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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 62-68

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Formalist Investigations of Medieval Forms
Pat Lipsky and the Spirt of Color

Karen Wilkin


Pat Lipsky, Les Vitraux, Piltzer. Campagne, Paris, June 8-July 7, 2002.

Here is the scenario: visiting early Gothic churches, on one of many trips to France, a dedicated abstract painter from New York becomes interested in stained glass windows—not just any stained glass windows, but those of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, those vigorous, simplified images distinguished by the boldness with which patches of intense color are set side by side. It's the color that first attracts the painter. She is drawn by the audacity with which the makers of the windows combined luminous reds, shimmering deep blues, strange purples, brilliant greens, and crisp yellows, and impressed by the way they punctuated this brilliant chroma with notes of white, in part because such jostling combinations of high-key colors are familiar to her, as a knowledgeable observer of modernist painting, and in part because her own work has always depended on complex orchestrations of hue. Steeped in the visual language of the Fauvists, of Klee, of Matisse, and of the American abstract painters whose work was rooted in Matisse's example—a description that might be applied to her own efforts—the painter filters her perceptions of the windows through her understanding of twentieth-century color. The result? A fascinating, idiosyncratic body of drawings and works on paper in which modernist perceptions and medieval inventiveness meet head-on: Pat Lipsky's Les Vitraux series. No irony, no cynical appropriation, just a lively conversation between past and present, between an age-old desire for expressive storytelling and modern concerns for purely formal issues.

The series began almost coincidentally. Lipsky, who has spent extended periods working in France, mostly in Paris, since 1990, had become interested in Gothic architecture and devoted a good deal of the summer of 2000 to looking at cathedrals. On one of numerous visits to Chartres, an image of "a little man sitting before the fire" caught her eye—the month of February in the Calendar window. The image interested her but, as she describes the experience: "What attracted me, at first, was the color—color from seven and eight hundred years ago that was like twentieth-century color. I had a pad with me—I [End Page 62] [Begin Page 64] always do—and I started to draw. And then I got more and more interested and sought out windows everywhere I went, in the cathedrals and in museums." The drawings became paintings on paper after a visit to Bourges cathedral, which she found particularly exciting. "I had read a lot about the architecture of the period and Bourges seemed interesting," Lipsky recalls. "When I got there, I discovered that because of the way it was constructed, the windows were lower than at Chartres and most of the other cathedrals that I knew, and the windows really got to me—they're as good or better than Chartres, but much less known. What I always want to do when I see something that particularly thrills me is to 'tell my friends' and so at Bourges cathedral I decided to make paintings of some of the individual images to take back to New York with me."

That these paintings on paper were based on direct observations, but were at the same time, executed at one remove, gave Lipsky a broad zone in which to work, a territory bounded, on one side, by scrupulous truthfulness to what she had seen and, on the other, by the freedom to make subtle alterations. She wasn't, after all, making replicas of the windows, but using her in situ perceptions as a springboard for disciplined improvisation. "I drew from what I could see—sometimes I'd stand on a chair to get closer—and wrote down notes about the colors on my drawings," Lipsky explains. But the paintings were made in her Paris studio, with...


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