Geometric Abstraction for a Shattered World

I have been following Gary Petersen’s work since his debut exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art in 2016. I attribute the difference between the works he has previously shown at this gallery (and which I reviewed) and the ones in his current exhibition there, Gary Petersen (May 20–June 26, 2022), to a growing confidence in his ability to further skew his layered geometric compositions. Having begun with a vocabulary of solid-colored, stacked quadrilaterals, Petersen has introduced new elements with each exhibition. These elements suggest that he is trying to find ways to undermine the painting’s rectangular authority without resorting to shaped canvases, as did previous generations. 

As complex as Petersen’s compositions are, it is not surprising to learn that drawings lead the way. Working in either black, white, and gray or colored pencil, the drawings in the current show convey the artist’s constant probing for possibilities. The use of rounded edges in the recent paintings, especially with the solidly colored geometric shapes; the move away from stacking quadrilaterals; the increasing use of incomplete or cropped forms; and the division of the canvas into curvilinear areas in which the cropped forms are visible, all add different visual pressures to the composition.  

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Gary Petersen, “For the Moment” (2021), acrylic and oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

In “Orange Slice” (2021), Petersen has employed dark lines to divide the painting into eight discrete areas. The areas fit into the three large configurations defined by a curving line extending between the left and right edges. Within each of these areas Petersen establishes vertical boundaries with curved and straight lines. The triangular, pie-shaped, orange slice the title refers to extends down from the top edge. Its right side is defined by one of Petersen’s boundary lines, where it abuts with a curved turquoise shape. Petersen further distinguishes the slice by lining its curved edge with a thick yellow and thin pink concentric band, as well as a pink band running along the right edge.  

This is just one of the painting’s more than two dozen, mostly curvilinear forms, set against a ground made up of two distinct areas — flat, cream-colored shapes and pale pink and blue bands, as if seen through a white gauze. The slice, along with a purple and yellow pie shape in another area, bring to mind Kenneth Noland’s celebrated targets. This is another shift taking place in Petersen’s work, as he directly alludes here to the history of postwar geometric art and pop abstraction, including Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, and Nicholas Krushenick. 

By establishing a figure-ground relationship between his solid-colored forms, some of which have apertures, and a ground composed of two different components, the ideal of either an all-over painting or a unifying geometry seems a thing of the past. However, instead of defining one’s approach to the previous generation by developing a critical vocabulary at the outset, as did Peter Halley, for example, in the 1980s, Petersen has been more indirect in his response. There is no overall theory governing his choices, nor does he seem to be nostalgic or aligning himself with postmodern pronouncements about the death of painting. Each of his paintings feels earned, discovered in the making. While they are not overtly improvisational, one senses that a lot of decisions were made during the course of painting; the drawings are not studies for the paintings. At the same time, again in contrast to the seriousness of earlier generations, there is an unexpected humor in Petersen’s paintings.

Gary Petersen, “Orange Slice” (2022), acrylic and oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

In each of “Orange Slice”’s three large configurations, a red-semi circle extends beyond a boundary line defining the smaller areas. Size-wise, the red-semicircle is much smaller than the other elements in the painting and the only red element in this work. Formally, it encourages our attention to circulate around the painting and not fix on any form — to break down and reassemble the configurations, seeing what can be stretched and what resists. Finally, all the forms seem partial, cropped or squeezed into a corner. In this, Petersen recognizes that whatever dream of unity geometric artists once pursued is no longer possible. We lived in a shattered world. 

During the past six years in which Petersen has been showing in this Lower East Side mainstay, he has taken the precarity of the stacked, irregular rectangles seen in his earlier paintings and broken them down into curvilinear fragments, whose entire shape cannot be imagined by the mind’s eye. Philosophically speaking, he is suggesting that all we ever see will be partial, and that a commanding viewpoint is impossible. At the same time, the rectangular and circular apertures, in which we see portions of the striped ground or, in some works, a combination of stripes and wildly meandering lines, suggest — to this viewer at least— that Petersen recognizes that Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, for all their visual immediacy, are receding into history. How do you keep moving forward without reprising the past? How do you not throw the baby out with the bathwater? Petersen seems to have begun his career by asking these questions. It’s what gives his work its historical depth. 

Gary Petersen, “Spin Around” (2021), acrylic and oil on canvas, 50 x 36 inches

Gary Petersen continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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