Probably the central dispute about abstract art in the 20th century hinged on the ostensible spiritual content or impact of the work. Some, like Barnett Newman, insisted that his paintings were “religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life.” Others were profoundly superficial materialists like Frank Stella, who famously opined, “What you see is what you see.” While I have never found Newman’s paintings very convincing arguments, the same cannot be said for the work of Mark Rothko, whose shimmering veils of color can — under the right conditions — produce something resembling an out-of-body experience.

Those conditions — specified by the artist, but seldom met outside his studio — centered on dim lighting, which drastically amplified the subtle optical effects of Rothko’s color fields. When MOCA has previously exhibited portions of its small but strong cluster of these works, it has been in group shows with other artists’ works that demanded the standard institutional brightness. By installing the bulk of their Rothko holdings in their already light-challenged Pacific Design Center satellite facility — and adding carefully muted lighting — the museum has hit upon a perfect symbiotic coupling that turns the PDC space’s shortcomings into a rare opportunity to experience Rothko’s paintings in their intended environment.

Including a couple of early small bio­morphic canvases and a half dozen of his larger, immersive works from the ’50s, “MOCA’s Mark Rothkos” functions as a mini-survey of the artist’s contributions to the New York School’s aesthetic legacy. But Rothko’s intentions weren’t aesthetic — or rather, they were aesthetic only insomuch as formal content served a psychological and spiritual function. While many of the spiritual claims made for abstract painting — or art in general for that matter — are far-fetched and unverifiable, this small but potent show finally gives Angelenos the chance to experientially test works like the spectacular Black on Dark Sienna on Purple in a setting conducive to their amazing psychic powers.

MOCA’s MarK Rothkos | MOCA at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (310) 289-5223 | Through January 21

Daniel Mendel-Black

I should probably be suspicious of my attraction to the Abstract Expressionist–esque paintings of Daniel Mendel-Black, scion of the sinister Art Center Mafia and avowed skeptic (in artist statements and in his awesome self-published zine Spring Journal) of both expressionist painting and romanticism. But anyone who name checks Larry Cohen (B-movie auteur of Q: The Winged Serpent and the It’s Alive trilogy) and John Carpenter’s L.A. docudrama They Live in his manifesto has got something on the ball. And the fact that Mendel-Black parted company with the prestigious Margo Leavin Gallery rather than keep producing his well-received neat-and-tidy grids of incremental decorator color variations suggests that however ironically refracted his painterliness may be, it is ultimately sincere.

His latest works, located in the Chinatown mall–embedded Mandarin Gallery, are pitched as sort of Zombie Mystery Paintings and accompanied by a typically literate screed titled (as is the exhibit itself) “The Paintings Are Alive,” positing 13 tongue-only-partly-in-cheek ripostes to David Salle’s self-important 1980’s polemic “The Paintings Are Dead.” But the paintings are almost too tasty to credit with any such contrived ironic distance — certainly they have more of an excuse to exist than most of Mr. Salle’s degraded pastiches of Rosenquist and Picabia.

While Mendel-Black’s color schemes range from grayscales to psychedelic fireworks-wrapper palettes, each of the new works demonstrate similar “back to front” gradations of color purity and saturation, as well as deliberate and ostentatious use of textural variations — background grids loosely rendered in flat multicolored smears with thickly impastoed solid-hued stripes hovering on ?the surface. It’s a winning formula, resulting in a panoply of subtle spatial effects and richly satisfying color and compositional arrangements that possess considerable staying power — they keep on surprising ?the longer you look. Many a true canvas is painted in jest.

Daniel Mendel-Black: The Paintings Are Alive | Mandarin Gallery, 970 N. Broadway, No. 213, Chinatown | (213) 687-4107 | Through January 6

Lavi Daniel

There’s absolutely no postmodern layers of self-reflexive irony to be overcome to appreciate the work of Lavi Daniel. A midcareer survey of the local, mostly self-taught painter’s painter at the Armory — guest curated by longtime fan Anne Ayres — traces his progression through several distinct, and distinctly earnest, phases over the past 24 years, ranging from the montagelike, verging-on-abstraction representational work of the mid-’80s to his recent bravura monumental oils on canvas depicting loopy, vaguely architectural structures that articulate complex illusionistic space without actually crossing the line into illusionism. En route he visits hazy, luminous geometries, hovering iridescent pastel voids and confident ink-wash grids. While each period yields up treasures — the trumpet-feet-curtain combo (all of the artist’s works are untitled) of 1988; the Chinese-takeout-containers-in-the-mist from 1997 — Daniel has clearly hit his stride in the last couple of years, synthesizing the type of linear spatial abstractions familiar to the work of Terry Winters and Brice Marden into something wholly original and uniquely Angeleno. An additional 27 examples of the virtuosic ink-wash drawings are also on view at Bobbie Greenfield’s.

Parables of Space: Lavi Daniel| Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena | (626) 792-5101 | Through February 25

LAVI DANIEL: Recent Ink Wash Drawings | Bobbie Greenfield Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., B6, Santa Monica | (310) 264-0640 | Through January 20

Nicholas Pittman

I’m not sure how ultra-new these are. Pittman runs the gamut of abstract devices from stripes to grids to concentric rings to zigzags with only a couple of examples conveying compositional inventiveness. What is original is the artist’s technique of rendering these patterns with off-register layers of different-colored marker ink in tight herringbone patterns, resulting in a fuzzy too-close-to-the-TV-screen abstraction that is headache-inducing but sweetly irresistible. Note the closing date!

Nicholas Pittman: Ultra New Works | 1522 Gallery, 1522 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice | (310) 392-3635 | Through December 22

Repeating Kindergarten

I already wrote about this show (October 27–November 2), but since its underlying thesis posits that the root of all the other visual art discussed here lies in the pedagogical practices of early-19th-century crystallographer Friedrich Froebel’s wildly popular geometry-based educational reform movement, it seems fitting to plug it again. Unrecognized geometric-abstractionist pioneers Grace Lynde, Abigail A. Herrick, Ina C. Getz, Elma Korb and H.B. French, whose remarkable works — technically paper collage, in most cases — were created as demos or practice pieces for teaching toddlers to think isometrically, are finally given their due in the gallery of one of the most prominent art and design colleges in America. They hold their own, and then some.

Inventing Kindergarten | Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena | (626) 396 2446 | Through January 7

Caspar and Richter

These last two listings are actually half-shows. In Gerhard Richter’s case, a group of the crispy German’s recent layered squeegee abstractions are paired with the moody, pathetically fallacious landscapes of fellow Dresdenite Caspar David Friedrich. Richter is kind of a case study in crabby cerebral painting theory — I always think of him as the self-righteous authoritarian Gumby to mischievous anarchist Sigmar Pokey. Richter epitomizes the artist who confuses the flaws and limitations of words with the boundaries of visual language, much like so many Western philosophers who insist on the futility of discourse but can’t seem to shut the hell up!

This works out fine, though, since what Richter continues to spew forth is actually quite handsome painting. His oeuvre is divided equally between blurry photorealism and near-mechanical faux expressionism, but the aura of cynicism that makes his work so attractive to academics evaporates quite readily when confronted in the flesh. His earliest squeegee paintings deliberately used difficult, random-looking combinations of highly saturated colors, but in recent years he’s taken to limiting his palette (in this case, grays with small outbursts of primaries), resulting in works that might as well have been made for their sumptuous decorativeness, or spiritual power, or whatever. When the aliens unearth this stuff in 10,000 years, they won’t be checking the footnotes. It stands on its own, with no help — and finally, thankfully, no hindrance — from critical rationalizations.

From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter: German Paintings From Dresden | Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., L.A. | (310) 440-7300 | Through April 29

Joshua Aster

One of the highlights of the second annual L.A. Weekly Biennial was the work of UCLA grad student Josh Aster, whose work may or may not be currently on view at the Hayworth Gallery — around the corner from Fairfax and Beverly — in a two-person show called “Exact Change.” In just a couple of years, Aster’s work has gone from orderly-but-metastasizing monochromatic parking-lot mappage to puzzling multicolored mashups of wet, soft-focus brush strokes that teeter on the brink of visual chaos. Of the half-dozen smallish ink-and-watercolor works included here, the most striking is the almost North African–looking Red Interior, while the most peculiar is Late Night Moral Victory, which looks like it fell out of some parallel universe where the beatniks won the culture wars. Check this out if they keep it up like I told them to — otherwise watch out for a stunning solo debut. Josh Aster will wake you up to the viability of contemporary geometric abstraction or your mattress is free!

Exact Change: Works by Joshua Aster and Maha Saab | Hayworth Gallery, 148 N. Hayworth Ave., L.A. | (323) 933-5565 | Through January by appointment only

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