Generations of readers have puzzled over the opening lines of William Carlos Williams’s best-known poem: “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow.” What exactly does depend on it? The poet, content to keep a secret, stays mum. There happens to be a red wheelbarrow in a 1974 painting by Albert York, whose work is now the subject of a beautiful retrospective in Manhattan at the Matthew Marks Gallery, through December 20. The wheelbarrow could be called pink, but I imagine that it’s a red that has faded from long exposure to the elements. And besides, York’s palette never included bright colors; pale, shadowy hues stood in for the whole spectrum. Whatever he painted he painted with uncanny concentration, as if nothing else existed for him except his perception or imagination of his subject in that moment. So much depended on it, though what he could never say. As the very first review of York’s work, in Art News in 1963, put it: “He is a specialist in very tiny, important differences.”
York, who died five years ago at age 80, was notoriously reclusive, so he might have been mortified by the show at Matthew Marks. But then, his viewpoint was singular: he would not attend exhibitions of his own work, and when he finally did—in 1989, at the Parrish Museum in Southampton, New York, just a few miles from his home—the result was devastating. What he’d done was “pretty bad. It has no relation to good painting,” he later told Calvin Tomkins, in the only interview he ever gave, for a New Yorker profile reprinted in the Matthew Marks catalog. “I don’t recognize myself in those things.” (It is curious that he thought of the paintings as self-portraits, even if failed ones.) The view of York’s achievement among his fellow painters is otherwise—a reverence bordering on the cultish. “When York was alive, I considered him the best living American painter,” an artist friend told me recently, adding for emphasis: “And that was when de Kooning was alive, too.”
York’s sparse output declined drastically after the 1989 show in Southampton; his last finished paintings are dated 1992, though he was still working every day when Tomkins saw him in 1995. (One suspects that York had agreed to the interview only in the hope that finally talking about his work would give him even more reason to stop doing it.) “York conceded that he had been doing a lot of scraping down lately,” Tomkins wrote, and evidence of that can be seen in a late, undated work called Landscape With Alligator. The reptile, barely sketched in at the left, seems to look with satisfaction upon the holocaust that the artist has made of the painting’s lower right corner, scrubbed down to the wooden panel. This may be the ghost of a painting, but it could hardly be anyone else’s but York’s. The clouds, sky and patch of ground that remain have an understated, obdurate thereness that is his trademark, as does the scratchy brown mess left by his saturnine act of erasure.
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If York’s knowledge of art history was deep, his use of it was highly selective. He painted a takeoff on Manet’s Olympia, and the snakes that slither through several of his landscapes might be the diminished descendants of the serpent that has killed a man in a famous 1648 painting by Poussin. Closer to home, his early work shows that he’d imbibed both the mystical tonalism of George Inness and its gloomier, more inward-looking yet formally taut variant in the art of Albert Pinkham Ryder. The only near contemporary who seems to have counted for York is Giorgio Morandi. The names of other prominent American artists born in 1928, as York was, amount to a catalog of what left him untouched: Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Andy Warhol, but also Helen Frankenthaler, Al Held, Cy Twombly. From the earliest works here, dated 1963, to the last, his style is consistent—only his palette changes, becoming lighter and clearer. As he matures, the paintings seem to open up, even while remaining enigmatic. Speaking with Tomkins, York berated himself for his inability to use a full range of colors, but a restricted palette formed the basis of his work’s economy of concentration. His paintings are consistently small, typically around the size of a sheet of typing paper, and usually more or less square, presenting a restricted repertoire of subjects straight on, with classical balance.