Looking Beneath the Surfaces of Eugène Leroy
The New York Times
Roberta Smith
18 September 1992

Fame seems about to overtake Eugene Leroy. The 82-year-old painter, who has lived most of his life in northern France near the Belgian border, has pursued his distinctive if somewhat conservative painting style for at least three decades, working for months and sometimes years on canvases whose paint surfaces are so obsessively thick that their images -- mostly nudes, heads and still lifes -- are virtually obliterated. 

But it was only in the 1980's, when contemporary painting was both dominant and pluralist and figuration made its comeback, that Mr. Leroy began to receive attention outside France and Belgium. Since 1983, he has had several solo shows in Germany (where his work has been admired by Neo-Expressionists like Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz) and, since 1985, in the United States. Last year, he was included in the Sao Paulo Bienal in Brazil. Last summer, his paintings were given their own gallery at the ninth "Documenta" in Kassel, Germany, putting him on a par with artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Francis Bacon. 

Suitably, Mr. Leroy's fourth one-man show in Manhattan is an impressive two-gallery affair consisting of 24 new paintings: 9 at the Michael Werner Gallery on the Upper East Side, 15 at the Edward Thorp Gallery in SoHo. They offer the most extensive view so far of this engrossing eccentric. 

Mr. Leroy's extravagantly paint-laden canvases are engrossing in the way a glowing, slow-burning log might be: they are mesmerizing in their flickering details of texture and color, and so impacted with paint that they almost seem to give off their own heat. 
It takes time actually to see them as paintings, and more time still to see them as different from one another. They seem at first more like geological formations -- or expanses of petrified moss or chaotic topographical maps -- than handmade artworks. But after a while, the deliberation with which their seemingly inchoate surfaces are composed begins to assert itself. 

The variety with which paint is brushed, scraped, layered, piled up and dug into fills these works with markedly distinct passages of paint-handling, in the old-fashioned sense, even while they seem to push paint to new physical limits. And while the artist often favors a prevailing brown tone, a closer look reveals that each painting has an encyclopedic range of color, which tends to infuse the best canvases with an unexpected sense of shimmering light. This is the case especially with the largest and most thinly painted canvas at Werner, "Marina in Light," and in "Large Figure, Summer," at Thorp. 
Mr. Leroy often finishes off a painting with bright slashes of color or relatively pure white. In "Flower Face," at Werner, the final layer consists of several squeezes of green, yellow and red that seem to have come directly from the tube, while "April Showers," at Thorp, culminates in elaborate squeezes of yellow and white. In "With One Thigh," at Werner, a wide scrape of white, more hollowed out of the surface than applied to it, suggests a human presence, shrouded by paint. 

The artist, who works frequently from the model and always in natural light, seems to start each canvas with a discernible image that gradually succumbs to the material and the process of painting. Three charcoal drawings hanging in the office at Werner give an idea of the starting point that is covered over in the paintings. In each, a few fluid lines intimate a bending nude whose form is partly obscured by a flurry of marks -- marks, it should be added, that differ significantly from drawing to drawing. 

Mr. Leroy's work is frequently related to a long line of artists in love with the sheer physicality of paint, from Rembrandt and van Gogh to Chaim Soutine, Lovis Corinth, James Ensor, Jean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning. Another predecessor is Alberto Giacometti, whose obsessive reworkings, both in clay and on canvas, bespeak a somewhat destructive passion not unlike Mr. Leroy's. These connections all make sense, yet there's often something a little suspect about such an easy and extended roll call; it suggests that Mr. Leroy's work is also a bit obvious. 

It seems more to the point to say that Mr. Leroy takes the traditional ways and means of oil painting to such extremes that his work is almost radical, almost sentimental and almost parodic. His achievement is to attract all these adjectives while allowing none of them to stick. There's a plaquelike impenetrability to his surfaces that should placate the most literal-minded Formalists of the 60's. 

Yet Mr. Leroy's best paintings are those that are the least abstract, possessed of a clotted yet discernible sense of light and space that harbors within it a comfortably familiar image, pinpointed by the work's title. In "Some Dark Summer Flowers," at Werner, a vertical swath of blue, curved at the last moment, leads the eye to a broad glob of red: a sweet, irresistibly heavy bloom. A similar still life at Thorp, "Red Flower," includes a square of white that suggests an open window. 

Finally, the physical excess of Mr. Leroy's canvases evokes with considerable power, and not a little wit, the centuries-old struggle between what painters see and what their talent and sensibilities allow them to wrestle onto canvas. As his paintings suggest, it is often a struggle as ridiculous as it is sublime.