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Minimalism and Modernists

Ralph Iwamoto's underappreciated works shine at 6th and 6th while two up-and-comers star at Conrad Wilde

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When Ralph Iwamoto was a young painter in 1950s New York, the avant-garde was in a frenzy of abstraction.

Abstract Expressionists were turning out heroic canvases full of grand gestures and psychological underpinnings. Iwamoto was painting abstractly, too, but he was making works distinct from theirs. A Hawaiian of Japanese extraction, he embraced Japanese iconography.

Elegant shapes reminiscent of Japanese pottery floated through paintings like 1958's "Autumnal," now on view in an Iwamoto retrospective at The Gallery at 6th and 6th in Tucson. Interlocking lozenges, lid-like triangles, softened squares and vaguely puzzle-like pieces drift against a dark earth-brown background suggestive of infinite space. Lines resembling Japanese characters are softly painted here and there.

Colored in the subtle tones of pottery--pale pinks, greens, lavenders and white--"Autumnal" and the other works were painted with milk-based casein. This non-shiny medium, long since supplanted by easier-to-use acrylics, gave Iwamoto's work the matte finish distinctive to so many '50s works.

Iwamoto may not have attacked his linen canvases with the bold brushstrokes of the Abstract Expressionists, but he did paint brushy surfaces full of pleasing textures. Occasionally, the paint was thick enough that it pushed off the linen into space.

All that changed in 1957. Iwamoto had gotten a day job as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, and he met other young painters who were earning their daily bread by scolding patrons for peering too closely at the Picassos. And three of his new buds--Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman and Dan Flavin--were busily pioneering the art world's latest ism: Minimalism. Their work was stripped down and spare, without metaphor.

Influenced by their innovations, Iwamoto quickly turned away from his older style and began experimenting with pure color, pure form and flat surfaces. By turns brilliantly colored in primary hues, or bold in black and white, his new works were near-mathematical, with rigorously drawn geometrics--particularly the octagon--placed against blank backgrounds.

A later work from his minimalist period, "Manhattan #2," a 1971 acrylic on cotton, breaks a giant octagon down into simple squares, bands and circles of pure color. They radiate out across the canvas in crayon-bright yellow, green and blue.

The show's title, Ralph Iwamoto: Fifty Years of Abstraction, honors the artist for his long commitment to painting (at 80, he's still in New York), but the small exhibition actually zeroes in on just 30 years of work. Tracing his momentous artistic changes from the 1950s up until the 1980s, it makes for a mini-history of Modernism, Iwamoto-style.

In the 1980s, the artist shifted again. Possibly influenced by the punk artists then reigning in the East Village, he switched to jazzy kaleidoscopes with an explosive comic-book energy.

"Ukiyo," a 1989 acrylic, vibrates with a dense conglomeration of urban angles and circles. Screaming red arrows, off-kilter white squares and sunny yellow spheres, all of them flatly painted, careen across the cotton canvas. But some of the painted passages hint at a return to painterly texture, even figuration. A few brushy images in white, black and gray look a bit like human figures, or even those old Japanese characters of his earliest works.

Iwamoto was born in Hawaii in 1927, the child of Buddhist parents of Japanese heritage. As a teenager in 1941, he was an eyewitness to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which he watched from a tree on a hill, according to a catalogue essay. Sixty years later, in 2001, he again witnessed an historic attack: From the vantage point of his 12th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, he saw the Twin Towers go down. Despite these bookending cataclysms, Iwamoto has always reached for the serene and the cerebral in his art. His work expresses the modern world, but it's above the fray.

Perhaps the most beautiful piece in the show is an untitled drawing from the 100 Views series, from 1978. The gallery has four of these colored pencil works on view, pulled from an astonishing body of 100. All are lovely, with intricate geometric compositions and pencil marks rippling against the textured paper like wood grain.

In the drawing in question, "#42," three of Iwamoto's trademark octagons are arranged vertically, overlapping. The picture glows a soft orange. Its squares and rectangles are colored in every imaginable shade of the color, from pale peach to yellow-orange. But in one band, the brilliant orange fades to yellow, then to white, then to nothing. Abstraction though it is, it's like a sunset, redeeming and transcendent.

The Gallery at 6th and 6th specializes in the work of classic Modernists who, for one reason or another, haven't gotten the attention they deserve or have dropped from view. Conrad Wilde Gallery, around the corner and down the street on Fourth Avenue, brings the conversation up to date with edgy artists now at work. Like those at 6th and 6th, most of its artists are abstractionists. But unlike the midcentury Modernists, who mostly prized the classic materials--oil, pencil, canvas--the Wilde artists go wild with media.

In the current two-woman show, Falling Out of Line, Albuquerque artist Molly Geissman makes gorgeous abstractions in encaustics. But she layers oil pastels and oil paints into the translucent wax, along with some collage elements, and puts this media mix on canvas stitched to a wood panel.

In her lovely "Closet VII," spring green spills over yellow, pooling, liquid-like, over a base of color slabbed on with a knife. On top, not so far removed from Iwamoto's floating Japanese shapes, are drifting lozenges in earth green, with red circles and a black teardrop. There is no message but the materials and textures, and the luminous color embedded in wax.

Elee Oak, a Tucson artist who sometimes works at 6th and 6th, goes for even more unusual components: Her paintings have a plaster base. She pours the liquid plaster into a mold, adding some "structural" materials--sisal and other plant fibers--to strengthen it. When it's dry, she paints the hard surface with water-based paints, watercolor and acrylic, and ink, then seals the whole thing with cold wax to give the works their distinctive sheen. "

"Bridge to Brooklyn" takes some inspiration from New York, just as Iwamoto's "Manhattan #2" does, but Oak doesn't have an angular take on the city. The vertical cables of her abstract bridge are soft-edged, organic, colored in soft orange and rust, with pink and flesh leaking up through the layers.

And she adds primitive drawings to her paintings, incising lines into the surface, then filling them with ink. In "Bridge," a grinning, big-toothed face is traced across the vertical bars. Oak's drawings are like early childhood sketches, simple, big-headed figures that tap into the subconscious and zip off into the Id, the old turf of the Abstract Expressionists.

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