Gregory Amenoff
Hirschl & Adler Modern - 1987
Gregory Amenoff: United Geometries
By Robert Pincus-Witten

A broad sector of abstract painting today addresses the germ of the landscape, its essentialization, distillation, spiritualization. To be snarled in the exact brambles of that locale is not my intention; rather, I wish to suggest that the painters working within the mode, of whom Gregory Amenoff is preeminent, recognize the serious barrier at which this kind of abstraction has arrived. The sensitive toilers in this vineyard know that they must either punch through or be subsumed into their roots.

Modernism under surveillance has stymied the belief in abstraction as a vehicle of transcendence. This failure of faith is part of the postmodern quandary. Another source of dilemma was occasioned through the very success of the abstraction under consideration. Anxious that the reification of the principles of their painting makes it seem that their work veers toward self-imitation, towards repetition without expansion, its representatives are passing through a phrase of alienation and doubt, one mirroring the larger premises of modernist culture.

So it comes as little surprise that Gregory Amenoff tells me that "I want painting pulled back to my hand. I don’t want the paintings to be pictures. I want my work to be available on a physical level. Ultimately, I’m not painting water over rocks. I’m making a real attempt to break spatial habits, to stop my hand from composing the way I usually compose because it gets boring. I’m a physical painter. I want less of a world I don’t want people to think I am a painter in New York rhapsodizing about nature. That’s hackneyed."

Still, principles cannot be abandoned all of a piece. Old habits die hard. For, if in truth, Amenoff’s new painting presents stronger tonal contrasts than ever, more explicit gender codes and conflicts, more legible readings of the spatial text, his new paintings, for all that, continue to be illuminated by the visionary’s lantern and animated by the visionary’s experience. A world seen as if shimmering in a continuous field of energy continues to be reformulated.

The visionary’s depiction tends to the ahistorical; that is, it falls outside the mainstream manifestations with which it is contemporaneous. Should this vision takes root, however, it becomes, for the modernist, a central stylistic premise and option. Kandinsky early codified this. Van Gogh before him. Samuel Palmer, let alone Blake, still even earlier.

For Amenoff’s painting, Kandinsky casts the longest shadow. For the Blue Rider, painting was epiphany, the external cloak of revealed religion. This revelation was occult and chiliastic–millenial prophecy fulfilled. In Amenoff’s painting, iconography has slipped its apocalyptic moorings, is rendered less sectarian. Religion is gone but the spiritual residue is there. For Amenoff, nature is both god and religion revealed in the good book of a landscape whose motifs have been so cunningly distilled as to make them hover at the edge of the abstract.

In this sense, Amenoff remains a visionary. We pragmatists, by contrast, experience the world as a suite of discrete episodes. As we are, so too is Amenoff. He also is a contemporary pragmatist, sharing the stresses of our real world with us. And our kind of problem solving. Thus he sees that the visionary’s continuum, like all models, is open to analysis, to the determination of a diagnostic profile, to the fixing of a set of signs that insist that his kind of painting be read as "signifying" the visionary.

Thus his painting occupies two terrains, that of experience and that of its own consciousness of itself, an awareness that marks its own distance from the experience of the painting. In doing that job superbly Amenoff becomes like us, is like us–reflexive, hence ambivalently cynical and absolutely modern.

Amenoff is a painter to his fingertips. Painting over a long period has permitted him to hone and shape his special set of signs–his alphabet, vocabulary and pantheistic Esperanto. In perfecting that language Amenoff also alienates himself from the traditions of his own painting. This is as true of Amenoff as of the least of the painters working in his genre. These assertions speak not to quality but only to sensibility and mentality, how the modern eludes the postmodern.

As a visionary, painting remains for Amenoff "a complete world, a complete unity." And yet, as if in ironic punishment, the ambiguity of the achievement is equally available to him: "Everything in my painting makes it more self-conscious about itself, more self-conscious about myself." For true artists, the bitter dissatisfaction of painting even if painting well acts like vinegar adulterating the sap of the Big Apple, spikes painting in ways that success fizzles.

Some of this echoes, of course, the tradition in which Amenoff was formed. His particular twang mediates the august with the populist. He embraces both Kandinsky and Joseph Yoakum, O’Keeffe and Martin Ramirez, with stops along the way at Dove, Hartley, and Burchfield. The circuitry is damn near overloaded as Amenoff knows better than any.

I note in Amenoff’s Canal Street studio that Leo Navratil’s study of the art of the insane, Die Kunstler aus Gugging (1983), is available for reference. Amenoff is far from the first painter in whose studio this guide is to be found. Painters of the cosmic icon surely feel kinship with the work of the insane, not to speak of them as real persons, as individuals.

The pictorial conventions of the mad, obsessive repetition for example, are realized outside of cultural ratification or stylistic codification, without, that is, a sense of priority or decorum. The painter of the iconic landscape hopes to reconnect with this inspired core but knows from the outset contemporary culture and style have forever severed him from the sperm. So he lives in an hermetic tent, an anechoic chamber, isolated from the very messy joy his paintings may convey.

In his appeal to history Amenoff’s embrace of the American fold visionaries is of extreme fascination as it reveals a private malaise, the sense of exoticism felt by a farmboy from rural Saint Charles, Illinois at work in New York City. "You go due West on Route 64 from Chicago. Originally Swedish Lutheran we compromised with the Congregationalists. Less churchy, more ‘Love Thy Neighborhood.’ I met a girl once. She said, ‘I looked like corn.’"

The midwestern landscape as origin of motif is surely to the point, however liable of overemphasis and sentimentalization. If anything, Amenoff’s spiritual winter shimmers in the snow-bank’d lakeside shadow’d by the barren tree, just two referents of the recent paintings. "I grew up in an awful lot of snow in Illinois. I like the density of winter although, from a physical point of view, I don’t know as I thought about it too much. In my mind my work is more abstract. Snow under moonlight is an image I like. It’s strident, seen in a harsher light. Brash."

"How did it turn into nature pantheism?" I ask. Amenoff aligns a handful of invitations to exhibitions dating back more than a decade, shows me the images reproduced on these invitations, some eight in all. They begin as formalist color-field painting, or a type associated with Clement Greenberg’s theories, rife in collegiate painting from 1960s on. But there is something else as well, a certain rudimentary geometry; strong scimitar templates and pike shapes slash through the lambent planes of color.

As we moved from image to image, Amenoff noted that "The geometry became untied." True enough, so far as it went. Dared I intrude beyond this formal exercise in a way that would point beyond it since, in a certain sense, it is formal stylistics itself that aggrieved the ambivalence felt toward the abstract nature mode today. An art predictive o the future based on an intensification of the givens is a commonplace critical strategy. But impulse is coersive; "untied" a provocation.

Conversation veered toward an analytical turf with the painter as analyst and the critic transformed into the object of an ambient love/hate, a feeling reserved for the parent.

Risking rebuff I ask, "So far as you can say it, Gregory, what is the deepest secret of your paintings?" Will Amenoff rupture perfect charm? Does he even know? Tension almost crackles–born of fear, not of me, but of an articulation, that, once said, cannot be withdrawn and which may oversituate the work.

"They are about the body. Chest, diaphragm, gut, stomach. They are about breathing," Amenoff says, relieved. Breathing, blood circulation, the fundamentals of nourishment. "Leaf forms, chest veins, the center point of energy and light of life." The torso. The chest. Reduction and parallel, a synecdoche, a metaphorical encapsulation of body and tree, tree and leaf.

Another, more terrible metaphor abides in this cryptic landscape where breathing suddenly turns in upon itself, cannibalizes as leukemia does, turns respiration into desperation, breath into gasp. Amenoff is touching the panic generated by the very cannibalizing repetitiveness of painting itself. Brushing cathexis aside like a cobweb before his eyes, he says, "There is a desperation basic to the whole idea of painting."


1. All direct quotations were transcribed from the painter’s conversation during a studio visit held on January 16, 1987 and confirmed on January 30, 1987.

© Gregory Amenoff - 2012 - All rights reserved.