David Row is one of the best painters Maine has ever produced, yet he has a very low profile in his native state. Better known in New York, where he lives most of the year, and in Texas and Europe, where he exhibits regularly, Row has only shown in Maine sparingly.
“David Row: The Shape of Things,” through Sept. 12 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, is the first substantial solo show Row has had in Maine. And it is a stunner, a tough, urbane exhibition of shaped abstract paintings that places Row in the company of Katherine Bradford and Charlie Hewitt as artists who move back and forth fluently between New York and Maine.
“The Shape of Things” consists of close to two dozen paintings, prints, and sculptures spanning 1976-2020, works that marry geometry with chromatics, defining shape and color in ways both cerebral and sensual.
A Row painting is a fragment taken from a much larger implied whole. Since he lives in Manhattan most of the year and on Cushing Island in Portland in the summer, I tend to see his paintings of islands in the geography of Modernism.
Born in Portland in 1949, Row grew up in Falmouth, San Diego, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Connecticut, and he also spent time in India as a youth, a transcendent experience of the other that informs his art to this day.
“India was a pretty major influence on me. I was only 13 or 14 when I first went there and it just knocked me out,” Row said. “The major idea of my work really relates to that experience – an idea about infinity and nothingness, approaching that, dealing with it, or enjoying not being able to deal with it.”
In 1969, while a student at Yale University, Row saw an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that convinced him to pursue art as a career. “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” curated by the great Henry Geldzahler, featured a who’s who of New York artists from abstract expressionists to minimalists and pop artists.
What Row saw in the exhibition was evidence that abstract art was a vehicle he could use to explore his spiritual and philosophical concerns, the search for meaning that lies at the heart of all serious art and all pure science.
By the time Galerie Thomas von Lintel in Munich, Germany, published the monograph “Continuous Model: The Paintings of David Row” in 1997, it was clear that Row’s work placed him firmly in the modernist lineage of Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Mark Rothko, although the New York art Row’s work owes the most obvious debt of gratitude to is the hard-edge painting of Al Held, one of his Yale mentors.
Row’s recent art has maintained some of the loopy, serpentine forms, but the velocity and transparency with which they are painted seem to have slowed and polygon structures have emerged.
“It’s a complete straight line. Every idea connects with the last idea,” Row said of the evolution of his work. “It’s a real simple progression of ideas which, for me, is about making order out of disorder and randomness.”
The irregular polygons that appeared in his paintings, Row said, simply result from connecting endpoints and beginning points as he explores the two-dimensional space of the painting.
Row’s spacious island studio allows him to work on large paintings while in Maine, and being able to work outside has enabled him to begin translating his polygon paintings into sculpture.
Row initially made “poured paintings” out of polyurethane resin. More recently he has been making his eccentric structures out of cast glass. His sculpture resembles gems and crystals of pure color.
“It’s not applied color. It is color,” Row said of his sculptures. “They are made of color, a volume made of color. The light trapped gives them a fantastic inner light that painters love.”
This is the best show you will see all summer. Don’t miss it.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.