painting: Untitled (ICU)

"New York artist Robert Reitzfeld has a devoted cult following, but his paintings are not nearly as well known as they ought to be....The paintings show a witty merger of Pop art idioms and post-painterly abstraction, like a mutant blend of John Wesley, Michael Bevilacqua and Gerhard Richter. In each of the exuberant compositions, Reitzfeld offers a unique balance of formalist elements and absurdist drama."

from David Ebony's Top Ten @ Artnet

Robert Reitzfeld Asks: What Are We Doing?

Robert C. Morgan

Some artists can speak about their work in a way that is clear and incisive so that the viewer can actually see in the work what the artist is saying. Robert Reitzfeld is one of those artists. Few critics speak about maturity in art these days because the market will not embrace it. Maturity – like quality – is not a term that is market-worthy. But I can say that Reitzfeld is a mature artist even though his paintings operate as a kind of youthful decoy.

When I first saw his densely colorful paintings, I assumed Reitzfeld was an artist in his thirties who had somehow found a stylistic niche early in his career. Having a style for some artists has proven a liability. For others, it is not. In the case of Reitzfeld, there is a kind of identifiable mark, a way of working that is consistent in form, although vastly different in its breadth of its content. This concept usually relates to painters more than sculptors. For example, I have never heard a critic discuss the large-scale steel works of Richard Serra in terms of style. But in fact Serra has a kind of style. We recognize his visual signature when we see it. And the same goes for Reitzfeld. When I see one of his paintings from the 12 X 12 series, I understand that it is by the same artist who does the Landskape series. The color is an issue, a binding issue that resonates syntactically in relation to his style. I like to say that originality is not in the form itself but in the syntax between forms. And even though the choice of colors from one Reitzfeld painting to the next may differ, there is a certain similarity between them. The way the color is applied in a painting like Untitled (Desert Storm Landskape) is not divergent from how it is applied in Untitled (Evening Landskape). What these works have in common is more than a sensibility – although they have that as well.

The Landskape series share a certain technical and formal finesse. Some would argue that the technical and the formal aspects of painting are the same, but they are not. Reitzfeld’s paintings make this clear. To get to the point where one can apply flat colors within a contour in a cartoon-like, graphic style is not as easy as it appears. I like the phrase by B.B. King, the famous bluesman, who once claimed that he was trying to make every song sound the same way, no matter what he was singing about. Reitzfeld’s Landskapes and related series – the TBTs, the Untitleds, and the 12 X 12s – each have their own distinct manner within the larger context of a style. They each hold an indelible trace of surreptitious vanity and projection that somehow communicates beyond the surface of things, a symbolic mode of transgression and digression that offers a pulse, a timely oration in screaming loud colors, and finally a reconciliation for all that we endure, the timeless ad infinitum of an era inundated with pop culture.

Reitzfeld works according to a series. The Landskapes are one example of a theme or a concept that he pursues visually through various signs, symbols, and other formal parameters. He notes that after 9/11 it was impossible to work for nearly four months. Given that his studio is only a few blocks away from what was designated as “ground zero,” the immensity of this catastrophe played heavy. His concept was to depict the kind of desert that one might see in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons from the thirties. This famous comic strip probably had as much to do with Great Depression as Reitzfeld’s Landskapes do with the aftermath of 9/11. However, there are two major differences: one, Reitzfeld’s explosive use of color (in contrast to Herriman’s black and white); and two, the absence of a personage in the field of the painting. However, in Untitled (Cactus Landskape), he transforms a Fauvish cactus into something more than a desert plant. It becomes a personage with outstretched arms, a veritable symbol, a theological soliloquy.

While the Landskapes are painted in acrylic and flashe on canvas in variable dimensions, the 12 X 12s are painted on masonite and are one-dimensional: 12 X 12 inches. These works are numbered, rather than titled. For example, a work numbered 0201 looks like a Kandinsky in the throes of Pop art. (Kandinsky, by the way, was also well-known for numbering, rather than titling his paintings.) Another work by Reitzfeld, 0204, is reminiscent of the late Nicholas Krushenick’s non-objective pop style. The dimensions 12 X 12 are also used in Reitzfeld’s series of Untitleds; but instead of masonite, they are painted with acrylic and flashe on canvas. This series uses words in the titles instead of numbers. They refer to cartoon characters from comic books that Reitzfeld read while growing-up in the Bronx. Examples include: Felix’s Eyes, Bug’s Carrot, Mrs. Bumstead’s Coiffeur, Daffy’s bill, Abner’s Dress-up Tie, and Tracy’s Hat. These identifying signs are placed on a squeegeed background that some observers invariably relate to the work of Gerhard Richter. However, Richter had virtually nothing to do with Reitzfeld’s decision to make his background in this way. What Reitzfeld wanted instead was to give a High art connotation to low art by interfacing his hard-edged cartoon signs against an expressionist surface.

Robert Reitzfeld is interested in patterns and in the processing of patterning. He occasionally works with textiles filled with repeatable sewn emblems. This suggests a design toward uniformity and irony – two concerns that once obsessed Warhol – but in a different way. With Reitzfeld more attention is given to the craft of the modular element and how it will fit in relation to the whole. The vernacular of Pop is an essential component of his work. Rather than dismiss the everyday distillations as they are appropriated into the world of cartoon imagery, Reitzfeld has discovered an opportunity to translate these emblems into art.

In the Landskapes, the feel of his imagery is somewhat distinct from all the rest of his work to date. I think it represents a major breakthrough for the artist. While one may detect a trace of irony – in contrast to the detachment emotions of cynicism – there is also a seepage of emotional content that is clearly detectable. The pain and irresolution of the landscape after 9/11 is still with us and will remain within us – unconsciously – for time to come. What Reitzfeld has done, however, is to give us a sense of the human possibility within the narrative of a tragic world, a tragic-comic world, a world bent on the absurd. Yet. for Reitzfeld, it is also a world full of the joys of quick humor and a sustained reflection that raised the important questions of why we are here and what we are doing for ourselves as human beings to improve the quality of life on this planet.

©2011 Robert Reitzfeld