Posen's Two Paintings a Year Are Well Worth Waiting For

Posen's Two Paintings a Year are Well Worth Waiting For

By John Canaday,  The New York Times, Sunday, September 21, 1975

For anyone interested in the current realistic redirection of American Art, the prospect of seeing two new paintings by Stephen Posen in a forthcoming group show at the O.K. Harris Gallery in SoHo should be assurance that the movement is still valid in spite of the abuses to which it has been subjected.

The two paintings, one of which is illustrated here, represent more than a year’s production for Posen, who works very slowly. That his canvases are large, elaborately detailed and meticulously executed (the one illustrated here is seven feet high and nearly six feet wide) is only half the explanation. Areas of equal size and complication could be painted in a fraction of the time by any proficient technician in the current mode of photo-Realism. But Posen is not a Photo-Realist in spite of superficial connections. The normal snap judgment on first acquaintance with his work is that this is a painter with a fantastic control of trompe-l’oeil illusionism who has hit upon a provocative gimmick as a hallmark – the arbitrary superimposition of lusciously colored fabrics, crumpled or in strips, against a gray photographic background.

But two terms are wrong in this description – “trompe-l’oeil,” because it implies illusionism as an end in itself, and “gimmick,” which, as a term for Posen’s method is an esthetic libel.

A convincing explanation as to where the difference lies is difficult without color, but Posen’s method can at least be outlined with the aid of our illustration. In the first place, this is entirely a painted surface, although in black-and-white reproduction it does look like a three-dimensional setup. In the original, everything is the gray of a photograph exept for the varicolored fabrics, a contrasting combination that clarifies the whole into tow structurally interlocking but visually defined unites.

The work began with an ordinary photograph of a loading platform on a SoHo sidewalk (Other Posens have begun with photographs of a stepladder in his studio, a doorway of Cooper Union under restoration and – in the case of the second one of the new pair – a greenhouse interior). The photograph was then enlarged to life size and mounted in the manner of a photo mural. On this panel, Posen stapled the cloths in the desired pattern, which was reached through study, trial, error and decision. From this model the painting was made at full size, a one-to-one relationship from detail to detail, including slight colorations on the gray photograph made by light reflected from the cloths, and variations in tone caused by irregularities in the photograph’s surface.

So far, the description of the process would allow the term “gimmick” or, better, “supergimmick.” Without going any deeper, the painting is at the very least an astounding technical performance. But so, of course, are some of the trashiest paintings in the world. The difference, which makes Posen’s work in an unexpected way a logical continuation of Renaissance explorations in linear perspective and Baroque manipulation of space as a malleable volume, is his preoccupation with our perception of space as modified by the camera and TV.

Television has flattened our visual perceptions and photography has codified them. Fortunately for the wide appeal that they enjoy, these paintings are fascinating in the American trompe-l’oeil tradition of Harnett. But like Harnett’s, their staying power – the thing that makes them stick in the memory – comes from the artist’s interest in aspects of illusionism more subtle than mere eye-fooling.

Here and there, Posen gives us elementary clues as to what he is about. A piece of cloth that seems to be drawn in perspective (the one in the lower center of our example) leads us into the photograph by the paradox of lying flat upon its surface. A strip just above it, slightly to the right, seems for a moment to be attached to the broken wood behind it; other strips seem to hang from other planes in the background (effects exaggerated in black and white). But these tricky devices are immediately rejected, contradicted by irrational relationships with other planes. The cloths cast their shadows on the surface of the photographs, establishing it as a flat plane on which the camera has left us its own impression of three-dimensional illusion.

Above all, Posen is a painter. Like Vermeer in the 17th century, he knows that paint texture can be part of spatial expression as well as a joy in itself. He abhors the dry, mechanical, deliberately impersonal renderings of the Photo-Realists. As a one-time Abstract Expressionist who loved the malleability of paint, who loved to “push it around,” he still has a love of oil as the richest and most flexible of the painter’s media, and uses it exclusively. But at the same time he seems to regard the vigorous brushwork of another school of American realists as a form of self-indulgence.

As a realist at a time when realism has replaces abstraction as the major direction of American art, Posen is a member of no group or clique. With his balanced relationship to the past and the present, he is a hard man to place. He is certainly not an aggressive avant-gardist, but he is in no way reactionary. His own way of putting it is, “It’s better to be on a side road parallel to the main highway” – a perfect metaphor for an artist who responds to the stimuli of his times but knows the difference between modernism and fashion.