People often use “pop-cultural landscape” to describe the terrain of commercial symbols and signs forming the mantle of modern American life, but few artists have hewed to this notion as literally as Allan D’Arcanangelo. If you’ve never heard of D’Arcanangelo, who died in 1998 at age 68, that’s perfectly understandable if a little sad. Although he was a bonafide star during ’60s scene in New York—a pioneer along with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosequist and Tom Wesselman in defining the classic Pop Art style—he largely fell off the radar by the late 1970s. Perhaps it was because his work was a bit too indebted to earlier of 20th-century American painters—the Precisionist Charles Sheeler in particular. His approach lacked the radicality of Warhol’s, who, after all, eventually abandoned the paintbrush for silkscreened images.
Today, painting by hand is once again acceptable, and in this environment, D’Arcangelo’s broad, expansive and crisply delineated acrylic canvases look newly minted, especially in the pocket retrospective currently on view through May 2 at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in Chelsea. The exhibit presents a range of compositions created between 1962 and 1982, most of them describable as “road pictures.” Indeed, the open asphalt as route to presumably endless possibilities is a common motif here; D’Arcangelo understood that mobility—both actual and social—was the sine qua non of our shared experience. “America is a car,” he once wrote, “with all the attendant virtues of moving privately from one place to another with speed and definition. Purpose and reason are lacking, but in the very absurdity of swift movement, there is the desire to be.”
Beneath inexorability of this logic, of course, runs a certain nihilism of which D’Arcangelo was keenly aware, most notably in White Highway (1964). Here, the X-ray negative of a two-lane blacktop recedes towards a vanishing point against a starless night sky. D’Arcangelo also depicted the tragedies of American life that riveted a nation of rubber-neckers: The death of Kennedy in Place of Assasination (1965-1967) and that of the former Norma Jean Baker in Marilyn (1962). In a era when horizons seem to have shrunk, D’Arcangelo’s rediscovered paeans to the limitations of our seemingly limitless society are especially fresh and relevant.