Art News - February 1985

Max Coyer

by Ken Sofer

For years Coyer painted people, all with the distressing affliction of having featureless, inverted cones for heads. He now depicts a more heterogeneous population. The expressionless humanoids still lurk in the shadows, but the emphasis has shifted.

The unifying thread of this new work is its appropriated origins. Each piece begins with the image of a woman, based on either Picasso’s Dora Maar portraits or the Madame de Sade of Ingres. For Coyer, these artists exemplify salient aspects of a development that posits a historical period of “thesis” (the Neoclassicism of the French Academy), followed by an age of “antithesis” (the reaction against academicism), leading to today’s “synthesis,” a unification of past and present imagery and styles, and of “high” and “low” culture, as ushered in by Pop.

Coyer, a member of the “synthetic” generation, uses his borrowed images in as much different manner from , say, a Warhol, a Rosenquist or a Salle. He makes them serve as modulated grounds, in an odd way like Schnabel’s use of plates – as a surface to work off of, or against. In a Coyer painting, Dora might emerge relatively unscathed, perhaps adorned with parallel diagonal lines, surrounded by radiating bars of bright red, or cropped, shifted and recropped by rectangular frames. More often, though, the original is totally lost, gobbled up in a storm of turgid brushwork, geometric line, checkerboard patterns and other enigmatic figures: a mummy, a bull, a swan, a masked Mongol holy man. By interchanging the geometric and organic, shifting the planes of perspective, alternating transparency and opacity and flipping both positive and negative space, Coyer communicates a jumpy anxiety.

Although not necessary, it does help to see these paintings together. There is a serial quality to Coyer’s work, which is emphasized by the repetition of images and of Coyer’s stenciled, spray-painted signature and by the uniformity of canvas size (generally 60 by 40 inches). The artist’s clever red-graffiti decoration of the gallery played off elements within the works, providing a further unifying note. Like the directory of a formalist soap opera, Coyer compels us to follow the transformations of his characters as they travel in a world of ever-thickening plots.

Pictured: The Nun, 1984, oil on canvas, 60 x 46″