"The Enigmatic Paintings of Salvatore Federico"
by Lance Esplund
Lance Esplund writes about art for the Wall Street Journal.
Salvatore Federico’s abstract forms defy simple interpretations. Elegant, evocative, and precise, yet nothing in particular, they are, all at once, almost a lot of things. Hard-edged, geometric, and spare — as if the artist had conflated, pared down, and distilled objects and forces into manageable puzzle pieces — they playfully flit and flutter among a number of associations. A mixture of Arp’s shifting, airy amalgams and Mondrian’s dynamic equilibrium (flat color shapes held in tension within the plane), Federico’s forms exist in the realm of possibility; the world of the in-between. Embedded within their grounds, as if sunken, wedged, or gestating, they hover — like memories of things past or seeds of things future — just beyond our grasp. Yet they command our attention. They muscle, burn, knife, and clown their way into our consciousness. Federico’s forms are living beings made up of conflicting forces. And their refusal to be named, to be fixed — as warm or cool, friend or foe, object or action — keeps us intrigued, in pursuit, and on guard.
A purist and a classicist, Federico creates universal forms that pack individual punch. His art is nearly a handless art; or, rather, it strives for a level of handlessness. His paintings, which feel refined, even crystalline, pay homage to pure ideals. Part of the power and internal logic of Federico’s compositions and forms is that they are created on a hexagonal grid. This insures that shapes and angles harmonize. The grid also insures that forms can mirror and repeat one another, and that they can perform with symmetrical or asymmetrical precision. This does not mean, however, that Federico’s pictures feel born of the drafting table or the laboratory. Each painting has a skin, a living presence; a sense of character and personality. Each has a rhythm, step, and dance. Each breathes. Federico’s paintings, comprised of numerous translucent layers of acrylic paint, through which we can see the nub and weave of the canvas, as well as feel where taped edge meets brushstroke, are clearly hand-forged. They never let you forget the act of their creation.
It was in 1998, during a year-long break from his studio (while his New York City loft was being renovated), that Federico arrived at his current way of working. He was staying at his farm in upstate New York, looking out at the countryside. “It was very, very quiet,” Federico recalls. “Outside every window were these big, open, simple spaces. Suddenly it was quite clear to me — a single shape can stand alone.”
Looking at Federico’s earlier work, in which numerous recognizable forms, such as figures, windows, still lifes, and trees often coexist within a single painting, it may seem as if the artist, while in his fifties (Federico was born in 1944), had arrived back at the beginning. It may appear in this current body of work that Federico has abandoned the complex issues of composing various forms within the rectangle, to attack more elementary picture problems of two-color and figure/ground relationships.
Although reduction is something we feel quite clearly in Federico’s work of the last decade, it is not pictorial fundamentals and simplifications that confront us in these recent paintings. It is, rather, complexity explored through an economy of expression. Federico is not reducing and generalizing representational forms to arrive at his abstractions. He is not whittling away flesh — details — to reveal bone. He is not emptying his paintings out; he is, rather, paring away excess to get at essence.
In Federico’s paintings we experience the fullness of possibility (as if we were seeing form in its infancy); and that potential is held in tension with the experience of form in its physical prime — its fruition. Federico’s forms read as seed and fruit, fragment and whole, diagram and culmination; and because neither of these opposite states is emphatic, we feel no contradiction. Instead, those states merge to produce a completely new realm. It is this metaphoric distillation that gives Federico’s forms their freshness and timelessness. And it is, in part, the mixture of various and equally ascendant qualities — stated so precisely, so vigorously — in Federico’s paintings that grabs us so tenaciously.
Federico’s color, like his form, is enigmatic. He takes his cue from Matisse, allowing color to strike immediately with emotion. Federico usually works with two-color compositions. His paintings’ temperament is sudden and direct. In the small canvas Simeon (2000), lodged within a hot-pink field is a six-sided, dark-reddish form. The red form, made of straight edges and acute angles, is basically a parallelogram (born of a square), into which a pink triangle has inserted itself. The red flexes and pulses in the plane. At times red is cooler, at times warmer, and at times more solid, airy, or fluid, than its pink ground. The red form, though coloristically related to pink, feels other. Within the pink field, red is burnt red, brick red, dried-blood red. Red is blush and scab; hot flash, fracture, and valentine. And it is the familial rub between red and pink that keeps Federico’s color in motion.
Simeon explores first principles, first steps. It has the interlock and kick of a colt’s first stance; as well as the charge of a come-hither kiss, or a seductive wink, thrown to us from across the room. Like many of Federico’s paintings, Simeon introduces us to the nature of transformation. Simeon suggests womb, blacksmith’s anvil, and warning sign. It is concealment and ascent, as well as cover and thing covered. The red shape is crude, plain, squat, and bud-like — as elemental as a brick. And it is the painting’s building-block quality, along with its sense of potential, which helps to keep Simeon in a state of becoming.
Like many of Federico’s paintings, the heraldic Simeon conflates form and action with symbol and flag. And part of the pleasure in Federico’s work is in the act of deciphering. The red form creeps upward slowly, steadily, like the expectant climb just before the release of a rollercoaster. The form is angled like a missile, yet it moves with the oddball lurch of a hunchback.
In Simeon, we experience the insertion, or birth, of a triangle within a rectangle. The pink triangle, asserting itself forward in space, in the plane, transforms pink from ground color (from behind) into frontal form. And this forces red to change places with pink — to shift spatially from form into ground. The figure/ground inversion, or back-and-forth nature, of ground becoming form, and form becoming ground, opens, buckles, and folds the space of the picture. And one figure/ground reversal allows for transformation everywhere, such as, along the sides of the painting, where pink narrows from plane into line, and then snaps abruptly into form. As in all of Federico’s recent work, nothing in Simeon is permanent. Red, freed from its fixed nature, pivots and opens as if it were a swinging door. The pink triangle provides backbone and inner light. Yet, with a life of its own, it also leans ever more inward — as it flashes ever more forward — threatening to split the painting in half.
In 1970, Federico created a two-color abstract painting he called Liberation. The shaped canvas is roughly triangular, twelve-sided, and over six-feet wide. The painting splays like a crucifixion and, with its wrinkles, shape, and brown coloration, evokes a large trophy head, logo, shield, or animal hide. Federico has written that he associated the picture with a “hide or torso,” and that the painting “signifies the sacrificial.” Liberation, although it is not the first of Federico’s shaped canvases, also marks the beginning of his embrace and exploration of the picture as object, image, and sign. The work marks Federico’s embrace of painting’s power, felt so strongly in his recent work, to exist both as an abstract picture and as an object with a singular living presence.
In Liberation, the interaction between figure and ground — between the internal form and the external form —suggests the relationship of image to frame, nut to shell, head to body, bone to flesh. It moves into the realm of hunt and hunted, icon, altar, cave wall, and offering. Yet Liberation depicts no particular “thing.” The painting allows for single forms to stand in for more than one object simultaneously; and it allows for one relationship to become exponential, to suggest many. Federico’s paintings of the last ten years do not go so far as to invoke the actual hide of an animal, but his paintings’ relationships between internal and external, between figure and ground, are just as evocative and alive.
For the last ten years, Federico has titled his paintings after saints. “By converting the date of each drawing into a title, using the traditional calendar in Butler’s Lives of the Saints,” Federico has explained, “I found another level of meditation: In Paradiso, Dante sees the prayer of the saints as a dance that conceals their identity from him in motion and light."
In Federico’s paintings, we experience the push-pull dynamic of the sacred in tension and in union with the profane. As in Byzantine Madonnas, in which the Virgin’s volumetric head is held taut within the flat, gold-leaf ground, Federico’s forms explore the relationship between volume and plane, weight and weightlessness, form and spirit. His paintings explore the tension between the static — the ideal — and the ephemeral — the striving toward the ideal.
We see that striving for the ideal — a figure in motion, in flight — in a poster, which hangs in Federico’s Chelsea loft. The poster depicts ballerina Merrill Ashley dancing in George Balanchine’s Chaconne. For thirty years, Federico has regularly attended performances by the New York City Ballet. It is no wonder, then, that one of the strongest experiences in Federico’s paintings is that of dynamic movement in repose — of life arrested in the plane. His forms often resemble dancers and dance. But, more importantly, they explore the metaphor of dance itself.
In Federico’s NYCB poster, Merrill Ashley, on pointe, pirouettes with arms and legs extended. Looking at her pose, especially at her taut limbs, it is clear that she is not frozen in place, but that her body, to stay balanced, is in motion and torsion. What is felt most stringently — more so even than Ashley’s extension — is her rotation. We can sense each limb and digit reaching, turning, and striving for liftoff and equipoise. And that same sense of extension, conflict, stasis, and distortion is at the heart of Federico’s paintings.
It is not that Federico’s forms necessarily resemble ballerinas. (Although often dance is their primary association, many of his forms suggest tools, weapons, lighting, and plants, as much as dancers.) Some of his forms are as raucous as a line of cancan dancers or as boisterous and carefree as school kids just let out for summer vacation. The wide, horizontal Ignatius (1999) conflates a wide-mouthed vessel, an entombment, and a swooping bird of prey. Lubin (2002), in yellow and mint green, is as taut as coiled boa constrictor, strangling and swallowing its prey. The roughly six-foot square Romula (2007), a lemon-yellow field activated by turquoise-blue lines, is reminiscent of the shattering of a window or running with scissors. The painting is as active as a kung-fu brawl, and its interplay between line and plane evokes a tightrope walker showered by arrows. Considered as a whole, however, the composition is solid and flexed, as if it were a single arrow ready for flight, held taut by the bow..
Each form, each limb, in Federico’s works has its own momentum, weight, direction, and reach. Each limb, or digit, also has its own rotational speed, spatial location, and sense of intention. In Barnabas (1998), the first painting in Federico’s current series, and the only work in which its pink form does not touch the canvas’s baseline, Federico achieves the tension between buoyancy and mass. Here, the painting’s billowy, bubblegum-pink form moves ever so slightly toward violet. As if weighted by a string, the form is suspended like a balloon in the velvety yellow-green. In Barnabas, as in all of Federico’s recent paintings, form is taut and muscular. The painting’s energy, propelled in numerous directions, is that of lifting and landing, mooring and unmooring, being pinned down and set free.
Barnabas reminds us that motion is in everything and everything is in motion. It reminds us that forms live and thrive through interaction. In the lower right-hand corner of Barnabas, a vertical green rectangle has equal, if not greater, frontal pressure than the pink shape it abuts. The green rectangle pushes against the central pink form. Pressures — vertical, horizontal, and diagonal — are exerted from inside out and from outside in. In Federico’s paintings, it is not the changing experience of figure and ground, but that of the constantly changing dialogue between — and notion of what, exactly, constitutes — figure and ground, that is at issue.
Beginning in 2000, Federico began working occasionally with more than two colors in a single painting. In the large Cathedra (2008), within a warm black ground, Federico introduced a cluster of four single-colored linear elements; one in red, one in yellow, one in blue, and one in green. Working with the primaries, as well as the horizontal and diagonal, he establishes the interaction of elements and forces. The linear forms feel like pieces of a puzzle or the gathering together of a larger organism. A diagonal movement made of two yellow lines, springs from the painting’s baseline. Like stem to bouquet, the electric yellow, faster and more active than the other colors, buoys the smaller colored elements. Because each color is spatial, the blackness is pushed, pulled, and warped by line, especially when, between colored forms, black narrows into line, creating dynamic energy and a formidable frontal presence.
Each form in Cathedra has a primary function, and each pairing or combination of forms introduces new stages, elements, and actions. Red widens, suggesting plane. Blue extends, suggesting rectangle. Compressed in the blackness between yellow and yellow-green is the birth of the triangle. Red, yellow, green, and blue, which create a horizontal dividing line in the blackness, allow for black to become line and to dissect the composition — suggesting another level or beginning. All of this activity shifts black from airiness and emptiness and then into fluid, rippling, buckling plane. What becomes clear is that the painting has no true vertical, except those created by the side edges of the canvas’s nearly square rectangle. Vertical energy, as with everything suggested by Cathedra, is a possibility — something for which to strive.
Like all of the paintings Federico has created during the last decade, Cathedra suggests the origin not only of form but of the universe itself. Exploring the tension of opposites and the desire for flight — for ascension — Federico’s paintings engage us with the mystery of creation.
(Written in August 2008 for the book “Salvatore Federico: Paintings 1998-2008”)