Harvey Quaytman at BAMPFA
As a kind of experiment this year, I want to get my thoughts down about some of the art I’ve been out to see in a more intentioned way. I don’t want to get hung up on writing anything too elaborate (edit: I made this sort of long and elaborate, oops), and I even considered simply uploading my cryptic paper notations that I make at the shows. Something in-between is what I’m hoping for. I’ll take and upload my own photos whenever possible.
The first week of January I made it over to BAMPFA for Against the Static, the retrospective of Harvey Quaytman, whom I’d never previously heard of. If I had to distill my experience I would basically call the show a pleasure garden for the senses. The richness of material doesn’t fully translate photographically. It might even be tempting to categorize the work as reductive anti-painting if you only saw reproductions. But in encountering them, Quaytman’s affection for paint is central and substantial.
The earliest sculpted canvases (see Zhili-Byli 1976) establish his interest in a particular sinuous chisel mark. Think calligraphy. In general I was impressed by just how well the idea of this gesture, done with a specific tool and by a specific action, could be transmuted into sculptural form and scaled up to monumental size. What a chore it must have been to construct the surfaces! But amazingly the paintings are fresh and buoyant on the wall. They are crafted, but not fetishized.
The early-to-mid career sculpted canvases were my favorite of the group (pictured above and to the left below). I loved their material ambition and contradiction. They are full of air and light despite their earthy construction; they are whimsical despite the self-seriousness of their size. I wonder what his feelings about action painters and improvisation were. He was certainly a “planner” as evidenced by some of his sketches which are full of notations and measurements. But he seems to have compartmentalized the unexpected into a particular part of his process, a specific mode, from which he later extrapolates in a very precise way. An artist would really have to know themself, their own temperament, to be among the AbEx-ers of the time and yet develop this way of working.
The show then moves into more medium-scaled and predominantly rectilinear works (see Bordering Text 1984). These do feel like a come-down, after the exuberance of the earlier stuff. Maybe he got tired of sculpting the large surfaces? Or he wanted faster iterations to get through more ideas? Maybe he grew suspicious of their showiness and sought a kind of refinement?
When he arrives at the cruciform structures (below), he seems back on his game again. These, to me, are more terrestrial—attuned to earth and body. The central forms in the visual field really ground you, but the surface modulation and color blocking move the eye around, so the effect is a kind of attentive stillness. Where the early works seem like containers for a free-form surface or pictorial structure, these later cruciforms have a very specific and linear surface experience; canvas material is added and overlapped, reflective areas of paint are overlaid onto matte, texture builds up next to a fine edge, linear vectors are revealed and subsumed. There is a feeling of being led through the time and space of the work’s making. In that way I suppose these are more holistic and matured. But they just didn’t give me the same buzz as the earlier stuff.
Realizing this, I tried to unpack my default response to certain shape language (i.e. rectilinear forms being static, curves being playful). Maybe it’s shortsighted to think the later works are less exuberant. Maybe they are an invitation to re-situate yourself. The subtlety of surface demands more time and a sensitive eye, but I think they are no less playful. There is also tons of material exploration to be considered in the late works. Rust and ground glass are among the listed mediums, along with extensive pigment notations that were on display in a separate case. I loved the Delacroix quote he noted, “ Yellow cabs make violet shadows” and also his own remark that “LUMINOSITY IS NOT INTENSITY.”
One last thing I want to make note of is Quaytman’s use of doubles, or opposites, throughout all of his work. Many works are constructed of two sections that play off each other. And many works seem to have been built in tandem, like making a film positive and negative side-by-side. Even the chisel itself is a double—alternately thin or thick depending on its direction. His titles often use puns or double entendres. Harnessing the generated energy between dualities seems to have been integral for him to activate the work. It never settles comfortably into fixed meaning and so many years later remains a potent sensory experience.
(edit: I’m missing some titles for paintings. I’ll try and fill them in later.)