Kandy-Colored Dot-Flake Streamline Maverick
Kandy-‐Colored Dot-‐Flake Streamline Maverick
Roberta Smith, August 3, 2007
Peter Young’s art is a blast from the past that singes the present. His almost-‐major career, which flourished during the fashionably mythic late 1960s and early ’70s, has been drifting just out of reach for decades, a tantalizing medley of dotted, stained, gridded and geometric paintings, rarely seen but not forgotten.
Now his work has been gathered into his first museum show anywhere and his first solo show in New York in 23 years. A radiant survey of 34 paintings from 1963 to 1977 has arrived at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, and at the Mitchell Algus Gallery in Chelsea a smaller, more focused but equally excellent display features works from Mr. Young’s Folded Mandala and his Oaxacan series from the 1970s.
Together these shows reintroduce a maverick Zenned-‐out hedonist who was also a process-‐ oriented formalist with a sharp painterly intelligence, a genius for color and a penchant for the tribal and spiritual. They also revisit the efforts of an ambitious artist who got to the brink of a big New York abstract-‐painter career and took a pass, dropping almost completely from view and fading into legend.
Organized by P.S. 1’s founding director, Alanna Heiss, and the artist David Deutsch, the larger show arrives on the heels of the exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-‐ 1975” at the National Design Museum, which included one of Mr. Young’s small enticing “stick” paintings, and also opened the Pandora’s box of the history of Post-‐Minimalist painting. And it coincides with the Whitney’s sweeping if spotty “Summer of Love” exhibition, from which Mr. Young’s work is noticeably absent.
Mr. Young was a painter of the 1960s in just about every sense of the word, up to and including the early use of LSD. Born in Pittsburgh in 1940, he grew up precocious near Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Canyon. His parents collected tribal art, as did family friends the painter Lee Mullican and his wife, Luchita. (Their son is the artist Matt Mullican.) By his teenage years Mr. Young had mastered a semblance of an Abstract Expressionist style. After studying art at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in Los Angeles and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., he moved to New York in 1960 with his wife, the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.
By 1969 he was part of a generation that would tinker incessantly with paintings’ fundamentals and had most of his ducks in a row for a big career. The high point was a two-‐man show with David Diao at the Leo Castelli Gallery. But when it opened, Mr. Young was on a four-‐month sojourn in Costa Rica, living among the Boruca Indians, painting on cloth stretched on four sticks tied at the corners. His marriage was over; he had an itch to travel; and his tolerance for the New York world was ebbing. (Upon his return from Costa Rica he retitled two paintings “Capitalist Masterpiece.”)
He roamed about the American Southwest and spent several months in Spain and Morocco. By the time one of his dot paintings made the cover of Artforum in April 1971, he was gone for good. In 1972 he settled more or less permanently in Bisbee, Ariz., where he continues to live and work. He stopped painting when the war in Iraq began and involved himself more deeply in political causes.
The P.S. 1 show reveals an artist who is alternately intellectual and blissed-‐out, meditative and exacting, who changed his work willfully and regularly. Continuity is provided by Mr. Young’s great gift for color and of course his preferred motif: the dot, that global staple of art. Another through line is keen attention to self-‐evident process. You can always break down the step-‐by-‐ step making of these paintings.
In the first gallery four big canvases from 1967 and ’68 — Mr. Young’s well-‐known classic molecular-‐paisley dot paintings — come into focus, cultivating potentials in Pollock’s allover composition, Larry Poons’s lozenge paintings and Yayoi Kusama’s net paintings. The dots go from irregular and gray to colorful then to closely spaced and reliably nickel-‐size. Finally, in “#30,” of 1968, a loose paisleylike scheme emerges in richly off-‐key yet regimented tones: two contrasting shades each of earth red, brown and green with constant input from lavender and light blue. Given their effects it is always interesting to see up close how few colors Mr. Young actually uses.
The show backtracks from there, highlighting conflicting sides of Mr. Young’s sensibility. Two small, pulsating paintings from 1964 feature dotted dots, or small dotted circles, in earthy tones; their patterns suggest game boards, electrical systems, and peasant textiles. Two other small but protruding paintings from 1965 are almost Minimalist boxes. With their blue, gridded wraparound surfaces covered by fat, shiny, unvarying red dots with central squares of yellow ones, they resemble Josef Albers paintings made with colored thumbtacks.
A vitrine of necklaces strikes yet another note. The chunky, roughly carved beads approximate the multicolor effect of millefleurs glass beads in the layered acrylic paint: wearable dots.
Three galleries of works from 1966 to ’68 that move parallel to the dot paintings are fresh and well made but soulless. Mr. Young tries out Photo Realism in two chilly works that arrange tiny dots into streaming galaxies of white, cream and blue on black.
Then it’s back to Minimalism leavened with Conceptual Art, for a kind of smart-‐aleck dissection of the geometries of Frank Stella in shades of John Wesley blue. The works feel empty and competitive. Flatness and facts prevail. Space is measured in an expanding, numbered grid, shuffled into radiating lines, looped into compass-‐perfect circles and then closed off with a brick wall.
It is a relief to step into the next gallery and encounter tangible proof that Mr. Young’s 1969 journey to Costa Rica was life-‐changing. The main thrill is a row of seven “stick” paintings from 1970 like those Mr. Young made there and mostly gave to his Boruca hosts. Here slightly irregular monochrome fields divided intuitively by scaffoldings of line show Mr. Young making geometry his own. The colors flame: peach on bright blue, yellow on red, orange on violet. The lines step, dance, undulate, lean, loop and crisscross, forming lively wholes exceeding the sum of their still-‐discernible parts. They are shields, mystical diagrams, cartoons of paintings; their brushy brown faux-‐wood-‐grain borders acknowledge the real sticks holding them together with a trompe-‐l’oeil moment. In a corner, a small, amazing tribal-‐process painting from 1963 confirms the Costa Rica trip as a kind of journey home.
In the show’s remaining galleries Mr. Young seems liberated. From 1972 three trippy Rorschach stain paintings blur and multiply the prancing energy of stick paintings. These square canvases proffer four quadrants of bilateral tantric flourishes, each made by folding bare onto painted canvas. They bring order to Pollock’s drips and splatters, show Color Field painting a thing or two and presage the voluptuous patterns and layered colors of Philip Taaffe.
In the show’s final gallery the dot appears to be banished but is actually just hemmed in on all sides. Here four works offer expanses of intricate, colorful, closely spaced grids that suggest delicately woven plaids and checks. One of these works is actually from 1965, the year Mr.
Young discovered the painted grids of Agnes Martin and swore off his own for more than a decade. The other three are from 1977, increasingly dense and jumpy.
At Algus the dot returns in the pulsating patterns of the Folded Mandala paintings from the early 1970s. Their bilateral schemes are circular and also spacier because they are built from fat dabs and smears of color rather than stained. They are gorgeous, enveloping works, but true to Process Art you can still parse the layers and count the colors. And in the three Oaxacan paintings from 1980, the dot wreaks its revenge on the grid in some unfathomable way, interacting with the horizontal and vertical lines to create patterns that step in and out, build up and dissolve. One sees hints of masks, temple architecture and even kachina dolls in these surfaces. They bridge the gap between East and West, art and craft, ancient and now.
Any exhibition of art from the past should open some doors to the future. These shows open a whole hallway of them.