Frank Owen

Verso

Years ago, there was a critic (Robert Lapoujade) who wrote that abstract art “approaches
the most direct relationship we can have with the world.” What struck me about this
very sort of 1940s-50s idea, coming off the high tide of phenomenology and the trashing
of every other kind of painting by proponents of so-called abstract expressionism, is
that it is so end-of-artish, a positive apocalypse. And that’s funny because the one thing
Clement Greenberg et al could not contemplate was the notion that a terminus ad quem
could itself develop a history, could become part of the history that his favored painters
most certainly did not bring to an end.

What did get finished, perhaps, was the idea of finishing anything, of an eschatology
for art, enacted through history’s ceaseless violence, and the inevitable triumph of the
newest (next, final) way of doing things, one mode as the vehicle for another’s demise.
The upside: painting, abstract painting, is alive. The downside: painting, especially
abstract painting, is an absurd, inconsequential vice. For now.

So there have been and are lots of abstract approaches around, made by people who
don’t believe that the Force is with them or God is on their side or the bourgeoisie must
be crushed or imagery is Evil or, as Barnett Newman put it, that “the first man was an
(abstract) artist.” For better or worse, these painters are granted permission to everything,
every past practice, every “experiment” (to quote a favorite 40s word), every dead end
(Which is what? Nick Krushenick or Larry Zox or Lee Lozano?), every anatomized
gesture of anyone who ever painted, every obsessive tick. And none of it contradictory
anymore, or exclusive of imagery, all here. Just the opposite of Lapoujade, the world
(in the supposedly pure presence of a painting) vanishes, pouf, into reference, analogy,
symbol, code, text.

Do you have a problem with that?

If you don’t get mordant about the painting’s loss of purity and privilege, or for that
matter art’s loss of “meaning,” you can have some fun. Have it both ways, flat and deep,
presence and absence, action and reflection, history and the moment. You can tell stories
and explore what it means to be free in a new and dangerous century.

By the early 1970s, when Frank Owen arrived in New York from California, the ideas
of expressive gesture and pure immediacy and “flatness” were already so hedged that
nobody really thought painting was all about those things. Life went on long after the
encounters with the Id were over, and the unconscious nicely dressed up foundation
reception rooms, nondenominational chapels, and living rooms for anti-Communist
cocktail parties. Owen didn’t think art was about suffering either. Discovery, yes, but
not self-discovery, except after the fact. Still, the gestures were there, inspiring and
influential, ready to be put to less Freudian use than DeKooning. It must have occurred to
Owen fairly early on that if you didn’t buy into the idea that art had to get to wherever it
was going, you could try out some things and see where they led.

Without an imperative, however, you need an occasion, and the trick for so many artists
of Owen’s generation and slightly older was how to begin. In one of his legendary
efforts, (Scapa, 1973) Owen set himself the task of painting – pouring, really—a 16-foot
black and white canvas in one go: 36 hours. Not surprisingly it came out looking like
a Pollock, but more precise, intricate, and perceptually acute. For a gestural painting,
it had absorbed a lot of Pop art and some monumental Gericault flourish. Its intricacy
looks now like an uncanny precursor of work by artists like Matthew Ritchie.
Process was just another word for concept, which is how Owen and others bridged
past and future. So there were the Owen marathons and the chalkline and pigment puff
paintings of Jeff Way and the elder Frank Stella’s geometry – anything to justify the vice
and get you working. Call it rule-based art if you want, but don’t call it inspiration. As
Close has remarked, “You signed on, shipped out, and went where the process took you.”
And if you were lucky, it was fruitful.

For that generation, the limits of “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth” were clear. A little cynicism was necessary to guide you in extracting from all that
messy freedom some method that wouldn’t trap you into ruining your life or the delusion
that you were a saint, that would let you just be a painter and spend a lifetime figuring
out how to take advantage of what you knew. I wouldn’t call Owen an academic painter,
but he shows what it means to be aware that painting is an inheritance and the trick is
knowing how to wear the wealth. I can’t help thinking of another Close apercu, to the
effect that when he first met DeKooning, he was overjoyed to meet someone who had
painted more DeKoonings than he had.

But Owen’s process painting of the 70s was not an end but a herald of things to come
in its desire to have it both ways, to enjoy the pure atavism of painting, the charge, the
chthonic thrill and to slough the burden; to retain its surprise and virtuosity and yet
make references all over the place, to Lichtenstein’s parodic strokes, DeKooning’s
gauche angst, Mondrian’s Disneyish untopianism, Warhol’s deadpan appropriations,
Caravaggio’s spreading darkness, Stella’s rigid 3D explosions, whatever.
In 1979, when Owen moved up north to the Adirondack Mountains in New York,
he didn’t have any problem incorporating found material – sticks, leaves – and
the seasonal colors of the forest. No problem being literal about nature as another
repertoire of formal gestures. And no problem not being literal either, using Xeroxes
of photographs of trees and leaves and relegating the artifacts to the frame. Just as
Gerhard Richter had no problem painting from photographs, and not painting from them.
Unlike Richter, Owen has avoided a leveling nihilism that sees all gestures within
painting, figural and otherwise, as fundamentally the same, not just of equal value.
Owen is more historical, optimistic, and committed to distinctions. As against Richter’s
meaningless virtuosity and the various post-Pop systems for generating consequences,
Owen has evolved a technique tricky enough to keep him engaged. It works like this:
He creates a transparent layer of polyethylene plastic, then paints and collages layer after
layer on it, knowing that when he finally affixes the whole thing to the canvas, in verso,
the bottom layers, beginning with the plastic, will become the top to a viewer, and the
last become first. He visualizes in reverse, so to speak, and imagines each work from the
inside out.

Leaving aside for now the obvious symbolism of such a strategy, like all palimpsests
his paintings offer a record of time enacted. I can’t help thinking of Louise Fishman’s
dense archaeologies of paint, metaphors of the processes of memory and self-discovery.
But Owen’s are at once more open, like the fields of Miro’s surrealism, where psychic
elements find relation, and they are not stratified. Within a non-illusionistic space, great
depths and textures open up. Collisions, emergences, effacements and delicate unions
all take place in the same indeterminate space. We can’t really tell what came first.
Other critics have said that Owen’s sense of color is tactical or situational, and in his
most recent paintings that’s strikingly true. But color has so many uses here: to set up
punctuated rhythms, move the eye around and in and out, mark territories and episodes,
establish an atmosphere. The longer I look at “Threaders: Jasper and Onyx” (2004), for
instance, the more it looks like a Stuart Davis painting, right out of the jazz age.
As I have hinted, the most recent works, including a series called “Threaders,” are
collage paintings. At least superficially, they are also paintings about painting. Using
acrylic swatches, Owen is able to create a repertoire of elements, which he layers in:
ab-ex drips and swirls, Pop curls, Richterish wipes, geometric forms, even what look
like pieces of architectural decay. There are also large concentric circular forms that
suggest other man-made and astronomical structures. Unlike earlier abstract painting,
nothing clearly holds these elements together. No “style” subsumes them and no artist’s
existential consciousness assimilates them, no agon mobilizes them from the depths.
Instead the elements retain their peculiar integrity, like pages torn from the books
of a scattered library, and their energies threaten to explode the field. In their crazy
inclusiveness and size (some as large as seven feet by seven feet), the paintings seem to
aspire to totality, but they never embrace or assert it. They never drive toward the ONE
or the ALL or undifferentiated being that always seems to beckon American painters.
Instead, they are content to summon energies and unleash forms in a new Vorticism, and
it’s as if the only thing keeping us from being sucked in is the film of plastic. Peel that
away and…

I want to revert for a moment to an additional metaphoric dimension to the current
work, an aspect that seems to stand over and above the historical rummaging. The
series “Threaders,” Owen tells us, derives from the notion of threading Venetian glass
beads for necklaces, and each of the paintings bears the subtitle of the materials thus
strung: “Sapphire and Copper” (2004), “Jasper and Onyx” (2004), “Carnelian and Shell”
(2004) to mention a few. I looked for an obvious logic to these in background colors
and forms, and I quickly came to the conclusion, whatever gets your motor running. But
the associations turn out to be richer than that, though fugitive. Faceted and translucent
minerals suggest a kaleidoscopic view, endlessly refracted, dazzling with light and color.
This, they seem to say, is what painting always discloses, always pursues, whether in
Byzantium or fin-de-siecle Vienna or 50s New York, a decorative but not decorous
opulence, the soul’s costume jewelry.

But the beads on the string also represent a combination of realms: the organic, the
mineral, and the metallic, organized by a human hand and eye. They suggest that
we are dealing with paintings not merely about painting but about something else,
specifically Nature, the persistent “something else.” This, it seems to me, is the great
accomplishment of these paintings: that they conflate the capacities of art and the
elaborations of nature. They bring the history of gesture in line with the creative,
form-giving energies of the universe, which science has opened to us as never before.
Crystaline structure and biological reticulation underlie (or is it overlay?) gestural
intuition. Owen’s earlier work, specifically the series “Cairns” from the 1990s, flirted
with a kind of post-Warhol transcendentalism but in the end left the realms intact. Nature
was still “out there,” at best a representation, we here on the other side of the glass.
We occupy a science-obsessed time, solicited by theories that undermine subjectivity
(epistemes and selfish genes) but supply no new orientation, no way to say this is what
and where we are. At best, painting would seem to cede the investigation of reality to
other media and submit finally to the teleology of forms I denied at the outset of this
essay. At worst, “what and where” are just positivist nostalgia, out of bounds for art.
Yet at key moments for the last 500 years, painting has been the vehicle for formulating
not just new ways of seeing but of understanding the relations of humanity, nature, and
representation. Cognitive objects, not merely epistemological critiques. At all these
points, painters aspired to a kind of scientific authority, and paintings were the vehicles
and emblems of their investigations, nondiscursive, bounded, not to be mistaken for
life itself, subjectively limited if you will, but claiming a universal validity and an
unrestricted availability. I, for one, am not ready to give that up.

Beautifully and with enormous joy, Owen’s paintings remind us that though we may not
be Modernists, we are and will be modern; that’s our burden, that’s our gift.

Lyle Rexer 2004