Peter Frank Critique
Susan Sommer’s paintings are characterized by opulent color and expansive gesture, tempered by a judicious economy of form. Atmospheric as they seem to be, not least in their luminosity and the sensuous handling of oil paints, they also evince a tensile strength, a firmness of line and contour, that provides them, if not with an armature per se, then with a flexible but powerful infrastructure. It is not an undergirding; Sommer does not build her paintings on a given structure. Rather, the paintings grow organically as she makes them, areas opening up and closing down, brushstrokes wandering hence and thence, the entirety of the composition emerging through choice and chance — organically, if you will.
These are a dancer’s paintings, kinetic and yet controlled, infused with discipline but bordering on the extravagant. They are also the paintings of someone — an American someone — who has long admired the abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Their abstraction fuses the energy of the individual with the vibrancy of space itself, establishing a flow of sentience between painter — and viewer — and the essence of landscape space.
In her current work, in fact, Sommer effectively re-tames her approach, bringing back in the tempering effect of strong, directed line on painterly lushness. After years of composing balanced, syncopated works in which geometry melded – sometimes gracefully, sometimes uneasily, sometimes both — with gesture, Sommer compiled a series of what for her are anarchic paintings, some seeming nearly formless. In these last, areas and edges, colors and tones struggle in vain to define themselves from one another. These canvases are not inchoate — Sommer is incapable of letting her paintings devolve into eye-grating entropy — but they are thrilling to the point of frightening in their fractious ecstasy. Or is it fury? It hardly matters; the intensity of the emotion drives the shape of things, while the emotion itself defines nothing, except color in a few cases.
Sommer has broken the near-pure wildness of these works, and the paintings that have emerged since – paintings realized since the turn of the millennium – display a comparatively circumspect approach. Shapes once again seem to be as important as the paint around them. Color harmonizes more readily, even though many hues are tartly sweet, jarring against the mature dissonance of the forms. Gestures seem more rounded and certainly more directed; the brush scribbles less and meanders more. These are good-looking paintings, still vigorous but now reassuring as well, their light palette coordinating with their increasingly easy grace to excite and please the eye at once.
Yes, this is abstract expressionism re-stated. But it is not abstract expressionism warmed over. Sommer repays the debt owed to De Kooning and Kline by producing paintings that are as distinctive as they are assured – and that are as unpredictable as they are grounded in an established stylistic language. With her background in dance, and surrounded nearly her whole life by music, Sommer knows equally well how to follow classic modes of expression and how to improvise within – and, where necessary, beyond – such modes. In Susan Sommer’s hands, the “tradition of the new,” to use Harold Rosenberg’s term for the avant garde’s new-found permanence, becomes a tradition of renewal.