Kit Reuther Paintings at Sandler Hudson Offer a Slow Reveal

Abstract painting by Kit Reuther.
Kit Reuther, Abstract #1398, 2017; oil, graphite, and silver leaf on linen, 40 by 40 inches.

In her exhibition “New Abstractions” at Sandler Hudson Gallery through May 5, Kit Reuther demonstrates anew that a subdued color scheme can be a way of achieving striking paintings.

The blandly inoffensive title also implies a problem that, for me, is a major issue. How does one write about a show in which two or three paintings (the ones making fresh use of that extremely subdued palette) stand out as haunting, even though Reuther’s overall approach not only breaks no new ground but in the weakest pieces is little more than repetitive.

Reuther, a self-taught artist from Nashville, has an ability to create maximal visual pleasure with a minimal palette. The simple inclusion of silver leaf with graphite marks and gestural combinations of grays in oil paint adds a complexity that resists photographic reproduction—the reflective quality of the silver is subtle but tends to look garish in photographs.

In fact, the contemplative quality of these canvases and works on paper is unusually dependent on the scale—Reuther is rehearsing familiar tropes of gestural marks and loosely defined geometric forms. It is how they are deployed that makes the difference (plus the fact that the lack of precisely defined straight lines in all these not-quite-squares and triangles provides a pleasurable element of surprise).

The reticent combinations of closely related shades and hues give fresh vigor to a style of painting that has been so well explored that Reuther herself describes her departures from the norm in formalist terms.

Kit Reuther, #1412, oil and graphite on canvas
Kit Reuther, Abstract #1412, 2018; oil and graphite on canvas, 60 by 42 inches.

Reuther’s stylistic shifts are small and subtle, and require in-person viewing to distinguish them from aesthetic strategies long since made predictable by less interesting paintings by previous artists. The difficulty in defining what makes the best works in this show out of the ordinary reminds me (it would remind no one else) of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remark that thought runs in channels like wheel ruts, and the hardest thing is to diverge from a familiar line of thought only a little. Reuther, in her most innovative moments, accomplishes that divergence. The combination of well-known strategies with a faint edge of strangeness gives this show its distinctive quality.

I tend to quote parables by Wittgenstein, a philosopher associated with what turned out, in the hands of his inheritors, to be a dead end in philosophy, because he began by being productively bewildered by things that bewildered no one else.

The small twists that salvage, in so many cases, what would otherwise be a boring painting or poem or piece of architecture have often reminded me of Wittgenstein’s parable,  “Sometimes, we go into a man’s study and find his books and papers all over the place, and can say without hesitation: ‘What a mess! We really must clear this room up.’ Yet, at other times, we may go into a room which looks very like the first; but after looking around we decided that we must leave it just as it is, recognizing that, in this case, even the dust has its place.” It is the few paintings by Reuther that share this elusive quality of subliminal order that I find interesting. They redeem a show that otherwise might be categorized as pleasing but ultimately unmemorable.

Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.

Kit Reuther at Sandler Hudson Gallery
Paintings by Kit Reuther at Sandler Hudson Gallery; l to r, Abstract #1407, Abstract #1398, Abstract # 1405.
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