By Peter Frank


We regard the artistic idioms of the recent past with a peculiar combination of curiosity, longing, admiration, and condescension. We believe we have moved past them, and can dote on them like aged grandparents while raiding their closets. But such an exploitative approach to, say, surrealism, Art Deco, or hippie psychedelia does nothing but package these historical phenomena as nostalgic gloss. It does not show them the respect historical phenomena merit — nor does it investigate the vitality that can still pulse through them.

Rose Masterpol rejects this casual adoption or satirization of bygone styles; her interest in what has come to be known as “mid-century” art and design is not simply genuine, it is thorough and it is passionate. She does not want to steal pointers from Abstract Expressionism or Danish Modern, she wants to understand them to the point where she inhabits them. Masterpol is like a linguist reviving recently extinct patois — or, more accurately, like a poet trying to write in a language she knows as much through research as through memory.

Masterpol demonstrated her devotion to, and understanding of, postwar abstract painting with several series of gestural canvases begun while she was based in Los Angeles and continued after her relocation to Santa Fe. Indeed, she produced these expansive, choreographed tableaux until very recently, deciding only within the past year to put that approach aside and concentrate on her Geometrix. The need to focus on the new series is evident in the clear stylistic shift the Geometrix represent: rather than the painterly, “expressive” manner that has characterized Masterpol’s entire oeuvre to this point, the new series relies (as its name implies) on clearly defined color areas with sharply rendered edges, composed gracefully, and comparatively languidly, so as to achieve maximum poise.

If we look closer, however, and keep in mind various aspects of Masterpol’s previous paintings, we realize that the Geometrix do not demarcate as much of a turn from those more painterly works as first seems. Masterpol has certainly adopted a new way of painting, but it is a new way of exploring a given formal vocabulary, not a new vocabulary altogether. Throughout her mature work Masterpol has relied on line, and on a particular kind of line, one that floats and scurries, meanders and cascades across the expanse of the canvas until not just the armature but the entire structure of the picture has been defined. With their open, organic contours and eccentric but rhythmic diversions, the shapes predominating in the Geometrix are redolent of mid-century fabric and furniture design, and of sculpture such as that of Noguchi and Calder. We go back to her earlier series, however, and find many of the same shapes vibrating amidst the brushy clamor; hindsight allows us to regard these earlier formal iterations as struggling to come to the surface. In the Geometrix, they finally do.

Masterpol has also retained her carefully calibrated layering effects in the Geometrix. Now, instead of describing plane upon plane in a piling-on of brushstrokes and pigmental densities, she wafts one “skin” of flattened translucent color upon another, overlapping discrete areas like Venn diagrams and locking in these drifts and skeins with carefully situated opaque linear forms. Again, this formula echoes those at work in the previous series; but now, it results in a classic, elegant moment rather than an agitated event. The Geometrix still convey a sense of time, but in them time is no longer marked by Masterpol’s hand, but by a more transcendent natural time into which she seems to have relaxed.

The Geometrix mark a pivotal point in Rose Masterpol’s history. They clarify her thinking and her vision, in effect revealing the undercarriage of her aesthetic and reassembling the chassis. But, however reformulated and reinterpreted, the bones and the lines are the same. The same sensibility that undergirded its nervous marking with lucid flow now undergirds its lucid flow with an extra-corporeal sense of time. The references to postwar modernism are as knowing as ever — and in fact serve to alert us to the formal connections between Abstract Expressionism (notably Gorky, De Kooning, et. al.) and contemporaneous architecture and design (from Saarinen to Eames to late Frank Lloyd Wright). Masterpol has evolved, but she has not strayed, and her informed response to recent art history supports rather than drives her artmaking. Her passion, not her knowledge, is the driver. 

Los Angeles / April 2019


By Peter Frank

In her work of the past three years Rose Masterpol has been oscillating between a drawn line, animated by color as well as its own flagellating trail, and a more painterly stroke that provides given expanses with texture as well as hue. The drawn line assumes a rhythmic animation akin to graffiti writing and on occasion even cartoon caricature, seeming almost choreographed. Here Masterpol, deliberately or not, proposes a translation of hip-hop and other urban dance into non-objective painting, perhaps even a kind of notation; certainly, she is re-purposing the energy of the “street” to painterly effect.

That level of energy carries over into Masterpol’s larger, even more ambitious canvases; but in these, she puts aside the self-conscious project of contemporary reflection and allows herself the luxury of pure painting. If the “drawn” paintings manifest a vigorous but studied response to pop culture, the “painted” paintings embody Masterpol’s equally fervent but entirely spontaneous response to artists who have come before her. She cites Joan Mitchell, Pollock, De Kooning, Kline, Gorky, Krazner and Motherwell as models, and their influence is readily apparent. Masterpol recapitulates that influence with remarkable intelligence and sensitivity: these are genuine, unabashed Abstract Expressionist works right down to their Surrealist reliance on the impulsive mark and their Cubist articulation of space.

The irony is that Masterpol’s more “historic” painting is, if anything, less studied than her more “contemporary” work. When she responds to the bold moves and bright contrasts of today’s pop idioms she picks up on their stylizations no less than on their power; she reflects the fact that, even while they depend on boundless invention, the popular arts allow their artists limited freedom. Like any good pop artist, Masterpol capitalizes on such restraint by playing off it, letting restricted modality amplify her inventiveness.

For truly liberated painting, however, she turns to a tradition of liberty that she can only inherit from fellow painters. In this regard, Masterpol proceeds in the wake of her influences with voluble confidence, studying and “feeling” rather than simply imitating their imagery or their method. Indeed, she comprehends the examples of De Kooning, Picasso, et al, as just that – examples of spirit, more important to her for their attitude than for their manner. She has learned from them, for instance, to pace herself across a visual field – but the pace she maintains is entirely her own. She has learned to segue strategically from color to color rather than simply dump paint in various areas – but the colors result from her own perception, and her segues embody her own sensibility. With every lesson learned, Masterpol finds herself more profoundly as a painter.

Rose Masterpol would seem to be two painters in one. In fact, she is one painter paying attention to two modes of expression. Both those modes are urgent and convincing, and she responds to both with insight, conviction, and unmistakable personality. Those two modes would seem to have little to say to each other; but, like someone brought up bi-lingually, Masterpol speaks both with poetic fluency and effortless translation, finding – and building – vivid connections between them.                                                                       

Los Angeles / December 2013