That looks terrible… Not bad now… It’s still under-lit…
Hot on the lower left…“That’s pretty good.”
High praise, at last, from exhibition curator Deborah Rosenthal as she fine-tunes the lighting for “Abstract Tendencies,” a major group show of work by contemporary New Yorkers, on view in the Rider University Art Gallery through October 12. An artists’ panel and reception for “Abstract Tendencies” is this Wednesday, September 24, at 7 p.m.
Abstract artist herself, and art professor at Rider, Rosenthal is intent on this day in early September, focused on the job at hand. The show opens in five hours, and she’s contending with seven artists represented by some 17 works, all needing satisfactory light, and a mixed bag of track lights (some hot, some cold, some burnt out). Add to this a bad back, a shaky ladder, and a gallery climate that keeps unsticking the labels affixed to brown burlap walls. (Yes, brown walls.)
To undergraduates from a gallery management course, meeting in the gallery for real-life experience, she explains, “This painting sucks up a lot of light, and you’re also lighting brown burlap, which absorbs light instead of reflecting it.”
Functionally dressed in jeans, tee and sandals, Rosenthal looks very much the artist. No makeup on flawless pale skin, no jewelry to speak of, curly hair cut preternaturally short , a combination at once severe and becoming , with pretty-pink eyeglass frames perhaps her only concession to frills.
Rosenthal says the “Abstract Tendencies” show is not intended as a lesson in art history, nor is it representative of what’s happening in contemporary art. “People are doing installations , cows in formaldehyde. I happen to believe in painting. This show is my take on artists who continue and expand upon what early modernists were doing.”
She speaks in a low tone, her voice suggesting her preoccupation with lighting. Occasionally she interrupts her articulate commentary (seeming always to pronounce the word “painting” almost caressingly) with an unexpected, hearty laugh.
Consciously or not, Rosenthal models silent contemplation for the students, who behave in student-like ways, busy learning as much about each other as the artistic challenge before them. She gripes about the “raking” effect that results from some museum-style lighting, with centered overhead lights seeming to comb the middle of a painting, and strains to avoid the “popping” that occurs when elements of a painting seem to move out from the picture plane. Citing the advantages of combining ambient light with spot lighting, she says, “Some galleries leave black holes between the works , you can tell from my language what I think of that effect.”
“If I could, I’d show all these works outside,” she says, explaining that while many painters work in natural light, their works invariably are shown in artificial light.
“I’ll just tell you that Picasso, who as we know was quite canny, did most of his painting at night under electric light, which was very clever. He was a Spaniard and liked to be up late, but it’s a great idea because 90 percent of us see our work under electric light.
There are very few galleries that have all natural light; you just don’t find that. Museums don’t, generally. My gallery in New York (Bowery Gallery, SoHO) has no natural light whatsoever, not even a window. I paint in natural light, as do a lot of people I know, and it’s a shocker when you see it under electric light.”
A native of New York, the daughter of two English teachers, Rosenthal knew from an early age that she wanted to be a painter. She graduated from Barnard and earned her MFA at Pratt. Before joining the Rider faculty in 1989, she taught at the Parsons School of Design, and has done guest stints at Stanford, the Kansas City Art Institute, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
"I believe abstraction itself is a traditional mode,” she says. “As all art has, it builds on older painting, older art of many sorts. It’s not a break or digging a ditch away from the traditional. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s conventional or it doesn’t add anything. On the contrary, abstraction is a building out of, an adding to.”
The seven artists whose varied “abstract tendencies” are on view at Rider are mature artists whose work Rosenthal has followed over time. With this show coming up, she knew whom she wanted and went after them: Pat Adams, Shirley Jaffe, Bill Jensen, Melissa Meyers, Joan Snyder, Thornton Willis, and Trevor Winkfield are the featured artists. After that, she devoted much of her summer to the show’s catalog, which includes her notes on the concept of abstraction and a response to the paintings themselves by Lance Esplund, art critic and teacher.
In her catalog, Rosenthal writes about “what kind of person an abstractionist might be, looking at the world.” Amplifying this question, she says abstractionists have what she calls “bifurcated onsciousness: they don’t work from perception alone so it’s one-to-one, right here, right now.” Rather, “a lot of it is memory, dreams, stream of consciousness, where as much as I’m standing here looking at this, I’m also thinking about a moment, and about five years ago.” In abstraction, she says, “there’s a sense of all these realities playing together.”
She believes this exhibit represents “a fantastic set of paintings to have on a small college campus.” But, speaking of college and campus, what’s the link between her Rider students and an exhibition like “Abstract Tendencies”? “They use these paintings the way you use all good or great paintings if you’re a painter: You dig into them and say, Oh, this is how so-and-so is doing this, and why, and then you steal it if it’s germane to what you’re trying to do.
“I want my students to be conscious of the range of ways of organizing space, the range of ways of handling surface, the range of ideas in abstraction. I see it as very, very much for their benefit.”As for those who see the show, “I think with paintings you walk up to them and you look at them. It’s the only way.” Of course, she expects the catalog to help, too.
Since joining Rider’s faculty in 1989, Rosenthal has commuted to Lawrenceville from Manhattan. She describes herself as “thrilled to have been able to get artists of this magnitude and be able to have more than one work apiece so we’re seeing these people in a little bit of depth.” Next month her abstract work will be featured in a dual exhibition in the same space. She will share its brown burlap walls with Rider fine arts department colleague and representational painter Harry I. Naar.
The pains she takes on lighting each painting in “Abstract Tendencies” are not unusual for Rosenthal. Nor are they merely reflective of one artist’s sensitivity to seven other artists: “You have to think about how the painting reads, how the spatial exploration is meant to work. If things flatten out when they’re meant to move back; if on the contrary things seem to pop when they should have an integrated surface . . .” The thought trails off. She still has work to do.
At this point a colleague who has wandered into the gallery frowns at how a painting is lit , or under-lit , and remarks on it. Rosenthal responds with the information that this artist “actually covers the lights in the gallery when he shows. I think I did it right.”
Returning to the work at hand she adds, “You have to make choices,” appearing comfortable with her own.
Abstract Tendencies, Rider University Art Gallery, Student Center, Second Floor, Route 206, 609-895-5589. Deborah Rosenthal with six of the show’s seven artists in a the panel discussion moderated by Pepe Karmel, assistant curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Free. Wednesday, September 24, 7 p.m. Gallery hours at 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily for the show that continues to October 12.