Ron Gorchov’s paintings are a divine unity of opposites; across his oeuvre we see a distinctive and unique ability to fuse weight and lightness, structure and image, regularity and irregularity. In the following collection of works, from the 1970s to the present day, the perseverance and consistency of this artist, one so dedicated to the potential of painting, is clear. Upon his saddle shaped canvases, achieved by stretching his linen across finely fitted, curved wooden frames, he applies thin layers of paint, most frequently forming two abstract forms at the centre of each piece, playing with symmetry and asymmetry. His works often give the impression of shields, because of their concave shape, or masks, with the slits of colour upon the canvas appearing like glaring eyes. Remarkably, Gorchov has stayed true to his signature shape for over forty years, creating them in varied dimensions, all with an innate harmony and power. Working in an effervescent time for painting in New York across the twentieth century, within a nexus of important art historical influences, the work of Gorchov is that of a dedicated and creative mind. S2 are proud to present Ron Gorchov, a solo show curated by Vito Schnabel. Having previously collaborated on exhibitions in New York in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2013, it is with great pleasure that artist and curator are coming together once more to bring Ron Gorchov’s distinguished work to London.
Born in 1930 in Chicago, Ron Gorchov began his artistic ascent by taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944. The first impact he made upon the art world was in 1960, when his work was included in the Whitney Museum’s Young America 1960: Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six exhibition, alongside other artists such as Alex Katz. Having moved to Manhattan in 1953, Gorchov joined in with the heady dialogue on painting itself, exploring the concept of ‘action painting’ as coined by Harold Rosenberg, also referred to as ‘gestural abstraction’, which involves the rejection of pictorial conventions and of any traditional notion of harmonious composition. In his pieces, Gorchov has slowed the almost frantic gesture of the abstract expressionists down, resulting in a distinctive form that never feels formulaic, the creation of charged pieces that resonate through their formal simplicity and astute use of colour. Robert Storr, the prominent curator and critic who writes on Gorchov in this catalogue, aligns the artist’s formal practice with the greats of his time, commenting, ‘with such shaped canvases he was an inspiration to Elizabeth Murray and, in his pioneering use of curved rather than flat surfaces, a natural rival to Frank Stella. Stroke for stroke, he was (and is) Brice Marden’s equal when it comes to pure painterly pleasure’ (R. Storr, ‘Missing in Action’, Artforum, September 2005, p. 96).
In entering the dialogue on painting, ignited in 1950s by Clement Greenberg’s formalism, and continuing through the thought and discourse of Michael Fried on objecthood in the 1960s, Gorchov questioned the viability of the medium, and how best to revive it. For him, the answer lay not in the paint itself but in the canvas. Alongside artists such as Richard Tuttle, Frank Stella and Robert Mangold, he removed the canvas from its stretcher, played with it, hung it up and altered its shape. Eventually, in 1967, he found his unique saddle structure to be the answer he was looking for, one that remains a salient characteristic of his work.
The inimitable shape is arguably closer to the nature of our perception, like the rounded vision our eyes allow us, than the traditional rectangle or square with harsh edges. His canvases almost seem to hold or cup the image, offering it out to the viewer. The unconventional structure is extremely dynamic and becomes perceptually perplexing by bending both inwards and outwards, meaning that the surface is concurrently convex and concave. There is something indefinable about Gorchov’s canvases, as they bend and project into the viewer’s space. Through his dedication to this shape, Gorchov extends the medium of painting on canvas, allowing it to enter into the realms of sculpture, without ignoring its unique sensibilities as an inherently important medium. Equilibrium is found.
The prominent New York Times critic Roberta Smith has written across Gorchov’s career, stressing that he has been able to do the seemingly impossible, to construct a union between colour field painting and abstract expressionism (R. Smith, ‘Art in Review’, The New York Times, 29th May 1992 and 10th June 2005). In a masterful manner, he has been able to employ contrasting, nearly block colours in his work whilst still leaving the trace of his hand – his canvases evoke both the emotion of the artist as well as that produced by the colour contrasts. In works such as Samba, 2005, the rich red forms resonate next to their darker surroundings, Gorchov’s layering of paint ensures that this surface is not totally black, with hints of tone emerging with each layer he adds, leaving the canvas still visible in some areas. In each piece, he creates his forms upon the canvas, layering until he achieves the right consistency, leaving the undeniable presence of his expressionistic and painterly touch.
Gorchov’s close friend and fellow artist Nathalie Provosty notes that his first job was as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, and comments that his work always carries an affinity with wetness, something ungraspable and fluid. By using thin, watered down paints he is able to achieve a lightness of touch akin to the movement of water upon his canvases. Commenting on this practice, Gorchov said, ‘I fell in love with Matisse’s way of using very little paint. I liked the elegance of using thin paint’ (R.Gorchov quoted in Interview with Nathalie Provosty, The Brooklyn Rail, 2nd April 2014). In Salome, a recent work from 2012, the vibrant yellow alongside the rich blue hues are also reminiscent of Matisse’s renowned use of colour, and in using thin oil Gorchov has been able to build a sumptuous surface texture. The thinness of the paint allows the colours to intermingle, we see traces of yellow, which appear to have dripped down and pooled at the bottom of the canvas, adding to the dynamism and chromatic texture of the work.
Like a swimmer completing unhurried laps, so Gorchov applies his paint to the canvas. Speaking of his contemporaries, he said, ‘with all of their impressive ability to produce constantly, I don’t know how they tolerate my way of working, which is painting that comes out of leisure’. Continuing to describe his working practice, he admitted, ‘I’ve never had an idea that I consciously tried to figure out; they would come to me for no reason when I was relaxed and at leisure—a thought, an impulse to work. And the idea of hanging around in your studio, having friends drop in, making coffee, reading a bit, and then you’re on your feet with a brush in your hand and you don’t remember how you got there, that’s great—where it just happens. I really think that we live 99 percent of our lives completely unconsciously’. He pursues this in his discussion on what art should be, commenting, ‘to me, art is really very much about the irrational. I don’t think you can rationalize why something is good, for instance. There are many definitions of art, but what strikes me as art is when something’s much better than it should be, when you just can’t figure out why it’s so good. In other words, you can’t use craft—that it’s meticulously made or that the colors are absolutely right. Something can be really good, and nothing’s right about it; it’s irrationally good’ (ibid.). These words shed light on the elusive nature of his work, the balance that is found through their contradiction. The formal innovations are emotionally, almost subconsciously, driven, and their organic shape allows for organic interpretation, allowing the viewer contemplation without interference. There is a dynamic harmony produced by the works, achieved by Gorchov’s meditative approach to his work, layering his paints, never allowing the paint to build up too much upon his surface. In describing Ron’s paintings, Robert Storr asks his reader to ‘imagine Rothko’s great ‘multi-forms’ flexing’, stressing the chromatic energy Gorchov has repeatedly created (R. Storr, ‘Missing in Action’, Artforum, September 2005, p. 93). There is something awe-inspiring, or magical, about Gorchov’s painting style, as he paints each side of the canvas using the corresponding hand simultaneously in something of a daydream. As such, the forms are balanced, each informing the other while also acknowledging the tension between them.
The artist has a masterly understanding of scale and proportion, and the images upon his canvas correspond to the structure of the canvas itself, through both the application of paint and the linear shapes he creates. Through the thinness of the oil paint, different layers of the painting tend to show through at the centre while diminishing into drips around the edges, appearing and disappearing at various points. This results in an aesthetic quality that is entirely in harmony with the concave surface.
The edge is never totally defined or set fast in Gorchov’s works. Colours drip into one another, never completely merging, but definitely meeting. Phong Bui writes ‘Gorchov’s images have always been painted from both the inside and the outside of their forms, therefore creating such diverse and subtle edges, from which the tension of the issues of weight and balance between the positive and negative space is built up’ (P. Bui, ‘Painting – In – Between’, www.phongbui.net/images/writings/Painting-In-Between.pdf). Through their undefined edges, the works seem to move with a biomorphic quality – catch them now, they might change soon. The two midnight blue forms in the large piece Penthesilea, 2012, mimic each other in their shape, both nearly taking on the form of a figure of eight, shifting in relation to each other and under our gaze. Like cells under a microscope, the forms upon Gorchov’s work almost seem to be alive, yet also possess a remarkably harmonious stillness.
Most of Gorchov’s pieces are titled. However, he has said that these titles are not descriptive, but rather they add to the quality of the painting, commenting that they ‘can give the painting another dimension that isn’t material. I feel it’ (R. Gorchov, quoted in The Brooklyn Rail, 2014, op. cit.). Titles in works from our show include Tarzan, Agron and Zenobia – evoking different stories, memories and histories and adding to the complex lyrical mystery of Gorchov’s work. These titles are not at all prescriptive, they add another layer of interpretation to the experience of Gorchov’s work. The viewer can make their own decisions; find their own meaning and narratives. Just as the titles evoke something for Gorchov, he presents them like a gift to his viewer, allowing them to take them at whichever level they choose.
Impossible to pigeon-hole or neatly categorise, Gorchov’s forms have stood alone, yielding no easy access to identification within any time period, achieved through his remarkable consistency across the decades. Today, his works are included in many prominent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Guggenheim. Through his rejection of a geometric approach in favour of the biomorphic, he is able to stress the interplay between form and ground, vigorously exploring the edge. Thinly painted fields, highlighted by textural splutters of paint and streams of pigment are consistent across his oeuvre and demonstrate his absolute dedication to the material surface of painting. The critic Robert C. Morgan, praised Gorchov’s consistency, writing ‘he knows where he is going without imposing his intensions – not even on himself. I would say Gorchov is as open and clear as any artist I have met. His idea is his image, and his image is his idea’ (R. C. Morgan, Ron Gorchov’s New Paintings, April 2012, online resource). Through his lightness of touch, luminosity of colour and idiosyncratic use of form, Gorchov triumphs. He is an artist who is able to do so much with even the subtlest of gestures. The strength of his work emerges in the way that everything is implied, a sense of peace prevails, but nothing is definite.