in Black and White
Introduction, by David Cohen
Melissa Meyer is best know for large abstract canvases characterized by lyrical explorations of rich, boldly interacting color. This exhibition, focused on early work, presents a less familiar aspect of the artist, her drawings and paintings on paper using black and white and shades between. These forceful, original works have the improvisational energy and pictorially intelligent sense of structure that continue to animate her output today.
Meyer acknowledges black and white Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1940s (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning) as a source of inspiration for her restricted palette and pared down formal vocabulary, as well as classic movies of the same period, Picasso drawings, the work of the Italian Carla Accardi, and later works of Jean Dubuffet. That many of her drawings are polyptychs derives in part from her fascination with Japanese woodblock prints.
A sense of color is implicit in her acute shape consciousness and emphasis on surface texture. The works actually explore a range of tonal and textural possibilities to produce rich, empathetic surfaces and an intriguing play of flatness and depth. These works provide a context in which to understand her later development, emphasising the way in which structure and gesture continue to play a vital role in her work today.
The earliest drawings in the exhibition are in charcoal. Like the first oil stick drawings that follow, they forge an organic vocabularly of often vegetal shapes. The first forays into oil stick entail very free and expressive explorations of markmaking.
The frieze-like drawing in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, “Untitled, Tripytch” (1986) marks a breakthrough: while it retains the vegetal forms of the preceding drawings, there is a significant move towards flatness and schematic marks. This theme is taken up in works in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Estée Lauder, respectively “Untitled, Diptych” (1989) and “Untitled, Triptych #2B” (1990): although still vaguely leaf-like, with forms recalling Matisse cutouts, there is newfound play of negative-positive space which gives these pieces the flattened quality of woodblock prints. The starkly contrasting black and white has the forms read as carved or cut out, but the whole surface is united and animated by an almost velvet-like painterliness.
“Triptych #2 VSC” (1992), in the collection of the artist, is from a series made at the Vermont Studio Center and presents a new attitude towards layering. There is a marked contrast between the loose scribble of the brilliant white oil stick and the dull white shapes of naked page defined by juxtaposed black shapes. The way in which the calligraphic and the planar are both discreet from and inclined to meld into one another is anticipatory of her later watercolors and watercolor-like work in oil paint.
The exhibition concludes with a watercolor from 1994, “Deronda,” which revels in the intereaction of diaphanous brushstrokes and grid-defining pencil marks. The rich tonal range of blacks and grays both anticipates Meyer’s later explorations of color and vindicates her love affair with black and white.
This loan exhibition is shared by the New York Studio School and the Wiegand Gallery, University of Notre Dame de Namur; both institutions express their gratitude towards the artist and to the museums, coroporate collections and private collectors for their generous loan of works by Melissa Meyer.
David Cohen is Gallery Director at the New York Studio School, art critic for the New York Sun, and editor/publisher of artcritical.com