A New Art Exhibit Breaks Out of the Traditional Square

NANA ASFOUR, Vogue, May 11, 2015

In 1964, in what was probably an avant-gardist move, the Guggenheim Museum held a show named “The Shaped Canvas,” which aimed to spotlight the then-recent abdication of the square—or rectangle—as the only viable format of painting. The show featured the work of only five artists, including the young Frank Stella, who went on to cocurate another similarly themed show, “Shape and Structure,” a year later.


Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Guggenheim exhibition, the Upper East Side gallery Luxembourg & Dayan has used two works by Stella, now in his late ’70s, to anchor its own paean to misshapen paintings, “The Shaped Canvas, Revisited.” Breaking open the definition of “shaped canvas,” which at the time of the Guggenheim show was confined to Minimalist artists, the curators have included works by other artists working with non-linear paintings at the time—such as some of the American Pop contingency and the Italian Arte Povera crew—as well as those by young contemporaries who also experiment with the contours of their stretchers.


The show begins on the ground floor with one of Stella’s iconic V-shaped canvases, Slieve More (1964), sporting chevron stripes, and Tom Wesselmann’s Smoker #11(1973), which follows the outline of a large open mouth breathing out an engulfing cloud of smoke. It continues over two floors upstairs, with works that range from those that veer only slightly from the traditional boxy format—such as Harvey Quaytman’s punky Shade (1979) and Roy Lichtenstein’s colorfully striped and dotted Imperfect Painting (1988), both of which feature an extra triangle sticking out of the frame—to more defiantly nonconventional uses of canvas. Some of these, such asClaes Oldenburg’s descriptively titled Soft Key (1965); Pino Pascali’s large whale fin, Coda di Delfino (1966); andLynda Benglis’PSI (1973), a jumble of tube canvases splashed with drips of paint and glitter, though all affixed to the wall, resonate more as sculptures than paintings.


On the more classical side of what has come to be known as shaped canvas are the second work by Stella—Creede II(1961), an inverted, copper-painted “L”—Olivier Mosset’s granular Copper Star (2008), in the shape of, well, a star; Kenneth Noland’s iridescent Midnight (1979), delineating an eccentric geometric configuration; Steven Parrino’s threatening, all-black, upside-down triangle (The Chaotic Painting, 2004); and Damien Hirst’Thebaine (1993), one of his dot paintings in the form of an exaggerated trapezium, named after a poisonous component of opium.


Old and new works meld together seamlessly, without any overt demarcations. Richard Tuttle’s tie-dyed and sewnUntitled (1967), an upturned angular “U” composed of a piece of canvas with frayed edges and exposed seams and nailed to the wall with small golden pins, and Ron Gorchov’s curvy Untitled (1974), with exposed staples all around its edges, offer fresh reminders of the antecedents of a great deal of art today. The young participants—Jacob Kassay, Nate Lowman, Wyatt Kahn, Justin Adian, Jeremy DePrez, and Rebecca Ward—some of whom made newly minted works for the show, strongly hold their own among their living and dead forebears, which include hefty names such as Lucio Fontana, Charles Hinman, James Rosenquist, Richard Prince, Paolo Scheggi, John Armleder, and the two other women in the show besides Ward and Benglis: Mary Heilmann and Elizabeth Murray.


Luxembourg & Dayan have put together an accompanying catalogue whose highlight is a recent interview with Frank Stella. In it, the young art historian Suzanne Hudson tries in vain to get the artist to discuss the development of his work, including his shaped canvases, but he resists her nearly every step of the way, offering but a hint of insight. At one point she asks him about how the paintings he was working on in the early to mid-’60s—from his infamous, still-influential Black Paintings series to the colorful Irregular Polygons—relate to the Guggenheim’s 1964 exhibition. His answer? “I never even saw that show.”  

“The Shaped Canvas, Revisted” will be on view at the Luxembourg & Dayan gallery at 64 East Seventy-seventh Street through July 3, 2014.