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Stephen Rosenthal 06—08 Paintings

Margarete Roeder Gallery April 4 – May 10, 2008

Stephen Rosenthal, “Ochre IV, 9.06” (2006),  oil on canvas, 19-3/8 x 17-3/8
Stephen Rosenthal, “Ochre IV, 9.06” (2006), oil on canvas, 19-3/8 x 17-3/8"

Stephen Rosenthal’s new paintings are hard to differentiate from one another in words. To describe one is, with little variation, to describe any of them. They are all painted in ochre and grays, with forms hazily suggested in darker pigments that give the impression of an undifferentiated landscape perceived out of focus. Their ascetically spare surfaces are enhanced by barren titles like “Ochre IV, 705” and “Ochre IV 9.06.” With a thin network of interwoven brush strokes depicting the imagery in each, the paintings are completely unassuming, almost recessive, and yet I happily tarried before them, each one in turn.

The sensitivity with which Rosenthal sets one mark next to another never falters. The level of revelation in each work is calibrated – Raoul De Keyser’s late work comes to mind – to allow the particularity of each image to reach the brink of the recognizable without going over it. Here, the mind and the eye do battle, the former insisting that what is apparent should also be recognizable, the latter reporting that in this case the apparent remains inscrutable. This slightly inharmonious vibration of mind and eye, each attempting to meet the other’s demands, appears to be what Rosenthal is after and to this critic’s eye, it’s plenty.

If I had to pick one painter to represent the opposite extreme from Rosenthal, it would be Frank Stella. I think Stella’s late work is about quantitative visual stimulation. Stella seems to judge his success by how many colors, forms, patterns and surfaces he can pack into one picture. Loud, bright, large and imposing, his paintings are spectacular in every sense of the word. Stella’s ambitions for his work extend to his writings in which he envisions his work as continuing an historical narrative beginning in the Renaissance and culminating in Jackson Pollock, then himself. His paintings proclaim themselves as a part of the Modernist tradition by adopting the narrative that Modernism helped ferment as its self-justification.

I don’t think you could justify Rosenthal’s paintings in terms of the Modernist tradition. They do not further the cause of painting in this sense. Neither do they seem essentially Postmodernist, rebelling against the Modernist narrative for the sake of rebellion. They seem to skirt the issue without relinquishing a strong connection to painting’s past. Rosenthal’s sense of atmospheric perspective evokes Whistler’s nocturnes while his touch recalls Monet as well as contemporary painters like Luc Tuymans. Here we have the potential for a whole new nomenclature of painting: neither Modernist nor Postmodernist but subtly divorced from the linear narrative that both modes adopt, yet completely engaged with the language of painting. We have yet to codify in our art histories a means of appraising painting that privileges the shared characteristics of painting over time above the categories we invent to make it more accessible to readers.


Ben La Rocco


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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