Tondos are famously difficult to compose. In his Painting Techniques of the Masters (1972) Hereward Lester Cooke, a former Curator of Painting at the National Gallery of Art, commented on the tondo, in relation to Raphael’s Alba Madonna, in terms that would be of interest to practicing artists:
One of the most difficult problems for a painter is to design figures within a round format. If the balance is not correct, the picture will seem to roll like a wheel. If the design is too rigid, it will not harmonize with the circular format.
Coleman Burke Gallery showed a suite of tondos painted by Brooklyn-based artist A.A. Rucci. Rucci is an idiosyncratic painter, so the additional complication of a canvas that threatens to spin if it’s not skillfully employed suits him well.
The tondos spanned two decades. I remember the earlier ones from when we were both based in South Florida. In them headless bodies cavorted and posed in front of schematic architecture and filled-in landscapes. Their palette was often distinctly Floridian. Aldo’s perfect peanut-butter sandwich was just the prelude to a spectacular afternoon (2006) positions one of his headless avatars on top of the facade of a house in front of a sky as pink as a sunburn. Their headlessness was initially off-putting, not because of the implied violence – their body language betrays no torment – but because of their dishabille. Initially, it looked like a run-of-the-mill comment on the objectification of women.
But in the context of South Florida, it made sense. South Florida is not an intellectual place. Half-dressed, headless cavorting is simply what one does there. Facades are often the most interesting component of both buildings and persons. And in an artistic environment in which people were constantly putting on weird displays as a tactic to grab attention, Rucci managed to produce something in which the weirdness was intrinsic, even structural.
He could have stayed put and had a decent run as a Miami artist with a recognizable gimmick, but removing himself to New York turned out well for him. The headless figures went on their way to the place where symbols go once they’ve served their purpose. Rucci began working in a style informed by hard-edge abstraction in which Odili Donald Odita is an affinity, except Rucci painted some of the planes using a faux-finish technique for rendering wood grain. These textures showed up in colors that never grew out of the earth: aqua, storm cloud, alizarin.
And occasionally, as in Conquistador (2009), a parrot would appear.
Conversations with the artist revealed a thought process behind the work that is too multi-layered to summarize. Mentioned were romantic quantum entanglement, nostalgia-free history painting, the Northern Renaissance, fall foliage and its discontents, and the way one scans the urban environment while walking a dog. These last two items figure into The Fall (2008), a twelve-foot, life-size stretch of sidewalk with a single, cracked chestnut pod on it, executed in acrylic on cast porcelain, pewter, and wood. It appeared as the centerpiece of “All Systems Go!”, a group exhibition curated by Suzanne Carte for C24 Gallery that also includes Tilo Schulz, Diego Toledo, Brendan Earley, and the ensemble of Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins.
While not described by the gallery so plainly, “All Systems Go!” basically had an architecture theme. Schulz strung cord about the exhibition space and hung felt from it. Toledo built model towers from pine and rendered perspectives of construction framing in MDF and Formica. Earley drew futuristic buildings in felt-tip and tape. Marman & Borins presented convoluted riffs on Josef Albers in the form of Bauhaus-like furniture and grid paintings.
Not only did Rucci upstage his colleagues, but his paintings upstaged The Fall, and the smaller, simpler paintings surpassed the larger, more complicated ones. Everyone involved was working assiduously on some low-yield artistic problem. The results didn’t feel created so much as solved. And there was a dourness about the effort that makes one reluctant to criticize the labor but unable to enjoy the product.
Some of this was creeping onto Rucci’s more elaborately assembled paintings, with raised areas in the manner of Ellsworth Kelly and schematic application of color and texture reminiscent of Peter Halley. At ten feet wide, Brooklyn Heights Elementary (2008) pushed the viewer back too far for the textures—his strongest technical aspect—to scan.
He seemed to realize this, and works from 2010 to the present in both exhibitions show him painting in a more straightforward manner and a smaller scale with greater success. OnceUponATimeInAmerica (2010) at C24 is a jaunty composition of wood grain, tortoise shell, onyx, and slices of sky blue and crimson. Jelly Belly Racer (2011) back at Coleman Burke sandwiches three hard edge arrangements between brightly painted wood textures that look like they were pulled off of an old Mexican shed. The mental associations and accumulated sensations that brought this disparity of parts together are unknowable, but evidently rich and heartfelt. And despite that disparity, the paintings come into a stable harmony.