A Response to Roberta Smith’s: “The Philip Guston Hoard: A Boon of Overkill?”
in The New Criterion
Falling off: memories of Clem in The New Criterion
“An account of Lipsky’s pictorial means and methods highlights her preeminence within her generation. She was the most promising and, ultimately, the most original of the Lyrical Abstractionists. But how do we go beyond formal description to the meaning of the forms described?” — Carter Ratcliff
Pat Lipsky, February 2023
When the subject is gestural painting, this question is not always asked, as if it were enough simply to register the visual impact of painting as striking as Lipsky’s. Yet the question persists. What are these gestural forms of hers getting at? An answer might begin with those Renaissance connoisseurs who came to prize drawings because they reveal, more directly than finished paintings, qualities of the artist’s hand. As it happens, this interest developed much earlier. Writing in the first century, A.D., Pliny the Elder remarked that “the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures … are more admired than those which they finished because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts.”16 The hand’s traces give evidence about the individual whose hand it is. Pliny sought signs of the artist’s thinking. Renaissance eyes focused on gesture to find clues to personality. In the Romantic period, this focus turned obsessive under the influence of a new idea: to create art was to express and, perhaps, create oneself. Everything in a painting, from its surface texture to its formal structure, is to be understood as a revelation of the painter’s nature—and of the artist’s unity with external nature.
In Lipsky’s art, evocations of the natural world are oblique. There is nothing firefly-like in The Good Firefly, 1970, except for a glow that appears as well around the edges of Butterfly, in the heart of Chrysanthemum, and in the name of Glowing, 1970. Each of these paintings draws us into the extended, exuberant moment of its creation—a moment recalled and, in a way, relived as we intuit the artist’s power to reconcile uninhibited spontaneity with disciplined judgment. The result is the image Lipsky unfurls across the canvas in all the clarity of its complexity. We can, of course, see her clarities in strictly formal terms and, yet, the tradition to which these works belong—the tradition of painterly painting—invites us to see them as manifestations of the artist herself. Accepting the invitation, we face a question: which of the artist’s inward qualities animates a painting like Firefly?
As speculative as answers to this question must be, they are not merely fanciful. We are hard-wired to find meaning in others’ gestures, as in their facial expressions or tones of voice. Though Lipsky’s images are traces of gestures, not the gestures themselves, her paintings have their impact because she gives these painterly signs the immediacy of a face-to-face encounter with another person. Sensuous and self-confident, her gestures convey the courage of her spontaneity and the seriousness of her pictorial judgment. With the luminosity of her paintings, she imparts to the viewer the intensity of her being—her gift for immersing herself in the creative moment. General comments like these open the way to further responses, intuitions that, in their specificity, defy verbalization. Lipsky’s work is, after all, uncompromisingly visual. Moreover, it is inexhaustible. Further looking reveals further meaning. As Lipsky has said, “When a painting succeeds, nothing dominates, nothing ‘fixes’ too quickly, nothing settles.”17
Finding a degree of independence from one other, the colors in Wooster, 1974, record the pulse of the artist’s gesture and render visible the seismic subtleties that Lipsky’s blending renders nearly invisible in earlier paintings. Separate or merged, her color-bands, until now, have been organized by a limber parallelism. In JJ Flowers, 1974, that pattern prevails on the right-hand side of canvas but not on the left. Here, patches of pink and bright green float free, coalescing in an arrangement very like a composition. Though the play of compositional balance and counter-balance is more complex in 6th Avenue, 1975, Lipsky clarifies it by laying a grid over her colors. With paintings like these, she makes a stately turn toward the grandeur and refinement of her later work.
Lipsky emerged in the forefront of a generation of painters determined to resist the widespread assumption that the medium of paint on canvas was obsolete. Her early paintings have the passion of an embattled moment, a passion still to be felt when we view these works against the backdrop of all that was developing in the New York art world as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. That passion deepens when we enlarge the backdrop to include painting’s long history. For Lipsky’s gesture has its larger meanings when we see it as realizing possibilities inherent in the very act of painting. These possibilities are perennial, as enduring as the moment of her art-world entry was fleeting. No wonder she admires Baudelaire’s comment on the double nature of beauty. It has, he said, “an eternal, invariable element” and a “circumstantial element” that reflects the contingencies of the time in which it appears.18 In Lipsky’s art, these elements are seamlessly united.
— From “Pat Lipsky, The Incandescent Gesture,” Essay by Carter Ratcliffe, 2017, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery