A half-century on, Alex Hay’s giant paint-and-canvas homages to items usually found in stationery stores continue to amuse and amaze. His 1965 painting “Legal Pad” lives up to its title, with the pale yellow of the paper and the pale blue of the delicate horizontal lines running edge to edge. It might almost be the real thing, except that, at nearly 8 feet tall, it looms. Its combination of precise realism and outsize scale encapsulates the conundrum of Hay’s art: It is both commanding and modest, stately and slightly comic.
“Legal Pad” is among 40 paintings and drawings in “Alex Hay: Past Work and Cats, 1963-2020” at Peter Freeman Inc., which also include much-enlarged versions of a mailing label, a cargo tag hanging from its length of twine, some door-size brown paper bags and a page torn from a stenographer’s pad. It is the first survey of Hay’s six-decade career and another museum-quality show in a season full of them, even with the gallery scene in recovery mode.
The Quaker plainness and understatement of Hay’s work sets it apart, befitting an artist who has always been something of an outlier. Born in 1930 and educated in Florida, Hay came to New York in 1959 and spent a little more than a decade in the art world. He found his vision, performed with the artists and dancers gathered around the Judson Church — especially Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Paxton and Deborah Hay, then his wife — and had three solo shows at the often prescient Kornblee Gallery.
But by the early 1970s, Hay had left New York. He eventually settled in Bisbee, Ariz., buying an old hotel with the painter Peter Young, another New York art-world dropout. He refurbished his portion and has lived and worked there ever since, going three decades without a solo show anywhere.
Hay began returning to art world visibility in 2002 with an exhibition of his works from the 1960s that was assembled independently of the artist by Peter Freeman, and followed by inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. There Hay showed two new paintings depicting greatly magnified scraps of raw or painted wood that he had saved from his Bisbee renovation, thinking they might prove useful. These works perfectly illustrate Hay’s insistence that his art arises from circumstances of an unusually mundane sort. The most recent paintings in the show are abstractions of wavy patterns based on close-ups of the fur of his cats, Bella, Marigold, Lily and Tito.
Hay’s works of the ’60s are emblematic of the decade’s fact-oriented art movements: Pop Art, Minimal art, Photo Realism and Conceptualism, without plugging neatly into any of them. For one thing, his work is almost completely handmade, perhaps not surprising for an artist who is adept at carpentry and plumbing. That is part of its mystique. It is also deeply involved with creative problem-solving — mainly, how to make small things convincingly large through a meticulous process of magnification that has ritualistic, even devotional aspects.
Hay’s objects verge on the anonymous but his techniques, which usually involve spray lacquer and stencils, are so careful that his works acquire their own kind of personableness. They also often gently pun the issues and methods of abstract painting. Since their subjects are flat to begin with, the early pieces easily achieve the goal of flatness that drove so much of ’60s painting. His legal pad paintings evoke the parallel lines and stripes of Agnes Martin and Frank Stella. “Label” (1966) has cropped corners that qualify it as a shaped painting. And the work’s classic red perimeter recalls the bordered fields of the Minimalist paintings of Ralph Humphrey and Jo Baer, only cheerier.
In fits and starts, the show at Freeman traces Hay’s project from the relatively representational and recognizable paintings of the 1960s to the relatively abstract ones he has made in our present century, accompanied by sometimes stupefying drawings and studies that allow you to glimpse his process.
One of the most beautiful and mysterious examples of the early years here is “Cash Register Slip” of 1966. It depicts, at around 20 times its usual size, a printed receipt dated Feb. 23, 1966, for purchases in the amount of $5.05 from H. Behlen & Bro. Inc., an art supply store once in Greenwich Village. The ephemerality of this bit of detritus — the cheap paper, the torn top and bottom, and especially the crisp font and faint, spotty printing — is memorialized. And the labor-intensiveness of the painting is reflected in a startling little study for it: a collage-drawing that includes the original receipt and some slightly larger trial renderings, dotted with swarms of tiny numbers that measure the receipt’s every detail to within a 50th of an inch. .
If “Cash Register Slip” breaks down its subject to a granular level, a later work titled “Old Green ’05,” from 2005, does something similar with the act of painting. From afar it resembles a monochrome painting. Step a little closer and its surface reveals three or four tones of green, along with suggestions of dings, cracks and drips acquired over the years. Each minute shift in tone is another stencil.
A question that crops up frequently in this wonder-filled show is “How was this thing made?” The answers can range widely. It is hard to believe that sculptures of enlarged brown paper bags from 1968 are not made from very big sheets of conventional brown kraft paper; in fact, they are made of paper that Hay painted brown. With this in mind you may be inclined to see the many delicate cracks in the yellow surface of “Sun Print” (1968), as a feat of exquisite trompe l’oeil. In this case, Hay simply silk-screened a fugitive yellow ink onto a large sheet of paper and left it outdoors. The weather did the rest.
Alex Hay: Past Work and Cats, 1963-2020
Through June 11 at Peter Freeman, Inc., 140 Grand Street, Manhattan, (212) 966-5154, peterfreemaninc.com.