Does space exist in abstract painting? How can it? Abstractions are not depictions of places, or objects, or anything that exists in space, but are formulations no more visually elaborate than is the material with which they’re made. But from the moment a century or so ago that abstract painting became possible, the potential for “reading” abstraction as something else besides itself became possible – even likely. Indeed, it could be claimed that the majority of abstract artists have made their art with the knowledge, however they might resist it, that their formulations would be seen as something else besides what they actually are. And many abstract artists want to explore the edge of abstraction – or, if you would, the edge of reality – where areas of color and strokes of paint metamorphose into things we recognize, and then revert back to pigment on canvas.
It is in this transitional realm, this tentative space of becoming and re-becoming, where James Verbicky now works. Verbicky’s earlier abstractions studiously avoided referring to anything. They could evoke elements and events, and shapes in them might bristle with suggestivity, but they finally insisted on their physical and visual autonomy, claiming to represent nothing but the artist’s inner ideas and feelings. It’s only now that, without losing the intensity of those inner impulses, Verbicky allows his work to engage methods and references that push it into the realm of – well, not the familiar so much as the known. His new abstract paintings are no less abstract for their atmosphere, for their light and nuance, for their persuasive evocation of space and time; in the final analysis, he is painting paintings, not pictures. But, whether they brim with color or glower in black and white; whether their surfaces have been resined or left raw; whether the extravagance of brushstrokes that comprises each of them directs the eye into the painting or bounces it all over – Verbicky’s abstractions now breathe the same air we breathe and, dare I say it, watch the same sunsets.
These paintings are not landscapes in great part because they are not places. They do not depict, and are not even dependent on, any given view of any given spot on the earth. Indeed, in the way they vary from one another in structure, light, color, and spatial evocation, they betray the fact that the painter has invented them, forging them out of the process of painting rather than out of a process of looking at something else. Adept at representational painting per se, Verbicky is fully capable of rendering a seascape or a cityscape, and of recording with accuracy or poetic license the details he notes. This is precisely what he does not want or seek to do in these works. Rather, he seeks to investigate where the act of painting leads one – leads the artist and also viewers – past painting into a fuller, more complex comprehension of optical phenomena. What is it we’re looking at, exactly? If our eyes aren’t telling us the truth about the stuff we’re gazing at, what are they telling us? Is “landscape-like” a quality of landscape or a quality of abstraction – that is, a quality of space, or a quality of composition?
Whatever the process of questioning and challenging process and perception, Verbicky’s paintings gratify the eye deeply, pulling it willingly, even eagerly into the quandary just to be able to keep on looking. They are like the visual equivalent of great fusion cuisine: just as your stomach doesn’t care how Chinese or how French the dish is, your eye doesn’t care how landscapey or how abstract Verbicky’s paintings are, only that they provide intense optical engagement. In other words, you may or may not be able to figure out for yourself whether these paintings suffice as landscapes or suffice as abstractions, but you know that they suffice, and delight, as paintings.
Peter Frank is the Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum, an art critic for Angeleno Magazine, and a long-time critic for LA Weekly. He was a past editor of Visions Art Quarterly, and was a critic for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News in New York. Frank contributes articles to numerous publications and has organized many theme and survey shows for placement at institutions throughout the world. He has taught at colleges and universities and has lectured all over North America and Europe. Frank received his B.A. and M.A. in art history from Columbia University.