Mala Breuer: New York to Santa Fe. Bentley Gallery
"My painting is about being formed from formlessness building spontaneously intuitively metaphorically within a given structure of linear tension abstracted from everything implicating everything in my vision."
"Nothing in and of itself, the formless has only an operational existence..." Yve-Alain Bois
There are a number of ways to begin thinking about the small survey of works by Mala Breuer currently on exhibit at Bentley Gallery in downtown phoenix. The first would be in terms of regionalism, as the subtitle of the show is from "New York to Santa Fe". Of course, Breuer studied in California as a student, making her influences something of a cross-country affair, even though New York style Ab-Ex painting and the earthy pallet of the Southwest play a vital role in different periods of her artistic production. A second way to begin thinking about Breuer's art is in terms of time, and especially, the times Breuer exhibited in. Over the course of many decades, one can say that Breuer's aesthetic was influenced by abstraction and minimalism in equal measure. Thus, Breuer's paintings are all about the timing of marks, the time of absorption, and intimations of a timeless sense of presence and light.
These kinds of considerations are of paramount importance when reflecting on Breuer's accomplishments as an artist because the notion of temporality can never be separated from the idea of place or space. More than any single thematic interest, school of thought, program or manifesto, it is these enduring pictorial concerns that provide us with an entre into thinking about how Breuer's career traced a path across America that was evidenced not just in her pieces, but also, in the all-over composition of her life.
Breuer's journey from coast to coast, which eventually landed in something of an in-between place, can be best summed up in three discrete acts. First, there is the undeniable influence of Breuer's teacher, Clifford Still, which shows itself in the way Breuer handles paint as well as her approach to dividing up the canvass into an active field of contrasts, considerations and intuitive responses. Next came a distinct period of development in New York where Breuer was sure to have seen some of the landmark shows of her day, shows which surely shifted her aesthetic into a more urban register, mixing exuberant color choices with an almost gothic weightiness. Finally, Breuer retired from the Big Apple only to strike up a personal friendship with Agnes Martin in Santa Fe. In this later period Breuer adopted a slightly different methodology that included a more nuanced relationship to shifting gradations and the proliferation of lyrically painted striations.
Consequently, we can say that the idea of locale, of transit, and of negotiating a place for the eye to rest amidst thoughtfully activated figure and ground relations was what the journey from New York to Santa Fe was all about. This is true inasmuch as we find evidence of dynamic and changing relationships throughout Breuer's work and life, a life dedicated to the notion of organic unity, which was the hallmark of the abstract impulse, and which Breuer made a rather heady contribution too.
Part II: How the Conditions of Art Informal Influenced Breuer's Art Practice.
But all of these observations are the obvious trappings of any good read of Breuer's oeuvre, and they are certainly not without their merits. Such ideas provide us with a wealth of factual information about the paintings on display, albeit, without saying much as to why we should be interested in Breuer's project. In order to do this we have to place the work not only within the larger context of issues in abstract art but we also have to situate it alongside the prejudices of the cultural milieu Breuer inhabited. To overlook such questions is to miss the fact that abstraction, from the first generation up to the present, has been a bit of a boys club to say the least. Thus, working with, and against the reigning ethos of times - which had its own set of gendered biases - was as integral to navigating the field of cultural production for a female artist as having to find opportunities to make and exhibit work.
As such, the kinds of formal decisions that defined Breuer's career can never really be disentangled from another set of issues, issues which concern her place in the artworld as a women. And yet, taking this into account makes it possible to cast a new light on her aesthetic choices at a time when developing a signature style was what defined the New York School of Action Painters. Newman's zip's, Pollock's drips, Kline's contrasts, Hoffman's push and pull, everyone had to stake out an iconic claim of sorts, and defend it! This was avant-gardism as a type of militarism, the kind that played at 'king of the hill', rather than being an advanced scooting troop. Despite the many claims about innovation, rupture and breaking with the past, what really took hold during the years of 'high modernism' was often less of an exploratory attitude toward painting and more of an entrenched set of commitments.
PART III: Painting Through a Time-of-Crisis, Conflict, and Contradiction.
The real conflict however, and perhaps the real interest in Breuer's career, could be seen as revolving around the following set of contests. First, her practice as an artist was wholly dialogic, yet the results were highly personal and even idiosyncratic at times. Second, while she did not try to 'brand' her look, or develop an iconic style, Breuer did work out the improvisational look of her paintings beforehand through collages, watercolors, and drawings that exhibited an uncommon degree of finish. In other words, she was after the feeling of radical reductionism and commitment to the act of painting, without making it into a mere affect of style. Breuer genuinely wanted to rehearse and respond to what was happening in the act of making while avoiding any sense of being an autodidact. Thus, Breuer's type of essentialism was never one that was easily codified. This was a rare achievement at a time when one can say that most, if not all of the first and second generation abstract expressionists, met this very fate. And finally, while her paintings show the influence of artists like Still and early Stella, Breuer was also in dialogue with the female artists of her day too. Not only is there a connection to well-known figures like her close friend Agnes Martin, but there is also a degree of resonance, if not outright resemblance to the dashy application of paint by figures like Joan Mitchell, or the more conservative compositions of Helen Frankenthaler, not to mention the collage aesthetic of Lee Krasner.
PART IV: Mala Breuer and the Time of Painting Reclaimed.
Taking this into account, how do we understand Breuer's work now, looking back at this small survey of select pieces? On the one hand, Breuer's artistic concerns all seem to circle around the pole of geometry, which structures her compositions, and on the other hand, she always courted a degree of spontaneity, which gave her paintings their assured execution. Breuer seems to insist, quite emphatically, on the measured ability of the artists' hand and a certain sense of touch to move us, in either big bold gestures or a minor vocabulary of extreme delicacy and precision. Breuer's work depends on creating a certain level of captivation given over to us through the consideration of bodily relations, where scale and the size of the mark are as important as the choice of color and form. What is perhaps most evident about Breuer's oeuvre however, are the many ways in which she wants the viewer to know that she's still exploring, that she's still present in the act of making, and that she hasn't gone into auto-pilot or become subservient to any one set of prescriptive measures. As such, Breuer's poetics are nothing less than a sensorial poetry of time, touch and temperament, organized vis-à-vis painterly transmission.
Above all else, this is what separates her work from that of her contemporaries. Breuer labored to achieve a perfect marriage of gesture, scale and proportion, where chromatic opulence slowly transformed into optical elegance in the journey from New York to Santa Fe. Breuer never wanted to make works that were monuments, or which were overly imposing, but which still asked for your whole attention nonetheless. And she did this in the age where an obsession with cinematic scale and the experience of the sublime was not just the demand of the day, it was a prerequisite for financial and critical success. Despite this fact, or rather in spite of it, Breuer choose to define success around another set of terms, terms which didn't always have to do with the size, or shall we say, with a certain need to overcompensate for a lack of content.
Thus, the gift of Breuer's work is that of unlimited permissions without succumbing to a kind of abandonment without reserve. Her pallet, which ranges from the brightest primaries to the most subdued pastels, always continued to reflect her surroundings. Breuer's pieces entreat us to be present with her in the act of making, hiding little behind her hand unless it is a scumbled effect staged for dramatic punch or a change in tempo. If anything, her works ask us to pay attention to how we encounter our world, to be beholden to the space in which we reside, to appreciate the light cast not only across the surface of her various series, but to notice that Breuer's art is not so much about seriality as it is the reality of being engaged with the times you live in and the nature of the creative act. For having maintained this rare balance, and for the amazing strength to have gone it alone, not necessarily against the tide, but surfing the tunnel of the wave from the inside, Breuer's work deserves not just a second look but genuine recognition. There are few rare authentic voices such as Mala Breuer and it's worth the opportunity to see this selective look back at what she achieved, not only in New York, but here in the Southwest, a place that Breuer still calls home.
Mala Breuer: From New York to Santa Fe, is on view at the Bentley Gallery in Downtown phoenix from April 23rd through May 30th. The Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 9:30 am to 5:30pm.