Geometry was somehow different than the other fields of mathematics. Even though it was named after an ancient Greek treatise, geometry was rooted in the crude drawings we scribbled on stray scraps of paper, the sandcastles and mud forts we made, and the blocks we played with. And the primordial simplicity of the points, lines and planes Euclid explored in his Elements were reflected in the world we ran, skipped and stumbled through; the physical world is, in a way, geometry in motion. In an era accustomed to the bright, compressed, hard-edged graphics readily available on our smart phones and laptops, it is easy to think of geometry as remote and impersonal. But geometry has always been personal, about the hand and the eye, which is surely why, in Raphael’s The School of Athens, Euclid leans over with his protractor and traces a figure on a tablet set on the marble floor.
From the beginning of his career in the early 1970s, Ric Evans’ work rested solidly within the tradition of geometrical abstraction. At its origin, geometrical abstraction retained the allusive, analytical quality of Cezanne’s late paintings and Picasso and Braque’s first forays into cubism. Kazmir Malevich’s paintings from prior to the Russian Revolution, like Black Square (1915), are simple, contemplative icons of an emerging industrial age; Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943), with its grid of vertical and horizontal bands syncopated with dancing rectangles, mirrors the jazzy, swinging bustle of wartime New York City; and the smoldering stripe that pours through Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) thrums with biblical allegory.
But Evans’ most immediate precursors, like Frank Stella, Myron Stout and Helmut Federle, eschewed illusion and focused instead on the assertion of form and material. That does not mean that these artists’ work is more “abstract” than that of the classical Modernists. While their work lacks the gestural bravado of New York School Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, it is painterly in the sense that it is governed by the powerful presence of the painted surface, and in all of them the viewer can feel the presence of painterly touch.
In their pivotal writings through the 1960s, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried argued that the natural progress of painting as an art is toward pure abstraction, the elimination of the distinction between figure and ground and thereby any form of illusion. Ric Evans’ work over the past quarter century and more might be thought of as a late fulfillment of this vision of abstract painting. Beginning in the 1980s at least, Evans’ work, guided as it is by shape and color, has an autonomy and sense of closure that discourages the viewer from thinking of his paintings as extending beyond themselves: they are, in a way, singular tautologies. Untitled (AC) (1989), for instance, is a pair of vertical rectangles squeezing a vertical stripe. Similarly, Y.K. (1989) has a beige rectangle atilt against a slightly darker stripe, the adjoining rectangle a field of deep blue. And Blue Over Red (1997) has a blue rectangle set atop an earthy, subdued red square, which evokes a stretch of clear sky and bare, baked earth. The fact that these paintings are fashioned from shaped canvases eliminates the issue of figure and ground, and their idiosyncratic geometry, with no two lines exactly flush, renders them singular rather than programmatic. And Evans’ color contrasts are subtle, organic and intuitive. In Y.K, the earthy mud-brown lives alongside the cool, spacious sky-blue; here, color is not so much in a dialectic as along a spectrum which includes the natural world as well.
With his most recent paintings, Ric Evans reclaims and re-imagines the impulses of his earlier work. If his paintings in the 1980s and 1990s embraced the immediacy and materiality of paintings as objects, without edges, without illusion or allusion, his recent paintings examine the dynamics of geometry and color. The Harmony of Appearance (2018) has an interlocking, five-pointed shape in black and grey folded round part of a stark white square, the ground a smooth, receding blue. The shapes here are neither grounded nor architectural; they are precarious but seeking. The blank white at the centre of the painting is not an illustration of harmony, an organizing principle, but an embodiment of forms striving toward some form of harmony. Cardinal Elements (Yellow) (2019), on the other hand, has jagged shards of black breaking out from a pale yellow. In Cardinal Elements (Magenta) (2019) the color is dominant, pushes toward the viewer, and is tactile, like flesh or the petal of a flower. While Evans’ work remains rooted in many of the concerns of post-war abstract art, his recent work harkens back to the work of high Modernists like Vasily Kandinsky. In his late phase, Kandinsky’s geometry is volatile and generative, and his paintings often look like worlds in the process of creation. In Evans’ recent paintings, form and color are not static or even predetermined elements. They are shape and color – cardinal elements -- in motion.
Ric Evans’ recent work also retains, and even enhances, the immediacy and intimacy that comes with oil painting itself. Even for a painter in no way inclined toward big, emotionally charged gestures, oil paint creates sensuous, organic surfaces, like skin, like flowers and wood and dried mud. As a viewer, one wants to get close to them, acknowledging what Michael Fried could not: that the eye is not just an optical device but a sense organ. And geometrical abstraction, like geometry itself, is by nature intimate and immediate. After all, Euclid’s Elements begin with simple, intuitive and somehow moving definitions: a point is that which has no part, a line is a breadthless length. Evans’ new paintings are about both discovering and rebuilding our world, a point and line and plane at a time.
Ric Evans' studio