On one hand, this show of six big untitled paintings could be described as something of a comeback for Ryan Sullivan, an inventive abstractionist occasionally if unduly associated with the vacuous pastiche of zombie formalism. It was good timing: The six years since Sullivan’s last solo outing in New York had witnessed not only the overwhelming renascence of figurative painting, but also its own, much larger strain of market-driven zombification. The moment feels ripe for a new consideration of what beginnings can be made from abstraction’s presumed dead end.
On the other hand, these paintings were not “good.” To produce them, Sullivan worked parallel to the floor without a traditional support, instead suspending pure pigment in layers of industrial-grade resin using a rubber mold, working “in reverse” from foreground to background. Collaborations with contingency, the pieces reveal themselves completely only when the resin has cured, at which point revision is impossible. Here, as in the oil-on-linen paintings by Jacqueline Humphries shown concurrently at Greene Naftali, riffs on famous techniques—Pollock’s drip, Benglis’s pour, Richter’s blur—floated beneath surfaces ostensibly touch-screen smooth (up close, they were more marmoreal [more real?]). Whereas the messiness of his predecessors’ canonical gestures filtered chaos through control, Sullivan’s pictures succumb to the vagaries of chance, their subcutaneous smears and scrawls bursting forth in muddled, aphantasmic climates of greige, slate, and teal. As in so much process-minded painting, it seemed that human connection had been sacrificed at the altar of innovation.
Or is the “badness” of these plastic slabs—their corporate-lobby tackiness and near evacuation of the hand—an invitation to reset our expectations of what constitutes a meaningful aesthetic experience? For Wayne Koestenbaum, writing in the 125 Newbury Free Press—a charming, tabloid-size newspaper published by the gallery for each exhibition—these images provide a “rendering of self-loss staged as a drama of fastidious control.” And yet these are abstractions that seem to shrug off metaphor, be it for emotion, the unconscious, or death. “I just see them as paintings,” the artist told the Free Press. Allegories only for themselves, they both satirize and extol the clichéd irreproducibility of powerful art. Indeed, Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, who at age eighty-four opened this spry project space last fall, writes also in the Free Press that he initially mistook the works for photographs of paintings. Invoking Lichtenstein’s caricatured “brushstroke,” he places Sullivan’s images in the trompe l’oeil genre recently showcased in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” while noting their debt to the Pictures generation. Glimcher characterizes them not as abstract paintings, but as realist works that take abstract painting as their subject.
Was there something rather defensive about all of this? Yes. Such a physical and emotional remove offered a kind of plausible deniability to the sheening banality of the compositions, in which accident and intention, irony and earnestness, prove indistinguishable. When asked if beauty—what Stendhal once called “the promise of happiness,” which is different from happiness—is important to him, Sullivan countered that he is more interested in the question “How can I create the effect of beauty?” His unconfiding surfaces neither quicken the heart nor stretch the soul as we know beauty to do, but they never grant you the satisfaction of complete dissatisfaction, either. Speaking in a “ruptured” language of abstraction impossible to master, Sullivan offered us a promise of nothing—and kept it.