The two decades covered by this show—1965 to 1985—were filled with experimentation and change in art. Important movements such as Minimalism and Conceptual art achieved maturity, along with performance art and installation work. Moreover, the influence of Pop art hovered over the different visual undertakings, pushing art in the direction of a demotic accessibility that had not been visible before. This drive resulted in simpler, more easily communicated intentions. In the small but telling exhibition In the Balance, we see abstract work in both sculpture and painting with high sophistication. The colorful, overlapping planes of Dorothea Rockburne’s painting are accompanied by an early minimalist sculpture by Judy Chicago, consisting of three arched beams sharply bent in the middle, along with one of Lynda Benglis’s latex floor-spills, composed of many organically shaped colors. The show, which emphasizes the contributions of artists both known and less well recognized, offers a quick education on the spirit of the time, which was informal, exploratory, and dedicated to investigating the area between painting and sculpture.
Alma Thomas’s striking Mars Dust (1972) consists of thick red daubs in roughly vertical rows with a luminous blue behind them. The work was painted in response to the Mariner spacecraft journey, which encountered dust storms in space in 1971 and 1972. Additionally, beginning the year she created Mars Dust, the artist made use of a new technique, employing sewing elastic and a straight edge to maintain alignments in her work. Whatever her influences might have been, the painting reads as a beautiful exercise in abstraction, with the short, red rods illuminated by a lucent blue, coming across as examples of an informally determined order, inspired by external events but equally indicative of painting’s ability to generate its own structure. Benglis’s Contraband (1969) is a bit irreverent: a pigmented latex floor painting some four hundred inches long with a broad array of colors. Seen from above, Contraband extends conceptions of how painting might be placed and might even be seen as a low relief–we remember that Benglis is primarily a sculptor. Rising an inch off the floor, the work is dominated by organic shapes, red, yellow, and blue in color. The piece cheerfully challenges the conventional practice of hanging paintings on the wall.
Freddy Rodríguez came to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1963, at the age of eighteen, two years after the dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. He began painting abstractions in 1970. His painting Y me quedé sin nombre (And I ran out of names) (1974) consists of three irregularly shaped but straight-edged polyhedrons, with stripes crossing the forms. Clearly, the three masses, set up vertically with a green band around them and then a deep blue ground, indicate motion. They refer to the native dances of the artist’s country. It is excellent to know the cultural origins of the painting, but it is also true that the work succeeds wonderfully well as an abstract statement.
Finally, Dorothea Rockburne’s Balance (1985), is the principal work in the show. Constructed with stacked canvases, the work re-examines perspective. As the museum notes explain, Rockburne wished to develop “a different pictorial space.” The shapes informing the work, a blue rectangle on the left and a square on the right, divided diagonally by a streaked brownish red on the left and a dark green on the right, stand over an orange triangle underneath them. They are meant to address problems in visual geometry; Rockburne is particularly gifted at merging her interest in math with her high visual skills. Thus, In the Balance looks at a moment in time when both cultural and structural changes in art were being made, a time of sharp social transition as well. The exhibition, an anthology of innovation, is not only enjoyable, it shows the experimental bent of these artists extremely well.