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The Art of Marilyn Kirsch: A ‘Transcendental Minimalism’

by Michael Cook

Throughout her career as a painter, Marilyn Kirsch has explored several facets of abstraction: from softly muted, non-objective geometry to powerful, atmospheric works suggestive of landscape and architecture.

Her paintings share a refined delicacy approaching a Zen sensibility – a commitment to aesthetic purity. Yet contradictions abound. While one senses a great kinetic energy in the creation of these works, the results are highly directed and focused in a way that underscores their sensitivity. These are not ‘action paintings,’ because they exhibit too much conscious deliberation and control. Conversely, they don’t qualify as formally Minimalist either, because they are infused with too much content.

Within the general confines of abstraction, Kirsch’s paintings nevertheless dance lightly across several stylistic realms, touching on aspects of the surreal, the minimal, and — always — the lyrical. In works inspired by the natural world, her paintings exude light and air; in those involved with architectural themes, they exhibit a palpable gravity and a timeless monumentality. An exquisite vision is in play here and an uncanny capacity for visual communication that reveals spiritual, emotional, and psychological states using the barest economy of color and form. If nuance and understatement are precepts of Minimalism, this is a new departure: a subtlety with complex metaphysical underpinnings.

Hers is a poetry that whispers, yet the strength of its voice can be deafening at times. Kirsch’s visual alchemy allows viewers to sense the awe derived from the natural world, even when the canvases don’t reference it explicitly. The viewer becomes immersed in an exhilaration of elements undefined or only vaguely suggested. This compelling ambiguity creates a tension that allows her paintings to “oscillate between possibilities,” as the artist puts it.

Her recent paintings investigate the existential possibilities of reductionism, while communicating states of mind and experience — however esoteric and abstract they may be. In this regard, her approach is diametrically opposed to a Minimalism that doesn’t have much to say. In these latest works, the paintings’ imagery is stripped to its essence, providing the focus for a conceptual gestalt that defies easy categorization. Addressing the ineffable seems to be her pursuit.

But Kirsch has clearly learned the significance of elegant, painterly surfaces, as well. Combined with her instinct for composition and aesthetic substance, there’s an elusive introversion embedded deep within these sparse colors and textures. Even within the confines of abstraction, she is able to create narratives, to entertain us with stories — although we may be making them up as we go along.

For her latest series of paintings, Kirsch explains the double entendre implied in its title, “The Worn City.” Beyond visual allusions to the textures woven of a city — tired and aged, yet vital in its own way — this metaphor also encompasses the concept of a city that is worn as one would wear a garment. It is we, the inhabitants, who “wear” our cities. It influences our attitudes and outlook; it defines us as its citizens. Kirsch comments, “A city, to me, is a work of art. Our presence in it adds marks and layers to this never-finished work. The city is transformed by the many people who congregate there: a patina covers the city from this collective marking that accumulates slowly over time. As the city changes, so do we. We carry it with us. It becomes part of us. The city is worn by us like a coat and it becomes worn by our wearing.”

The paintings deftly reach, ever so subtly, into places where the human psyche resonates with an archetypal awareness of larger realms. This is a new era, and we all add our mark-making potentials to it — as participants. Perhaps that’s the most optimistic parameter of all.

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