Lucidity is Rage
Text by John C. Welchman
While starting out as an apprentice to Emile Nolde in the milieu of German Expressionism and finding himself some decades later at the epicenter of American Abstract Expressionism in New York in the 1950s, the fundamental commitment in the work of Adja Yunker was always additive or supplemental rather than gestural. He took up with layers, superimpositions, and folds, the manifest content of a technique predicated on accretion that while derived from perhaps, or simply most visible in, print-making and collage, was also characteristic of his work in oil, gouache and pastel—especially after he came under the influence of the cutouts of Henri Matisse and color field painting, in the 1960s. The “large lift ground plates” he etched for several days in acid in the mid-1970s at Styria Studio in New York are emblematic of this focus, their scale and manipulability also suggesting—as does the present exhibition—how the logic of accumulation and juxtaposition might be framed in three rather than two dimensions.
Yunkers work, I want to suggest, anticipates what Leo Steinberg proposed in 1968—borrowing his leading term from printing technology—as a new mode of artistic address organized around “the flatbed picture plane” conceived as an accumulating “receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed.” A review of an exhibition of works in pastel and tempera by Yunkers at the Fried gallery in 1957 makes these associations clear by pointing to the artist’s multiple articulations of the surface, his “layered horizontals” and his quest for a “surface existence, through color, for his almost mechanical or automatic (or readymade) forms.” Made a dozen or so years later—shortly after Steinberg framed his thoughts—the collage-based works in the current exhibition negotiate with the cutout logic of the flatbed proposition, even if they are not fully realized within this language. Heavy, roughly torn papers with ragged edges are posed on and over fields of acrylic paint which sometimes finds its way back onto the collaged materials in the form of smudges and traces. Redolent of the figure-ground dialectic at the end of its hegemony, the “stacking” and reformatting of reference in these works extends in several dimensions. In White on white with blue stripe #X (1969) and Figure at the seaside (1969), similar compositions are diverted into different signifying economies, one formal the other iconographic. The Letter “A” (1969) refers directly to an alphabetic sign—actually splitting the letter into triangle and tripod forms underscoring its makeup as a composite of two more elementary shapes. While another collage from 1971 is a “sketch” for a print dedicated to Mark Rothko, who reflected more explicitly than any of the Abstract Expressionists on the question of how to articulate in layers. “It occurs to me in our discussion of space,” he suggested in the mid-1950s, “that it would be profitable to use pseudonyms which are more concrete in subjective attributes as for example depth, for the experience of depth is an experience of penetration into layers of things more and more distant.”
It is on the site of this challenging informational orientation, provisional but emergent in the work of Yunkers, that the relation to the sculptural practice of the young Latvian artist Indrikis Gelzis—currently living in New York City like his illustrious forebear—is most apparent. For Gelzis engages with the formatting, appearance, but also the social implications, of the graphic organization of statistical data, so prevalent in today’s media and streetscapes. His new, wall-based sculptures develop a language using square metal tubing, swatches of fabric and wooden plates in which the comportment of information is aggregated with suggestions of modular domestic living and standardized workplace furnishings. Here, the reorientation from vertical to horizontal articulated by Steinberg has in turn been overlaid by a striking conjugation of the locales in which contemporary life is experienced: at home, at work, entered into, but also passed by.
The “infogrammatical” organization of Gelzis’s sculptures adds another dimension to the innovative, spreading flatness posited by Steinberg. For not only do these works refuse to conform to either vertical or horizontal legibility, but they also incorporate and new stratum of data-based knowledge generally plotted out on the axes of a graph. In other words, they service the space between the defining parameters of up and down. Yet as with Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), the work that for Steinberg delivered on his flatbed theory most insistently, Gelzis also attempts to embody as well as embed. His seemingly neutral materials include the kind of fabrics used for covers and upholstery, pointing us to the off-stage implications of a remaindered action. In previous work these allusive scenes have included sexual (in the exhibition “Between the Sheets”) and workplace encounters, and references to conversation and exchange.
Like Steinberg, too, Gelzis is interested in the split between the artificial and the organic symbolized for the American by how “the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal [is] expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.” But he presses this question further, suggesting a split between the experiential body and a data-processing head that is mirrored in the technique he employs. Building a virtual image using 3D modelling software, he waits for a certain moment of realization before reverting to effortful physical work “welding, bending, grinding, burning [. . .], oiling, sewing.” This interleaving of mental and physical, conceptual and practical circumstances, was also important for Yunkers, who somehow smuggled the implications of print-based work and material manipulation through the dénouement of gesturalism in 1950s New York. As he noted himself in what Dore Ashton called a “rather technical description” of the monotype published in Tiger’s Eye, “free execution” was a “’distrustful no-man’s land of shadow.’”
Gelzis’s sculptures at the Belenius Gallery offer an innovative address to a theme as old as modern art itself: the experience of leisure. Looking beyond the confines of work or the probable privacy of a sexual encounter, he color-codes off-duty experience (things that transpire, as the Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley’s famously put it, after “Day is Done”) by employing fabric in two basic hues both redolent of crepuscular or early morning light, the atmospheric brackets, to which Claude Monet also attended, that cordon-off the temporality of normative, wage-earning labor.
Octavio Paz helps us to glimpse a final point of reconciliation—in constituencies of memory—between Yunker’s shadow-shy layers and the corporeally-inflected framework analysis of down-time reached for by Gelzis:
Memory weaves, unweaves the echoes:
in the four corners of the box
shadowless ladies play at hide-and-seek.