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"Talent at the End of the Line: Perfecting Abstract Equipoise"
by Mario Naves
New York Observer
February 24, 2003

One measure of an artwork’s vitality is its capacity to suggest new possibilities. The artist may not be aware of the forward momentum his work will generate, and it’s rarely the viewer’s primary concern. Picasso and Braque may have had an inkling, when they invented Cubism, that they were putting a ball in motion; whether they knew just how far the ball would roll is doubtful. Not all examples of influence in the making are so earthshaking; some are subtle, and others barely apparent—in fact, it may be easier to detect an artistic dead end than the living conduit of tradition.

All of which serves as a lousy lead-in for a review of Salvatore Federico’s paintings, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Amos Eno Gallery in Tribeca. I say "lousy" because I don’t want to lowball Mr. Federico’s accomplishment: His abstract paintings are substantial and solid, even thrilling. Placing a single, pared-down form against a field of strong color, he engages in a tautly configured dialogue between figure and ground: When one of his pirouetting shapes decides to occupy space, the space it occupies elbows right back. The tense equipoise the pictures achieve may seem simplistic—until one realizes just how various and muscular Mr. Federico’s sharply heraldic shapes are. Their jutting, often unpredictable angles pull at the canvas, at once threatening its collapse and reaffirming its stability. That’s a tough act to pull off, and Mr. Federico does so consummately and consistently.

The balletic lilt of Mr. Federico’s paintings comes from Matisse as filtered through the rarefied sensibility of Ellsworth Kelly. The peculiar concentration of form comes from his teacher, Tony Smith. Mr. Federico can’t be said to enlarge the aesthetic terrain defined by these precedents, but he does thrive within narrow horizons. The pleasure one derives from the paintings has a lot to do with how dynamically he bounces off its parameters. (It makes a perverse kind of sense that this show is in a basement gallery with no windows—enclosure is so much of what the work is about.) Nonetheless, tradition is a force to be kick-started, not a monument to be burnished, and Mr. Federico burnishes lovingly, with fierce intelligence. Hence his limitations, and his strengths.

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