From the Concrete to the Ephemeral: New York Diary

The streets are filled with a steady patter of New Balance sneakers hitting the pavement. The sky is white. Concrete jungle cliches swirl with dirty snow in the gutters. At the horizon, where it merges with the tops of the brownstones and skyscrapers, the sky is tinged with shades of gray.

I am in Chelsea - art gallery central, the next SOHO, and dubbed "the L.A. art world of the East Coast" for its "suburban" spread of individual showrooms in the area. The third floor of the Dia Center for the Arts in the heart of Chelsea is filled with the same fashion footwear and weighty gray light as the sidewalks outside. Robert Irwin’s installation, the second part of a two-part sculpture, entitled Part II: Excursus: Homage to the Square3, draws the wintry skies inside the concrete warehouse and holds them in a crystalline grid of fabric and fluorescent tube lamps. The gallery space is divided into cubes along the structural grid of the building by frames of white scrim. The semi-opacity of the scrims and the darker band of gray painted over the panels at eye level reduce the eye’s area of focus. Except for the immediate space of the cubicle, everything else is out of focus. Any solid mass of the piece turns to vapor. On the ground floor, a collection of Joseph Beuy’s sculptures, massive stacks of dark felt, are totemic. In contrast, Irwin’s piece, although hazy in perception, is engaging and clear.

Often I find that photographs of Irwin’s work are too quiet and too reverent. The simple details are removed from the messiness of media and culture. I read Pop meanings into the fluorescent tubes; I think of office park Americana. But at the Dia I was spellbound. There are corridors of clear vision where openings lead from chamber to chamber. These long perspectives are in start contrast to the hazy flatness of the scrims. It is the real versus the unreal.

Murky sunlight makes its way through the warehouse-paned windows set in one wall. The sunny spot and the shadows of mullions land on the white scrim and almost diagram the array of white grids with tubes of light color within the space. According to the catalog notes, the subtle tonal variation of light in Excursus is Irwin’s homage to the phenomenological color studies of Joseph Albers’ abstract paintings. Each of the scrim cubes is a slightly different hue. Irwin’s reference to Albers’ optical experiments links Irwin’s piece to the chain of twentieth-century abstract art.

Further uptown the light remains cold and flat. Inside the Museum of Modern Art, Phillip Johnson’s sculpture garden is misted in ice. Black wire Eames chairs stand, like eager crocuses, ready for the spring thaw. Upstairs is where the action is: the Jackson Pollock retrospective is in full swing.

Life-size blow-ups of the 1949 Life Magazine photographs stand at the top of the escalators. White T-shirt. Black Levi’s. Photographic black drips of paint and white canvas launch the exhibit.

A crowd mills though the early Cubist composition studies and surrealist sketches. The museum headsets tell the story of a long build-up to a short career. The galleries are filled to maximum capacity of color and humanity. The mink coats and the thrown paint here are a far cry from the artily minimal street at 23rd and 11th where the Dia hides cloaked in warehouse chic.

The large mural Pollock painted for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment is a reminder of Clement Greenberg’s New York. Where rugged men swilled whisky in the galleries and abstraction was in the air. In the MOMA this year, the crowds stand within the same white walls and in white-lit streets as fifty years earlier.

Nostalgically, the small barn in which Pollock painted is lovingly recreated. A whole segment of popular culture, from the fifties to present, stands represented. Pollock’s early drip experiments are reminiscent of Formica counter tops in divey coffee shops and the red, yellow, and blue paint-spattered T-shirt I had in junior high which read "I’d rather be a starving artist." Pollock’s work is visual shorthand for abstract art. His success made Abstract Expressionism a household name. Even while works of Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman are unknown or unpalatable to Middle America, the "drip guy" lives on. His role as King of the Action Painters comes from the films of Hans Namuth, also shown as part of the retrospective. Set to a be-bop soundtrack, the film is of Pollock in action, slinging paint. It is both violent and pretty, very American.

Yet, there are moments in the exhibit where the abstractions of paint dripped on canvas escape the concrete realities of the galleries and become ephemeral. Pollock’s canvas, Lavender Mist, Number I, 1950 is a vapor of paint. His technique of layering wet paint over wet paint allows for a blending of color at the edges of each line creating lyrical filigrees. The lines are echoed with halos. The gestures are full of light. Defying the stereotype of Pollock’s paintings, the canvas is not about flatness. There is space and infinite depth in the layers of paint.

The exhibit is curated chronologically past the fog of Lavender Mist, Number I, 1950 and Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, October 1950 and traces the slash and burn end of Pollock’s career until his death in a drunken car accident on Fireplace Road in 1956. But in the few paintings at the height of Pollock’s talent, his depth and lightness in a single plane is parallel with the haze of Irwin’s piece at the Dia Center. The receding skeins of Pollock’s paint and the hazy perspectives in Irwin’s piece are similar. In both works there is transcendence from the physical, concrete space of the gallery. Found in the scrims and within the canvas is a foggy play of gray and white that matches the color of a New York winter sky.