Courtesy of Richenburg Estate/Johnson Museum

September 10, 2017

Richenburg: Cornell’s Abstract Expressionist

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Richenburg’s works, once exhibited in the Ninth Street Show of 1951, along with canvases of Pollock, Krasner and the de Koonings, have since become neglected. The Johnson’s exhibit finds it necessary to remind spectators, frequently, not to confuse Richenburg with his better-known soundalike, Rauschenberg — who, ironically, was one of the first artists to break from abstract expressionism. Once part of the avant-garde New York School, Richenburg moved away from the city and its art scene in 1964, when he felt that his experimental teaching practices were being restricted by the Pratt Institute. He moved north. In 1964, he became a professor at Cornell University. In 1970, he became a professor at Ithaca College.

Before leaving New York City, Richenburg completed a seminal series of “Black” paintings. These are the highlights of the exhibition. Generally speaking, these “Black” paintings are large canvases; these are canvases that are larger than most walls. Made by applying a layer of black paint upon a chaotic field of primary colors — and then by chipping away at this layer of black in order to recover some of the color that remained underneath — these are remarkable works. You think instantly of photographs taken by spacecraft:  long-exposure shots of deep space punctuated by unknown stars.

While these paintings are undoubtedly works of the abstract expressionist period, they are unlike anything else from the movement. They define one of the logical endpoints of the New York School. They attain a perfection in one of its many directions — a point of exhaustion, an impasse, an Everest. (As do, each in its unique way, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series, Pollock’s drip paintings and Rothko’s late colorfields in dark red.)

The most notable of Richenburg’s “Black” paintings is City Lights. When you enter the exhibit, it’s the first thing you see. It’s mounted on the far wall of the room. It draws you in with its own gravity. It pulls you until you’re just a foot away from the canvas, face-to-face with one of the hundreds of patches of black paint that Richenburg didn’t chip off. This black paint is rough, thick; you flinch at it — you think it’ll cut you if you touch it.

City Lights evokes Richenburg’s own New York City at night. It’s an abstract work, but, unambiguously, it evokes an urban patchwork of streetlamps and advertising signs — a city caught in its own night’s net of black. It feels like New York City in the winter, when glasses are fogged by breath, when there’s the impression that everything is blurring, that everything is receding, that all doors in the world are shutting at the same time. And it’s the feeling that the net of the night is moving closer to you, but there are holes in it, and these holes are perfectly shaped so that all the lights in the city fall straight through. Everything falls straight through.

City Lights is a painting that pulls you in — but then it pushes you away. You begin to walk backwards. You almost trip on the bench behind it. You try to see the whole painting once more. And you do. But, all of a sudden, this isn’t enough either. Once more, you move forward, drawn by the details, the texture of the paint — drawn by the desperation of the palette knife that chiseled away at the black surface, drawn by the desperation that persists in the air around the canvas.

Close up, there are patches of color that capture your attention. Each of these is like a ruined Rothko. Like a Rothko, but the two or three colors are all mixed up, caught in each other’s teeth. And the surprising thing is this — though City Lights has an urban vibe, it also evokes a unmistakably nautical feeling, a certain back-and-forth. As the spectator, you feel like the buoy caught between the demands of two oceans, two tides, two desires. And all of this emotional complexity comes from a single painting — from a half-forgotten avant-garde who, like many others, once lived four hours away from us in New York City.

For me, it was art at its most effective.

The “Black” paintings can be compared to a strange cocktail of Kline and Rothko. They’re a combination of Kline’s jagged black marks and Rothko’s gorgeous fields of color.

Incredibly, however, these works of Richenburg seem to surpass those of both Kline and Rothko. They’re even more dynamic than Kline’s works (I recall my eyes moving from corner to corner of City Lights, Strong Defense, Homage to Valéry.) And, at the same, the interaction of colors within their non-black patches expresses, using color alone, a turbulence that Rothko never quite achieved. As I mentioned above, these bits of color are like ruined Rothkos — miniature Rothkos that are plunged into our city streets, into the urban madnesses of Kirchner, into the sunsets of Munch’s The Scream. These paintings also evoke Goya.

The title “Black” paintings pays clear homage to Goya, whose own series of black paintings are much more famous. (It’s hard to avoid seeing the Spaniard’s Saturn Devouring his Children at least once or twice in a lifetime.) And it’s an appropriate homage. For me, the most important link between the Goya and Richenburg works is how they both manage to make black an active force.

On the canvas, Richenburg’s black paint is no longer just a color but an active negation, a negation with a beating heart. As such, Richenburg’s canvases (along with the way they were layered, as mentioned above) begin to tell a story. It’s a story of how color and life are negated — and then of how color and life are sought to be recovered. However, they’re never fully recovered. What’s most notable about City Lights is, of course, simply how much black remains there, and how this black always forms a unanimous foreground that can never be fully penetrated. Not by any flashlight. Not by any lighthouse, any imagination.

Like Goya’s paintings, then, these works of Richenburg express loss, forgetting, violence and the impossibility of fully recovering from them — the impossibility of living on after extreme trauma, be it of personal experience or international conflicts. It’s at this point that the plaque next to Tic Tac Torn, Window Poke, II and Untitled III is most salient: Richenburg, it says, was “a combat engineer [in WWII]” who drove “a truck loaded with TNT”; and, at night, “in the immense, haunting blackness around” him, he had the “feeling of things moving in on” him. As with much art and philosophy in the 20th century, Richenburg’s works are linked with such experiences of disaster. And yet, paradoxically, Richenburg’s slashes through his layer of black paint reveal a passion to them; they reveal the exigency of at least attempting to restore what was lost — the exigency of rebuilding.

Here, there’s a hidden hopefulness which, perhaps, isn’t great consolation — but it’s still something. Not even this little comfort is present in Goya.

Sometimes, you think that you can almost see Richenburg on the other end of his paintings and on the other end of fifty years. It’s hard to find images of him — so you have to imagine.

Sometimes, you imagine him as another sloppy-haired avant-garde. You see a studio filled with canvases and lost paint. You see him as if in a black and white photograph: grainy, in the city, sitting in a chair, looking a bit tired, irascible, not quite smiling. But sometimes, he begins to look entirely other.

He begins to look like the deep-sea diver. The extreme explorer, the vertical Columbus, the sea-floor Shackleton who finds fragments of a vase from Atlantis — and who pieces together what he can of it, and who carries to the surface an incredible half-amphora shot through with holes. Richenburg — he who carries away that part of things that persisted through the unknown siege.

The exhibition, of course, also displays paintings from other eras of Richenburg’s career. There are works from Richenburg’s “more lighthearted” Cornell period — as well as early works from his 1950s and before. In the latter subset of works, you can find paintings that, in their sea of rectangles and vibrant colors, recall the works of Hans Hofmann — Richenburg’s former teacher. Some highlights include Thinking and Redeem. Finally, there are two gouache watercolors that feature surreal Matta-and-Gorky-like alien figures. (See, for example, the strange Study for Ecce Homo.) These are interesting works. Ultimately, however, they’re forgettable when compared to Richenburg’s deeply provocative black canvasses.

The exhibition ends this Sunday, on September 10th. Before that time, I would recommend seeing the exhibit. (And if you’ve seen it already, then why not see it again? I’ve returned to the Johnson three times already — and always, the same nervousness and surprise I feel before his works remain.) The Johnson Museum is just off the Arts Quad. The exhibit is on the floor below the floor on which you enter the museum.


In the end, these are simply paintings that stick with you. If you see them, you’ll remember them. Afterwards, from time to time, they emerge on the surface of your consciousness. You experience them once more, superimposed like a montage on the world in which you live. And they enrich your vision. Perhaps like this. Imagine a summer night. It’s the top of Libe slope. It’s 1am. To the southwest, you see the lightscape of the Commons. You see the part of West Seneca Street that the horizon forgets to hide. And what surprises you is how small the lights look. And how the five thousand streetlamps aren’t enough to illuminate all the dark alleyways in such a small city. And this is when you remember City Lights.

You see the Richenburg floating behind the Commons; or in front of it; or superimposed on it; you see two images at once; shipwrecking into each other; until you’re reeling; you can’t tell apart where the painting is and where the night is; you see the twin cinema; the double vision; and, for a second, the world in front of your eyes changes; it’s a meter deeper, thicker; a tentative extension into the nameless dimension. Richenburg’s paintings. They’re like what another avant-garde, Bolano, writes from the edge of a different continent and a different decade — “you take a step, uncertain but necessary, in the middle of the night.”

Yongyu Chen is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].