Last year MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture acquired R. H. Quaytman’s Iamb: Chapter 12, Excerpts and Exceptions, with Painting Rack, a work comprised of six paintings, made between 2001 and 2009, set inside (and to the side of) a shallow wooden storage/display case. Two of the paintings were on view in Quaytman’s beautifully installed 2009 solo exhibition at the Miguel Abreu Gallery; the others joined the group in the artist’s studio before coming to the Museum. In general, I find Quaytman’s work to be complicated, but complicated in a completely satisfying way—this is especially true of Iamb: Chapter 12. Some of the panels in the set are minimal, such as an off-white gesso panel interrupted by four vectors; others maximal, like a panel displaying a silkscreen of John Martin’s mezzotint Heaven—The Rivers of Bliss (1824–25). The visual asynchronies of the series are undermined by a unified palette of whites, blacks, and half-tones, and by their placement within the rack, with the works’ absolute proximity to one another forcing a focused consideration of likeness.
Quaytman has shown her work positioned on such racks before at Orchard gallery, where she was director, for instance. But nowhere are they as proliferative as in the artist’s studio, where a wall of larger racks spans the space. This is a piece of furniture designed for storage, a miniature warehouse of works completed but not yet sold. By exhibiting the storage rack publicly, Quaytman asks us to consider the whole life of a painting—not only the weeks or months when it is expertly hung on a gallery wall, but the years and sometimes decades when it sits and waits. I find the question particularly resonant in the context of The Museum of Modern Art, where at any given moment only 10 to 15 percent of the collection is on view. Iamb: Chapter 12, Excerpts and Exceptions, with Painting Rack consolidates the space of the exhibition and that of the warehouse—a brilliantly economic gesture in an institution where gallery real-estate is a finite commodity. (In fact, the artist does not require that all six paintings be shown together on the rack; they are individually titled and dated, and can be displayed together or independent of one another).
The logic governing the selection of paintings, as well as their placement within the storage case, raises the work above pithy institutional critique. Iamb: Chapter 12, Excerpts and Exceptions, with Painting Rack is certainly cerebral, but it’s also surprisingly personal, almost tender. Quaytman has described her work as concerning “the experience of being in front of a painting, and passing by it in a particular time and place.” The earliest work in the group rests on top of the rack: Chapter 1: The Sun (Four edges white), a painting in profile. Quaytman created the four vectors by stripping away the gesso to reveal the wood support beneath. In a trompe l’oeil effect, the four edges of the panel occupy the surface of the panel. The next three paintings relate to one another in a way that reminds me of Russian nesting dolls. Chapter 12: iamb (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) is a silkscreened black-and-white grid covering the surface of a wood panel. It rests behind Chapter 12: iamb (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field), a silkscreened photograph of the gridded painting. The same work appears in Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile), an image of the artist Dan Graham with the painting hanging in the background. Within the rack, the Dan Graham panel is indeed in front of the other two. Completing the rack is the small Chapter 3: Optima—caption, another black-and-white work, this one hand-painted in 2004.
Hanging on the wall to the right of the rack installation is Chapter 12: iamb (The Limbo of Vanity) the silkscreen of John Martin’s mezzotint. Significantly larger than the others, and too big to fit on the rack, the painting is visually and physically incongruous to the group. The logic behind the artist’s selection is difficult to ascertain—why silkscreen a John Martin print illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost? As it turns out, Quaytman purchased the mezzotint as a teenager with her father, the artist Harvey Quaytman, and the work has been hanging in her studio ever since. Quaytman also worked as an assistant to Dan Graham, who admired the print so much that he offered to swap a pavilion for it. And, in fact, the “iamb” of the work’s title refers to Milton’s use of iambic pentameter in Paradise Lost. In this case, the “odd man out” actually holds the group together.
This is the complicated minefield of contingencies and interrelationships that lies at the heart of Quaytman’s practice. Iamb: Chapter 12, Excerpts and Exceptions, with Painting Rack is an archive of images and associations, a private history painting offered to the public.