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Free Flow

Contemporary Showcases Moira Dryer's Abstract Experiments

Close Up, 1989

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 7/4/2001

Paintings 1989-1992

Moira Dryer

Contemporary Museum through Aug. 25

When Moira Dryer died of breast cancer at age 34 in 1992, the New York art world lost a promising young talent. During an era when many of her contemporaries turned to figuration and an assortment of personal and social themes, Dryer remained committed to working within an abstract tradition.

Stripes and other patterned forms usually give her paintings organizational structure, but the works also rely on drips and pools of paint that lend an air of spontaneity. The interplay between geometric order and gestural freedom animates her paintings. Dryer, though, wasn't just some plodding disciple of her Abstract Expressionist, Color Field, and Op Art elders. As the current exhibit of her work at the Contemporary Museum attests, she wanted to take abstract painting in new directions.

Some of her canvases tweak the usual rectangular shape of paintings, calling to mind the shaped canvases of one of Dryer's teachers, Elizabeth Murray. And the occasional application of found objects and other sculptural elements serves as a reminder that Dryer, while heavily influenced by the abstract painting of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, also explored different possibilities. As she put it in a 1987 interview cited in the Contemporary exhibit's catalogue, she sought "expressive recombinations of established vocabularies."

Her early death cut short her painterly investigations just as they were paying off. The new exhibit focuses on the last three years of her life. You walk through this show with a sense of the artist trying out various options within the abstract realm, and you realize she never had a chance to go from interesting work to what might have become a really important career.

In the paintings showcased by the Contemporary, not every one of the artist's exploration succeeds. But every creation demonstrates Dryer's ability to move acrylic paint around on wood panels. The most beautiful painting in the show, "Captain Courageous," is all about the act of painting. Many rivulets of assertively green paint run down a surface that's otherwise covered with paler green and white shades. A small, precisely carved, rectangular incision made near the bottom gives the work some actual depth, if not pictorial depth; you readily imagine all that dark green paint running down into this drain. Looking at this painting, your eyes wander around what appears to be water flowing through a misty atmosphere.

Dryer's free-flowing abstract paintings are her best, but she worked nearly as well when she used stripes to organize the pictorial space. In the somber "Front Line," alternating olive and black vertical stripes make up the only "subject matter." Although this and similar striped paintings sound as if they're radically distinct from her drip-oriented works, Dryer went out of her way to blur such distinctions. Her stripes' colors blend and bleed, their edges not sharp but melting.

Besides stripes, Dryer sometimes looked to other repeating forms to give her paintings an organizational scheme. In "Country and Western," she relies on unruly black blobs that look as if they're brashly pushing across an otherwise quiet surface. In "Demon Pleasures," with its nudging title, several sensuously curving pink forms prompt fleshy associations.

Do the assorted washes, stripes, blobs, and curves add up to a specific thematic content? Is the work at least indirectly autobiographical, or do the paintings remain as opaque as much of the paint application? It's tempting to read a personal message into at least one work. The green paint covering "Lady Luck" is so thinly applied that you can see the underlying wood grain in places. Knowing the artist's fate, it's haunting to note that the wood knots resemble nipples.

Or consider the 14 small round holes drilled completely through "Random Fire," thereby revealing the supporting gallery wall. Did Moira Dryer violate the otherwise smooth surface of this painting in order to emulate the cancerous violation of her own body? It's hard to say.

What's easier to say is that Dryer wanted her paintings to be more than just painted rectangular wood panels; she made incisions in some paintings, added found objects to other (such as the metal handles flanking the otherwise conventionally shaped painting "My Eyes").

Do you come away with a better handle on Dryer's intentions through her use of such tactics? Not really. The results usually seem facile. Even so, her painterly explorations remain invigorating nearly a decade after her death.

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