Moira Dryer: Satisfyingly complete

Moira Dryer, Self Portrait, 1985, casein on wood, 24 x 24 inches. All images are courtesy of the estate of Moira Dryer.

Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / Moira Dryer (b. 1957; d. 1992) was among the first painters in the 1980s and ’90s to reject minimalism and conceptualism and open things up for painting after what had seemed, to many critics and theorists, to be its endgame. These artists reintroduced references to life and experience, proudly showed off their painting skills, embraced such openly decorative themes as flowers and patterns, and freely mixed together elements of abstraction and figuration in the same painting. Although Dryer’s otherwise abstract pictures often include decorative motifs and references to other art and “real life”—that is, mix together abstraction with references to portraiture and the theater in which she worked before she became a full-time painter—her abstraction feels sincere and fresh rather than borrowed. As the Phillips’s press release puts it, “Dryer used abstraction as a language to express her everyday experiences to elicit emotion in her viewers.”

Today, Dryer is an underrecognized artist (why she doesn’t appear on WikiArt is beyond me). If there were justice in the art world (mostly, there isn’t), this concisely curated exhibition at The Phillips Collection, the first survey exhibition of Dryer’s work in two decades, would go a long way toward rectifying this neglect.

Moira Dryer, The Signature Painting, 1987, casein on wood, 48 x 63 inches and 10 x 60 inches
Moira Dryer, Picture This, 1989, acrylic on wood, 46 x 48 inches

With 22 works from 1985 to 1990, the exhibition includes several paintings that protrude just a little from the wall; one has a drawer handle attached to it, another has a little painting hanging next to it, and two have a predella-like shelf under them. One painting has a notch at the bottom end. There’s one free-standing sculpture and a couple of wall pieces that might as well be sculptures. A vitrine includes a selection of Dryer’s notes, drawings, clippings and photographs drawn from her archive; the exhibition title, which gently nudges us not to dismiss the artist, comes from one of the newspaper clippings on display.

Born in Toronto, Canada, Dryer moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. There she was a student of Elizabeth Murray, who became her mentor and friend. She was her studio assistant and, for a short while, the studio assistant for Julian Schnabel. Supporting herself for many years by working as a prop maker and set designer for the avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines, her first one-person commercial gallery exhibition wasn’t until 1986, at John Good Gallery in New York. Subsequently, she had two shows at Mary Boone (1990 and 1992), as well as solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, posthumously, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1993). Her work is in the collections of the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Met. While the artist died young (in 1992, at the age of 34, of cancer), her brief career was intense and brilliant. Why, then, isn’t she more well-known?

The reason, I suspect, derives less from the brevity of her career (out of sight, out of mind is the operative phrase that comes to mind) than from having a poetic sensibility that reaches outward instead of inward—something she perhaps learned from working in the theater, where art succeeds or fails depending on whether or not it appeals to an audience. Dryer’s art is not didactic, polemical or ironic. Nor is it “about self-expression” (although self-expression is obviously there). And though it’s easy to miss, given how light and humorous she can be, she does not deconstruct anything—least of all abstract painting. Her sensibility is spare and it doesn’t appear that she fusses too much with her pictures, but unlike a lot of art made nowadays that’s always at the ready to be revised, Dryer’s work seems satisfyingly complete.

Moira Dryer, Untitled, 1990, casein on fabric stretched over wood, 13.5 x 24 inches
Moira Dryer, The Debutante, 1987, casein, lacquer on rubber, wood, 48 x 48 inches

Almost all the works in the show are casein on wood. Even in pieces that include lacquer, metal, steel, rubber, or fabric stretched over wood, casein is part of the recipe. The milk-based medium, which has been around for centuries, yields a silky smooth, matte surface that looks a lot like gouache, and is far more difficult to handle than acrylic. Dryer often uses it to make thin, wispy veils of undulating stripes (along with drips), but also to make thicker applications that are smooth and opaque.

In a 1987 Art in America interview, Dryer says, “I have utilized the tradition of reductive geometric painting, but I’ve never been interested in it as a pure form of abstraction. Instead, I thought of it as a language to combine with other painting languages in order to empty my work of some associations built into the whole enterprise.” [Art in America, December 1987]. She then adds, “… I was able to use minimal means to convey, I hope, real feeling.” She doesn’t say, “express real feeling”—a phrase that would imply she’s focused on her own feelings—but rather “convey real feeling,” a phrase that focuses on the effect her art has on its audience. Her titles often help in this regard.

Take, for example, E.K.G. and Fingerprint #2647, two casein on wood paintings from 1988. Like the witty and wonderful duck/rabbit image where the brain switches at will from perceiving a rabbit to perceiving a duck, and then back again, each of these paintings can be perceived either as an abstraction (where deft touch and rich, muted colors in and of themselves draw you in), or alternatively, with the titles in mind, as images of what the titles say they are.

In Close Up (1989), the playful back-and-forth between abstraction and figuration is again at work. Two vertical green forms located on either side of a wide horizontal painting form decorative motifs suggesting the curtains on a stage. Once you think of the title, these same green forms take on the look of long, curling hair on either side of the “face” in an up-close portrait.

Moira Dryer, Portrait #119, 1987, casein on canvas on wood, artist’s frame, 21.25 x 24 inches
Moira Dryer, Fingerprint #2647, 1988, casein on wood, 48 x 63 5/8 x 3 inches

In Portrait #119 (1987), we see vertical stripes alternating between saturated and transparent reds, with four small, slightly darker shapes in the four corners. Given the title, album photo tabs come to mind. That these shapes look decidedly like the heads of cats peering in from above the painting lends the work a charm not usually found in abstract painting.

Not all of Dryer’s works are, however, as playful as these. Some are left untitled, and in many instances, the titles bear no clear connection to their paintings. Dryer isn’t in the business of dictating interpretations; she says, “the paintings are the performers. It’s really up to the audience at that point to say what the specific production is.” [PR]

According to the ancient Greek proverb, “Those die young whom the gods love best.” Well, maybe. What’s true is that memorable artists who die young, as did Dryer, are those who, for whatever reason, felt an urgency to making art during their twenties—a decade many of us squander by meandering from one style to another. It breaks our hearts to think of Seurat, whose drawings are beyond exquisite, dying at 31. There are others who died in their thirties—Raphael, Géricault, Van Gogh, and Eva Hesse among them. And there’s also Dryer, whose husband, Victor Alzamoro, also an artist, died from a congenital heart defect at only 29, nine years before her death and less than two years into their marriage. Dryer’s brief life was marked by tragedy, but she managed to make oddly beautiful and trenchant art for which many of us are grateful.

Moira Dryer: Back in Business,” The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Feb. 8-Apr. 19, 2020. Guest curated by Lili Siegel, Executive Director and Curator of the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) in Reston, VA.

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.

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