R.H. Quaytman at MOCA and Michael Heizer at Gagosian

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The best way to enjoy R.H. Quaytman is to relax and let the art do the work for you. Her intelligence and literacy, both visual and textual, are best appreciated as an undertow. They are the powerful but submerged forces beneath the surfaces of her paintings. It is the surfaces, however, as well as the shapes and sizes of her paintings, the manner in which they are arranged, the obvious discipline and attention to craft, which emerges as their reason for being.

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R.H. Quaytman, "I Modi, Chapter 22," 2011
Oil on wood; 20 x 12 3/8 inches (50.8 x 31.43 cm)
Kravis Collection

Morning: Chapter 30 is a survey of her photograph and silkscreen-based paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art through February 6, 2017. It was organized by Senior Curator Bennett Simpson, who has known her well through her most formative years as an artist. Quaytman approaches her exhibitions with ideas about their specific sites, in this case the Arata Isozaki-designed building on Grand Avenue along with MOCA's institutional history. One of the most renowned works in that museum's collection cannot be shown within the building, however. It is Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," (1969-70), massive trenches that were bulldozed out of the Nevada desert.

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Installation view of "Morning: Chapter 30" at MOCA
Photo by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Quaytman photographed that piece and used those images as the actual substrata of an extended horizontal symphony of a painting commissioned by MOCA. It is shown along the very long wall of a single gallery. Seen from a distance, it appears to be a narrow, darkened landscape that brings to mind the compositions of Ruscha's desert paintings. Quaytman's multiple conjoined panels embody the notion of horizon line as they stretch beyond individual perception. It is impossible to see the entire painting without moving your eyes from side to side, just as you would take in the view at the edge of "Double Negative." The surface is a textured dirty brown at base and soft blue at top but there are layers and layers of indeterminate shades that lend richness and meaning.

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R.H. Quaytman, "O Tópico, Chapter 27," 2013
Urethane foam, enamel paint, anti-rust primer, and gesso on wood
20 x 20 x 4 1/4 inches (50.8 x 50.8 x 10.8 cm)
Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

The benches in the gallery have mirrored bases and soft gray upholstered tops so they reflect the painting and the gallery like functional Robert Smithson sculptures. The two end walls of the gallery hold paintings that stand as punctuation, dramatizing the big declarative sentence like small explanation points.

Quaytman only paints in three, predetermined sizes, all determined by the classical golden mean, the 1 to 1.618 ratio thought to be aesthetically pleasing. Some of these paintings defy understanding in the best sense. Painted on their fronts but also around their beveled edges, they float on the wall as objects.

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R.H. Quaytman, "O Tópico, Chapter 27 (Solo)," 2014
Encaustic, acrylic, polyurethane foam, and gesso on panel
40 x 43 1/2 x 27 inches (101.6 x 110.5 x 68.6 cm)
Inhotim Collection, Brazil

Quaytman regularly refers to the work of other artists, like Heizer, or Op artist Briget Riley. Painted strips hung perpendicular to the wall coalesce as the letter A but read as having a white background when seen from one side, dark from the opposite. "Morning, Chapter 30, 2016," is the title of this piece but also the title used for numerous other paintings in the show, part of the reasoning by which she refers to her exhibitions as "chapters," as though each is part of a larger narrative.

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R.H. Quaytman, "Morning, Chapter 30," 2016
Oil and gesso on wood 32 3/8 × 20 × 2 1/2 inches (82.23 × 50.8 × 6.35 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

Quaytman's personal history is entwined with the arts: Both father and stepfather were artists. Mother is well-known poet Susan Howe. Her education at Bard, her Rome Prize, her work as a studio assistant to Dan Graham, then opening an artist's collective in New York called Orchard: it all contributes to a substantial and informed approach. But at the end of the day, or evening, it has to work as her own art. The good news is that the exhibition at MOCA leaves little doubt about that.

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Michael Heizer, "Fragment A," 2016
Granitic rock and weathering steel; 113 1/4 x 172 1/2 x 83 1/2 inches
© Michael Heizer / Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery
Photo by Fredrik Nelson

Talking about Heizer, most of us know about "The Rock," the enormous boulder that the artist had brought down from the mountains and installed behind LACMA. Now, you can have a rock of your own. At Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, the artist has created two relief sculptures. Rust-colored steel plates are angled into the wall to support each massive boulder. On view through December 21, the show includes his lesser known paintings as well.

Giving thanks for the power of art. Happy Thanksgiving.