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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Dee Solin, "Cosmic Night," 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 64 x 70 inches. Photo courtesy the artist.
Before I go into the differences between the exhibitions of Jason Karolak and Dee Solin, let me set the stage.

Both artists had been new, or relatively new to me. I’d seen some paintings by Solin in the past few years, but had no broad knowledge of her work.

Still less did I know Karolak. Strange as it may seem to all the friends & celebrities who signed his guest book, I had never even heard of him until I walked past his gallery last week, looked in its window, and liked what I saw well enough to come on in.

We talk about “the art world” as though it was one big happy family, but in reality it’s composed many different circles of acquaintance, many of which touch up with others and many of which do not.

Whatever circle of acquaintance Karolak belongs to, it’s not a circle that I’m at all familiar with, but I thought, well, here is Holland Cotter talking about “the craze for abstraction,” so maybe Karolak is one of the many new abstract artists he’s talking about. Therefore I should review him—not only to show that I can be as cutting-edge as Holland Cotter is, but more importantly because I really liked the best of the work.

I had already seen the Solin show, liked the best of the work in that show, too, and knew that I wanted to review it.

Furthermore, I had come to the conclusion that – to the extent that Solin’s work can be associated with any particular orientation -- she’s more of a modernist than a postmodernist. Also, it seemed to me that -- although Karolak’s colorful abstractions constitute something of a departure from most of the postmodernist paintings I’ve seen -- there are also telltale signs that he’s more of a postmodernist than a modernist.

What a novelty, I thought---to review a contemporary modernist and a contemporary postmodernist together, and welcome both with equal eagerness. When was the last time any critic attempted this?


One of the most distinctive differences between these two artists is the differences between the processes that they used to create the paintings in these two shows, and the more specific way that the resulting paintings look—in terms of style or formal values, as opposed to subject matter or imagery.

In both cases, the process was complex, and took place over four campaigns or stages, so I shall compare them stage by stage.

Stage One:

For his current show, Karolak began by laying down rectangular blocks of color, in side-by-side rows. From the tiny bits of these blocks that can be seen in the finished paintings, they appear to be have been made with flat matte colors in a variety of pleasing medium hues.

For her current show, Solin began by staining her canvases with multiple hues, pure and mixed – tilting these canvases, turning them over, spraying them with a hose, or drying them with a blow dryer. The resulting surface became soft, mottled and fluid. Back in the 1960s, Clement Greenberg might have called such surfaces malerisch (or painterly), and contrasted it with the more “linear” style of post-painterly abstraction—although the fact that Solin’s paint is stained into the canvas rather than painted onto it gives these painted fields a softness which has more in common with ‘60s paintings by Frankenthaler or Noland than with the “gestural” work of ‘50s admirers of de Kooning

Stage Two:

Karolak next almost entirely overpainted the colored blocks with a deep matte black – though often allowing some bits of the underpainting to peep through, around the edges of the picture and/or near the corners of the rectangles in the center.

Solin’s next stage was to superimpose upon her painterly field hard, clear and post-painterly floating circles, starting with a template to get their outlines regular, and then painting them in by hand.

Stage Three:

Karolak next painted his distinctive images onto these black fields, using colorful paints, but working strictly with a paintbrush (no computers). Some paints used for this imagery are nearly as hard, bright and fluorescent as Day-Glo colors, while others are in a more soft and natural range.

At this point, Solin sprayed on a layer of clear acrylic to prevent those delicate little silvery networks (which she calls her “gossamer lines”) from being absorbed into the still raw canvas.

Stage Four

To finish off his paintings, Karolak has repainted his designs, blacking out segments of some of the lines in them so that the remaining lines appear to end awkwardly in midair. Occasionally, he has painted two lines that look as though they were intended to link up with each other, but just miss each other instead.

Not infrequently, these black over-paintings are so thin that the viewer can faintly see what’s under them, a kind of trace imagery known among the Old Masters as pentimenti. And sometimes the black paint has dripped a little, with the drip left on. As with the pentimenti, the drip points to the “handmade” appearance of the canvas, and the sense that accident has contributed to it.

Solin’s final stage is to draw those fine little networks of lines onto her canvases with a ruler and marker or pen, as well as adding a sprinkling of tinier colored discs.


How an artist is presented to the world can have a major impact on the way that viewers perceive him or her.

Karolak’s gallery, McKenzie Fine Art, has a nice large space at street level on the Lower East Side--a neighborhood currently considered an HQ for the cutting edge. The show was beautifully hung, and the gallerists provided me with all sorts of written material when I visited there. In addition to a press release, I was given photocopies of two online reviews that had been written about the show.

All three pieces of literature dealt with the process by which Karolak had painted his pictures at (for me) almost wearisome length; two out of the three also stressed his sources in the natural world around him.

Here was more than enough for me to write my review from.

The McKenzie gallery handouts were very illuminating, though perhaps not entirely in the way intended. All this emphasis on “process” wasn’t at all new to me. I’ve seen the same kind of involved, reverent descriptions of it in recent years on dozens of other gallery press releases, to say nothing of dozens of museum labels.

In other words, "process" is hot in that mysterious kingdom I call Pomonia. There, it’s seen as the sign of a truly sophisticated artist to emphasize it and a truly perceptive critic to perceive and comment upon it—for it suggests that both consider the way that an art work was made to be equally or even more important than the work itself.

Takes me back to when I was still young enough to think that conglomerations of wire, metal pipes or piles of gray felt represented daring breakthroughs. Specifically, the date was November 1968, and in Time the weekly newsmagazine there was a huge article on the “new” avant-garde, which, according to our headline was “subtle, cerebral, elusive.”

I wrote this story (though not the headline). Among other things, it dealt with “process art,” as created by Robert Morris, Alan Saret, Keith Sonnier and others whose names I don’t remember. The point among them all was that an unfinished work of art, one in a perpetual state of becoming, was to be applauded more than a finished work.

Back in the 60s, process art claimed that it was derived from the wild and wacky process that Jackson Pollock employed. If you believed Harold Rosenberg’s famous 1952 article on “Action Painting,” Pollock and others like him had ceased to care about what was to be depicted upon the canvas. Instead, they’d come to regard it solely as “an arena in which to act.”

This emphasis on the “act” was in turn a borrowing from Duchamp, whom -- according to Robert Motherwell -- Rosenberg knew all about (Rosenberg and Motherwell had been good friends when Motherwell was editing his 1951 anthology of dada painters & poets).

But to get back to the here and now, it’s certainly true that Karolak’s paintings at McKenzie Fine Art are at quite a remove from Duchamp. Being abstract, they fall into a category that Duchamp would have condemned as purely “retinal painting.”

Still, in them I see all manner of careful little indications of the process by which the paintings came into being: the artful drips, the uncorrected awkwardness, the blips of color from the undercoats peeping coyly around the edges of the black areas, the ostentatious little pentimenti.

They made me feel that if this artist would eliminate all these somewhat superficial mannerisms and focus more on painting for its intrinsic values, he could make paintings that were so much better – although already I did find some that really spoke to me. When he isn’t trying to imitate the palette of a Warhol, his color sense can be excellent. When he isn’t trying to create off-centered compositions, they can be very sensibly balanced, and, when he isn’t trying to be awkward, he isn’t. At his best, there is a definitely powerful – if perhaps also somewhat elegiac or mordant-- mood to his work.

As an example of the best of it, I’ve reproduced (in the first of these two postings) a painting that rejoices in the title of “Untitled (P-1437).” It’s small, but in its way nearly perfect, with the colors of the central image subtler & more musical than they appear in the reproduction, the black relatively uncontaminated with pentimenti, and the little blips around the perimeter looking (for a change) neatly intentional.


Solin’s gallery, André Zarre, has a smaller space, but it’s located in the more frequented art neighborhood of Chelsea, on the seventh floor of a building that also houses a number of other galleries equally devoted to the fine (if imperiled) art of painting.

Solin’s show itself has been well organized and is hung just as beautifully as that of Karolak. However, the gallery issues no press releases, nor (beyond a price list and a printed invite) does it provide any other pieces of paper that might help a reviewer get a better fix on the show.

For information about Solin’s sources of inspiration in the natural world, and the process by which she paints, I had to email her – and not once, I’m sorry to admit, but a handful of times.

This policy of no press releases I can certainly understand. Although the “press release” is a familiar fixture in dozens of other galleries, it wouldn’t surprise me a lot to learn that 99 percent of them are picked up – not by bona fide members of the press corps, but rather by the artist’s friends, other artists (a major component of the crowds in Chelsea), tourists and the sort of art-lover who delights in taking guided tours.

This means that maybe 95 percent of these press releases are also all too apt to wind up in wastebaskets, on sidewalks, or even crammed down nearby toilets. Still, I hate to bother an artist to answer questions that could so easily have been dealt with in a press release (and I may not be the only one).

It doesn’t conduce to detachment or objectivity, either, to have to rely upon her courtesy in order to write a review---particularly if one is a critic like me, who tends to overcompensate for intimacy by becoming more negative.

The process by which Solin has created her paintings is at least as demanding and complex as that of Karolak—maybe even more so.

Still, from what I can tell, she is more concerned with what her paintings actually look like than how they were made. And, because she feels this way, she slaves to achieve the most finished and perfect images that she can.

Indeed, that was my principal problem with this show – that some or even all of those dancing discs were too hard, too perfect. Another problem was that sometimes there are just too many of them: I don't regard horror vacui as an esthetic virtue.

Being closer chronologically to the 1960s, Solin is also closer to the work of that fertile decade – or so at first it appears. Her eye-popping discs clearly owe something to the short-lived fad for “op.” This fad culminated in “The Responsive Eye,” MoMA’s 1965 exhibition of paintings and constructions that were thought to function less as objects in themselves than as generators of perceptual response.

Work from Larry Poons’s early, “coin-dot” period was included in this show, and is particularly relevant to Solin’s paintings, though her use of circles differs from his.

More to the point, the effect of overly much hard-edged perfection in these circles is somewhat offset by the painterly softness of the underlying fields. The colors of those underlying fields can be as moving & memorable as the colors of the circles —for example, consider the misty melodies of “Cosmic Night” (the image that I reproduce).

Solin’s combination of painterly field with superimposed, hard-edged imagery doesn’t resemble anything I remember from the 1960s – but I have much more recently seen other approaches to that same combination.

I noticed it particularly in the fine painting that Randy Bloom contributed to the big Sideshow Gallery show earlier this year. And, in a larger sense, it also relates to figure & ground relationship that I noted in my review of the recent show of Francine Tint. Do we have anything resembling a trend here?


To be sure, the kind of reception that Karolak's show has enjoyed may not conduce to responding to my suggestions. Why mess with success? His guest book was crammed with enthusiastic comments from apparently younger folk using chronology-free words like "Great!" "Gorgeous!" "Loved it!" and "Wonderful!" And oh -- lookee here: Roberta Smith & Jerry Saltz have signed the book, too -- the art world's power duo. WOWSER!

By comparison, Solin's book makes but a poor showing -- not nearly as many signatures, no celebrities, and for the most part, the sort of serious praise that implies a more (and possibly too) mature audience: "Very beautiful," "Very nice indeed," "Excellent and inspiring," "Wonderful, beautiful, such talent." Only one telltale sign of youth: "Dee -- you rock. Awesome!"

As far as I know, I'm the only critic who's reviewing Solin's show, whereas I'm at least the third who will have reviewed Karolak's. And the key word applied to his work by Thomas Micchelli, the reviewer from hyperallergic, may well be the ultimate compliment just now in Pomonia: this reviewer spoke of the "hedonism" of his colors and shapes.

This was the second time in as many days that I'd happened across that word "hedonism." The first was in The New York Times for March 13, where Ken Johnson, reviewing a group show at Anton Kern, spoke of the "hedonism" in a colorful painting by Stanley Whitney.

When I got to that show, I renewed my familiarity with Whitney (whom I'd previously written about) and this time, noted the same sorts of deliberate clumsiness in his painting that I've mentioned in connection with Karolak.

Color, it seems, is okay in Pomonia if your draftsmanship is sufficiently flawed. Evidently, "hedonism" is the latest way to speak kindly of a pomonian abstractionist who has ventured beyond the muddy, shrill or washed-out color schemes of that influential tradition running from Duchamp right on down through Warhol and Twombly to the present.

But that word "hedonism" wasn't always a compliment. It took me back to the early 1980s, when Robert Hughes was applying it to Noland as a way of putting him down in "The Shock of the New." Hedonism is defined as a philosophy or way of life devoted solely to pleasure.

Many defenders of Modernia, that rival kingdom to Pomonia, have always said that art was all about pleasure and needn't be about anything else.

But when pop art succeeded in the 60s, its defenders claimed that it was all about Society, Reality, a critique of consumerism, what have you. They did their best to tar Modernia, and specifically color field painting, as escapist and correspondingly irresponsible -- in a word, as hedonistic.

So now "hedonism" is a compliment? Well, yes, but still a somewhat hangdog, backhanded, and/or apologetic one -- to be counterbalanced, if at all possible, by emphasizing the ties that bind the artist to The Real World.

The McKenzie press release does this, too. Besides telling about Karolak's process, it outlines his closeness to his surroundings in Brooklyn. Dar Dowling, the critic who reviewed the show for modernnyc.com, picked up on this aspect of the artist, and, in an interview, enabled him to expand on it further by talking about the music he listens to in his studio.

Dee Solin can be articulate, too, but when discussing her current show, she is more apt to be take a philosophic tack than try to pin her paintings down to the here and now.

"My paintings are landscapes," she says, "But not in the traditional sense (not stars and planets). The Cosmos and Cosmic is a place that doesn't exist on a map. It is an Idea. The Cosmos is everything that makes us who and what we are. We have a sense of place, we have emotions, memories, and our life is about connecting with all that is around us and seeing being....

"....it is my hope that my paintings invite a comfortable experience of the 'Abstract.' And hopefully my work presents something new and not seen before, so that the work will not be categorizable and easily dismissed but experienced and remembered...."

In other words, words alone don't suffice to explain Solin's paintings (any more than ultimately, they do Karolak's). As she sees it, the only way to truly appreciate and respond to them is not to read about them but to go and look at them - advice with which I fully agree. On the whole, it's a very fresh and lively, exciting show.

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