Waldemar Kolbusz Extends a Great Painterly Tradition

Feb/Mar 2004, p9

Here in the U.S., our stereotypical notion of Australian modern art is a kind of rough-hewn, primitivistic figuration, often dealing with myths of the Outback, in the manner of Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale. After all, there is a rich tradition of such art in Australia and one could not fault a young artist for falling under its spell.

At age 33, Waldemar Kolbusz, however, is a painter with a more global view who has been widely collected and publicized in Australia for paintings that take their inspiration from modern American masters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Kolbusz, puts his own spin on the aesthetics of the New York School, creating paintings that extend its tradition in a unique manner, as seen in his recent exhibition at Agora Gallery, 415 West Broadway, in Soho.

What strikes one immediately upon encountering Kolbusz’s large oils on canvas or linen is his unique approach to both color and composition. As a colorist, he has achieved a singular synthesis of Hans Hofmann’s boldness and Mark Rothko’s muted subtlety. Which is to say: Like Hofmann, Kolbusz employs brilliant hues, particularly reds, yellows, and blues, with impressive intrepidness. However, he modulates them in a manner that make his hues seem to smolder rather than to scream, and in that regard his sensibility seems closer to that of Rothko.

Although the exact alchemy through which he accomplishes his effects remains mysterious, as it does with any good painter, Kolbusz appears to layer his colors in luminous glazes rather than applying them alla prima. This may account for the subtle modulations he achieves with hues that seem to overlap like filmy veils, creating a smoky sense of depth, even while his bold rectangular forms hold fast to the picture plane, asserting its two dimensionality.

Thus Kolbusz animates his canvases with the tug-of-war between illusory and actual space that Hofmann called “push and pull.” And like Hofmann and Rothko, Kolbusz builds his compositions with mostly rectangular shapes, albeit blocked in with bold, broad strokes that eschew hard-edged precision for a juicy looseness. Geometry and gesture converge dynamically in the canvases of Waldemar Kolbusz to achieve a vigorous synthesis at once sensual and architectural.

Like Brice Marden and very few other contemporary painters, Kolbusz has been able to extend the lessons of the Abstract Expressionists and turn them to his own ends in order to forge a visual vocabulary altogether his own. It is built upon both an intellectual comprehension of the painterly tradition to which he belongs and an intuitive ability to trust the spontaneous impulses of his own sensibility. He appears able to rein these gestural impulses in and ride them to victory within the embattled arena of the large canvas.

Much to his credit, Kolbusz does not indulge in the distancing strategies that we see in much postmodern abstraction, wherein the artist hedges his bets in the manner of the Neo Geo school by coyly skirting the unabashed passion that made the work of the New York School so vitally exciting. Rather, Waldemar Kolbusz takes those risks, those glorious gambles that, as Hofmann once put it, enable the artist “to transform the material with which he works back into the sphere of the spirit.” And for that we should all be grateful to this adventurous Australian painter.