On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

ROBERT MOSKOWITZ 1983

Those of us who were around in 1962 and who were lucky enough to step into Leo Castelli's on the right day never forgot an exhibition of paintings of nothing but window shades by an artist named Robert Moskowitz. The idea of identifying most of a picture's surface with a half-drawn shade, concealing a view beyond, had been explored earlier, and with a more overtly old-fashioned poetry, by Loren MacIver (in 1948), and would be tried later, with a more overtly up-to-date, cartoonlike symbolism by Philip Guston (in 1979); but Moskowitz's 1961-62 window shades were something else again. They seemed to push both the basic language of painting and the fundamentals of image-making to a startling economy, where suddenly the two worlds were forever fused--a flat painting equaling a flat window shade. Since that show, Moskowitz has remained a shadowy figure, exhibiting more often away from than in New York, where he was most likely to be seen in group shows rather than in solo appearances, and where he survived mainly in memory and art-world rumor.

It's a special occasion, then, to be able once more to savor the strange power of his work, which now, more than ever, merges what seems the most pruned and taut of abstract structures with the most purified and isolated of identifiable images. Here, the commonplace becomes magical, with familiar objects, monuments, and natural wonders transformed into the icons of a private sanctuary. Who else would dare to make such a tall, thin painting out of nothing but the dark, flat shape of a smokestack piercing a monochrome ground plane? Who else would think of reincarnating the grandeur of Rodin Thinker by ironing out its agitated sculptural surfaces into the cleanest, yet craggiest silhouette, projected upon a sea of vibrant paint textures?

The seeming simplicity of these icons, which often resemble illustrations from a child's idea of an encyclopedia, relates them to those paintings of the 1960s and 1970s that have been categorized as "New Image" or "Primary Image," and indeed Moskowitz's work can feel at home in the company of a Jenney or a Rothenberg. But this said, his art might be located no less comfortably in the category of the American Sublime or of nocturnal visionaries like Ryder. For one thing, there is the epic scale of his paintings (and, more surprisingly, his drawings), which often puts him closer to the Abstract Expressionists than to his younger imagist colleagues. Like Newman or Still, he provides no anchor, no foothold for the terrestrial viewer, who becomes alien even to a domain that includes not only marvels of a prehistoric landscape but even such monuments of our own modern culture as the Flatiron

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