Susan York

Susan York: Floating Column, 2012, graphite on BFK Rives; collection of the artist; courtesy James Kelly Contemporary

SUSAN YORK: CARBON, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St., 505-946-100; through April 17

Susan York: Carbon is a stimulating way to re-experience works by Georgia O’Keeffe in dialogue with a contemporary artist. The context is a new, museum-wide presentation of O’Keeffe’s art — A Great American Artist. A Great American Story — which considers her from multiple perspectives in galleries separated by themes such as Abstract Nature, Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico, Preserving a Legacy, and American Icon(s). Most of York’s graphite sculptures and drawings — graphite being the medium for which the Santa Fe-based artist is known — are installed in the American Icon(s) gallery. The two artists’ bodies of work have correspondences, the most visually consistent being an interest in geometric form. The O’Keeffe paintings, amid which York’s drawings and sculptures are installed, are views of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home, showing her patio and door. Her door is often represented in her work by a black rectangle, imprecisely rendered and painted with varying degrees of realism. O’Keeffe revisited the door as a subject time and again in the late 1940s and ’50s. 

York’s minimalist works are primarily sculptural. In Floating Column, a work in the Lannan Collection, she creates a tension between the object, a monolithic piece of solid graphite that’s been polished to a uniform luster, and the space it occupies. “It’s almost a vibration that occurs between the sculpture and the floor,” York told Pasatiempo. Floating mere centimeters above the floor, the piece contradicts how we would normally expect an object with weight and solid form to behave, seemingly defying gravity. The show includes a drawing based on the sculpture that York rendered in full-scale. The drawing’s height and narrow profile recall the early cityscapes of O’Keeffe — that bear an affinity to O’Keeffe’s vertical skyscrapers. Similar works by York from the same series (3 Columns) are set into corners. They are made with precision, seemingly perfect, but contradicted by a built-in asymmetry; their geometric configurations are skewed. The top of one column may be narrower or wider than its base. These perceptual changes become more noticeable depending on the perspective from which they’re viewed, and so they have a dynamic, fluid component, challenging notions of the fixed object. As a medium, graphite is most associated with drawing. Working three-dimensionally, York broadens one’s sense of how the material can be used and what it can convey.

O’Keeffe, too, played with perspectives in her representations of her door, the basic rectangular shape of which was often distorted depending on the angle she was painting from. Some of O’Keeffe’s paintings are abstracted, though still representational. O’Keeffe incorporated hard-edge painting in her compositions, combining it with a softer approach by using oils the way another artist might use watercolors. In the drawing Floating Column, a blurred halo surrounds the hard-edged rectangular form, establishing another affinity between her works and O’Keeffe’s.

O’Keeffe curator Carolyn Kastner situated the exhibit in such a way that visitors who are about to enter the American Icon(s) gallery see only York’s works in the space beyond. But a surprising number of O’Keeffe’s paintings begin to come into view as one moves into the gallery. The opposite effect occurs when a person is inside the gallery looking out. There is a spot from which York’s artwork virtually vanishes from sight, and only O’Keeffe’s paintings are visible.

One could say that York works reductively, at least in terms of her process. However, her drawings are made using an opposite approach, albeit still in the service, as with her sculpture, of distilling essential forms. Her drawings can have as many as 50 layers of graphite before she reaches the amorphous quality — somewhere in between absorption and reflection — that has both a flatness and depth. It’s the versatility of graphite that enables York to create two dis-tinct bodies of work that compliment and inform one another, despite being created through diametrically opposed approaches. Whether they are drawings or sculpture, the material is the same.

A series of a dozen or so of O’Keeffe’s original frames that she commissioned for her paintings is intended, in part, to show the variety of frame styles she employed throughout her career. The empty frames echo, first of all, the exhibit’s subtle optical effects: the apparent but illusory disappearance and reappearance of the artworks. The rectangle is, again, the primary geometric form. York’s artwork suggests in-between states of existence, where a rectangle can be seen as an object, such as a cube, as an open window or door, or another void space. The same is true of O’Keeffe’s architectural views of her home. The emptiness of the frames, at the exhibit’s concluding end, are a surprisingly bold way to end an exhibit that includes anything by O’Keeffe, a colorist — one’s first glimpse of a wall of empty frames is a little shocking because it’s so unexpected. The unfilled frames make sense within the context of the show’s theme on the distillation of geometric form, however. The empty frame is a logical next step. Conversely, so is the solid object. I’ll be looking forward to future dialogues between contemporary artists like York and O’Keeffe, who, one may be surprised to discover, still has things to say.

— Michael Abatemarco 

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