His may not yet be a household name, but Ronnie Landfield is one of the best abstract painters in America. Since the late 1960s, Landfield’s paintings have been defined by billowing stains of color, poured and loosely brushed onto canvases of monumental size. Although nearly all of his images invoke the metaphysical, his approach nonetheless extends the vital dialogue between landscape and abstraction explored by midcentury pioneers such as Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. Filtered through Landfield’s optical unconscious, translucent swaths of color layered upon or adjacent to each other cannot help but suggest blustery skies mist-enshrouded mountain ranges, converging fields, and crystalline bodies of water.
Landfield’s show, which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his debut exhibition at the David Whitney Gallery in New York in 1969, demonstrated both the consistency of his vision and its continued relevance for a world facing the catastrophes of climate change. Despite being in his seventh decade, Landfield has not slowed down; the works here alternated between intrepid chromatic pileups and more introspective mirages. Whereas the exaltation of pure color as well as the abiding spirit of the 1960s preside in the hallucinogenic Radical Light, 1996, its rainbow sky unfurling with impunity behind an archipelago of cobalt, emerald, and saffron strokes, more limpid vistas such as Rising Light, Table of Light, and Trail of Light, all 2019, haunted rather than hallelujahed their way into the viewer’s perceptual field. Yet the most bewitching of Landfield’s paintings reconcile the audacious and the ineffable through their juxtapositions of intense hue and ethereal mist. Blues run the game in works such as Angel in the Wind, and Edge of the River, both 2019, where phthalo, ultramarine, and violet stains penetrate fogs of peach and lemon with bleeding fingers of pigment. Poised exquisitely on the other end of the spectrum, Broad Daylight, 2019, washed the eyes clean with the numinous gray brume that rises off its brilliant sashes of orange and gold.
Set aflame by the preternatural glow of his palette, Landfield’s levitating forms are often anchored by an opaque band of color that runs horizontally across the bottom edge of the canvas and by thin, vertical zips that frame its sides. These hard edges declare the artist’s ongoing engagement with the Minimalist paintings of his youth. For however they may inspire spiritual reflection, Landfield’s mystical mindscapes are first and foremost about painting. Besides lending gravity to the artist’s diaphanous acrylic veils, the bars underscore the environmental consciousness that has been ever present in Landfield’s work. Dramatizing humankind’s encroachments on even the most pristine landscapes, he stages the impossibility of encountering the sublime outside of any man-made frame. Yet, as with our own transgression of any reasonable limits regarding industrialization, Landfield’s Road to Reason, 2019, leads anywhere but. Although the bands are a somewhat polarizing feature of his paintings-you either accept them on the artist’s terms or you long to crop them out like intrusive power lines-they are essential to the work’s dialogism.
As evidenced by the preponderance of incandescent signifiers in his titles-which alternately describe light as “radiant,” “radical,” “rising,” and “broad”-Landfield’s imagery is inspired by the illumination of natural phenomena and other forms of mesmeric revelation. In keeping with his titles, the moods of his paintings range from tranquil to ominous: While Ballads and Blues, 2019, conjured a serenity into which we might all prefer to drift, Vision of Tomorrow, 2017, summoned a bruise-colored tsunami rising across a horizontal sapphire scroll. Yet the paintings evince a hopefulness, even as we continue to hurl ourselves toward extinction. Saturated with the Sturm und Drang of his early pours, but framed with broken zips of green and red, Coming Home, 2019, suggests not only the artist’s coming full circle, but also his coming to terms with the radiating horizons ahead- where mortality and climate catastrophe meet head-on. Although Landfield had a retrospective at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, back in 2007, it is high time this Jewish mystic from New York was honored with a museum show in his own hometown.
Artforum January 2020