Harriet Korman’s paintings are both rigorous and carefree. Her palette doesn’t look like anyone else’s. The 10 oil paintings in her current exhibition, square portraits in the Thomas Erben Gallery, all dated 2022 or 2023 and measuring 24 by 30 inches, are dominated by different shades of brown, along with various reds, blues, greens and yellows, and black and white. He never adds white to any of his colors and wants the surface of his shapes to be uniformly solid. The edges are jagged since he doesn’t use tape. The wildest shape we see in this exhibition is a trapezoid. As might be expected from Korman’s faith in abstraction and the power of painting to awaken feelings in the viewer without being guided by language, all of the works are untitled.
One painting from 2023 incorporates white as a color and some others use black. These colors are not assigned more importance than the others, and each painting has a different palette, while its squares are of different sizes and occupy different places on the image plane, making each composition in this series of works is unique. The show also includes one of the first square paintings, “Untitled” (1979), on the wall behind the gallery desk. Its color scheme (three greens, dark purple and brown) hints at what’s to come.
Viewed as a whole, what surprised me about Korman’s new works was the degree of inventiveness I found in his off-kilter compositions. The artist, who has always been creative with the simplest means, is even more so in this exhibition: she makes more out of less and makes it look easy.
In another painting from 2023, a bright yellow square sits off-center, with eight trapezoids of different colors extending from its four sides to the edges of the canvas. While this configuration suggests sunbeams, the colors of the trapezoids (four shades of brown, two blue, and two green) deny this reading. Nothing adds up to telling a pictorial story, but it all makes perfect sense, as the dark, muted colored rectangles hold the bright yellow square in place. Here and throughout the rest of the show, it’s as if he set out to discover how many ways he could define a square within a rectangle, using only straight-edged shapes, lines, and colors. A subtle and nuanced humor in his work continues to subvert the viewer’s expectations.
The two paintings on display are divided into eight rectangles that surround a central square, one green and the other brownish red. In the first, a black line between all the sections appears to change depending on the adjacent color. However, because Korman does not outline the edges of the canvas in black, the surrounding rectangles appear to extend beyond the pictorial space. He highlights the bright green square, distinct yet held in place by the rectangles.
In the latter, the rectangles press tectonically against the central square. The brightest section is the yellow rectangle in the upper left corner. While the color draws our attention to it, the larger space of the central square counteracts that attraction. Size and color dance throughout the work, as if all the rectangles are in animated conversation with each other. His use of colors from one family (brown or blue, for example) in unpredictable tandem with contrasts of warm and cool, bright and dull, are unmistakably his. More importantly, he frees his colors from all association, so I came to feel that he was making portraits of both colors and squares.
Korman’s synthesis of order and unpredictability brings his paintings to life, making each part of them possess a unique identity, from the line to the band, the triangle, the rectangle and the square. His arsenal of tricks is to have none and continue to push his work beyond what he has done before, which is considerable. That’s why I think she is an important artist who has not yet received her due. Never flashy, uninterested in nodding to pop art and rejecting the safety net of a signature style or format, her detached approach (which she shares with Mary Heilmann, for example) merges with the idiosyncratic rigor of she. It is this combination of hers that sets her apart from other geometric abstract artists. A career survey and an institutional monograph are long overdue.
Harriet Korman: square portraits continues at Thomas Erben Gallery (526 West 26th Street, 4th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.