Geometry in a State of Collapse

In an interview that I did with Stephen Westfall more than 15 years ago (The Brooklyn Rail, 2006), he made an observation that I think has grown in importance, particularly in this politically and socially turbulent climate. Speaking about the grid, he stated his interest in a destabilized structure: “like the whole [grid] could tremble and be knocked over […] which I guess you don’t really associate with planar abstraction.” 

We can think of the grid as either a secure structure within which an artist seeks freedom of expression or one that is ultimately unstable. Within those parameters it is easy to point to artists who use the grid as a source of security and to the smaller, more adventuresome group who are too restless to settle into a signature form, even as it impacts their viability in the marketplace. Westfall belongs to the latter group. He is an antsy geometric abstract artist, which in some quarters might be thought of as an oxymoron. Given how I think Westfall’s restless use of multiple grids and arrangements has not always been seen in the best light, given how closely he has veered to sign and image, I think his agitation should be regarded as a distinguishing feature of his inquiry, as it is with Harriet Korman. 

In Stephen Westfall: Persephone, his debut exhibition at Alexandre Gallery (November 4–December 22, 2021), which recently opened a second space on the border of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, he has made what I see as a formal breakthrough, in which he abandons the overall grid in the favor of something fragmented or shattered, a trace of structure that seems to be in a state of collapse. The result is a tension between stability and instability, in which one painted form both collides with and calls to those surrounding it. The logic animating these paintings is no longer dependent on the grid’s stalwart structure. Small, unpredictable geometric forms challenge and subvert the larger dominant ones. This newly earned freedom also engenders surprising color choices.

Stephen Westfall, “Persephone’s Lava Lite” (2021), oil on canvas, 24 7/8 x 18 7/8 inches

In these regards, Westfall rejects both all-over painting and structural patterning, which he often relied upon in earlier work. In fact, I would suggest that he has introduced the possibility of improvisation into his planar geometric work, so that the color-to-color and form-to-form relationships do not depend upon a containing structure. That this change took place in the paintings between 2020 and 2021 — while we were living with the COVID-19 pandemic and in relative isolation — does not seem purely coincidental. 

The exhibition’s 19 gouaches, all done between 2016 and 2021, show Westfall letting go of the comforts of structure. In “Concorde” (2020), he abuts three unequally sized vertical bands made up of parallelograms and quadrilaterals. The diagonally oriented planes do not align. It is like looking at three different neckties made of either three or four stacked geometric shapes, each a different color. 

Westfall’s interest in a cacophonous groupings, in which shapes do not align or replicate, marks his entry into a new, largely uncharted territory for geometric abstraction. In the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, Faye Hirsch makes an observation about Westfall’s recent paintings that I want to amplify:

In all the paintings, generous blocks of color arrest the eye yet, in their being arranged with skewed meeting points and in raking strips, they everywhere conjure a defiance of the limitations of hard edge and frame. 

Stephen Westfall, “By Right of the Wood” (2020), oil and alkyd on canvas, 72 x 24 inches

I think Westfall’s confrontation with the limits of pattern, repetition, and structure is not haphazard. He stays true to his love of planar geometry, while finding ways to undermine all traces of predictability and stability. It is as if we are looking at an abstract version of a house of cards collapsing, which could be read as a metaphor for geometric abstraction’s reliance on a grid. 

By jettisoning the grid, Westfall subverts inherent assumptions about geometric abstraction, starting with the stability of the structure and the surface. He seems to have discovered possibilities about bending the picture plane from Op Art and early Bridget Riley as well as the stretching of space that is synonymous with science fiction movies, but always while abutting hard-edged planes of solid, luminous color. His use of oil and alkyd is important to the smooth sheen of his surface. His color choices seem intuitive and unexpected, even quirky. 

Always able to make a pleasing geometric pattern, such as in the gouache “Mystery Train” (2021), with its diagonally aligned squares, Westfall went beyond these formal limits, and eschewed branding himself. 

Westfall’s compositional innovation is to establish three vertical planes, whose abutting zigzag edges seem to shift, depending on which contour you read. In “Samba da Lua” (2021), he paints a pale blue zigzag form in the middle of the work, running from the top to the bottom. Flanking it on each side is another zigzag, dark blue on the right and black on the left. Westfall paints triangles (at the bottom and top edges) and quadrilaterals where the edges meet on each side. Do these forms, whose edges align with those of the abutting planes of color, extend outward or inward? Are they part of the border or independent municipalities?

Stephen Westfall, “Samba da Lua” (2021), oil and alkyd on canvas, 45 x 38 inches

Westfall further complicates the way we see the work by placing a dark blue quadrilateral in the black zigzag form and a smaller black quadrilateral on the dark blue side. In order to perceive these, we have to transition from sharp contrast to a moody tonal shift. Another disruption takes place in this shifting of focus. Just as we begin to think that all the colored quadrilaterals have counterparts in similar hues on the other side, we notice the exceptions. The finely torqued edges of the quadrilaterals, especially near the painting’s top, seem to send a slight tremor though the picture plane.

Writing about the narrow vertical painting “By Right of Wood,” Hirsch points out that “there is not a single set of parallels to be found in a rollicking mosaic of geometric shapes, mainly quadrilaterals, each a different color from the one adjacent.” Having previously worked with skewed grids, Westfall has moved into a territory marked by oblique forms and asymmetry. This exemplifies the complete metamorphosis that he has undergone over the course of a career that started in the East Village in the mid-1980s, during the emergence of Neo-Geo. 

Westfall has never been regarded as a major artist working within the realm of planar geometry, because he never settled for a seductive, consumer-friendly image or embraced the comforts of a signature structure. Rather than the desire to make a marketable product, like many of the artists who gained attention since the “Return of Painting” at the beginning of the 1980s, he embraced the spirit of experimentalism. 

Stephen Westfall: Persephone continues at Alexandre Gallery (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 22.

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