One of the last shows I was able to see this spring, before the curtain dictated by COVID-19 descended on the New York art scene, was "Louise Sloane: New Horizons" at Spanierman Modern (through March 28). I am so glad I did. For the formula Sloane has been employing ever since I first encountered her painting has finally altered, at least a bit! Hurrah!
To be sure, it is not as though I have been neglecting Sloane's evolution. Since 2011, when I first reviewed her work, I have written about it on seven different occasions. But throughout it all, the paintings themselves have remained remarkably similar – not in their colors, which varied considerably, but in their composition.
Sloane herself is not a color-field painter. As a maker of geometric abstractions, she traces her artistic ancestry back to Mondrian and/or Albers, and to count among her further inspirations an op artist of the 1960s, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and a sometime minimalist, Frank Stella.
Moreover, as with so many other popular artists, she tends to equate minimalism with modernism. They are not the same.
True minimalism, whether we are talking the pinstripes of Stella, or the "dumb box boys" like Donald Judd or Robert Morris, was always slightly satirical, tongue-in-cheek: carrying abstraction to such a simplified extreme that it became nonsensical or at best merely clever instead of being, like the best of true modernism, deeply moving.
The Romans had a phrase to describe this policy: reductio ad absurdum. And I can still recall Cranston Jones, a senior editor I had at Time (and a secret admirer of color-field), commenting laughingly on how the "dumb box boys" were actually flattered when you called their work "boring."
In other words, the minimalists threw a veil of dada over their endeavors and accordingly became more post-modern than modern. The same may be said of op, a slick, lightweight and formulaic equivalent to color-field, suitably equipped with a pop-art style gimmick: it made one's vision go pop-pop-pop when viewing it.
All that said, Sloane's work has never been as cutesy as that of Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930) or that of Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), often called the grandfather of op (through never having gotten the publicity in the U.S. press that Anuszkiewicz has, possibly because Vasarely was French-Hungarian and not, like Anuszkiewicz, Amurrican).
Sloane's colors, while brilliant, have more heart. Possibly this is because she lays them down in two layers. First, she lays down an under-layer of one color, smoothly applied over the entire area of a square to be covered. Next, she applies an over-layer of narrow squiggly lines, applied with a pastry tube, and originally meant to simulate handwriting (specifically, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg).
The colors of the under- and over-layers may be slightly or even radically different. This cuts down on the eye-straining glare that would have been induced by leaving the under-layer bare, and introduces a subtle element of harmony instead.
So much has remained a constant with Sloane for at least the past nine years (if not indeed even longer). And it continues to be a constant in Sloane's newest work. But there is a wondrous difference in 7 of the 13 paintings that I saw at Spanierman Modern, a difference in the larger composition.
For the past nine years (at least) the larger format she has used consisted of four very similarly-colored squares occupying the four corners of her paintings, with the center occupied by another square, rigidly aligned with the other four but colored slightly or markedly differently.
Over and over, this has been the format, and I confess I more or less ran out of things to say about it. But hey, this show is different! In those 7 paintings I just mentioned, the central square has gotten loose from its moorings, and floats high (or low) anyway apart, and at an angle. Whoopee!
Of course, this is an experiment, and experiments don't always work. But – as Clement Greenberg wrote, in a letter to Jacob Kainen – an artist has to experiment in order to renew his work. He cited David Smith as an artist who did this, and Pollock as an artist who did not.
And, despite all the people who make a cult of the figurative, Pollock's later (and incidentally more figurative) work more or less fell apart after about 1951. Smith, on the other hand, continued to innovate right up to the time of his death in 1965.
Some of the old-style paintings that Sloane has in this show are very pretty. In particular, I liked "Pink" (2019), with its narrow yellow painted frame, a purple center square with crimson squiggles and four pale blue corner squares with orange squiggles.
But I find so much more life in the new-style paintings, even those that I thought were still straining a little too hard – by using too vigorously-contrasting colors in that off-centered floating square, and not locating it in just the right place.
Here I mean "Venus Rising" (2020), with dark blue squares in the corners and a central floating square of gaudy red (on orange). Also "Beyond the Horizon" (2020), which reverses these colors, and uses a blue floating central square on four red corners.
These were both fine paintings, but the one I really went for was "Honeymoon Rising" (2019). In this case, the corner squares and the central floating square are more nearly in harmony: the central square is yellow with pale blue squiggles, and the four corner squares are blue and aqua with darker purple squiggles. These colors were a little more original, and their combinations were somehow gentler, not as aggressive. Finally, the place where the off-center square was located, just below the center, sets it off to perfection. Really nice!