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In the Shadow of Giants

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Yvonne Thomas: New York Paintings From the 1950s

at Thomas McCormick, through June 29

Robert Richenburg: Evolution of the Dark Paintings

at Thomas McCormick, through June 29

Paintings like Barnett Newman's huge, deceptively simple 1968 Anna's Light (now part of a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, continuing through July 7) can feel preternaturally powerful, even overwhelming. Its field of red with vertical white zips on either side seems almost cosmic--an aspiration confirmed by many of Newman's other titles and his essays.

In light of such achievements, it's no surprise that the work of many second-tier abstract expressionists has been underexposed. Indeed, critic Clement Greenberg--the movement's prime advocate--told an interviewer in 1991 that "in abstract painting in the 40s and 50s, unless you were great you were lousy." But the eight paintings each by Yvonne Thomas and Robert Richenburg at Thomas McCormick reveal there was some wonderful work made by supposedly minor figures. The point isn't so much that they weren't up to the standard of Newman, Rothko, or Pollock. Thomas and Richenburg don't even attempt to dominate the viewer by supplying a substitute universe, and thus they achieve a more gentle engagement--a modest articulation of forms and themes curiously more in keeping with the work of artists now than are mind-shattering iconic masterpieces.

Born in France in 1913, Yvonne Thomas moved to New York City (where she lives today) in 1925. She began working in an abstract expressionist style in about 1947, though she wrote in a recent statement that she wasn't influenced by "other artists' imagery, except for intellectual and philosophical ideas." Those ideas likely inform her 1988 statement that "color in my work becomes a true language." Her gentle, supple, lyrical paintings are engaging in part for their small contradictions, which deny them the stentorian declarativeness of work by major figures. A dense cluster of forms at the left of Still Life (1958) suggests weight: a tilted brown "table" supports some closely packed light yellowish lines with a pitcherlike shape atop them. At right a pitcher seems to float in space, needing no support. Though gravity is an organizational principle in the left half, it's confounded in the right.

First Stirrings (1959) mixes symmetry and imbalance. A dark red daub at the lower right and heavy black daub at the left counterweight each other, and a dark vertical line above them neatly separates two similar green rectangles. The symmetry breaks down higher up, however, in a melange of pink, orange, yellow, and white forms. Here shapes are as changeable as shifting moods or weather on a windy day, denying the feeling of revealed truth in Rothko's or Newman's work.

It's not that Thomas's paintings are less true than Newman's but that her notion of truth is different. Like most of her work here, Flight (1953) has a dense cluster of forms at its center. The cluster's bottom border is relatively distinct, marked by clearly defined edges, one of them underscored by a jagged bright red line. The blue and green forms at the top are also clear, but there's less contrast between them and the blue green background--it's as if these shapes were dissolving. Conducting a gentle argument with the achievements of her teachers, Thomas defuses the idea that revelation requires the ensconcement of particular forms.

Robert Richenburg was born in Boston in 1917 and moved to New York City in 1940; today he lives in East Hampton, Long Island. This exhibit focuses on the "dark" paintings he made in the 1950s: he often applied a layer of black over colorful abstractions, then partially scraped the black away and sometimes made further additions to the colored areas. Relaxing (1958) reveals a sensibility less lyrical and more tightly wound than Thomas's: thin, wormlike orange or red squiggles are ensnared in a densely woven field of darker strokes and patches; everything is crushed together, coiled as if ready to spring apart.

The most impressive works here are two large canvases, both over six feet high, in which bright colors shine through "windows" in the black field. In much of Kogno (1959), small squarish shapes filled with patterns of red, orange, and white form a grid within the black. In Magnesium (1959), bright colors in a wide variety of shapes and streaks are contained within a complex opening in the black field that resembles a floor plan.

In a catalog essay for a 1993 Richenburg retrospective organized by art historian Bonnie L. Grad, she enumerates the negative associations of black, suggesting that Richenburg's dark paintings may have been influenced by his experience as a World War II combat engineer as well as by a traumatic accident he suffered at age two, when he was scalded by boiling tomatoes. She also quotes critic Dore Ashton on a similar Richenburg painting as symbolizing "the most terrifying aspects of metropolitan life." I got no such feelings from this work, however. They seem more explorations of painterly issues than exercises in emotion. Richenburg himself wrote in 1958 that "to think while painting is a form of degradation....The essence of a work is always something other than the artist intended."

That an abstract expressionist painter would defend spontaneous working methods over a planned, conceptual approach is no surprise, nor does such a process exclude emotion. But what interested me most in Kogno were its playful variations in color. Grad notes that Richenburg said the night view from his studio was an influence. And like other American cities, New York had no master plan--its buildings and lights symbolize no hidden order. Richenburg's apparently accidental juxtapositions--a mostly white shape containing a single orange streak is next to a shape dominated by a bright orange semicircle against a bright red background--suggest a spirit that abjures overarching global structures for the local and spontaneous.

Magnesium is split between its apparently improvised skein of colors and its imposing, almost harsh shape. But the shape--which looks as if it were copied from an architecture or engineering book--lacks iconic power. John Cage and Zen Buddhism were Richenburg influences, Grad says, so it's possible he meant to leave space for the viewer to discover color effects or imagine associations or meanings.

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