Betsy Kaufman Puts Pressure on Geometric Abstraction

Describing Betsy Kaufman’s paintings and drawings, the art critic John Yau wrote in 2016 that “alignment and slippage (or non-alignment) are constantly at play.” Yau’s aperçu touched on Kaufman’s reprise of geometric abstraction, a genre that has often seemed exhausted, but which Kaufman reanimated with gusto. Her zest for color and pressuring the grid, in variations both gentle and infinitely insistent, characterize her new sculptural pieces on view in 14 Sculptures, 1 Painting at Leslie Tonkonow. 

The gallery’s bright, studio-sized viewing room below Canal Street, appointed with two modern chairs, painted or upholstered in white, and an Yves Klein-designed table in iconic International Klein Blue, had the becalming hush of a private living room the afternoon I visited. As it turns out, the chair tucked in the corner nestles Kaufman’s “2 Triangles With Green Scales” (2020), two stacked, patterned, cushiony triangles made of wool on needlepoint canvas, velvet, cotton, or synthetic stuffing. One glance at this enticing arrangement — and a similar “cushion”-chair combo by the window on a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair — confirms that Kaufman knows how to coax humor, and joy, from art movements ostensibly too analytical for this purpose. Even with reduced palettes and spare compositions that evoke constructivism, her sculptures can go from orderly to helter-skelter, making them seem like willful renegades from an industrial assembly line.

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Betsy Kaufman, “GOW” (2021), wool on needlepoint canvas, velvet, cotton, or synthetic stuffing, 13 x 10 x 10 inches
Installation view of Betsy Kaufman: 14 Sculptures, 1 Painting at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects

Postminimalists such as Eva Hesse softened abstraction while retaining an oppositional hardness — a sometimes combative tension between rigid and fluid materiality. Kaufman’s sculptures can recall this dynamic but she proceeds more measuredly. She tests the grid’s implausible pliability until it gives, causing “slippage” or sag. Throughout the show, corners bend, squares bulge out of their frames, asymmetries get thrown off by bits of plushy excess. It’s as if someone gave a Malevich a big squeeze, and placed it daintily on a chair to watch it swell. In the stackable “CRIM” (2021), in which a rectangle dangerously tilts, as if dethroned from its crimson triangular base, the dynamism comes from geometries jolted in space. 

It’s not just that Kaufman, who temporarily moved from her home studio to her apartment uptown during the pandemic, found a way to channel her confinement into delightful busywork — though this alone would be quite comforting. As the show’s pointed design stresses, she’s also dug into art history, putting pressure on its neat hierarchies. In addition to the two “pillow” pieces, which summon domestic environments, others either stand alone on white pedestals or are scattered on low platforms. These variations reflect the way that sculpture has progressively stepped down from, or altogether discarded, its support.

In another revolutionary upending, the Bauhaus sidestepped the division between the fine and applied arts. Kaufman’s allusions to these key art-historical shifts are subtle yet thrilling, especially in light of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent survey of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose Bauhaus-adjacent, fabric-bound experiments presage Kaufman’s. Both artists prove geometric abstraction is malleable. The single painting in the show, “Ghosts” (1992), which features two squares, black and white, in the center, is a case in point. It took a beat, but my eyes caught the squares’ minimal curvilinear bend, the un-square-ness pressuring the square.  

Betsy Kaufman, “Pillars (John McCracken)” (2022), wool on needlepoint canvas, velvet, stuffing. Right: 42 x 10 x 3 inches; left: 40 x 10 x 4 inches

Betsy Kaufman: 14 Sculptures, 1 Painting continues at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects (401 Broadway, Suite 411, Tribeca, Manhattan) through April 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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