Pat Lipsky’s Black Paintings

Catalogue Essay by Karen Wilkin, 1997

Pat Lipsky’s recent paintings cannot be described accurately; they must be seen. To list their attributes — nearly monochromatic diamonds or rectangles, subdivided into grids, with the grid dislocated from the coordinates of the edges of the canvas — is to mislead, since it suggests work that is crisp, predetermined, and dependent on pure geometry, when, in fact, Lipsky’s paintings are irregular, searching, and based on intuition. Klee, more than Mondrian, is part of their lineage, despite the obvious scale differences between Lipsky’s generous, sensuously painted canvases and the Swiss master’s intimate meditations. Matisse, too, is a prime influence. “I think a lot,” Lipsky says, “about how colors join in Matisse’s paintings.”

But it is true that Lipsky has deliberately pared down her images to a structure of essentials: drawing as a regular series of opposed intersecting lines, color as a single hue, composition as a frontal plane made up of rectangles, surface as a continuous expanse. Yet at the same time that the cool-headed logic of Lipsky’s compositions declares itself, the unruly sensuality of the act of painting demands to be acknowledged. Those intersecting lines are sometimes ridges created by thick drifts of paint. Monochrome turns into subtle polychromy. The frontal plane tips, slides, and breaks into smaller units, and the continuous surface shatters into a sea of conflicting textures. The dislocated grids, skewed against the pristine boundaries of the diamond or rectangle, imply densities and layering apparently at odds with the pictures’ insistent rejection of illusion.

“I like working against limits,” Lipsky says. “I’d like to feel that I was pushing the boundaries of painting, taking it somewhere new, when I’m pushing against the boundaries of my pictures.” That she succeeds is evidenced by her ability to discover new permutations within those self-imposed limits. Lipsky may have created a highly disciplined structure for herself, but she has yet to settle for a single way of making a picture. In some, the grid is raised, as though each square had been silted up by a tidal flow of paint. In others, colors meet less aggressively, so that the grid exists only by its absence, as an all-but imperceptable zone between patches of paint. Obcasionally a buried grid, mapping a new set of coordinates, makes its presence felt through the layers, like a network of archeological traces breaking the surface. The geometry of the grid is always a little off, testimony to the presence of the painter’s hand. The orientation, size, and proportion of the grids vary greatly from picture to picture, eliciting widely differing associations. Elongated sections, narrowed to lozenge shapes, at once imply perspective — a nod at tradition — and call up Harlequin’s diamonds — an evocation of a Cubist heritage. How the grids meet or escape from the edges of the canvas creates surprising spatial ambiguity, implying anything from infinite expanse to piled planes. The size of the divisions proves equally crucial, since larger squares emphasize a kind of confrontational object-quality while smaller ones force you to think your way into the painting, almost in the way that a traditional landscape does, so that the spatial implications of these flat expanses prove to be unstable and complex.

Lipsky says that her main concern is color. “As soon as I began working with black,” she explains, “I had to consider Reinhardt and Rothko in a new way. It seemed to me that there were implications in their work that could be explored and expanded upon.” Lipsky enters territory wholly her own in her orchestration of colors and textures. She deploys a range of unnameable, suggestive hues that seem to change character under your gaze, as the eye is affected by context and by subtle alterations in surface. A black picture turns out to be full of reds, purples, and murky greens, without compromising its blackness. Shiny blacks turn into browns, glossy greys become greens, opaque browns become blues, and dull greens, improbably enough, become mauves. Darks can even turn into lights, depending on what is beside them. Within the all-over expanse, groups of squares reveal their affinities in an elusive counterpoint, momentarily breaking loose from the fabric as a whole, before subsiding into the all-over color harmony.

These animating shifts and pulses are not always immediately apparent, but emerge only after the eye has adjusted itself to the tonal and chromatic nuances of the grid. This slowed-down reading seems to echo Lipsky’s way of working, which she describes as spontaneous but extremely time-consuming and deliberate. Her pictures evolve over a long period of adding unit to unit, but their carefully orchestrated color harmonies are the result of exclusively intuitive decisions, so that, despite the difference in speed and despite what the quasigeometric structure of Lipsky’s pictures might lead you to expect, her process is more closely related to Pollock’s uninhibited pours than to Mondrian’s painstaking adjustments. “All I think about, when I am working,” Lipsky says, “is putting color modules one against the other and the rhythms that occur from these placements. Then I go back and consider the whole.” It takes courage to be a painter these days — courage and stubbornness. To be an abstract painter takes even more determination. To be an abstract painter whose work is full of rich associations, ambiguity, and emotional resonance, expressed throUgh the language of “pure” painting — rather than fashionable irony and cynicism, presented as anonymously as possible — demands idealism and passionate belief in the value not only of modernism, but of the entire tradition of Western painting.

Pat Lipsky obviously possesses all of these admirable qualities, but that is not what makes her paintings so compelling. What engages the viewer is not the artist’s motivation — however high minded — but the lush, evocative color harmonies of her pictures, their combination of severity and elegance, their unignorable physicality, their ability to call up a range of associations and, at the same time, remain unequivocally about the act of putting paint on canvas. Lipsky has been a serious painter — a good one — for thirty years. It’s not hyperbole to call her recent pictures her most powerful yet.

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