Defining Style: The Paintings of Ronald Weintraub

Ross Neher

It is possible to define any style in art today by appealing to Post-Impressionist archetypes. There is nothing in contemporary art that cannot be traced to the work and influence of either Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin or Seurat. Indeed, what has been termed “pluralism” is little more than the mainstream’s acceptance of competing points of view that have their antecedents in Post-Impressionism. Ronald Weintraub’s painting is new to the art-viewing public. A strict, stylistic analysis of his work in relation to these known historical markers will provide insights that a more casual approach may not disclose.


On first viewing, a large portion of Ronald Weintraub’s work can be described as “Pointillist,” relating the work to Georges Seurat. The division of color into its constituent hues and its reconstitution by means of an optical mix of tiny dots of primary color was Seurat’s attempt to refine the atomized yet haphazard stroke of Monet, to make Impressionism “scientific,” so to speak. With Seurat, we have the artist who plays the role of the prototypical researcher at work in his studio/laboratory.
In analyzing Weintraub’s work, note his use of the mark and its relation to the ground. Even within this selective exhibition, the facture is not uniform but is highly dependent upon scale. The gamut of marks runs from the smallest of dots to ovoid shapes roughly an inch long. The scale of the picture determines the scale of the mark, with the smallest pictures consisting of dots similar in size to those in a Seurat painting.


In a marvelous suite of pictures that take as their inspiration charts used to detect color blindness, Pointillist is an apt description of the technique Weintraub uses to create them. These fourteen by eleven inch pictures have about them a mechanical aspect that does indeed remind the viewer of Seurat and his epigones. But is that comparison a valid stylistic assessment? Only superficially, for the aloof and dispassionate manner of Seurat is foreign to Weintraub’s sensibility. The artist himself insists that his paintings are not “neat” in the perfectionist’s sense and careful inspection reveals the undisguised mask of a human hand. Nevertheless, even with this apparent, but significant, conflict between method and intent, this group of pictures must be judged a formal success. The color is particularly clear and vibrant.


Stylistically then, the kinship with Pointillism must be considered important only insofar as it conjures in the mind a familiar pictorial trope. We must look further to determine the source and meaning of Weintraub’s style.


The predominant force in contemporary art is, without a doubt, conceptualism. Marcel Duchamp’s status as founding father of Conceptual Art is well-known, but before Duchamp there were Paul Gauguin and the Symbolists. Their preoccupation with signs and referents and their general disregard for the sensate world and its reproduction in paint have become commonplace in art nowadays. The heirs to Gauguin and the Symbolists are numerous. They range from Andy Warhol with his iconic images of celebrities, to Jasper Johns with his targets and flags, to Joseph Kosuth with his dogmatically conceptualist installations.


The will to image-making goes as far back as prehistoric cave drawing. It is interesting to note that the images of animals in prehistoric art were realistically rendered while those of the figure were rendered in stick forms similar to those found in children’s drawings. We do not know why this is so but the distinction between mimetic image and symbol appears at art’s very inception. In the series of small paintings cited above, Weintraub embedded images, some organic, some geometric, but unlike symbols, they do not allude to anything beyond themselves. Weintraub’s style owes nothing to Gauguin and the Symbolists.


The only figure who truly strove to continue the concerns of Western painting was Paul Cezanne, who attempted to make something “solid” of Impressionism. One can trace Cezanne’s influence through early Cubism, Mondrian, and certain Abstract-Expressionist works, such as de Kooning’s splendid Door to the River. Of the painters working today, it is the realist Racksaw Downes, with his disciplined technique and his Cezannesque return to the familiar motifs, who most deserves to wear the mantle of Cezanne. Either abstraction or representation may be conscripted as a suitable vehicle for painting. Common to all of the above, however, is the concretizing of sensation.


Even though Weintraub has painted figuratively, representational painting is peripheral to his focus. His forms lack the requisite solidity and instead have a sense of disembodiment characteristic of retinal painting. Consciously or unconsciously, Weintraub has rejected Cezannean influence.


By process of elimination, then, we are left with the expressionism of Vincent van Gogh. Initially, Weintraub’s work, with its more rational demeanor, appears to be at odds with the intense emotionalism associated with the Dutch artist. However, correspondences do exist.


The “hot” colors, orange and red, have been described as connoting such feelings as anger, rage and passion, most likely because as “advancing” colors they appear more aggressive than their cooler counterparts. Van Gogh put great store in the notion that specific colors could elicit specific emotional responses. He would often compose his pictures with the spectator’s emotional vocabulary in mind. Ronald Weintraub has gravitated naturally to hot colors and to orange in particular. During the mid-’90’s, Weintraub completed several predominantly orange paintings that were notable successful. In this exhibit, a vertical painting with a bright orange-red ground merits discussion. In a previous iteration, a form consisting of red ellipses snaked diagonally down the painting from the top left. Not satisfied with the prominence of the image, Weintraub, in repainting the work, integrated the image with the surrounding marks almost to the point of obliteration. This decision turns out to have been most effective, in that a subliminal presence contributes to the painting’s mystery and power.


As stated earlier, the scale of the painting determines the scale of the mark. Accordingly, the marks in this five by four foot painting are not tiny dots but elongated ellipses that resemble rice kernels in shape. What is of particular interest is the manner in which they were painted. Unlike the dots in the colorblind chart pictures, whole texture appears textureless and crisp edged, these ellipses are actually brushstrokes of appreciable material substance. Weintraub, here, betrays a certain impatience in execution, so that the term “expressionist” is validly descriptive. The simultaneously contrasting play of cool ellipses on a warm field recalls Larry Poons’s Colorfield paintings of the 1960s. But whereas Poons plotted the location of his ellipses according to a predetermined geometric pattern and painted them with surgical precision, Weintraub strews his irregularly sized and shaped ellipses according to the dictates of his intuition. Much the way van Gogh borrowed Seurat’s divisionist technique in order to heighten the emotional impact of his painting, Weintraub appropriates Poons’s stylistic stratagems for his own emotive purposes.


The other large, warm-hued painting in the exhibition is the first in this series. It, too, is painted on a bright red field. Here the marks are more indistinct and form clusters reminiscent of iron filings in a magnetic field. In terms of facture, the picture occupies a position between the work analyzed above and the smaller, pointillist paintings. Ominous and brooding, the painting seems about to erupt. As the generative painting to which the others in the show owe their existence, metaphorically, it does just that.


Weintraub has stated that he wishes his work “to express complex feelings” and that he is opposed to “a bloodless, clinical look,’ sentiments that affirm a stylistic reading of Expressionism. He delights in giving his paintings a “sense of dynamism” and “movement,” important qualities in Expressionist art. But deeply felt work need not be overtly demonstrative; it can also exhibit measured restraint. Any method of pictorial atomization such as the one Weintraub employs will push the artist in the direction of allover patterning. At he “allover” end of the spectrum is one of Weintraub’s most successful works. A horizontal painting measuring three by four feet, it consists of a solitary, cool gray field. A top layer has been added to neutralize a more aggressive ground. Small oval shapes quietly nuzzle each other and play peek-a-boo with the spectator. The gray field undulates softly and the picture projects a reserved elegance evocative of Whistler. The emotionalism of expressionism is held in check, but the painting is no less expressive because of it. A painting of quiet repose, it is profound in its simplicity.


Having traversed the formal terrain of Ronald Weintraub’s work, it is time to synthesize the findings. On the basis of both the artist’s statement and the physical evidence, the expressionist impulse runs deep through Weintraub’s art, though the immoderate emotionalism characteristic of expressionist art is countered by patterning devices that mute the unduly disruptive. The technical requirements necessary to achieve a perfectionist’s ideal in painting (of the sort Seurat himself achieved) imply a mechanistic sensibility at odds with a humanist ethos. One way allow for the pursuit of technical perfection in smaller works where the intimate scale enhances a jewel-like quality but in larger works such attention to detail would seem overly restrictive and inhibiting. Freedom, Weintraub seems to imply, is the consequence of enlarged boundaries.


That this exhibition of Ronald Weintraub’s paintings permits such rich and varied interpretation is a testament to his seriousness and to the breadth of his endeavor. Far from being formally circumscribed, Weintraub’s work offers the viewer multiple realizations, each affording its own particular pleasure.


Ross Neher is a painter and author of Blindfolding the Muse: The Plight of Painting in the Age of Contemporary Art, Prenom Press, New York, 1999.