stop on the art line.
Meanwhile, on the less flashy side of the spatial tracks is Peter Doig. A formalist in representational clothing, Doig makes you aware of mood, surface, and especially color. His third New York exhibition at this gallery finds him in choppy, risk-taking transition. He seems to be thinking about how the areas of a Clyfford Still painting fit together, and how in Laura Owens they don’t. Showing one big canvas per wall, he’s up to his old obsessions: landscape, sports, and architecture. The details of a Doig can be magic. The best, and least Doig-like, work is a nondescript highway scene with a rainbow painted around the entrance to a tunnel in the background; here, the flat white guard rail is impeccable. And, in the painting of a basketball court, don’t miss the distorted shadow of the hoop. The weakest painting is of a Le Corbusier interior whose checkerboard floor mimics the one in the bar next door, while the runner-up for best-of-show is a hooded gnome who sits at an easel, painting a mountain vista. Check out the painting within the painting, and the hallucinogenic coat.
Doig’s obsessions may be familiar, but the paintings have changed. Photographic effects are receding, and his paint seems drier and thinner; drips and splatters have been transposed into washes and stains. The biggest difference, however, is his color. Doig once said his paintings were like “taking pictures with van Gogh film in the camera.” Applying that simile, the color of the film in this new camera is tamped down; fiery, fluorescent brightness has given way to turbid tertiaries.
Doig must want these works to be more visionary, crazy, or at the very least less ordinary. But while the paintings are good in an opaque sort of way, something’s off. The basketball court verges on being a Fairfield Porter or Richard Diebenkorn without the light, while the interior veers close to Luc Tuymans without the weight. As with Jasper Johns or Robert Gober, Doig is very workmanlike. Plus, like a scientist, Doig likes to prove a hypothesis over and over. So, the break from the photograph, and the discordant juxtapositions that Doig may be looking for—and that come naturally to an artist like Owens—come tougher to him. Doig’s transition is incomplete. He’s still painting what he knows. He may need to go further into the fog. Until he does, the looseness, the lostness, he is looking for will continue to elude him.