Born in Manhattan in 1951, the son of a Czech architect and Viennese writer who fled the Holocaust, Gary Komarin received a graduate teaching fellowship at Boston University where he studied with Philip Guston. Komarin was offered his first University teaching position at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 1978. He has subsequently taught at The University of Oregon, Southern Methodist University, and The University of Iowa. Komarin was nominated for and received The Joan Mitchell Prize in Painting in 1999. He has also received the Edward Albee Foundation Fellowship in Painting, The Elizabeth Foundation, New York Grant in Painting, The Rutgers University Fellowship in Innovative Printmaking, a Grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Philip Hulitar Award in Painting in 1988. Komarin has been invited to make prints and encaustic paintings on paper at Garner Tullis in New York, by Tandem Press at the University of Wisconsin, at Aurobora Press in San Francisco, and by Segura Press in Tempe, Arizona. He has been exhibiting his work here and abroad since 1979 and has had solo exhibitions at The Lowe Gallery in Atlanta, Maxwell Davidson in New York, Meredith Long in Houston, and Herbert Palmer in Los Angeles, among others. Komarin's work has also been exhibited at the Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, and the Newark Museum. His work will soon be seen at Kunst Art in Zurich in March 2002. He will also be having a one-man show in Zurich this spring. Komarin's paintings are in numerous private, corporate, and museum collections including: Microsoft, AT&T, The Nordstrom Corporation, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Montclair Museum.


"Gary Komarin"

Published in Art in America

Now in midcareer, New York born artist Gary Komarin makes works that owe as much to Color Field painting as to his oft-cited mentor, Philip Guston.  While scrawled Guston-like tropes are definitely a hallmark of Komarin's work, they are balanced by deep, thoughtful breaths in between.  Enchanced by an energetic use of color, Komarin's images rely on the tension between the spontaneous and the considered, the accidental and the consciously executed, for their striking vitality.  The artist hides nothing - his methods are perfectly evidence as he covers and uncovers, delineates and sweeps over the shapes on his canvas.  And what are these shapes?  They could be things - boats, bottles, boxes and hats - or they might just as easily refer to nothing in particular.  Precisely positioned on the border between image and abstraction, Komarin's forms offer what John Elderfield, speaking of Martin Puryear's sculpture, so eloquently referred to as a 'familiarity that resists recognition.'

All of the paintings in this exhibition were from 2006 or 2007, large-scale, often with a surface of acrylic paint on raw canvas, or house paint mixed with spackle - combinations that provide a particularly matte ground for Komarin's drips, scrawls and idiosyncratic fillips of enamel, crayon, oil pastel and other assorted mediums.  Rimmed with hints of orange at the top and bottom, the black surface of 'The Disappointed Mistress #12' (2007, 80 by 68 inches) is so flat that it's almost like a blackboard - but an improbably transparent one.  As the eye adjusts to the dark, faint crayon lines, the ghostly layers of under- and over-painting slowly come into focus, until what originally looked like a very simple composition becomes infinitely more complex.

Other works are not so reticent, but declare themselves immediately with strident backgrounds of red, azure blue or grass green, which are in turn overlaid with big blocks of strong, contrasting color and bold, barely controlled gestures of crayon or pigment.  Sometimes delicate, other times crude, these shapes are as confident as they are enigmatic.  There is no narrative here, no underlying message, except for the process, with its revelations, both conscious and unconscious.  Any single interpretation is by design subject to change.  In many ways, what you see is what you get, except that the next time you look, what you get may be completely different.


"Paintings Do the Talking, Without Too Many Specifics"

Published in the New York Times (February 27, 2000)
Written by Barry Schwabsky

Gary Komarin doesn't want to say too much about his paintings, but he's not brusque about it.  He's almost apologetic, actually, but in the course of explaining why he'd rather let the paintings speak for themselves, he ends up telling quite a bit.

Oddly enough, the paintings are very much the same way.  Seemingly imprecise in their imagery, austere in palette, self-absorbed in feeling, their surfaces gritty and uningratiating, they can nevertheless become eloquent, for those patient enough to give them time.

Although abstract, Mr. Komarin's paintings sometimes contain shapes that are quite legible - a wig or a hat, for instance - but more often they tend to suggest many things without getting quite specific about any of them.  And in conversation, the artist is not eager to make them any more specific.  The forms resonate when they are at once strange and familiar.

"I don't know what this form is," Mr. Komarin says, walking across the gallery to indicate 'Estragon,' a painting from 1998.  "Maybe it reminds me of a bongo - but if I start to think of it as a bongo, that calls up all kinds of associations that are irrelevant to the painting.  So I try to dissociate from that while I'm working on a painting.

"It would be misleading to put a name to these forms.  As a viewer you bring something different to them, depending on your own experience - depending on what you saw last week, or what you read, or maybe what you ate."

Often the forms echo the awkwardness of children's art.  "Most artists love children's drawings because they're so direct and free," Mr. Komarin says.  But his nebulous, seemingly half-formed or half-identified shapes are meant less to recall they way children draw than their experience of seeing things without knowing what they are, what he calls "a childlike sense of wonder and bafflement."

When asked whether a recurrent form in some of his most recent paintings, a simple loop attached to a vertical line, is really meant to be seen as a noose, Mr. Komarin acknowledges that he sees it that way too, explaining that he'd been thinking of the child's word game hangman.  But he doesn't disavow the sinister overtones of the image, speculating that the game's origins are linked to the fact that hangings were once a form of public spectacle or popular entertainment.

Although Mr. Komarin has lived in Flanders for the last 14 years, his tough, somewhat taciturn manner still evokes New York City, where he was born and grew up.  He has been exhibiting his work nationally since 1981, but 2000 looks to be his busiest year ever.  Along with this exhibition, he is also doing one-person shows this year in Atlanta, Des Moines, Palm Springs, Calif., and Washington. 

After studying at Albany State University, he went on to get a master of fine arts at Boston University, where he studied with Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist painter who shocked his contemporaries in 1970 with the first of the crudely figurative canvases that occupied him until his death a decade later.  The critic Hilton Kramer, for instance, derided him as "a mandarin masquerading as a stumblebum," but Guston's late work turned out to be enormously influential on younger artists.

As a teacher, Mr. Komarin recalls, "Guston made painting seem like a door to the unknown - a way to explore yourself, the world, the human condition.  He wanted you to paint what you don't know rather than what you know."  Guston's lesson in cultivating the unknown has clearly stuck with Mr. Komarin.  And on a more superficial level, the teacher's peculiar sense of form can also still be traced in his former student's work - in the way Mr. Komarin's bulbous forms can seem to echo, in an abstract way, the cigars, cyclopean heads and naked light bulbs in Guston's paintings.

Of course Guston is hardly the only predecessor whose influence has marked Mr. Komarin's canvases.  The fact that many shapes he uses resemble jars and vessels becomes more explicable after he speaks of how much he admires Giorgio Morandi, the Italian modernist best known for his austere, intimate still lifes of bottles and other ordinary objects.  "Morandi did so much with space, forms, the way things touch," Mr. Komarin explains.

Mr. Komarin himself started out as a still-life painter rather than an abstractionist.  "That's because I like using what's at hand," he says, and this is true as much of his materials as of his imagery.  He points to one painting and shows how a vertical line from top to bottom is the seam that happened to be in the piece of canvas tarpaulin he'd found in a hardware store and decided to use instead of fine artist's canvas.  Often buried in his paint are post cards and other stray pieces of paper he's collaged onto the surface.

"Some painters cant' work without special paints they have to order from Holland," he says.  "I like good materials too, but if I were stuck in the studio with just brown and white paint and a box of dried oatmeal I'd figure out something I could do with them."

catalogue essay

by Donald Kuspit

Published in the Bill Lowe Gallery Catalogue - Gary Komarin: Her Dutch Shoes Treated Her Well
(April 2008)

Can abstraction survive?  That's the question with which Mark Rosenthal concludes his magisterial study of Abstraction in the Twentieth Century (1). Now that abstraction has become established, the issue is no longer whether it can maintain the sense of 'risk' and 'freedom' that Rosenthal notes were its hallmarks, but if it can avoid becoming 'hidebound' in the twenty-first century.  Now that it is no longer 'experimental,' can it continue to be vital?  Or, as I would put it, can it continue to evolve, becoming something other than the labored formalism in which Rosenthal suggests it threatens to dead-end?

Komarin shows us one way in which it can: he breathes quirky new life into abstraction by making it witty.  He takes what was once 'forbidding' and 'hermetic' - Rosenthal's terms for abstraction in its heroic inaugural period - and makes it ironically lyric by making it playful.  He returns gesturalism to its origins in landscape, but the abstract landscape is no longer 'apocalyptic,' as Kandinsky's have been said to be, but whimsical.  He takes what had become closed systems of geometrical and non-geometrical abstractions and interbreeds them.  The result is a kind of hybrid abstraction, less heavy-handed than traditional abstraction but still emotionally serious.  It is an overtly hedonistic abstraction, rather than confrontational in the style of the Old Abstract Masters; there is a power in pleasure they, in their Puritanism, could not appreciate.  Komarin also has the benefit of aftersight: he orchestrates the whole development of abstraction, bringing its different musical strands together in a sort of grandly ironical musical painting - an ironically symphonic painting not unlike Satie's witty music.

The point is clearly made by 'Van Dyke's Van Dyke' (2007), not simply by way of the clever title, which suggests that Komarin's abstract painting has an elegance similar to that of Van Dyck's regal portraits, but by way of the witty play of shapes.  Some are quickly and casually drawn, as though scribbled in a child's sketchbook or on a writing pad.  These shapes seem easily changed - they are on the verge of being free form, yet also readable as images (a sort of sailboat in the upper right corner, a kind of house in the lower right corner) - and even erasable.  There are also painterly islands of dense color - seemingly solid ground on an otherwise quixotic field of darkish gray, marked by little eruptions of bright color.  These eccentrically shaped forms - they seem to be slowly germinating, however concentrated in themselves - are ironic reprises of the patch (tache) that has been the mainstay of modernist painting since it was first acknowledged by critics of Manet's painting.

Komarin's painting is a reprise of 'thin-skinned' color field painting and 'thick-skinned' gestural painting, with geometrical odds and ends added by way of linear drawings.  But it is a delicately clever reprise, opening up new expressive as well as perceptual territory.  The three painterly patches - pink and dark pink, capriciously elongated into ellipses, and a squarish patch of pitch black - form an eccentrically open system (a sort of orange colored cross-like star emerges from the 'negative' space between them, marking their center).  They are counterbalanced by the closed system of the green triangle on which the black patch is dubiously placed.  The triangle itself is precariously perched on the tower-like tip of a flimsy rectangle.  Hovering high above it is the sailboat, combining the triangle and rectangle forms (both the same soft color as the rectangle below).  There is a gentle tension between the three triangular units, as well as between the flat surface on which they appear, like mirages in a void.  For all its brooding atmospherics and sensual touches, the surface remains peculiarly inviolable.  It supports the dallying shapes, innocently floating on its flatness - linear and painterly jottings on a deep sea, visual straws for the spectator to grasp.  Komarin's shapes linger on his surface, inviting us to enjoy their paradox: child-like drawings and painterly markings in a witty arrangement.  Innocence and sophistication subliminally align in Komarin's painting.

'Dale' and 'A Suite of Blue Sea, Peter's Pond Lake' (both 2007), make the landscape anchor of Komarin's abstraction clear, even as they show it veer energetically towards ironical purity.  There are the same gestural patches, now compacted into a sort of composite painterly material.  But the drips, the seemingly slapdash brushwork, the flowing together of broad fields of excited color, have an ingenious flair.  Purity is pushed toward its contradictory limits - perhaps most evident in the abrupt difference between the large plane of dripping black and the smaller plane of luminous blue in the latter painting - reminding us of the conflicted consciousness that informs traditional abstraction.  There is much more harmony in the glowing yellow field of 'A Suite of Blue Sea, Bishop's Gate' (2007) - the same sea in an altogether different light? - but there is the same irksome tension and peculiarly 'introverted' and sketchy shapes, holding their own as they drift on the flat sea.  Its strong underlying current becomes explicit in the meandering lines of 'A Suite of Blue Sea with French Wig' (2007), a sort of unraveling of the drawn shapes, although the complex color patches remains intact.  The transparency of the drawn shapes and the opaqueness of the color patches makes for another level of formal and expressive tension.

One can call Komarin's abstract paintings quirky formalism, if one needs a label, but I think it is better to think of them as a smart synthesis of spontaneous gesture, geometric composition, and iconic form, with a certain tendency to monochrome.  These are the four 'basic formal options' of abstract painting, as Rosenthal says, and in Komarin's paintings we find them mixed to lyrically absurd effect.  'Incident as Osbourne Grove' (2007) makes the point clearly: its (near) monochromatic surface - 'Hill' and 'Rue Madame in Red' (both 2007) are almost completely monochromatic - is marked by spontaneous gestural 'incidents' that take more or less geometrical form, becoming peculiarly iconic or emblematic.  Process painting and structural painting uniquely and inevitably fuse to insinuating expressive instinct.

Some of Komarin's paintings are manifestly erotic, others latently melancholy, but the point I want to make is that Komarin is an esthetic fundamentalist with an ironic twist.  The twist prevents this work from becoming decoratively empty - the fate of so much abstract art, as the theorist Max Horkheimer remarked.  Komarin engages the decorative but finesses it, as the critic Clement Greenberg said Matisse did; Komarin has a certain debt to Matisse, and to French 'luxury' painting in general, as Greenberg called it.  A good part of the irony is that Komarin's paintings hover indeterminately on the boundary between purity and imagery.  As soon as they seem one-sidedly abstract, they become 'impressions' of a natural environment.  This doubleness keeps them fresh even as it confirms their traditional modernism.  For Komarin reminds us that abstraction has its roots in Impressionism, and Impressionism is rooted in the preoccupation with the painterly metier implicit in the Realism of Courbet and Manet.  Komarin is a modernist painter, that is, he is acutely aware of his medium and takes a certain 'critical' stance to the planar surface, but he is also aware that a modernist surface that lacks a poetic charge becomes a shallow facade.  One might say that Komarin has re-organized increasingly mechanical and self-sufficient modernist painting by reminding us of its broadly based heritage in romantic naturalism, that is, in emotional attunement and caring observation of nature.  Indeed, Komarin renews the fantasy of nature in which abstraction is deeply rooted.

Nature contradicts itself by way of changing atmosphere and light, even as it remains self-regulating.  The apparent randomness or irregularity within its regularity suggests that nature is in subliminal evolutionary process.  I think that what makes Komarin's paintings important is that they harness the paradoxical randomness of nature, furthering the evolution of imaginative abstraction.  Abstraction had become too 'regular' and uninspired - set in its ways - for its own creative good; it needed an infusion of chance to arouse it from complacency, and renew its visionary power.  Abstraction is no longer revolutionary, but it can still be a breath of fresh visual air.  One might say that Komarin imaginatively searches out fresh modes of randomness, as nature seems to.  The evolutionist Dean Keith Simonton notes that evolutionary change begins with 'chance permutation' of 'fundamental units (in painting - color and line) that can be manipulated in some manner... These elements must be free to enter into various combinations" (2).  The elements are identical, but arranged in different ways, to what Simonton calls 'iconoclastic' creative effect.

But then these 'heterogeneous variations' must be 'subjected to a consistent selection process' if they are to make 'adaptive' sense.  I am suggesting that Komarin's witty abstraction, with its seemingly chance interplay of formal elements in iconoclastic combinations, is a creative way of adapting to and rejuvenating an abstraction that has become decadent by way of becoming over-familiar and comfortable with itself, and with that esthetically stale, emotionally flat, and perceptually unchallenging.  His paintings are a mutation of abstraction - a necessary mutation if it is to survive in convincing form - if it is not to become hackneyed and meaningless.  Komarin's abstract paintings are all the more engaging because they exist on the boundary between subjective and objective statement.  Simonton writes: "On a subjective plane, the more stable a permutation, the more attention it commands in consciousness; the unstable permutations are too fleeting to rise above unconscious level of processing."  We process Komarin's painting simultaneously consciously and unconsciously, experiencing them as both ingeniously stable compositions - stabilized by their dialecticized gesture and geometry, functioning as spontaneous figures on an atmospheric ground, transcendentally distant yet intimate, like nature itself - and unstable permutations of transient elements.  It is their fleeting appearance - their sense of being in timely process - that makes them emotionally engaging, even as their combination in an abstract composition gives them a peculiar permanence and timelessness.

(1) Mark Rosenthal, Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996)
(2) Dean Keith Simonton, "Creativity, Leadership, and Chance," The Nature of Creativity, ed. Robert J. Sternberg (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 389-90

critical essay

by Hamlett Dobbins
Director, Clough-Hanson Gallery
Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee

Gary Komarin does in his paintings what acrobats do on the high wire: there is a constant balancing act between sophistication and simplicity, between cartoon-like expressionism and eloquent abstraction. His images at first seem simple and even awkward, but given enough time, the complexity of the parts reveals itself and the viewer begins to see Komarin's relentless artistic cunning. The gritty surfaces have a sense of urgency that is conveyed by the way he uses quick-drying materials: tempera, waterbased enamel, graphite, or whatever happens to be at hand. This groping, scratching, addition, and subtraction serve to document the struggle between chaos and control. The process points to this artist's ability to not only use 'painting-as-noun' to describe the place he finds, but also how 'painting-as-verb' got him there. The image that survives the process is determined by Komarin's search for an indescribable "rightness." By relentlessly pushing himself in the studio, he challenges the viewer with fresh paintings that feel pure and unrehearsed. They are at once truthful and daring.

Each painting's unique palette extends the notion that a particular quandary must be met with an ever shifting array of solutions. The colors of certain expanses are arrived at by mixing one pile of paint into another, directly on the canvas. His more labored-over surfaces have dense, savory planes while either super-graphic-black or sharp, vibrant hues are used to describe the most direct, unrepentant stroke. Komarin's mix of rich, subtly shifting colors and the hot, acidic pigments help each painting produce a specific combination of hues to create its precise flavor.

Like a vigorous game of Pictionary between Guston, Twombly, and Motherwell, Komarin deftly uses shape and form to play with the moment of recognition: when does a mark stop being a mark and become an object? The viewer is left with the enviable task of sorting through the signposts in this painterly landscape. The reoccurring shapes in his work - the wig, the cake, the vessel -- lend themselves to different levels of interpretation. At the same time, these images create a sense of absurdity in the painting: they are imprecise, quirky, and even romantically fanciful.

Komarin's stalwart images have an epic quality that grips the viewer with the idea that he or she is looking at a contemporary description of something timeless. Even his smallest paintings have a monumental presence. Along with other important painters, his work brings optimism to contemporary abstraction, pointing to a blithe spirit in the house of beauty. Gary Komarin's paintings are a celebration as well, highlighting a particular view of the world and inviting us to re-evaluate our place in it.

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