Catherine Eckdahl: Painterly Explorations

Catherine Eckdahl is a painter based in New York for many years, so it makes sense that her works have been influenced by the New York School. At the same time, she maintains an interest in Asian thought, Buddhism in particular, with the result that her language paintings demonstrate a real interest in free-form calligraphy, whose Asian name is running script. At this point in her life, in mid-career, she shows a genuine mastery over the issues of abstraction and the intuitive paradigms of calligraphy, whose forms she interprets rather than copies, being more interested in the formal aspects of the strokes than the literary meaning they express. As a result, Eckdahl’s art participates in the current, but also ongoing, conversation about Asian influences in contemporary painting. Her output consists of art made in response to Asian written language, Chinese particularly, and lively abstractions that are often sparse in their gestures but bear a resemblance to the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell in particular. In both styles, though, the artist clearly and forthrightly maintains her own identity, exploring writing and abstraction in ways that sustain her painting. The hard part for someone like Eckdahl is keeping independent within styles that have been considered important, even major, for generations. As it turns out, the artist does an excellent job of exploring abstraction, turning out both extravagant and austere pictorials and, in the case of the calligraphy paintings, works that use Asian writing as a beginning rather than as something to copy.

In the language paintings we see Eckdahl working, mostly in black and white, to create the atmosphere and feelings we experience when we see Chinese calligraphy. It does not matter that the characters are mainly illegible, although small parts of Eckdahl’s work can be read in some cases. What counts is her art’s approximation of the spirit of calligraphy, related as it is to in-and-out breathing and precise movements of the hand. In her decision to provide a simulacrum of form based on the ancient technique of calligraphy, the artist looks to the curved and twisting strokes of the characters themselves, mimicking them in their vertical rows but not copying them. What results is a very sophisticated interpretation of the script, resulting in work that stands apart, even if only slightly, from the real characters. Examples of other stylistic devices in Eckdahl’s art include thin white lines that mass and overlap each other, often against a dark background. There is a general sophistication, as well as a delicacy, of the hand in the language paintings and the thin-line abstractions, both of which are conducive to revery—that is, to contemplation of the image and its relationship to foreign culture, if any, that have had an effect on Eckdahl’s process. It makes sense to read these works as the artist’s own, despite the fact that they take part in a generally Western cultural reading of calligraphy and line-oriented drawing. Eckdahl is a skilled interpretive artist who has the wherewithal to express her relations to other cultures through close study.

As a painter of pure abstraction, Eckdahl distinguishes herself through the presentation of sparse gestures that enliven a generally single-colored ground. The forms that do come across the compositional field tend to be organic, enabling the artist to play with imagery that gives all sorts of impressions—of being underwater, of debris floating in space, etc. Her language is various but recognizable as belonging to the New York School’s intrepid brand of nonobjective painting. Given the history of the style, which dates back to the early 1940s, Eckdahl has chosen to work within a crowded field. But she establishes herself nicely as a highly individualistic painter who is seeking a language adequate to the complex array of ideas and feelings now working in New York City’s constantly changing art world. In one dark gray and black painting, there is a passage that reminds us of Clyfford Still, with its jazzy, jagged edges. Yet it would be a bit too easy to generate similarities between Eckdahl and the great abstract expressionists of the past; the artist’s passion for the oblique but never obscurantist style places her in a long tradition that she adds to with vital creativity. By taking abstraction another step forward, Eckdahl recognizes that her paintings must balance on the cusp of former achievements becoming new art; her accomplishment rests on a style that is unexpectedly forthcoming in its service to contemporary artists. This is because painters like Eckdahl keep art alive, through attention to style and a determination to stay innovative in concept.

Jonathan Goodman
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