Jack Youngerman's current body of work is distinctive in its scale, formal complexity and physical presence. Working within a range of symmetrical formats with approximately similar dimensions, he has developed an open-ended sequence of small works, each of which bears a family resemblance to the others but is strikingly individual in structure, color and expressive impact. Confronting over 40 of them, one is increasingly engaged by their inventiveness and unpredictability. Youngerman continues to work at large scale, as well. The present exhibition, however, extends his preoccupation with the visual intensity that can be achieved through compression.
Youngerman refers to these pieces as Cut-Ups, to differentiate them from collages. The components have been cut from a group of earlier gouaches which he subsequently rejected but still had on hand. With matte surfaces that sometimes bear traces of pre-existing brushstrokes, the Cut-Ups are seductively tactile, inviting close inspection. Each cut form has its own color. The flat, shaped elements, adhered to one another, can constitute up to five layers, forming an entity a little over an inch thick. The works vary in size from 13 to 16 inches square, with the majority around 14 by 14. (The dimensions do not include the white backgrounds.) They have a presence that approaches relief. In many cases the shapes are made from paper thick enough that the cut edges are painted, furthering the object-like quality of the configurations. Youngerman likes the fact that these pieces are neither strictly painting nor sculpture. Floated slightly in front of an underlying white plane, on which they cast a slight shadow, the Cut-Ups also sit well back from the surface of the sleek, box-like plexiglass frames that have been devised to display them.
Youngerman has worked at small scale before. In 2006, the Washburn Gallery showed 159 pieces done in watercolor, ink and gouache on paper that had developed over some 25 years. Those images were often around 5 inches in diameter or height, with forms tending towards the irregular or organic. But symmetry played a role there, too – usually bilateral symmetry, rather than the radial formats that dominate the Cut-Ups.
Youngerman's fascination with symmetry is the key to this entire group. Two general schemes predominate – either three- or four-sided. Many of the works are constructed within an equilateral triangle; sometimes two superimposed triangles (one rotated) form a star. The quadrilateral structures lend themselves to a broad range of overlaps and extrusions that produce complicated silhouettes. In both triangular and quadrilateral formats, symmetrical schemes, some of them geometric, angular and sharp-edged, others curvilinear and leaf-like, radiate from a central point. Youngerman does not see a conflict between geometric and organic form. "Geometry is at the heart of natural form," he reminds us; and "both bi-lateral and radial symmetry pervade nature."
Symmetry does not mean that these forms are static. The triangles are not at rest – they are implicitly afloat. The four-sided shapes are dynamic, often suggesting forceful outward expansion. Pointed elements may burst the boundaries of an underlying square and flare explosively. Youngerman describes the resulting shapes in such works as "stressful symmetry."
Sets of colors convey different expressive climates. Some – such as yellow or green – may evoke vegetation. In some works, small grouped components have a decorative grace that may suggest Islamic mosaics. Contrarily, various cruciform schemes with resonant hues project the solemnity of stained glass windows. A deep, radiant blue dominates many of the works, a powerful color Youngerman identifies as "ultramarine laced with cobalt blue." In some works, light seems to glow from behind big frontal forms. The role of black, in conjunction with multiple bright hues, is infrequent but striking when it occurs. In Foil Black, where four large black concave shapes face each other across a central point, backed by two different blues punctuated by small areas of red, the image takes on a ceremonial gravity. Thin rays of yellow emanate from the work's center from behind a small black cross. Here, the yellow can be read as both space and light.
The Cut-Ups have been in development over the past ten years, and all are dated 2008-2018. They are not an unexpected move for him. Youngerman worked with cut paper forms as early as the 1950s in Paris, and has done so from time to time in the intervening years. The current works, however, are his most sustained exploration of the technique. Although the gestation has taken place over a decade, the works in their present form didn't emerge until about five years ago, or even later; Youngerman describes the work process as "never a straight line, always a spiral, involving endless adjustments and adaptations." His cutting from the pre-existing gouaches was not random; existing forms were respected, but once cut free and re-situated, the possibilities multiplied. Youngerman found himself repeatedly surprised by the changes that took place as the components were mixed and recomposed. The dates of individual pieces, therefore, cannot be pinned down; and even the completion date of 2018 for the entire exhibition, Youngerman says, does not mean that certain works do not continue, post-2018, in flux.
– Elizabeth C. Baker