Paintings by Barnett Suskind
Robert C. Morgan
Conventionally, an artist’s monograph represents a survey over a significant duration in which we see the development of the subject’s career from an earlier formative period to a more mature period. An artist’s monograph may also tell a story or give a poetic narrative by emphasizing a thematic point of view in contrast to a chronological development. I would submit emphasizing the thematic is appropriate for the painter Barnett Suskind. His work presents a point of view that challenges the limits of what a typically academic monograph can do.
As one delves into his career, aspiring to analyze the bifurcated relationship between his early abstract works and various modes of “narrative” figuration, or between his imagined facial portraiture and his exorbitantly expressive feminine nudes, the eye and mind staggers as to how these idiosyncratic, if not Surreal approaches to aesthetics can be accurately accounted for. It would be understandable if one could read these paintings as a chronological passage moving from one series to another but with Suskind this is not possible. Instead he offers a sequence of oppositions where different themes run parallel or in direct reverse to one another. As a trained art historian and critic, I decided that Suskind’s oeuvre requires an alternative point of view–that it cannot be told accurately from a neutral or objective distance. To get into Suskind’s oeuvre requires a more resonant “theatre of spontaneity” (Fillippo Marinetti) in which fiction intercedes with non-fiction. It would appear that such acute moments in his paintings are supported less by circumstance than by consciously elusive happenstance. –gender functions as a dual form of identity. Abundant Venus suggests a moment in coming to terms with the speed by which sexualized signs are delivered, and, by extension, with the by-gone era of the calculated fantasy. In this sense, Barnett’s paintings operate as an appropriate metaphor of the times, a historically relevant metaphor of Abundant Venus within the realm of the intra/inter persona. Ultimately, this persona functions as a revisionist means of communication whereby the nude re-enters virtual space as the subject, laying bare the ideal to become modified by nakedness.
Through my practice, I have had the opportunity to observe Suskind moving through his environs, prowling in search of an immediate sense of what a painting should be.
I will endorse the notion that in order to capture an artist who paints the nude using an expressionist aesthetic — the anchorage of painting — may necessitate going outside the boundaries of what we think we know about art The transformation of aesthetic experience often begins with a spirited negation before it rises above the entrails of pathetic conformity and becomes the exception not the rule. Barnett Suskind is this kind of artist. By learning his mannerisms well, he infuses them into every stroke. The results are not there to ponder, but to respond.
My expectations prior to viewing the paintings of Barnett Suskind for the first time were somewhat open-ended. Based on our meeting a week earlier at a dinner party, the artist explained that he began as a sculptor working primarily in bronze, using an abstract formal approach to the figure. Eventually he decided that bronze was too limited a medium in which to work and that painting offered a greater advantage in terms of “narrative” ideas. Given my involvement as a writer and art critic, a discussion immediately ensued where several interesting questions came to the surface. We deliberated for nearly an hour that evening, running the gamut between both art-related and life-related issues and about the multiple intersections between the two.
Few artists are willing to talk about their lives in relation to their art other than from the more predictable or arduous promotional aspects that identify what they do. Happily, Suskind or “Barnett” — as he prefers to be known — proves the exception. His manner of address enthusiastically slides between art, politics, economics, relationships, and diurnal routines with little effort. He is a kind of “total artist,” a gesamtkunstler, capable of circumventing the typical institutional barriers that preclude thinking in terms of advanced art, even as he continues to work with the medium of painting. Barnett manages to keep the doors open even as he moves assiduously toward his concept of aesthetic apogee.
As our conversation developed further, I reflected on the American avant-garde artist Allan Kaprow who in his essay, “The Real Experience” (1990), made an incisive distinction between what he termed “art-like art” and “life-like art.” Kaprow describes how some contemporary artists give too much attention to other artist’s art in contrast to those who focus more directly on responding to life. He concludes that life-like art has a certain edge over art-like art in that it forces the maker to come closer to one’s inherent motivations as an artist. I realized that Kaprow’s notion of “life-like art” relates not only to a type of performance art called “Happenings” (for which he was well-known), but also carries over to other more traditional forms. This being the case, one might discuss Barnett’s paintings as having a certain allegorical presence that would equally refer to a sense of psychological absence. On the other hand, if I were to look at Barnett’s work from the premise of “art-like art”– his recent Venus nudes, for example — I could easily approach these paintings from the perspective of irony, either as a spoof on the mythical festoons of Rubens or Poussin, or a comment on late Baroque materialism made manifest in Boucher or Fragonard, or as a more present-day neo-expressionist distortion of nudity ranging from existential disembodiments by Francis Bacon to postmodern decadence by Jenny Saville. In this way, I would avoid confronting the loaded emotional signifiers specific to Barnett’s work even as these signifiers are prodding to be brought into conscious light as a form of life-like art.
As I stood downstairs one cold spring evening ringing the buzzer to Barnett’s lower Manhattan loft, I had no fixed image, either imaginative or “intentional,” as to the paintings I would soon encounter. I arrived on the top floor and there I entered a muted Rococo-style loft. Exchanging Rococo pleasantries, we began sauntering down a hallway that opened into an extraordinary dining and living area filled with paintings and a few sculptures along the window sills of the southeast corner. In addition to Barnett’s early sculptures, I immediately recognized the paintings of the large nudes on the walls. As an ensemble, they felt like a kind of magnum opus placed intermittently together with his imagined portraits of non-existent men and women. These two diversely thematic groups of paintings — the nudes and the portraits — gave a kind of historical distance to the space, an “alienation effect” (to cite Bertolt Brecht). I felt a certain anxiety — aesthetically speaking — embedded within a visual orgy of impenetrable psychic indulgence. Together they incited a haunting dramaturgical aura.
From the outset, Barnett’s turn between abstraction and figuration proved difficult for the New York art world. By 1974, he discreetly shifted to painting and began working with a kind of space-age abstraction, focusing on the color blue as seen in two untitled works of dry pigment on paper. One suggests a prismatic view of the universe in a late cubist style; the other work is less about geometry and more amorphous, suggesting a vapor or fog pregnant with refractive smudges of red and blue pigment. By the latter part of that decade, he moved away from the finished quality of a European-style abstraction into something more contemporary; he began working with a type of reductive color field palette that gave greater emphasis to color modulation, continuing with the color blue, which he pursued well into the early 1980s.
Parallel to his activity as an abstract painter, Barnett continued to work with the figure over the years in a stealthy, confessional manner. In his portraits, faces are carefully studied and brought into consciousness, or, more precisely, from memory to consciousness to memory. Barnett’s portraits are meant to be seen in relation to the living, as this is the composite source from where they emerged, the memory aligned with their history, and the mediated history that needs to be retrieved and reinterpreted through confronting the agony of self-hatred and the subtle, painful transformation of this hatred back into a recognition of life.
Barnett refuses to work in a distanced manner and instead moves in the direction of an expressionist style of figuration fraught with autosymbolic, sexualized content. Barnett is not a unidirectional artist — neither in style nor approach. Within each of his highly intensive venues –regardless of the degree of intellectual inquiry or emotional drive — Barnett has always brought a heightened level of creative energy to his work.
Standing in his studio, I inquired as to the dates of some of the paintings stacked around me. Barnett’s answer stunned me; they were all completed within the past two years. The subject matter of this group of paintings were either poignantly phantasmagorical portraits of intensely expressive obese female nudes, or portraits the artist imagined based on collective observations of people in the street. Their content moves between sensuality, anger, tenderness, androgyny, and occasionally aggression. The large female nudes are the most unconsciously loaded signifiers and constitute a remarkable breakthrough both in terms of the artist’s work and of advances in the history of art over the last fifty years. These paintings persist in opening the threshold for a discussion not merely in traditional aesthetic terms, but also deeply psychological terms, and, at times, implicitly political.
The presence of the nude, even during the early abstract phase in Barnett’s work, operates as a combination of sexual signs and a signifier of innocence. Over the course of Barnett’s chronology as a painter, he periodically shifted from the ideal parameters of direct color and geometry to, in some cases, the starkness of his figurative painting, particularly in his earlier work. He persistently struggles with the ideal in order to achieve “nakedness”– not merely in the recent work, but more than likely from the outset of his desire to paint.
What could be further from the nude figure than abstraction? Yet, from the mid-1970s to the present, Barnett has been vacillating twixt the two — first one, then the other, or, in some cases, working simultaneously on two different paintings. Let’s begin with an abstract window painting, involving gestural supports, light and color, form and structure, and then move toward another painting of two standing nude figures in which the space between them offers a disconsolate or awkward feeling. One must ask: Does the abstract window — the picture within a picture — offer a more general psychological attenuation than the overt spatial positioning of the two standing figures? I refer specifically to two paintings, one an untitled painting, acrylic on canvas, measuring 30 X 30 inches from 1978, in which the outer frame is a mottled light reddish brown with an inner cauldron painted in darkish red suggesting hot burning coals. On either side of the inner surface are two vertical white lines as a kind of gestural separation between the inside and the external frame. The second representational or “narrative” painting of two standing — male and female — nude figures, titled Here?, is also an acrylic on canvas, measuring 60 X 48 inches, painted the following year (1979). The close proximity of one year between the two paintings is interesting. The “window” theme of the abstract painting has been investigated by many painters in early twentieth century Modernism, going back to the Cubists and the Fauves. In Barnett’s case, the abstract untitled painting was preceded by another representational painting of an open window with a view of an interior in which only the angular planes are visible. This reveals the artist’s interest not only in the window as a subject for painting but in the process of visually looking through from one space to another, opening the secrets of the mind and body, secrets of interactions between spaces and people, which adds a keen and profound psychological dimension to the work. So that in Here? we are compelled to ask what is happening between the two figures. Is it yet another replay between the Adam and Eve myth in which the Garden of Paradise is disrupted? Another point of interest is the space between the figures as the male stands on the left and the woman on the right. The space between the two is potent. It is another kind of opening. The subtle expressions and gestures are therefore intensified because of the space, because there is nothing else other than the revelation of an emotional level of exchange that the viewer — voyeur? — is permitted to see and interpret, to unmask all that stands in the way of an exchange between two people, presumably on the edge of some action, either before or after. Many of the early “narratives” from the mid-1970s through to the present reveal this kind of situation, Whether we feast our eyes on a twisted nude on a couch, a woman with a child strapped to her back, an elderly androgynous dancer, a disoriented man supported by two other men, two death’s heads (reminiscent of Andre Masson’s Surrealist painting from 1927) — in each case the subject matter of the painting is elevated to a level of intensity beyond resolution, a point in time before an action or the direct aftershock of something that just occurred. What Barnett interprets in each case is the power of painting to catch these internals, to catch hold of the space within time.
As I move between Barnett’s “narratives” and the “abstracts,” metaphorical windows open onto other realities, involving synaptic charges between mind, body, and emotions. There is an endurance to these paintings in the sense that they engage us through thought and perception without bleak affectation or conciliatory intent. I am thinking of the series of black verticals painted in 1985-86, which hold the mottled white space in check. I am reminded that they function pictorially much the same as the male and female figures in Here? formally hold the space between them in order that we understand the tactile resonance of this painting. Again, the resonance comes by way of touch: a retinal manifestation of our emotional, mental, and corporeal sensibilities, a harbinger of the human condition, and a catalyst of who and what we are. As for the reddish russet interior of Barnett’s 1978 abstract window, take another look at the two vertical white strokes on either side of the interior space. These are the formal parapets that activate the space, the tactile reality that meets our gaze as we stare inward at the flames.
Barnett’s paintings are abstract because they take us into the realm of innocence. They are a way of seeing, of acknowledging what we see and of how we remember. Barnett’s “abstracts” induce a phenomenology of seeing within the mind’s eye. Looking at the early window painting from 1978 and comparing it with the blue diptych from 1979, the first gave me an illusion, the second gave me a reality of light, which is a more even present-tense experience and a phenomenon that incites the mind to think, to ponder, and to reflect through seeing. A 72 x 60 inch painting from 1979 has a blue vertical bar on the left which is simultaneously a plane. While we perceive its lightness in relation to the deeper bluish tone on the right, we cannot easily separate the two tonal planes from the totality of the visual field. The two blues modulate in relation to one another and meaning that they are never truly static in terms of how we perceive them. The light transforms and enters into a kind of perennial consciousness of seeing, a meditative state, which is ultimately kinetic, vibrant, and open to the process of thought as a process of abstraction, as a theorem that vibrates in time and spaceAn accompanying work from the same year is a darker blue with no clear demarcation. There is a penumbra — the indefinite shadow line — that hovers slightly off-center. The visual receivership works in a similar way even as the tonal scale is darker. To think in relation to the passage of light as a phenomenon of color is not mindless. Rather it becomes a metonym of thought itself, a process of thinking in terms of physical sensation, a vibratory tactile sensation.Barnett’s abstracts — including his earlier diagonal planar constructions in blue pigment — are a means of discovering what is essential in terms of the act of seeing, and to further acknowledge the occasional liability of language in which words take us outside the realm of authentic consciousness, which is separate from art, but indispensable to it.
The large septic nudes, titled Abundant Venus, are happenstantial evidence of Barnett’s fundamentally elusive, yet fully focused approach to painting. This paradox is indigenous to his art. As I stare at Barnett’s paintings, I sense a struggle between nudity and nakedness. I believe that the artist absorbs the nude as a kind of absence that he proceeds to fill. Here I refer to the beauty in Barnett’s Venuses, but not from the perspective of glamour. Whereas the former relies on a more inner-directed sensibility, the latter is about the transitional surface of appearance. Beauty is what gives these Venuses their sense of stability, their anchorage. But still these paintings are not quite nude in the ideal sense. Rather Barnett’s nudes envelop nakedness and each body and gaze expresses its own individuality.
In the recent Abundant Venus paintings, the artist goes further. The metaphor is integrated into the experience of the sensing the flesh. One may say that while feelings are intimate in art — as they are in life — they also transmit a universal connectivity. When the artist introduces us to a slightly svelte young woman with her eyes blissfully closed or a woman wearing a headband with bright red lipstick, or a hefty torsoed woman twisting with blue-toned flesh, we get a sense of these women as metaphorical representations. Barnett encodes his persona in the comforting folds of feminine obesity and thus creates metaphors of feminine well-being. The artist seems to acknowledge that the universal in art comes from the ground up or from the inside out; it is not a matter of reaching for satellites that fly overhead.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that Barnett does not use models when he paints. These Venus figures are all coming from the inside out as well as from the outside in.
One might understand the metaphor of Venus as a quest for stability through the feminine other, a Modernist idea from the early era of mechanization more than a century ago. With the virtual age upon us, it would appear that Barnett offers us another point of view, one that updates the detachment of sexuality in relation to Duchamp and Picabia’s industrial machinery and positions it more directly within the transmission of gender ambiguity
Robert C. Morgan is an American art historian, critic, abstract painter, and curator. He holds both an M.F.A. in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics. In 1999, he was awarded the Premiere Arcale award in Salamanca in international art criticism, and in 2011, was inducted into the European Institute of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg. Author of many books and exhibition catalogs on contemporary art, he is Professor Emeritus in Art History at the Rochester Institute of Technology and currently teaches in the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.