In 1958, Clement Greenberg penned a short essay that posited aesthetic parallels between Byzantine art and modernism. Despite their differences, he said, these movements were united by an emphatic pictorialism, their transcendent qualities tied up with a shared repudiation of illusionism. In this text, the critic cited the work of certain painters, such as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, as examples. “This new kind of modernist picture,” Greenberg wrote, “like the Byzantine gold and glass mosaic, comes forward to fill the space between itself and the spectator with its radiance.”
Mention of Jeanne Reynal (1903–1983), a first-generation New York School artist who created modernist mosaic works using Byzantine techniques, might have fortified Greenberg’s essay, supplying structural links in addition to aesthetic ones. Reynal’s consummately luminous, endlessly innovative objects—from wall-mounted panels with sprays of semiprecious stones to totems wrapped in tesserae (the square tiles that typically comprise mosaics)—were on view at Eric Firestone Gallery in “Mosaic Is Light: Work by Jeanne Reynal, 1940–1970.” Though the artist exhibited with the Betty Parsons Gallery and had three solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in her lifetime, this survey, spread across two floors, was the first substantial presentation of her art in five decades.