Art in America

June 1994

Ellen Kozak at Carolyn J. Roy

By Robert G. Edelman

The type of visionary landscape transformed into organic abstraction that Arthur Dove explored after 1910 seems to have found few practitioners among today’s painters, Ellen Kozak being an exception. Kozak’s landscape, which consist of fluid shapes that give an impression of perpetual motion, are devised with interlocking pieces that constitute free-form inventions. Painted in watercolor and oil on panel, they run a full range from fairly literal translations of a specific local, such as Hudson Study: Tidewater #1, to arrangements of simplified forms that have only a loose relationship to the landscape, as in Bend (both works, like 9 of the 11 in the show, date from 1993). Areas of muted but lush earth colors, representing a shoreline, a body of water or kidney shaped cloud, are sometimes orchestrated in a random fashion, although their original identities are rarely completely obscured.

Kozak spends several months a year making studies and small paintings on location in the Hudson River Valley, working in watercolor. Hudson Study: Promontory (#1) is a fairly straightforward analysis of reflections in water, described in broad fields of pale-blue and green, along with accents of black and white that resist specific readings as fragments of nature. The forms delineated in the studies are angular and descriptive. The larger paintings on panel are, by contrast, lyrical and abstract. Kozak sacrifices particularity in favor of implication. Rhythm and the proportional weight (by color and expanse) of one area to another become the overriding concern. In Cove, Kozak isolates two light areas of comparable size, suggesting air and water, at the center of the painting. Both areas are toned down with degrees of gray the upper, lavender superimposed, like a mist on the horizon, over a sky blue: the lower, a warm gray over phosphorescent green. These areas are encompassed by curving masses rendered in variations of earthy greens, from olive to a raw umber. A purple zone in the foreground anchors the composition, nearly tilting the whole painting forward with its intense hue.

At times Kozak allows her unmoored shapes to rotate in a cadenced formation, as in Notations on a Landscape: High Hill Loop (1992). Areas of similar size and shape flow toward a black vortex; a small patch of bright yellow doesn’t seem capable of stemming an overall predictability. However, Kozak’s Notations on a Landscape: Schoharie combines a sense of place with a sensuous fiction that radiates light. Clearly inclined toward abstraction, Kozak’s work is strongest when nature retains a structural role.