The Wild One

Steven Parrino's Universal Mafia (1992) at Gagosian. Photo: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

It took me twenty years to get Steven Parrino’s work. From the time I first saw his art, in the mid-eighties, I almost always dismissed it as mannered, Romantic, formulaic, conceptualist-formalist heavy-metal boy-art abstraction. But thanks to a very large survey of his work (closing November 5) in no fewer than seven of Gagosian’s handsome Madison Avenue galleries, I’ve come around. Yes, he is mannered and repetitive, but that’s on purpose. He’s an important bridge to a subsequent generation of mostly male artists, including Banks Violette, Terence Koh, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Dash Snow, and Nate Lowman. And the fact of his death at 46, in 2005, means it’s a complete body of work.

It may be that one has to see a lot of Parrino’s art at once before it adds up, so it doesn’t come off as a bunch of overliteral riffs on the flatness of painting. (At least, that’s how I rationalize having missed its mystery, physicality, and power all this time.) There are 56 pieces on view in this show, 39 of them small works on vellum and paper. Seeing this many drawings is an overload, but it allows you to understand that Parrino was incessantly combining punk, pop, Minimalism, the monochrome, high art, low culture, and something brooding, all in his extremely tenacious hand. He worked in pencil, black enamel, and spray paint, and used intentionally provocative subjects like abstract swastikas, rebel flags, and silhouettes of Russ Meyer starlets, as well as photos of Hells Angels, Johnny Cash, and Andy Warhol.

The seventeen paintings on view, many of them large, could use more space, but here again, the big group reveals how relentless Parrino was about his idea. Colors are limited to monochrome black (or black-and-white), orange, red, blue, and silver. (His longtime champion, the critic-curator Bob Nickas, remembers Parrino’s late-nineties vow that “he would only make silver-colored aluminum paintings and black paintings—nothing else. And he did!”) Ten of the canvases are flat, shaped, or pierced with large holes. The rest have raw or painted canvas aggressively pulled or twisted off and around stretchers so that they look blindfolded, roughed-up, or alive. One beauty, Universal Mafia, a diptych with sagging silver canvas that has some of the presence of a Lee Bontecou or a John Chamberlain, seems to transform into floating bodies or two people in bed. Skeletal Implosion 2 features a black-and-white striped tondo twisting into its own center. The last painting in the exhibition is the earliest work here. Made in 1977, when Parrino was only 19, it’s a small, scrappy piece of silver canvas stapled onto a stretcher. Already, the artist is playing a young Dr. Frankenstein of painting.

The eighties were the years when Parrino began painting in earnest. Until recently, that was the decade that dare not speak its name—art of that era was unfashionable, even shameful. But the eighties are gaining allure. Why? For one thing, it’s an era free of a lot of that annoying “greatest generation” talk that accompanies discussions of the preceding two decades. It’s also a time when money, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, art, art dealers, critics, and theory all got together, creating a sense that everyone was forging a new art world. Art then was both smart and fun, critical and for sale at once. aids added enormous urgency. Parrino clearly owes a debt to the so-called Pictures artists of the era, like Richard Prince, Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and even Barbara Kruger, who like Parrino developed a powerfully retinal, highly recognizable graphic style and exploited it.

Parrino called his mauled canvases “misshaped paintings,” in response to the shaped paintings of the sixties. This connection to art history is always present in his work—especially to Donald Judd. “The main thing wrong with painting,” Judd once wrote, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall.” Judd thought that art should be “specific, aggressive” and “seen [all] at once”; he once wrote, “The image, all the parts and the whole should be coextensive.” (Parrino himself said in 1987 that art should have “a certain clarity” and “a plain logic that is concerned with a whole effect, and has little regard for relational parts that detract from this whole”—a philosophy that’s pure Judd.) What’s odd about Parrino, though, isn’t that he draws from figures like Judd and Warhol; it’s that he’s also in with someone as unlikely as the early Julian Schnabel, who activated the surfaces of his paintings (in a particularly bombastic, quasi-heroic way) with jagged fields of broken plates.

Overestimating Parrino would be as much a disservice to him as underestimating him would. He wasn’t a radically original artist. But he was radically dedicated to his narrow idea of what painting could be. He may have talked about death and nihilism, and he wore a black leather jacket everywhere, but Parrino didn’t want to annihilate painting. He came of age, he said, when “the word on painting was ‘Painting Is Dead.’ I saw this as an interesting place for painting … and this death painting thing led to a sex and death painting thing … that became an existence thing.” All this sounds bad-boy and romantic, but that “existence thing” at the end is crucial. He vividly demonstrates that no matter what you do to a canvas—slash, gouge, twist, or mutilate it—you can’t actually kill it. Painting lives, and so, for the moment, does Parrino’s work.

As does modernist monochrome abstraction. There are echoes here of Malevich, who talked about a “desert where nothing can be perceived but feeling”; of Yves Klein, who actually called himself “Yves, the Monochrome”; of Piero Manzoni, who back in the fifties folded and bunched monochrome canvas; Lucio Fontana, who slashed the surfaces of his monochrome paintings and said, “I want to open up space, create a new dimension”; and Clyfford Still, who said, “To be stopped by a frame’s edge was intolerable; a Euclidean prison that had to be annihilated.” It’s all a continuum.

The nagging question, though, is whether this show would have happened without all the buzz created by the artist’s untimely and dramatic death in a late-night motorcycle accident. Which is to say that this show—pure-intentioned as it may be—also feels like an uncommonly brazen push to elevate not only Parrino’s standing but also, of course, his prices. If you headed upstairs from his survey to Gagosian’s gorgeous skylit sixth-floor showroom last week, a nice wedge-shaped Parrino was contextualized with megasellers like Warhol, Richter, Damien Hirst, Rudolf Stingel, and the 37-year-old Anselm Reyle, whose paintings now fetch more than $300,000 and who recently left the Gavin Brown gallery for Gagosian. Parrino’s dealer at the time of his death was José Freire, the estimable owner of Team Gallery, who has guided a number of artists to prominence. Freire told me, “I loved Steven’s work. He embodied many of my ideas about art. But in eight years and five solo shows I sold two paintings; one for $9,000, the other for $10,000.” At Gagosian, Parrino’s work goes for upwards of $1 million. (Parrino’s family hooked up with the gallery for this exhibition.) When I asked Freire whether Gagosian or the estate was giving him any commission from these sales, he just laughed.

Steven Parrino’s death dramatically fit his life. The artist was leaving a New Year’s Eve party in Williamsburg in the early-morning hours of January 1, 2005, when, according to the NYPD, his motorcycle hit a slick patch and skidded out. Rushed to Bellevue, he was pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m. But, for all Parrino’s rock-and-roll lifestyle trappings, the crash was apparently not the result of a careless night of partying: Friends said Parrino wasn’t much of a drinker, and police at the scene said there appeared to be no alcohol involved in the accident. “I was very surprised to hear that he was even out,” his friend Bob Nickas told the Post.

Steven Parrino
Gagosian Gallery. Through November 5.

The Wild One