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“Pat Passlof: The Brush Is the Finger of the Brain” at The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation

As a movement, abstract expressionism was dominated by patriarchy; men made most of the noise. But women artists such as Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Pat Passlof were also working, making paintings that equally belong to a survey of important artists at the time. Passlof, the long-term companion of the painter Milton Resnick, is the subject of this painting survey, which effectively communicates both the range and sensitivity of her outgoing, deeply accomplished art. Curated by the art writer Karen Wilkin in a former synagogue on Eldridge Street, which now houses The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (the space had been the couple’s home), the exhibition makes clear that Passlof was working in ways that can be covered by the generic term “the New York school.” She was a gifted colorist, someone whose feelings must be considered primary to her work. In this sense, she was not so far from the uninhibited brush of de Kooning, her teacher at Black Mountain College, with whom she became a good friend. Indeed, the variety of her nonobjective (and several figurative) imageries in this wonderful show look like occasions for working out color relations in a single compositional field.


On seeing the show, its audience might well first wonder about the extraordinary variety of the work. Unlike many of her colleagues, Passlof moved easily from one kind of vision to the next, being usually tenaciously abstract. The art seems to have been linked by both experimentation and by witnessing the past--one cannot be sure, but a couple of paintings do look heavily impressionist, while others borrow from the stylistic directions of her own lifetime. More than anything else, what comes through is a hunger for divergence; one has no sense that the artist was committed to an ongoing series, as happens with a painter like Mark Rothko. Instead, Passlof reaches for the particular autonomy of an individual work of art. Each painting is imbued with a presence specific to itself, without reaching out to other works during the same period. This does not mean that Passlof’s oeuvre is unrelated; in fact, the emotional life of many of her paintings was filled with a similar joy. But as we move from one work to the next, it is difficult to find close stylistic relations--an attribute that first seems like an idiosyncrasy and then looks like an achievement.


Passlof’s art, the exhibition proves, is of unusual consequence for people looking to broaden the canon. Regarding almost any of the works--the general level of the paintings is very high--one can see her working out patterns of distinction, made incontrovertibly attractive by the artist’s wonderful sense of hue. In Keeping Still Mountain (1971-72), a broad, dark green plane, further darkened by browns and dark tans of irregular shape and density, establishes emotional contact with her audience. There are enough different shapes and muted colors to offset somewhat the overall deep green of the canvas, whose imagery’s orientation--horizontal or vertical--is hard to establish. But the density of the green suggests foliage, maybe trees on the mountain referred to in the title. Whatever the actual associations may be, visitors first react to the intensity of color that faces them in this painting. This is almost always the case in encountering the pictures, which transmit pleasure mostly, since they communicate a continuing affection for the act of painting and a close-to-primal imagery.


Hawthorne (1999), created a full generation after Keeping Still Mountain, consists of a series of sections, triangular, rectangular, polygonal, taken up with straight, curving, or angled lines of dark red on a white ground. It is a wonderfully evocative painting, in which the equally spaced lines establish spaces rational and, given the uneven edges of the compartments governing them, intuitive. The painting doesn’t seem to reflect a particular memory, although the title is a bit of a quandary since we don’t know what it refers to (the author? the bush?). Abstract-expressionism’s ability to reify feeling is present here, but the content remains mysterious, likely the consequence of unpremeditated thought. Then, in Hamlet’s Mill, produced in 2002, we see a series of mustard yellow, zig-zagging vertical lightning strikes taking up three-quarters of the composition, with purple daubs between them and then again in the lowest quartile, engaging with short horizontal marks of the same mustard yellow color. Because of the title, we know that the painting is encompassed by a specific literary allusion, but we don’t know the details of Passlof’s motivation--nor need we know, given the restless energies of this attractively abstract painting.


Other works come quickly to mind: for example, the much earlier Mark’s House (1960), in which the rough outline of a roof and maybe a chimney are set on the left, with the trace of a green fence painted in the foreground. On the right, we see two squarish forms, one supporting the upper form, which occurs at a slight angle. In between, and also within, the forms are loosely brushed linear strokes of white and red on a light ground. The painting shows that Passlof’s attention was not directed toward abstraction alone, but here the brushwork seems to be of an importance equal to the forms they describe--perhaps this happened because of the art world ambience of the time. Promenade for a Bachelor (1958) is still more expressionist, with its different passages of mostly linear strokes--orange on top, flecked with white in the middle, and an array of forms and colors on lower end. Shortish green and black lines occur in the bottom right corner. In the middle is a red square--it might be a rough version of a heart. One speculates like this because of the title. It is true enough that a painting can be likened to a long walk, but the romantic element is harder to pin down.


The examples I have chosen to comment on indicate Passlof’s commitment, over decades, to painting in the expressionist manner. She was mostly, but not completely, abstract. The work is light-hearted but never shallow; it aligns with joy, which means that it escapes to some degree the heavy-handedness of New York’s densities of construction. Still, she lived on the Lower East Side, which is covered with asphalt and concrete rather than meadows. Maybe the urban tenor of abstract-expressionism is a way of negotiating the concentration of wonderful painters in the small spaces of New York’s downtown, where visual intelligence was concentrated to a high degree. The remarkable ability of abstract painting to go anywhere it wants enabled Passlof to treat painting as a process as well as a medium intended to produce fixed results. In doing so, she became an artist of the first rank, a person who could leap from one theme to the next, apparently without effort. Her lyric ability does affiliate with the improvisatory poets of the time--writers like Frank O’Hara, of course, who wrote superb poems during lunchtime. This show uncovers just how dedicated Passlof was to her own art, and how her tenacity resulted in paintings that escape the burden of transparent ambition without losing any of their significance. Now that we are trying to rewrite art history inclusive of women’s achievements, the exhibition offers a window onto a person who will be remembered as long as we keep painterly abstraction in mind.


-Jonathan Goodman, New York, February 14, 2020

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