The story of American Abstract Expressionism in its mid-twentieth century heyday seems a settled one, at least as far as its major figures are concerned: Rothko, Gorky, de Kooning, Newman, Still, Pollock, Guston, Kline, and so forth. An overdue appreciation of Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner has been forthcoming of late. But there is a significant figure still missing, without whom the story remains incomplete. That is Robert Richenburg.
Richenburg (1917-2006) was a relative latecomer to the New York School in the 1950s, yet he was present at the creation as part of the celebrated 9th Street Exhibition of 1951, the moment from which American’s postwar dominion over the arts proceeded. As the decade continued, he attracted attention from critics such as Dore Ashton and Irving Sandler, and his work entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Hirshhorn, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His recognition reached its height with his Black Paintings, large canvases in which passages of line and color were scraped through black overpainting to project works of remarkable impressiveness and force.
These works were highly praised, but they appeared at the moment when Pop Art, with its neo-representational style, challenged the heroic sublimity of the Abstract Expressionist moment. Some of the latter’s leading figures—Gorky, Pollock, Kline—died early, and one, Philip Guston, found himself drawn back to an imagism that critics such as Hilton Kramer found a betrayal of the Abstract aesthetic. Richenburg himself broke off relations with the prominent gallery that had represented him, Timor de Nagy, and left the Pratt Institute, where he had taught, after the censure of a student’s work. Relocated in upstate New York and later in East Hampton, he was no longer a part of the ongoing New York scene where he had made his reputation. With Pop Art now fully ascendant, his exhibitions thinned out, and he had little presence in New York for nearly three decades. By that time, his moment seemed to have passed. It was a not unfamiliar story: an artist with his reputation still being made in a style suddenly unfashionable and disappearing from view as its canonical masters were fixed.
Late in life, Richenburg found a new sponsor in a midtown New York gallery, David Findlay, and another in Chicago with Thomas McCormick. Between 2001 and 2009 he enjoyed more than a dozen exhibitions, one of which traveled across the country at eight venues. There was renewed attention to his work from critics such as Bonnie Grad and Robert Long, and a call by Gary Snyder to include him as a major figure in a revamped Abstract Expressionist canon.
The exhibit just concluded at the Findlay Gallery is, however, Richenburg’s first solo show in nearly a decade. Focused on the 1950s and 1960s, its more than thirty works make, once more, the case for seeing him as an American original whose work remains fresh and as do few of his still better-known contemporaries. In that very originality, however, perhaps lies some of the reason for what remains his relative obscurity. Painters such as Rothko, Newman, Still, Pollock, and Kline are readily identified by a signature style, even though Pollock attempted vainly to escape the one that he felt had trapped him. Richenburg isn’t like that. With the exception of the Black Paintings, which occupied him for only about four years, there isn’t something like a “Richenburg,” and even these works only superficially represent a style, because each of them is fully distinctive. His epigrammatic comments on the work of art—his own and that of others—makes his aesthetic clear: “In painting, consistency is the coward’s best defense”; “Honest men, like honest pictures, have a look of strangeness when first encountered.” The work of art, for Richenburg, must always be an adventure, and the finished product a surprise to the artist if it is to be meaningful to anyone else.
The Findlay exhibition displayed this essential quality, ranging from works of strict form (“Circles No. 4”) to moody, shifting psychic interiors (“Soft Landscape”). Each comes as an event rather than an example, not in the sense of a Gerhard Richter, whose command of various styles suggests less the desire to explore them than to show an ability to emulate them. What does unify many of Richenburg’s works is their dynamism, particularly in the Findlay’s exhibition of Orange, Blue, and Red (1950), Thinking (1950), Alizarean Thrust (1951), Wild Dancing (1952), Feeding Frenzy (1952), and Energy Stream (1955). In each, the spatial construction and brush stroke are different, and yet the sensibility behind them clearly emerges. Feeding Frenzy, as its title indicates, suggests a ferocious gnashing, but at the same time explosive force; Energy Stream covers its canvas with a seeking tumult. Yet there is quieter and more reposeful work too, such as the evocation of classical landscape in Redeem (1953) or the elegant drip study of Econoline (1966).
If there is an apex in Richenburg’s oeuvre, it is the Black Paintings for which he remains best known. The black ground against which they emerge are a containment for their riffs of color and checkered forms, simultaneously evoking urban lights and night skies, human energy and natural force. Perhaps the most heraldic of them, Homage to Valery (1960), was a centerpiece of the exhibit, a work whose dynamic balance makes it one of the masterpieces of early Abstract Expressionism. Here as elsewhere, however, Richenburg would not settle into a mere style. In Splash (1961), he subverts a design based on small cameos of circular and rectangular forms with a middle section where snaky green extrusions issue against a black-barred red. The canvas holds and separates simultaneously, cohering in the very act of thrusting beyond itself. A variation on this, part painting and part sculpture, is Broken Continuity (1962), a four-sided work covered by varicolored medallions enclosed in adjoined rectangles and crossed by a severed, wraparound form suggesting a savage, alien energy. One can easily see it commanding not only a gallery but a museum room by itself.
It has been suggested that a root of Richenburg’s art lay in a childhood kitchen accident that left his scalp permanently scalded, a trauma that accompanied him into adulthood. To this would be added his military service in World War II, where as a combat engineer he handled and guarded explosives on a daily basis. Richenburg himself noted the effect of these events, particularly on the black paintings, which were their ultimate destination if not their cure. Perhaps a more fundamental suggestion is his comment, à propos a work outside the exhibition, Hurry, that “the rhythms create the meaning” of his art, whose relentless progression fill the canvas until, as he says, “the picture stops itself.” The observation does not fully describe his variegated and many-faceted work, or the many moods, including the playful and the serene, they express. Each artistic performance, however, is an adventure, and one in which a great deal is being risked. Robert Richenburg’s is not simply another name to be added to the Expressionist canon, where it so richly belongs. His work is perpetually challenging, as urgent today as when it was created. It is a strong place, to borrow the title of a hieratic piece from the show, and one whose power and integrity only grows with time.