Rear Window

A pair of retrospectives make intriguing challenges to this standard exhibition form

Remembering exactly what was going on in painting in the 1980s is enough to send shivers down the spine. Figural painting had reached a sort of pathetic end-game, with artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle and even Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat all weighing in with incredibly overblown, uneven stuff. There were, however, interesting things stirring among younger artists in the area of abstraction. Brice Marden and Ross Bleckner were among the bright spots. So was Moira Dryer.

Dryer worked with paint on wood panel. Sometimes she allowed colors to wash down the panel's surface, like translucent veils; other times, her colors were corralled into tamer vertical stripes, which nevertheless reveal the hand and the brush that brought them into being. Splotches and drips often found their way into her pieces, but their appearance was more engineered than unexpected. Dryer struck a pitch-perfect combination of structure and chance in her works. They veered between the poles of minimalist control and expressionist abandon.

Dryer's sense of color was astounding. She combined intense blues with somber blacks or gave herself over to pistachio green and cool butter cream. She played with varieties of values by mixing colors with milky white or allowing the paint to bleed its oily halo directly into the panel.

Eleanor Antin, "100 Boots," 1971-73
Eleanor Antin, "100 Boots," 1971-73

Details

Eleanor Antin: A Retrospective
Washington University's Gallery of Art; through Nov. 5

Moira Dryer: Paintings, 1989-1992
Forum for Contemporary Art; through Nov. 4

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Although Dryer's works are obviously paintings, in subtle and witty ways they also insist on being read as sculptural objects. Dryer drilled holes in her panels, inviting us to peek inside, or installed rubber grommets in their surfaces, or carved cartoonlike scallops around their edges. "Front Line" (1991), the largest work among the group, rests on an iron stand, as if apologizing for its ungainliness. "Untitled" (1991) and "The Tourist Part II" (1990) are actually assemblages, part painting and part object, that evoke old-fashioned carrying cases.

It's easy to get carried away when describing Dryer's works. Looking at this retrospective collection of pieces from the last years of her life, the level of aesthetic achievement that she had reached before her death is obvious. Inevitably, they also suggest major untapped potential, raising equally unavoidable questions: What more would Dryer have achieved had she lived? Where else would she have gone? There's no answering. With Dryer's work, we can't look forward; we have to be content looking back.

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