Pat Passlof: The Brush is the Finger of the Brain
“Since art is neither the solution to a problem nor the execution of a plan, all attempts to approach it that way create obstacles. Preconception cancels out thinking and substitutes a possible false sense of knowing, for truer seeing.”
“Art has its own emotion—the esthetic emotion, completely detached from real life and the everyday emotions of love, hate, sorrow, joy, pity, anger, etc. . . Rather than the artist expressing him or herself, it is the art that expresses the artist.”
These are among the many encouraging directives written to students by painter Pat Passlof, whose work is the subject of a luminous solo show at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Her words feel like the product of a distant zeitgeist, reminders of a time before postmodernism rendered such sentiments suspect. They reflect a system of values in which painting is about process and intuition, over-thinking is the enemy of authenticity, and subject matter, though not verboten, must take a distant second to the action taking place on the canvas.
On ViewResnick/Passlof Foundation
October 11, 2019 – April 11, 2020
Passlof’s words also conjure the art world in which she came of age. Born in 1928, she studied art at Queens College with art historian Robert Goldwater and then at the fabled Black Mountain College with Willem de Kooning. Back in New York she continued to study with de Kooning, who introduced her to her husband, the painter Milton Resnick. After detouring, at the insistence of her father, to get a BFA degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Passlof landed in the middle of the legendary 10th Street art scene. Along with other young artists weaned on Abstract Expressionism, she wrestled for a place among the movement’s established heroes, and also dealt with the difficulty of being a woman at a time when women artists struggled to be seen as more than lovers, wives, or muses. Indeed, Passlof, who died in 2011, was long thought of primarily as Resnick’s wife. While she has been represented by Elizabeth Harris Gallery for many years, her reputation is finally blossoming in earnest. A mark of her new status: a small untitled work from 1950 now hangs in the newly reinstalled MoMA gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism.
The current exhibition, curated by Passlof’s longtime champion, art historian Karen Wilkin, offers an opportunity to take the measure of her art. The paintings range in date from 1948 to 2011, and are arranged in semi-chronological groupings. What comes through is a radiant pictorial intelligence, a questing curiosity about what paint can do and a willingness to take formal risks. Endowed with the questionable luxury of a low profile, Passlof felt no need to cultivate the signature style that sometimes seems to have become a straightjacket for her better-known, mostly male, contemporaries. She did, however, often work in series, which allowed her to think through clusters of ideas in a sustained manner. In the selection of works on view here there is evolution, but developments seem dictated as much by Passlof’s reading, surroundings, and inner light as by any art historical logic.
Passlof’s range is impressive. Her paint handling varies from impastoed to fluid, geometric shapes vie with overall fields of color as compositional devices, and representational elements even pop up occasionally. Sometimes the artist lays down strokes of pure color and sometimes she uses colors mixed on the canvas itself. In early, de Kooning-esque paintings composed of biomorphic shapes, line attempts to define form. However, the painterly control of these early works quickly gives way to a much looser style in which forms are suggested and then almost obliterated by masses of urgent lines. Works drawn from the same period can often present very different effects. Tan, executed in 1960, has a calligraphic quality and features dancing strokes of paint that leave much of the surface untouched. By contrast, Stove, from the year before, contains an opaque mass of light blue paint so dense as to almost blot out an earth tone composition flickering below.
Passlof’s figurative impulse declares itself clearly in several works included here. Rudimentary horse forms are embedded in densely painted grounds that seem coextensive with the figures they envelop. Again, the examples here reveal very different approaches. An untitled painting from 1995 places these horse forms in a landscape, with a tree, green grass and a hovering orange cloud. The brilliant color and flattened perspective suggest an Indian miniature. The same year, another untitled work employs the horse motif in another way. No landscape here: instead Passlof distributes spectral white centaurs more or less evenly over a flesh-toned ground. Their abstracted shapes and irregular placement are suggestive of cave paintings.
In the late 90s, Passlof’s interest in geometry emerges in a series of works that at once present and subvert notions of regularity and order. Hawthorne (1999) is a patchwork painting that appears pieced together from sections of evenly spaced black lines. The work resembles an early Frank Stella, if it was cut up and put back together at random. By contrast, Hell Zapoppin, from the same year, features three sections of thickly painted stripes set atop each other in an effect that recalls Sean Scully. In one of the latest paintings on view, Melon 2 (2010), straight lines are replaced by undulating vertical forms and a joyous pastel palette.
Through all these shifts in style and approach, what remains constant are Passlof’s improvisational working methods, her dancing brushstrokes, and her conviction that each painting must be experienced with immediacy, as a whole. She reminds us that looking, no less than the act of painting, can be its own reward.