Chronogram— Art Review: Gregory Amenoff’s “Chords of Memory”

By Taliesin Thomas

“Eastertide,” Gregroy Amenoff, oil on canvas, 2002-2004

Twenty years ago, I met Gregory Amenoff at an intimate house party on Cape Cod. My crush was immediate. He won’t remember me—a fledgling professional working for a gallerist friend of his at the time—but in true groupie style I cherish the memory of that encounter. Amenoff is a rockstar of his generation, and when I learned of his solo show at Pamela Salisbury Gallery, I gathered myself to revisit the Amenoff flame. This tremendous survey of 50 years of his work is a superior exhibition, and the rendezvous was exquisite.

From the moment you step into his world, Amenoff commands a universe of organic intensity that is a dazzling combination of vibrant abstract and expressive styles. The works reverberate the brave essence of his practice and propel us on a journey into the power of paint. And there is no turning back—to be with Amenoff’s art is to experience the collapse of time, where past, present, and future are infused by his ceaselessness explorations. The work is a continual flow of discovery, reaching states of visible torment and transcendence along the way. Working out of the American Modernist tradition, his paintings disclose everything that we love about great art: a rugged escapade filled with twists and (sometimes tragic) turns, peppered with bouts of madness and struggle, realization, and occasional states of total harmonious bliss. In a word: masterful.

“Arch,” Gregory Amenoff, oil on panel, 2005

Amenoff’s works from the 1980s double as scenes of transformation that seem to melt and rage all at once—where one aspect of the canvas relents, the other appears to grapple. Standing inches from the heavy surface of Anima (1984), for example, one cannot resist the density. ‘What was he thinking?’ comes to mind throughout this show. The interplay between his larger canvases and smaller works provide insight into Amenoff’s dynamic range, from the charming allure of Cooper Cover (2005) to the darker realms of insecure searching as seen in Crux (1988). A series of colorful prints with playful Spanish titles suggest a flirtation with far-flung lands, while a works such as Eastertide (2004) and Juno (2002-2004) appear to celebrate the beauty of our native soil.

“Dawn Arbor,” Gregory Amenoff, oil on panel, 2006

Many of the works in this show demonstrate Amenoff’s standing as an Abstract Expressionist painter, however, there are also unexpected pop-inspired landscapes, geometric scenes, and quasi-esoteric pieces that conjure unknown realms. Amenoff invites us in, offers everything, and somehow disappears as part of the process—we are left to determine our way through his forest of moods, and the work keeps us searching for him as such. There are several colossal paintings that anchor the aura of this show, including the titular Chords of Memory (1993) and a sumptuous Arbor (2000) that will take your breath away.

“Oxbow,” Gregory Amenoff, oil on panel, 2006

Expertly installed on five floors of Pamela Salisbury’s atypical gallery layout—an adventure between two buildings that comprise her space—this exhibition represents an impressive tribute. With over 50 one-person exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the United States and Europe, numerous honors, awards, a solid teaching career at Columbia University since 1994, and work in the permanent collections of more than 30 museums worldwide, Gregory Amenoff is celebrated figure in American art and beyond.

The show left me devastated, my youthful crush re-ignited. We all know there something magical about meeting someone at the beach (or near the beach as it was that evening on the Cape). When we come upon the earth at its edge as it embraces the ocean, we are reminded of our sacred beingness in the face of rawness. Amenoff gifts his audience with this romantic-cum-spiritual encounter, and his veritable “Chords of Memory” indeed pluck at our heart strings, allowing for unanticipated melodies that sway and seduce with unabashed force. As Amenoff states, all that artists “can do is to close the studio door and make work that is true to our sensibility…the rest be damned.”