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Charles Seliger (born in 1926) is a curious figure in 20th-century American art. He is, in artistic approach, a disciple of the Abstract Expressionists–a painter who works intuitively and whose vision was forged in the Surrealist ethos. He’s no late bloomer, however: Mr. Seliger had his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1945 at the precocious age of nineteen.
In an odd way, then, he’s a contemporary of The New York School. The twenty or so paintings at Rosenfeld share the mystical bent and compositional strategies of, say, Richard Pousette-Dart and Mark Tobey. What distinguishes Mr. Seliger’s work is its small scale and impossibly detailed painting approach. It appears as if Mr. Seliger stains or blots his panels with acrylic paint and then delineates–or, rather, re-delineates–them with (I’m guessing) a single-hair brush. Mr. Seliger does action painting on a microscopic level. Not for nothing is the gallery providing magnifying glasses at $2.00 a pop.
You can’t help but admire Mr. Seliger’s workmanship and perseverance. The effort put into each piece will astonish most viewers. There’s a lot to be said for such resolution, and the resulting pictures have a jewel-like intensity. All the same, the paintings are best appreciated from a distance. From three or four feet away, the work looks fresh. Up close, Mr. Seliger’s fine-tuning is a distraction.
His technical obsessiveness is undeniably stunning in effect, but makes for a Surrealism that is freeze-dried and shut-down. Only when his images are allowed to breathe–as in the pulsing pinks and purples of the otherworldly phenomena (1996)–do we feel that the paintings have room for anyone other than the artist himself. Otherwise, these beautiful, brittle pictures sit snugly within the confines of their own peculiar cosmos.
© 1999 Mario Naves
A version of this review was originally published in the May 3, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.