Installation view, David Korty, Sadie Coles HQ, 1 Davies Street, London, 01 September – 01 October 2016. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
To read the critic Clement Greenberg writing in 1948 that “…the cubist tradition may enjoy a new efflorescence in this country (America)…” is to be reminded that American art was, until well into the 20th century, still looking over its shoulder at Europe. This ‘efflorescence’ never did occur, unless Greenberg had in mind some kind of sublimated re-presentation of cubism, on a larger scale perhaps – a scale befitting the art of an emergent superpower.
David Korty (born, California, 1971) is painting at a vast remove from a time when the futures of clearly identifiable movements in art were the subjects of earnest debate. If the current series of paintings on show at Sadie Coles employs visual devices familiar to us from the work of a range of cubist and post-cubist artists from the past, then it presents these devices in a way which has been researched. His work is cool, in the sense that it does not break a sweat or leave itself exposed to anything so compromising as spontaneity. Accidents, happy or unwanted, have likely happened during the period leading up to the commencement of the series proper, before the major choices involving colour, text, scale, and motifs had been made. The resulting work is sharp, consistent, and imposing.
David Korty, Word Painting (Wind), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in, unique, signed and dated on verso, HQ20-DK12227P / DK02, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Korty’s previous series, Blue Shelves, which was shown at the gallery in early 2014, was a departure of sorts from earlier series. In Blue Shelves we saw the artist choose between figuration and the cubist elements which had increasingly threatened to take over his canvases. The Blue Shelves paintings took these cubistic fragments, and other elements, and presented them to us in a literal way; a select range of hyper-modernist iconography in tiered arrangements, reminiscent of Victorian display cases or a classical frieze. The iconography ‘on display’, or the motifs if you prefer, were doubly flattened in the Blue Shelves series in their manner of presentation to the viewer, through the inky monochrome in which they were drawn, and by the opacity of the blue against which they stood, no single motif standing out beyond another. The present series takes many of the characteristics of the Blue Shelves: the stacked presentation of motifs against an unyielding blue ground, a careful arrangement of geometric shapes, and an overall vibration of modernism. These almost centreless arrangements – I say almost because, not considering the balanced distribution of motifs in general, they do have a very evident centre of gravity in so far as they are rooted to the bottom of the canvas – are shaped by a highly distilled sense of cubist space. But equally noticeable in both this and the previous series is the craft evident in the way they have been put together, and in the deft and practised handling of paint and collage. If Greenberg’s efflorescence had emerged, it would doubtless have had to look, of necessity, as sophisticated as this.
David Korty, Word Painting (Time), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in,unique, HQ20-DK12230P / DK01, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
With this series Korty is hardly experimenting in the way the early cubist were. He is not wrestling with forms which are radical or new. By deciding to invest more of his creative effort in the exploration of high modernism and its images, nowadays more often than not recognisable to us in ghostly echoes, the artist has found a potential vehicle for series after series of paintings. There is always the risk of crossing the line into unrewarding repetition, but this is mitigated by highly skilful and subtle variation from canvas to canvas. The vocabulary of motifs the artist has chosen to use is guided by an all-over intent to compose the space in a very cubist way. As with proto-cubist painting, balance is regularly threatened by discord as shapes nudge each other and burst out here and there like exclamations. But the overall composition holds. No clusters of motifs dominate which might disrupt the overall syncopated balance. Cubism after all had structural conventions of its own which led to a cubist ‘look’, and Korty has harnessed the essence of this look.
David Korty, Word Painting (Nevada), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in, unique, signed and dated on verso, HQ20-DK12231P / DK06, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Another subtle development here is a more comprehensive use of text compared with previous work. There were textual elements here and there in the Blue Shelves series, but in this current series text has become central. The paintings do have individual titles, such as ‘Time’, ‘Wind’, ‘Tulips’ or ‘Horizon’- words which appear somewhere within the proliferations of text in each painting of the same title. The common master title for each painting in the series however is ‘Word Painting’. Text as it was used in early cubist paintings was parodically mundane in origin. Words such as ‘vin’ or ‘journal’, often fragmented and used as objects within the painting, reinforced the sense that radical changes were happening in the midst of so much bourgeois comfort. Korty follows suit with his use as a visual component of non-committal fragments of text; fragments which are subject, just like any other motif in the painting, to the forces of compositional arrangement and rearrangement. A recurring manipulation of text in the Word Paintings is the division of a word by splicing it with part of another. Then there is the mirroring of words in their entirety. Both uses of text might indicate a preoccupation with duality or the reverse side of a thing, a word being a thing in this case. If one of cubism’s aims was to attempt to show all sides of an object on a single plane, then the Word Paintings seem to be trying to show us text from all angles.
Again, Korty stays true to the cubists in his usage of motifs, including text as a visual motif. There are further hints at the type of cubism the artist has studied and drawn from for his own paintings. These sources are even more apparent when we look at a series of more colourful canvases Korty exhibited in the Night Gallery in Los Angeles last year. In these closely related works the influence is evident of a more genteel cubism à la Picasso’s Three Musicians of 1921 for example. Figuration again becomes an issue as the fragments of earlier manifestations of cubism begin to coalesce once more to form rudimentary but discernible figures.
What is it that draws artists back repeatedly to those iconic moments in cubism and other products of modernism? Perhaps the attraction of these forms, which are no longer new, is the challenge of trying to understand the rupture that they signified when they first came about. The fascination cubism still holds for some artists may not nowadays rest on all of the same ideas that drove the movement when it first emerged. Nonetheless, it can translate well into a contemporary context. Art forms considered by many to be irrelevant should only perhaps be labelled dead in so far as they no longer constitute an end in themselves, but can still be used as a springboard for something entirely new.