Eleven Penn Plaza, New York City, 1984

He said, “I never revise now” — “but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don’t know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it.

The poet John Berryman on meeting William Butler Yeats

There is the idea that painting is a language. A little research on the subject quickly brings one to finding arguments for either it is or it isn’t. I’ll take the philosopher Curtis L. Carter’s middle road where he writes “Painting is language-like because it shares with written languages the notion of syntax.” He writes that the syntax of paintings is found in their shapes. Shapes begin to appear as soon as an artist begins to divide up the canvas. Shapes are composed of one or more elements such as line and color and describe planes and surfaces and atmospheres: non-representational things. Shapes also have what he calls a character class of style: “A style is a language of painting and its syntactic elements are the dominant kinds of shapes used in the style.”

Carter makes a distinction between the syntactic shapes, which are formal elements and the semantic, which are representational, simply put, the difference between a receding plane and a rendering of a nose. He also says that “All shapes have some degree of articulateness.” Modernist painting generally does just this, it attempts to expose the machinations of picture-making, demonstrating to the viewer how the placement of such shapes as scratchy lines, fluttering pointillist shadings and smoothed contours compose our experience of a painting. Peter Halley, in his writing on Modernist painting refers to this as the linguistic model.

Like many painters, Cynthia Carlson’s work has been preoccupied for most of her career with the language-like aspects of painting. Despite her origins as a student at the Chicago Art Institute where a penchant for garish color, obsessive technique and general contrariness seem an almost unavoidable inheritance, I have always detected beneath the appurtenances of this heritage a degree of speculative distance. This can be discerned in Carlson’s output and in her sensibility. My own theory on how artists develop is that as time passes what truly interests them becomes intensified in their work, other elements are discarded and here Carlson is no exception.

But first a little more background. When many Chicago artists opened their dialogue with contemporary experience to include from what was then called outsider art, Carlson did so as well. Evidenced in her collection of thirty-six works by the self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum, one notes a distinction between Yoakum and some of the other artists that Chicagoans were drawn to. Yoakum’s delicate, hallucinatory landscapes were arguably the most alien and yet the gentlest. His drawings exuded a confidence in his syntax. There was line, shading and subtle coloring bit it was careful and limited. His small repertoire of shapes nonetheless enabled great variation in his depictions of dryly fantastical landscapes. As was the case with many of these artists that the Chicagoans championed but was also true of their own work, the syntax was clearly dominant and enabled the semantics — their imagery to be deliberately very strange.

Carlson transplanted herself to New York in the middle of the nineteen-sixties and began to move away from this formula. At one early point, she sliced up her quasi-surrealistic representational paintings into canvas strips and wove them together, eventually covering them with encrustations of paint. These were dictated by the pattern formed by the understructure of the woven support. These patterns eventually took on their own identity and subsequent works done in this style are a noted contribution to the art-historical Pattern and Decoration movement.

Her investigation of how painting syntax can exaggerate other decorative conventions, a tongue-in-cheek comment on the painted mark, involving painted squiggles or repeated patterns, eventually led her to execute temporary installations of wallpaper-like murals. These developed into intensively decorative rooms made up of combinations of thick, gestural brushstrokes and ceramic objects that parodied the painterly flourish or with wood panels ordered and embellished as an environment of tile-like components. Later, realizing a number of public art commissions demanded a more complex investigation of building materials for public spaces through the auspices of the notably egalitarian Percent-for-Art Program.

Surveying Carlson’s roaming far afield in her curiosity as how to utilize pictorial syntax brings us to the new work, where she returns to the painted picture as a more knowing but ever playful grammarian. Rather than concentrate on the construction of individual canvases she makes them from multiples, like individual words in a sentence. One could see these newer works as a way to pose the painting as a notation using as a conceit the structure one used to diagram sentences, a tool most of us learned in grade school and just as quickly forgot about.

But where a sentence diagram is an extended horizontal line with branches like a verbal river, Carlson’s painting shapes that are painted with shapes collect themselves around an approximated rectangle where a center of interest might be without ever identifying it.

This would seem to be the very definition of a search for a more passionate syntax, by juxtaposing color, mark-making and illusionistic shading in areas outside of a conventional format. There is a wonderful book by the philosopher Stanley Fish, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” where in addition to reproducing sentences from many great writers throughout history he shows how with the use of commas one can continue a thought in one sentence almost infinitely.

This is what I see going on most clearly in Cynthia Carlson’s new paintings, capacity for joyful improvisation unleashed from a lifetimes’s humorous but tough-minded examination of painting as a language-like thing. There is no sense of a lateness here or of a looking back, it is more like she is just getting started and the effect is a feeling of exhilaration.

Joe Fyfe

September 2016