Empire of Dirt

October 19th, 2012

The most recent of Peter Young’s abstract paintings are up now at Algus Greenspon gallery.  Collectively titled White Ellipse, and individually titled chronologically, they are the most recent paintings he began exhibiting in 1967.  He stopped painting around 2004, reportedly, because his activism took over after Bush invaded Iraq.

Peter Young at Algus Greenspon

Backstory: the legend of Peter Young centers on his abandonment of New York when his career blossomed.  Through almost ten years in NYC, which included art history studies at NYU, a brief marriage to Twyla Tharp, and a job at Pace Gallery, Young’s rapid success culminated in museum shows and a two-person show at Leo Castelli.  However, the Castelli show opened while he was on a vision quest in Costa Rica, followed by travels all over the Western hemisphere.  By the time Artforum featured him, he had already left NYC for good and “would never call it home again.”  Most artists pray for these kinds of breakthroughs, so why did he leave it all behind?  Ben La Rocco attributes it to the increasing factionalism of New York’s art world and its myopic market competition.  The rat race!  La Rocco writes:

“This was a grim and competitive business and in one sense, Young’s background placed him in the perfect position to grab a piece of the action—he already knew the lingo. In another, more important way, it left him disinclined to do so. He came from a world where art was a part of the fabric of everyday life and not the monastic discipline now imposed on artists in the country’s largest metropolis. Young’s experiences in the west had placed him near the center of American creativity and its European roots. What he found there was free and easy to love. The powerfully creative personalities who had guided him were not academics. They didn’t teach him art. Instead, as Young describes, ‘What they were teaching me was a joie de vie—things that went along with painting.’  As such, their influence could not have been stronger—Young still considers himself a Surrealist in essence. His congenial relationship to history was out of keeping with the exclusive ambition of New York’s new artist and the culture clash he experienced could only have confounded him. It must have been a little like coming from another planet. Young’s departure was not an attempt to expand his world, but a return to the expanded world he already knew.”

So it’s no wonder that Peter Young now volunteers to help Mexican immigrants.  He might sympathize with the desperate compulsion by which people yearn for what seems like a better world. (Is it the same sympathy when immigrants decide to return home?)  A similar horizon-gazing might also illuminate how hallucinogens have driven his painting experiments (so much that writers have to mention it):

“Mr. Young was a painter of the 1960s in just about every sense of the word, up to and including the early use of LSD.” -Roberta Smith

“Psychedelic Rorschach paintings” -Daniel Kunitz

“In a curious way, all the little dots…reinforce the sensation, cherished by Young, of an animistic presence inherent in objects. This attitude was probably strengthened by the visual effects of hallucinogens and marijuana which he started taking about this time; he has spoken of the kind of ‘patterning overlying and underlying reality’ related to that experience.”

“…he achieved only occasionally the dazzling radiance of light which he had in mind, a vision intensified by his experience with hallucinogens, which he took most frequently during that time.”

“The dynamic expanding and contracting swirls and counterswirls into which Young organized the atomlike units of his painting resemble the constant buzzing activity of particles which he perceives while under hallucinogens when, as he says, he can actually ‘see the air.’” -Ellen H. Johnson

“These are truly hallucinatory and contemplative works about the instability, dormancy, and excitability of paint.” -Luke Stettner

“I’ll have what he’s having!” -Me

Peter Young’s career continued to rise even after he left NYC, and curators included him in American and European group shows every few years, but his New York solo exhibitions dwindled.  In 2007, PS1 reintroduced to New York audiences Young’s paintings made between 1963 and 1977.  The Algus Greenspon exhibition brings us the most recent paintings, selected from a series made between 1995 and 2004.

All of the paintings are acrylic and graphite on canvas, built in layers of colorful, splashy grounds; traced, overlapping ellipses; and opaque white-outs.  They might surprise you with depths and densities that take a moment to unwind.

Peter Young, ‘#52 – 1996′, 1996 (Detail)

Strikingly, the paintings here demonstrate a skepticism or hesitation about color.  Several have very limited palettes of color splashed on in thin, disinterested, dribbling layers, such as #48-1996.  A little more color creeps in with #52-1996, then we get full spectrum in #59-1997, with diluted, giddy brush strokes beneath layers of overlapping ellipses.  At the center of #59-1997 is – by chance – a grapefruit-red dot to beckon you through the bubble barrage. These works convey confidence without bravura and expedience without racing.  This might be what the gallery’s press release means by “radiant tentativeness.”

Peter Young, ‘#59 – 1997′, 1997

#56-1997 looks like a bleary landscape.  Its top half is a choppy stretch of blue brushstrokes, while the bottom is paved with earthy, horizontal strokes.  Asymmetry is a factor in other work, too. In #50-1996, staccacto, colorful clusters gravitate centripetally toward weightier bands of primaries, all whirling into an earthy brown.  #49-1996 feels like de Kooning, at a glance, with ribbons of iridescent reds tumbling toward the bottom of the canvas.  It is as reflective and refractive as a glass of melting ice cubes.  Even bolder is #46-1996, with muscular flights of blue and red caught in a twister hovering behind the white ellipses.

Peter Young, ‘#46 – 1996′, 1996

In 1960, Peter Young left California to become an artist in New York.  1969, he followed his bliss and left behind his success in the New York art world.  After traveling, and after settling near the border with Mexico, he continued to paint.  But since he’s left behind his success in the painters’ life of the mind, what will it take to bring him back?

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