Essay by Dore Ashton
Think of Stephen Posen as Theseus paying out his line, traversing his labyrinth knowing and not knowing what awaits him. Perhaps Posen shares Paul Klee's ambition of 1908 "to note experiences which could translate themselves into line even in absolute darkness." The tacit question is: can a line still be fictive - that is to say, imaginative - in a real space? When certain modernists changed the diction of art schools in the twentieth century, substituting something called "two dimensional design" for the serviceable, old-world "drawing," they erred. Drawing has always been multi-dimensional, since what it figures is movement through space, among many other things. It is always a drawing-upon.
Posen commences his current adventure in drawing with a rich metaphor: the dance. His dancers perform their rhythmic foot-work, leaving their footprints in the sands of time. To the artist's eye, they express what he calls "the kinetics of the line." For this metaphor the floor is essential and becomes, as he works, the mirror, very much as it did for the Poet Paul Valery. In one of the Socratic dialogues in Degas, danse, dessin, Valery wrote of an ancient dancer on clear, level floor:
'On this mirror of her energies she symmetrically places the alternate pressure of her feet; her heel first sends her body flowing toward the tip of her toe; the other foot then passes in front, receives the weight of the body, sending it onward again in another forward flow; and so on and so on...'
Socrates then sums up the climax of the dancer-dance: "She is feeling herself become an event."
In Posen's imaginative entry into the three-dimensional space there are secret stories. The use of color might be called adjectival, although the artist himself sees it in terms of verbs. His floor is appropriately a pale grey on which he disperses islands of color. These in turn respond and correspond to mysteriously stacked color rectangles that climb, or, perhaps in dancers' parlance, leap, from floor to ceiling. These color elements are like semaphores along the line's way. In Posen's overall scheme they can suggest exits and entrances, but they do not cancel the hint of mythic circularity. Color blossoms unaccountably. It both leads and confounds, but the dance goes on. In talking about his work, Posen refers cryptically to Fred and Ginger. Old movies or Fellini's cunning gloss on them? Colorful, at any rate.
This grand experiment is expansion, this paradoxical combining, was always implicit in Posen's thought and can be traced, partly, to his early experiences with the history of art. As a youth he spent two years in Italy, visiting the hallowed spaces in Florence, Assisi, and Padua. He did not fail to notice the importance of the architectural environment to Giotto's success as a muralist. I like to think, also, that he was smitten in Pompeii. Surely the House of Mysteries puts the spectator in a rotating mode of perception that absorbs the dance in its resounding cadence throughout the room. Speaking of all his Italian experiences with frescoes, Posen once told me: "In those frescoes there is an obstinately physical presence of architecture; I felt the great flexibility of space."
Posen would explore that flexibility in his paintings of the late 1970's. At the time he offered a brief written statement about them:
'These works...questioned for me the following transition: wall to object (the canvas) to painted illusion (cloth folded and stuffed with cardboard boxes) to a paradox of illusion (could illusion begin at the surface of a canvas and be painted out into the actual space, while at the same time, by rigorous formal arrangement of the cloth, imply a space inside the canvas?).'
All those questions are still there - wall to object to painted illusion to paradox of illusion - Posen's current parable of the dancer's space and its mirror, but line still leads. It leads us into and out of; from an open space to a quadrilateral space to an open space and back to a circumscribed sacred area in the form of an arabesque, that wondrous infinity sign that always beckons the adventurous draftsman.
As always with Posen's work, the viewer must lend himself to his idiosyncrasies, and of course, accept conundrums. Fred and Ginger? Where? But that's just the point: there is no where there, to paraphrase Miss Stein. Or, to be absolutely crass, the viewer must literally go with the flow. Once he surrenders to these quixotic spaces, he will understand that Posen is not taking leave of the very grounds of drawing and painting, but merely giving them wild accents. the whole history of spaces in the modern era is implicit in his experiments.
No one recounted that history more accurately then Henri Matisse, who discerned new continuums in twentieth-century drawing. The wall around the window, he pointed out, does not create two worlds or spaces. When I'm at work, he said, I feel the space behind me. The man on the ground, he observed more than once, does not see space the way the aviator does. And yet, artists, among them Posen, are well aware that one must draw the line somewhere. As he says, the question might be: how far can a sequence be stretched before it is not longer a rhythm? Perhaps Posen has an inkling of another order, one far more esoteric. Heraclitus is said to have observed: "The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves." Posen has spoken of "divine chance," and it is clear that something daemonic is urging him on in this latest event in his artistic life - a gamble (gambol?) with chance itself.
Posen sees this experiment as largely a matter of scale. In this walk-in drawing there are deliberate and surprising jumps in magnitude - caesurae in the rhythms of line and color that defy traditional ways of reading drawings. And we must not forget the mirrors. They provide inherent rhymes, as well as complications in imagery; that is, the reverse image is never, apparently, precisely the same. The viewer who enters this drawing is in a constant state of re-adjustment, assisted only intermittently by fluctuations of line. It is in the composing of the lines that Posen's own kinesthetic impulses are subtly transmitted. the turn of his instrument, or the pressure of his arm, is governed by long experience navigating delineated spaces. In this event, however, the usual reference to the rectangle is, in his own word, "subverted." The subversion is sustained throughout the work as a whole, as it begins or ends in the open street, but also in the discrete parts: in the quirky repetition of the number three, as Posen stacks high-colored rectangles askew, thinking of them as "totems." Or in the dense green column on the east wall that introduces yet another possibility of tectonic balance only to encounter it with the sense of irregularly scattered shapes on the opposite wall. Perhaps this ambulatory drawing could be experienced as a path through a spring wood, or through an almost impenetrable riot of new growth. But then again, perhaps it is a fanciful corps de ballet. Posen has always been an advocate of mixed metaphors.
I am like a dancer or a tightrope walker, Matisse said. The one is obviously more risky than the other. I think Posen comes down on the side of the tightrope walker whose balance is always a quivering inquiry and whose triumph is to go forward. The viewer who participates in Posen's event must also go forward; must also quite literally follow in Posen's footsteps, as well as his leaps and bounds. and all the while, he must also go forward; must also quite literally follow in Posen's footsteps, as well as his leaps and bounds. And all the while, he must be aware of the numerous footnotes, the asides, the local color, and the peripheral anecdotes. He must respond to the echoes. If the rhythms are not always syncopated, he must winkle them out while strolling. Enter!, commands the artist, who also provides an exit. But which is the entry and which is the exit? Where does the line begin and where does it end? Where are the boundaries? This is an elliptical experience, like a myth, and poses the eternal question: how can you tell the dancer from the dance?