Some artists have the ability to create portraits where the eyes seem to follow you around the room. Then there’s Miami’s Lynne Golob Gelfman, whose abstract renderings of sand dunes embody a chameleon-like ability to change color based on the time of day and your vantage point. A vision such as this must have served as inspiration for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir, “Wind, Sand and Stars.”
Two of Gelfman’s dune paintings are currently on exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in a show that spans 50 years of the artist’s creative life. “Grids: A Selection of Paintings by Lynne Golob Gelfman,” is on display through April 21, 2019. The grid structure has long been used to advance Modern Art by such luminaries as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, and later Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt.
Among such celebrated works, Gelfman’s grid paintings hold their own.
While seemingly simple in structure, the grid “functions to declare the modernity of modern art” in that its flattened, ordered, geometric space “is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature,” explained art historian Rosalind Krauss in an essay famous among academics that was published in the “October” contemporary arts journal in 1979. The grid, in essence, overturns the claim of nature to have a particular order unto itself, Krauss wrote.
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The artist captures infinity through the use of grids, which logically can extend beyond the canvas into an infinitely larger fabric. Mondrian and Malevich used grids to explore the essence of existence in mind, body and spirit. “From their point of view,” Krauss wrote, “the grid is a staircase to the Universal, and they are not interested in what happens below in the Concrete.”
The same could be said of Gelfman’s work. Even her Dune paintings from 2010, which differ from her grid paintings, include the rhythmic use of repeated shapes, said PAMM Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander.
“Here we’re very far from a grid structure, but thinking about the use of pattern and sort of a rhythmic mark making,” Ostrander said at the exhibition opening. Even though these paintings deviate from a strict structure, they serve as a focal point for the exhibition.
“In many ways, the exhibition was designed around these paintings being by the windows to catch natural light,” he said, referencing the layout of the second-floor gallery. “When Lynne saw this gallery, she wanted to leave it as open as possible, with as much natural light.” The museum’s registrars, accustomed to protecting works from potential light damage, “were freaking out,” he said.
Everyone relaxed once Gelfman, 74, signed a waiver accepting the conservation risks. “I had to sign my permission,” she said. “When you don’t have natural light, you don’t get that variation in movement” that the shapes convey, she explained. The paintings portray the landscape of northern Brazil, as found in the dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses. “These things you have to walk around,” she said. “They change according to the time of day.”
The Dune paintings are tucked behind a wall shielding several of the artist’s earlier works, which are mostly arranged chronologically. The earliest painting in the show, “circle blue “(1968), was created the same year Gelfman graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts degree. It was also the year student protests shut down the campus, Gelfman whispered in the ear of a reporter. The dark and gritty painting features a grid of black circles that created white stars in the empty space between each round. Gelfman filled in some of the negative space with royal blue paint in a random design.
While recognizing the historical importance of the grid system, Gelfman prefers to play with the structure, adding elements of chance to her paintings. In that manner, she plays the role of what she calls “the trickster” who deliberately upsets the order of things. “I’ve been interested in finding that porous relationship between grids and nature,” she said. “With grids, nothing should have reference outside of itself,” she said. “The point of these paintings is that I violated that taboo.”
Life and nature play throughout the repetitive circles of her “circle blue.” From the birth canal to a hole in the ground where one will return, the painting circles back to the cycle of life and the great beyond. Grid purists might seek to silence any connection to language, preferring art to speak for itself, but those who see interconnectedness in all things will understand how “circle blue” creates its own unspoken poetry. Its repetitive circles echo the imagery created by William Butler Yeats in “There,” his poem about interconnection, where “all the barrel-hoops are knit, the serpent-tails are bit, the gyres converge as one, and all the planets drop in the sun.”
In short order, the sun would exert its influence on Gelfman in another fashion.
Gelfman moved from Manhattan to Miami in 1972, and in doing so appears to have shed her skin artistically. Gone is the dark and weighty look of her 1968 painting, weighted down by the conflict in Vietnam and unresolved race relations at home. The light and tropical flora of Miami began to overtake her grid work. Her palette softened, often featuring an abundance of muted greens, greys, pinks and sandy whites.
Ironically, as her colors softened, her shapes hardened from soft circles into taut triangles. “The trickster” produced squares, triangles and pyramids within grid segments. In that regard, these paintings resemble snowflakes in that no two segments are exactly alike.
Two years after her arrival in Miami, Gelfman had another epiphany. The back of one of her earlier paintings revealed an astonishing near-mirror image as the paint bled through the canvas. She began playing with what she called her “thru” paintings. She re-stretched the canvas so that the back became the front and added or subtracted color where desired.
In seeking to infuse these works with joy, she literally adds Joy dishwashing liquid to her acrylic paint so that it can more readily flow through the canvas. In other paintings, Gelfman makes liberal use of trowels to pile on paint or remove it, leaving behind lines of paint, much the way Gerhard Richter does with his squeegee paintings.
Other paintings use existing grids. One of these is “between 2” (2008), which recalls the pattern of a chain-link fence — spurred by Gelfman’s work with urban youth for the past 15 years at The Barnyard community center in Coconut Grove. She saw how the children despised those fences as symbols of separation that divided communities. But on Gelfman’s canvas, the fences appear to beckon the viewer deeper into the painting rather than act as a barrier.
In other paintings, she uses dripped lines to hint of stray threads in fabric. “Burqa grey” (2000) reveals woven color throughout, with fringe-like drips falling off the bottom of the canvas. Sometimes contrasting colors provide a sense of depth in a painting that adds even greater texture to these drip paintings. White drips interspersed on a black background in “lines black” (2008) create depth much like a thicket of birch trees.
Gelfman has exhibited in more than 40 solo shows; her work can be found in numerous prestigious collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But this exhibition at the PAMM does something more, putting her life’s work in context, both for its place in history and its enduring beauty.
It’s long overdue.
IF YOU GO
What: “Grids: A Selection of Paintings by Lynne Golob Gelfman”
Where: The Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Boulevard.
When: Through April 21, 2019.
Admission: General admission, adults: $16; seniors, students and youths: $12; active U.S. military and children less than 6 years old: free.
Info: 305-375-3000, pamm.org.