Contributed by Adam Simon / In a November 2022 article titled “Between Abstraction and Representation” in the New York Review of Books, Jed Perl lamented the equivocating position that many contemporary painters take in relation to abstraction and figuration. In his view, what was once a philosophical battleground, with two strongly held opposing positions, was now seen as merely a choice of equally viable means. His article focused on two artists, Julie Mehretu and Gerhardt Richter – Mehretu for inserting representational imagery in what appear as abstract paintings and Richter for ping-ponging between figuration and abstraction. What Perl doesn’t mention is the rich terrain of indeterminacy that results when artwork hovers between abstraction and figuration. Marcy Rosenblat’s solo show “Undercover,” now up at 490 Atlantic Gallery in Brooklyn, is a particularly successful example.
There has long been a figurative/abstract spectrum and most contemporary painting falls somewhere on it, not exclusively at one end or the other. Modernist artists identified as pure abstractionists, such as Ellsworth Kelly or Anne Truitt, considered their own work to be derived from observation. An artist like Cecily Brown seamlessly merges abstract gesture and figurative imagery. Eschewing the distinction altogether, Mark Rothko famously declared that the only thing that mattered was that some people cried in front of his paintings. Rosenblat’s work, similar perhaps to Peter Halley’s, occupies a place close to the middle, poised equally between pure abstraction and pure representation. The viewer’s perception toggles between the two options, as it does with a lenticular Jesus whose eyes are first open, then closed. This toggling may happen only subliminally. One’s primary responses are to color and form, curves relating to the vertical and horizontal axes of the rectangle, and the delicate patterning of lace that permeates most of the forms and may have suggested the title of the exhibition.
Lace is a key feature of Rosenblat’s work. Whereas cotton was not introduced until the nineteenth century, lace has been around since the 1400s, initially made from gold, silver, and silk. Depictions of lace have pervaded portraiture since the Renaissance, particularly in Northern Europe by artists such as Frans Hals. The Spanish lace mantilla was a staple of Goya’s depictions of women. Lace implied luxury, and its use was at times restricted by sumptuary laws. Its representation was also an opportunity for painters to show off their skill at rendering detail. But Rosenblat’s contemporary use of lace doesn’t involve any delicate rendering. She simply applies a thin coat of paint (I’m guessing it’s sprayed) through actual lace over the entire composition of colored forms and sometimes reworks areas with solid color. While the lace patterning appears to have different colors, close examination reveals that a single light color applied throughout simply takes on different hues according to what color lies beneath.
Puzzling out how these paintings are made is one of the pleasures of viewing the work. They are composed of a small number of formal elements, which combine in a uniform manner throughout the exhibition, seeming to follow a deliberate A+B+C procedure. There’s a methodical feeling to the process. Rosenblat insists in the press release that applying paint through the lace is high-risk and that she never knows how it will turn out, and I don’t doubt the element of risk. But what she leaves to chance appears to have its place in an orderly sequence of steps. Offsetting this element of control is the sensuousness of the overtly female forms, evoking thighs, hips, buttocks (most overtly in Side Slip and Split), and the way the lace both covers and reveals, as it has for centuries.
Lace and the female shape are both historical signifiers. Rosenblat’s fusion of the two amounts to a commentary on gender and femininity in art, though without any obvious agenda or critique. It is unlikely that any art-historical strategy would first occur to a viewer of her paintings or interfere with the eye’s movement across their surfaces to pick up how the lace patterning works like a scrim, such that some areas track as pure color and others as pastels of varying lightness, or how one curved form nestles into another against a faintly penciled grid. Formal concerns are priorities for most painters. Their fine calibration is a particular strength of Rosenblat’s work, and one quality that makes the realm of not-quite-abstract-and-not-quite-representational art so compelling. Underlying content is not denied as much as it is held in abeyance. It’s as though one is being offered an experience and a choice. You can elect to investigate what you are looking at, but first you look.
“Marcy Rosenblat: Undercover,” 490 Atlantic Gallery, 490 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. Through November 5, 2023.
About the Author: Adam Simon is a New York artist and writer. His recent paintings combine corporate logotypes, stock photography, and tropes of Modernist design.