By Roberta Smith
Few truths about paint are more basic than this: it tends to go on wet, whether on canvas, furniture or buildings, and then it dries. Once dried, it can preserve a sense of its original fluidity to greatly varying degrees. In the postwar years it became a sure sign of modernity and freshness. It’s dynamic, at times volcanic, like artistic genius is supposed to be, but it can also have a comedic, even ironic quality. It conveys immediacy, material reality, improvisation as well as flamboyance and glamour, savoir faire.
Giving full voice to the liquidity of paint has gone in and out of style since it was liberated in the 1940s by the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Janet Sobel and Norman Lewis. In the mid-1950s, Helen Frankenthaler opened further possibilities. Working on the floor, she thinned her paint to the consistency of water, creating floods and eddies of color that soaked into the canvas. Her techniques established the Color Field School in the United States. The Japanese artists of the Gutai took wetness to fabulous excesses, making it a lavalike substance. Things turned ironic with Andy Warhol’s Oxidation series, achieved by the artist and others urinating on canvases painted with copper metallic paint.
Sometime in the 1970s, Color Field fell out of favor and visibly liquid paint had a much a lower profile. You could say it flowed underground. But it never went away, and right now, seven shows in New York galleries give both its present and its recent past a new visibility.
The career of Ed Clark, now 92, is the subject of this vigorous 40-year career survey, which establishes his singular exploration of the formal and narrative potential of color and paint. Mr. Clark sometimes stains but mostly he wields wide brushes and even brooms, magnifying impasto and brushwork in piled-up strokes that seem to squirm on the surface. More characteristic are broad bands and curves of color that zoom across or out of corners, achieving an almost sculptural force, as in the pale, propulsive streams of “Elevation” (1992), a tumult of sound, water and paint all in one.
In “Blacklash,” from 1964, Mr. Clark signals racial anger with his title and a splatter of black paint that fans against red and white, like a cat-o’-nine-tails. In the formally vehement “Orange Front” (1962) a stained orange field is barricaded with broad strokes of blue and blue green; they mostly cover a big black shape, visible from drips that extend from it to the canvas’s upper edge.