Recent polychrome wood relief panels by Barbara Schwartz convey a quietly magisterial beauty by means of playful colors and shapes. They refer, simultaneously, to Elizabeth Murray’s cartoonish side, Sonia Delaunay’s prismatic fracturing of light, and Henri Matisse’s cut paper works. This exhibition features two distinctly different yet related series of abstract paintings that Schwartz undertook from 2003-2005. They signal the artist’s return to her joy in color, after working exclusively in black and white for two years after 9/11.
Thirteen works from the 2004-2005 series entitled “Cut Diamond” are displayed in one room of the gallery. Each wooden panel consists of discrete shapes that were individually painted with acrylic and flashe, a richly pigmented vinyl-based paint. They all hang corner up—like a diamond—and are installed on the gallery’s walls, cleverly enough, on the diagonal. The panels come in three sizes: 15, 25, or 34 inches square.
Some forty shapes within each square make for a lot of activity. They are literally ruled by French curves and straight lines. (The French curve, we note, is a staple of clothing design; no western garment can be made without it.) Schwartz doesn’t sweat over a lot of preliminary drawings, preferring to make impromptu decisions by drawing directly on the wood panel. She then uses a delicate scroll saw to cut, ever so carefully, the shapes. Color schemes are as unpremeditated as the composition. Bright pure tones are juxtaposed with shades, tints, and neutrals. After the pieces are painted, the artist reassembles the square. The “Cut Diamond” series, through a combination of perspectival shifts and off-kilter color, manages to mix up symbolism, nature, and pure abstraction like a really good comic book.
Equally joyous in a different key are some twenty-five panels from the 2004 - 2005 series entitled “Primary Crossing: Portages.” These 11” x 28” panels are installed like a frieze on the walls of an interior gallery. In contrast to the “Cut Diamond” series, “Primary Crossing: Portages” has some definite parameters and a defined color palette. Only the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, plus black and white, are used on cut wood relief shapes. There is a basic compositional format of two pillars on either side of a boat shape nestled between them. Spirals connote wind and clouds. Rather than cutting one panel into pieces, “Primary Crossing: Portages” allows for shapes to pile up on the ground plane. Their depth and variety presents a teasing sense of continuity and change. To stand in the center of the room, surrounded by this flux, is to feel the rhythm of waves, boats, and weather working upon the senses. At the same time, the theme of portage gives the twin pillars, whose inverted diamond stack form recalls Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” a cosmic role in safeguarding the boat from harm.
Schwartz is one of New York’s most eminent living artists. This beautiful exhibition is a powerful and personal expression of her faith in the power of art to be a source of play, joy, and solace.