Nicolas Carone: Recent Paintings

by John Yau

Washburn Gallery April 24 – June 13, 2008

In the past few years, we have gotten tantalizing indications of Nicolas Carone’s achievement as a draftsman, as a sculptor, and as a painter. But the full extent of what he has done remains hidden, like an iceberg. Whatever the backstory, the reason for this is simple. From 1954 until 1962, Carone, who was born in 1917, regularly exhibited his work in New York, first at the Stable Gallery and then at Staempfli. Then he stopped showing here until 2005, when he had a gallery survey of fifty years of his drawings, soon followed by a show of his sculptures of heads, and, most recently, a selection of large abstract paintings that he completed when he was ninety, which, given his age, is nothing short of miraculous. Each of these exhibitions makes it obvious that a very much-needed reevaluation of artists associated with the Abstract Expressionists is in order. And if you don’t think so, consider this: David Smith’s achievement as an abstract sculptor is indisputably recognized, but have we really addressed the accomplishment of the figurative sculptors of that generation, such as Philip Pavia, Reuben Nakian, Constantine Nivola, and Nicolas Carone?

A friend of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as well as a student of Hans Hofmann, Carone has been, as was written in these pages three years ago, understandably “reluctant to be categorized as a second generation Abstract Expressionist,” an opprobrium applied to painters, such as Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, and Joan Mitchell, by a generation of critics who championed Minimalism and Pop art. And yet Carone does share four things with these better known artists: they wanted to bring drawing and the act of painting together; they wanted to find fresh ways to connect the present with the past; they wanted to make the figure and space interact without resorting to Renaissance space; and they wanted to use the observable world as a starting point for abstraction. Mitchell, we might remember, turned to the landscape, Goldberg turned to architecture at various points in his career, and Bluhm used the figure as his starting point. The figure is also central to Carone’s paintings.

All the paintings in the exhibition are done in acrylic, and are either white on black or black on white. At first, we might think that they share something with de Kooning’s black and white works like "Painting" (1948), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and "Night Square" (1949), but if we stop there, then we have not really looked at what is before our eyes, and it is up to us to see what makes these distinct in their own right. De Kooning’s paintings from the late 1940s are like puzzle pieces fitted together in a shallow, cubist space, while Carone’s paintings suggest space through his manipulation of the thickness and thinness of the line, as well as his insistence that positive and negative space—form and what surrounds it—cannot always be identified.

In the largely white on black "Psychic Blackout" (2007-2008), line is used on the far right to evoke a simple torso-like shape topped by a circular form. Is it a body and a head of a woman holding an infant in her lap? The minute we begin to try and identify the lines, and they certainly encourage the viewer to do exactly that, we realize that everything in the painting is necessary, and that multiple readings and viewpoints coincide. In the middle of the painting there is the suggestion of a male and female figure; they seem as if they are further away from us than the female figure on the right. The use of pink here and there underscores the figural presence. And, as we begin to become sensitive to these changes in spatiality, we see that the whole space is both fluent and unstable, and that certain ovoid and bulbous linear forms seem to be overlapping smaller ones, while the ones made with a dry brush begin to recede. Every move is purposeful, while all of it feels improvised; this is the magic that Carone has achieved in the syntax of Abstract Expressionism, particularly because he has made that language specific to his concerns. His lines are simultaneously elegant, unhurried, understated, and child-like.

In "Orbit" (2007), the ovoid on the lower left mirrors the head-like form above it, near the top, and I mean this literally, since the lower one behaves as an inversion of the upper. Carone’s space is calm, but not static. This is not art by someone who has to let you know how smart, cool, or hip he is (that seems to be the province of those who can afford to have their work fabricated). Carone is interested in the basics: line and space.

Almost in contradiction to the restrained palette of opposites, black and white, Carone’s paintings convey all kinds of interactions between the figures and their surroundings. The supple lines can evoke Bacchantes tearing apart Orpheus, or a mother and a child, or erotic encounters, sometimes all in the same painting. The pleasure these paintings offer reveals itself slowly. "Shadow Dance" (2007) and "Lost Tribe" (2007) convey a row of figures or, in the latter case, a gathering of them. Spatially, they are quite different from "Psychic Blackout" and "Orbit", and this suggests that the artist defines the space through the act of painting.

In the heyday of Pop Art, a number of critics posited that Andy Warhol made art more democratic, and that Abstract Expressionism was elitist because it required that the viewer actively engage with the painting in order to discover its meaning. Elitism is a bad word because it implies the exclusivity that applies to those who have gained entry to upper East Side co-ops, tennis clubs, and four-star restaurants, and who can make telephone bids at Sotheby’s, and it should not be applied to art. If you can fabricate candy-colored art that children can appreciate, then you should be mighty proud that you can make unbridgeable class distinctions imperceptible to the general public. This, after all, is America. But this trend can make you feel horribly out of sync with the times if you are alone in a room making art with easily obtainable materials. Thankfully, Nicolas Carone, at ninety, reveals another facet of that hideous but seemingly hidden contradiction by painting at the top of his game.John Yau

© Estate of Nicolas Carone 2012 (except in case of previous copyright)