ANDRÉ BUTZER: MATURE WORKS
When I was younger, the polemical fashion in art was negative. If one were told drawing was not painting, for example, the challenge was to knock the notion down, disprove it. Back then, form was totally in disrepute. Our generation is lucky in the sense that our challenge is more broadly philosophic and esoteric than theirs was. For the first time in a while we can take up and re-examine abstraction in a positive way. We can, as André Butzer does, approach painting as a universe like our own, complete with peculiar laws, rhythms and dynamics. We can re-engage with classic painterly problems, such as the difference between applying paint and painting a painting, fully confident, as he is, that our historical condition informs our particular polemical response.
The negative approach to the problem of painting and drawing was, as I said, to make the painting act like a drawing, and usually a bad one at that, lifeless and graphic. The positive approach, conversely, is to make a drawing every bit as active as a canvas. As his latest pieces make abundantly clear, the object of his practice has never been to defang the power of painting. The very opposite is true. In the newest series we see that the line has finally transformed from the explosive chicken-scratch of some of the earlier works to the resonant, fully active fields that now swell and tilt before our eyes with an internal energy that feels real in the kind of way only a successful abstraction can deliver.
We may never have seen these paintings before, but it feels as though we have, or, at least, as though we should have. For my part, I have always believed that you know you have done something good when it looks like it has always been around, like it is so obvious, you wonder why nobody ever thought of it before. What we have definitely not seen are canvases like these painted in such an obsessive/compulsive pseudo-serial manner ―each one, despite their similarities, actually unique― although even that dramatic conceit is not their most striking feature.
More welcome than anything else, at least to me, is how much attention is paid to the roundness of the shapes, how the edges are allowed to curve with the warp and weft of perceived space. There is absolutely no attempt to make the lines straight, as if to point out the total falsity of such a concept as well as that of the accompanying notion of, say, the right angle: the rigidity of geometry, in general, recognized as a poor if convenient fiction better suited to building houses than expressing the breadth of our experience.
What quickly becomes clear is that even though they are painted in black and white ―colors sometimes associated with rational examination― the last thing Butzer wants to do is to evoke only the cool space of pure reason. Even the smallest versions make full use of the fact that these are complementary colors, as intensely affecting when placed next to each other as, say, red and green ―a combination just as capable of evoking the kind of Edenic enjoyment of unconscious contemplation and transcendence that Romantic poets once celebrated.
In fact, these paintings are anything but quiet. They simply won't sit still. The internal balance is precarious, the white bar across the top seemingly held aloft by the pressure exerted on the internal space by the edge of the support. With unending variation there is a black area that fills the upper space in which the horizontal bar floats, below which at the bottom right appears a narrower, smaller, black concentration, almost but never really touching, in which there is suspended a vertical bar. Neither is the object of the exercise to rip your eyeballs out with a high contrast optical trick, nor is it, as one might have expected, an old-fashioned guessing game about which areas constitute positive and negative ground.
The alternating directional white lines ―longer when they cross the top, shorter when they stand upright― may be the major players for which the stage of each of these paintings has been set ...we merely the audience, the designated spectators attendant at their show― yet, as becomes evident quickly enough, the vertical and horizontal white bars are curiously unselfish, more than happy to share the space as equals with the other elements that surround them. Long ago we learned that there was no dissonance without assonance, no disharmony without harmony, no discord without accord, that these concepts were entirely interlinked. No single element here is not dependent on all of the others.
As long as our attention was elsewhere in Butzer's paintings, the internal dynamic relationships of each composition may have escaped us, and we might never have been made to notice how all the elements in each piece get along with each other so unexpectedly well, how nicely, in fact, they all play together. If we choose to take the arc of these paintings up on their own terms, one of the first things you notice, for example, is that a recurring theme in the work, much the way it was for Renaissance masters, is an exploration of the place where drawing crosses over to painting, the place where two- and three-dimensionality intersect, where the outline gives over to the more subtle roundness of the perceived world and seems to swell with life and levitate before us.
These latest pieces are, however, hardly the first announcement of a positive polemic in Butzer's work. For as long as I have followed the practice, he has always approached abstraction bravely and unapologetically. They are, rather, the culmination of such an outlook, the reward of many years of insight. The fact of the matter is that a discussion of the rendered line no longer seems appropriate to an assessment of the overall practice. It is not simply the myth of the straight line Butzer wants to bust. These paintings are a refutation of the concept of the “line” altogether. As he reminds me, Matisse famously pointed out that there was actually no such thing, and that what we commonly take as such is simply the negative space between abutting fields.
Much more germane is the emergence of proportion as the prominent driver. Areas in the new paintings are repeated, some smaller, some larger, some shorter, some longer, some fatter, some thinner, but somehow always in a mysterious relationship to each other that seems to display an unquantifiable constancy. Although the canvases are all of different sizes, there is a sense that there is an internal dynamic at work in each painting, similar as they are (but not the same), and in each the artist strives anew to perfect some wondrous and unknown balance, a symmetry that, for all he knows, might not actually be attainable.
The quest has never been to shut down the discussion of painting. The exact opposite is true, and with these canvases it is clear that Butzer wishes to open painting up even further to far more profound possibilities than he has ever done before. With these paintings, it is as if he wishes to make his intentions much better understood, to make them completely clear, and to fully display these basic hard-won principals that only come with an artist's maturity.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, Los Angeles, CA, July 6, 2013, originally published in André Butzer's catalogue for his Fall 2013 exhibit at Max Hetzler