Why, in an age of unbounded color — whether the broad RGB spectrum on our flat-screen TVs or the gaudy riot of paint tubes at any Dick Blick store — would an artist choose to work in black-and-white? Two current shows — one uptown, one down — make strong cases for chromatic restraint.
Remember the static surrounding Y2K? Heady optimism about a new millennium mixed it up with an undercurrent of terror that computers everywhere would crash, plunging civilization into a new Dark Age. Joyce Pensato’s “eyes” paintings, 2000 to 2001, evoke the giddy anxiety of that moment. One might also feel, in retrospect, that these cascading black orbs on gelatinous white grounds — shifting, ogling, multiplying — foreshadowed the millions of shocked, then bleary-eyed, citizens watching endless loops of the 9-11 attacks, and the myriad surveillance cameras that blossomed afterward. Each of these roughly six-and-a-half-foot-high canvases is occupied by groups of large, cartoony, drippy eyeballs, irises looking up, down, and all around — amazed, startled, sad, happy, or mad (in every sense of that word).
The seventy-something Pensato has long taken a pickax to America’s id, mixing comic-strip subject matter with the formal abandon of Abstract Expressionism. “My influences were the old boys — de Kooning, Franz Kline,” she told an interviewer in 2014. “I loved all the bad boys, they were the cool ones to me.” Kline, a barstool raconteur, had painted dance-hall scenes of acrobats and nude women for El Chico’s, a Spanish nightclub in the Village, before becoming famous for his slashing black-and-white paintings. His huge canvases were initially designed with the aid of an opaque projector that enlarged details of his smaller ink studies, some painted directly on the pages of the New York City telephone directory. De Kooning, too, achieved his major breakthrough with a series of black-and-white paintings in the late 1940s. Both artists had been struggling for years and so used cheap sign-painters’ enamels, which dry more quickly than artists’ oils, with a knobbier surface. This was a postwar, urban black-and-white, the flash-blasted contrast of Weegee’s street photographs of lowlifes and hi-rollers, Kline conjuring building girders and glinting elevated trains, de Kooning the harried energy of figures under streetlights on rain-slick streets. “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure,” de Kooning famously declared. “I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.” In 1956, de Kooning transferred a newspaper crazy quilt of black-and-white movie ads to the wet white ground of his painting Easter Monday, leavening Hollywood glitz — “ALEXANDER THE GREAT — RICHARD BURTON — Filmed in CINEMASCOPE” — into breakneck abstraction.
Pensato grew up amid such melodramatic vulgarity, telling an interviewer in 2013, “My father was an Italian immigrant who loved New York and America, so he would often take my brother and me to 42nd Street, the Statue of Liberty, all of these New York tourist sites, and then he would buy us comic books.” So Pensato could study her Ab-Ex forebears in museums, but, unlike her heroes, she was of a generation who could also follow Andy Warhol’s Pop battering ram through the gates of high culture. For roughly four decades, Pensato’s subjects have been decidedly lowbrow — Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Batman, Homer Simpson, South Park’s Cartman — images that, she points out, “are already distorted.” While in other works Pensato might include a head or full figure, in the six paintings exhibited here we have only the organs of sight, creating dynamically irregular grids of near-total abstraction. Painted in Paris, two of the titles reference Donald Duck; the others have just-the-facts-ma’am names: Rolling Eyes, Bloodshot Eyes, Cross Eyes, and, ominously, The Last Eyes. Pensato deploys gouts of enamel that sometimes dry like scabs or pull apart in shards, but her ferocious paint handling — drips shoot out violently and then coarse downward in graceful arcs, rags swipe through globs of paint like scythes — lends even the roughest patches a startling, vivacious beauty. Note how she might obscure an enfilade of black drips with a juicy swipe of white to calm her graphic mayhem the way fog dampens sound. Or how, in L’Area Donald Eyes!!, the globules lurch to the right as if crowding an emergency exit, only to find it locked.
Pensato is an honors graduate of the New York School, but where her elders channeled the structures, denizens, and angst of the city, she has focused on America’s cultural output. Using the most elemental of palettes, she lends her ridiculous compositions — those eyes bounce around like the ping-pong balls in a machine that picks lottery numbers — an unexpected gravitas.
But I’m not sure I would want one in my living room, where it could glare at me like John Barrymore’s Svengali or examine my Google searches over my shoulder. As Cormac McCarthy put it in 2005’s No Country for Old Men: “They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I don’t know what them eyes was the windows to and I’d as soon not know.”
If Joyce Pensato revels in the stark palette of American comic strips, Tobias Pils looks further back, to the heady grisaille of early European modernism. A rough black armature in the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall Untitled (city) (2016) branches off into thickly knifed white planes and gray tendrils that have been soaked into the canvas and seem to waver like palm fronds. Pils (born 1971) deftly blends organic undulations with hurly-burly geometries, his palette of variously warm and cool grayscale grounding improbable characters — most have faces as flat as flounders — with old-world heft, at times recalling Picasso’s monotone figures. Like the protean Spaniard, Pils finds the spine of his painting in drawing —the bones and sinew more essential than a colorful skin.
A levitating orb in Pils’s Untitled (arrow) channels the gorgeous weirdness of Odilon Redon’s The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1882), a title that says it all and not nearly enough. The symbolist Redon also proclaimed, “Black is the most essential color….It is the agent of the spirit much more than the splendid color of the palette or of the prism.” In Pils’s case, large swaths of black sometimes provide mysterious realms from which his characters emerge, as does the spacey wraith in Untitled (autumn 1). Absent chromatic pleasantries, these lithe compositions pull off the not inconsequential feat of being both bold and ethereal.