Whether by coincidence or zeitgeist, throughout the fall of 2013, New York was full of writerly art: Christopher Wool’s Guggenheim Museum survey; the Drawing Center’s “Drawing Time, Reading Time” exhibition and a related show in the Drawing Room of manuscripts by Emily Dickinson and Robert Walser; Suzanne McClelland’s scriptive abstractions at Team Gallery; and Bruce Pearson’s show of recent work at Ronald Feldman. While Wool long ago dropped text from his paintings, Pearson, like McClelland, has fruitfully kept written language at the core of his work. If text has continued to be a successful generative device for Pearson, it has been largely because he is a ceaseless innovator, constantly folding new procedures and content into his work. Pearson’s restless curiosity was especially evident in this show, which included, by my count, five new formats or mediums, along with impressive examples of the more familiar Styrofoam relief paintings and large gouaches.
One new procedure could be seen in Itch (2013), a painting in which the artist has carved completely through the Styrofoam support in places. Because the painting, which juxtaposes a grid of tilted squares and the word “itch” in heavily outlined letters, is held out a few inches from the wall by brackets, the pattern of colors on the painting’s surface is enriched by the play of light and shadow on the wall behind. Itch achieves an unlikely marriage of Lucio Fontana’s slashed and punctured Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept) paintings and the tradition of Islamic screens.
Shadows were also crucial to Inhale (2013), a kinetic sculpture in which an overhead light passing through two sheets of painted glass projected the word “inhale” on a white tabletop. Because the sheets of glass (suspended from a motorized device) were slowly going in and out of alignment, the word itself seemed to be breathing. Several models and gouaches related to architectural projects that Pearson has been developing. Premonitions, done in collaboration with architects Ilias Papageorgiou and Christina Papalexandri, will be an outdoor 40-foot-long mirrored stainless-steel tunnel spelling out the word “premonitions” in stretched and curved letters. The key to the piece is the mirrored surfaces that will reflect whatever environment, and whatever colors, surrounds them. A second architectural project, Contains Real Hard Won Insights (2013), created in collaboration with architect Victoria Meyers, features a pair of intertwined freestanding walls; one gouache study suggests a kind of psychedelic Richard Serra sculpture.
There are many strands of word-based visual art. Pearson’s use of language connects directly to, and builds brilliantly on, the mid-century experiments in distorted alphabets by Raymond Hains and Brion Gysin. But focusing exclusively on the textual aspects of Pearson’s art risks overlooking his substantial contribution to the medium of painting—as a devotee of materialist/visionary color and haptic surfaces, he is the rightful heir to Yves Klein, Alfred Jensen and Ralph Humphrey.