Mark Rothko: Dark Palette, through January 7 at Pace, 510 W. 25th St.
Andrew Kuo: No to Self; through January 14 at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 W. 25th St.
Diametrically opposed in approach and sensibility, the respective abstract paintings of the historically enshrined Rothko and the relative youngster Kuo can both be described as psycho-scapes featuring saturated color.
Art historian Robert Rosenblum nailed it with his approach to Ab Ex as latter-day Romanticism likewise treading on the infinite enormity of interior consciousness as well as the universe beyond the rational human sphere (Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, 1975). Rothko himself said as much (in more brief but similar terms), down-playing purely visual or formalist exegeses on his works. Rather, his mythically-proportioned emotional efforts, informed by a heavy dose of Nietzschean faith in tragic redemption and Eastern (very loosely) spirituality sought to penetrate the core of the viewer. While Rothko’s entire oeuvre of color-spectrum-spanning, floating rectangular fields pulsates uncannily, this spacious suite of his literally darkest explorations–blended Mars red, crimsons, blue-blacks, grays, umbers, deep violets and veridians–epitomizes the aesthetic sublime in all its connotations and (collectively) envelopes the viewer.
Equally apropos, a brilliant Rosenblum quip analogizing Rothko’s serial sectional compositions with static-infused Buddhist t.v. (ingrained from a class lecture decades ago). Along the same lines, scanning closely the veiled surface layers of these canvases pays off with otherwise imperceptible short brush strokes executed with Zen-like repetition. Thus the blockish forms settle and shift between density and translucency simultaneously, baiting the viewer’s gaze to focus. Here is W. Benjamin’s “aura” at its most palpable–and somewhat pace his famous thesis, virtually nothing of these hand-hewn originals are conveyed in reproductions.
Overall, the bigger the better among these deeply brooding art presences, but, several small-scale works included are also soul-shattering gems. As a whole, an intense painting experience for viewers that melds the limits of visual distinction, the (Freudian) death drive, and Zen mindfulness to iterate, in a word, existence.
A generational product of the digital revolution, Kuo achieves a kind of Op Art on steroids in this display of recent paintings. His method mimics an algorithmic interlocking of lines and boldly contrasting, flat and sharp-edged colors-shapes assigned variously to diaristic emotions, thoughts and daily tasks. The results are perhaps more fleshed out electroencephalogram than abstraction per se. Exactly, according to the artist (in statements), and emphasized by the appearance of inscribed explanatory keys (a là those on geographic maps) on a bottom strip of each canvas.
Nonetheless the dizzying endgames, which can evoke far-flung postwar Neo-Geo directions and textile patterns, are awesome and uncompromising. A tendency in viewers (myself) may be to wish away the keys in favor of Kuo’s virtuosity vis-a-vis optical buzz–uninterrupted. Yet, surely Kuo has considered and grappled with this critique a priori–which renders his exposed compositional trope compelling in its preemptive defiance.