A Provisional Explanation.
To declare one’s self a painter, and one committed to abstraction at that, is to stake out a space for one’s artistic practice that would seem to be essentially limitless. When faced with near infinite possibilities, the first thing one often does is to set some boundaries so as to establish a direction. Within the cannon of modernism that direction was a tied to a narrative of a manifest expansion of art, but with the ascendency of a post-modern condition the very idea of progress has become suspect. When painting was declared dead, abstraction was the only idiom in play, but since that fall it has been playing for smaller stakes when compared to the greater concerns of culture. When painting has been seen to be at the forefront of artistic production, it is usually for a re-entrenchment allied with a surge in the market.[i] So what is there to say when so much contemporary production in a given medium seems to shift in a certain direction?
The rise of so-called provisional strategies in abstraction was first identified by the critic Raphael Rubinstein[ii] and has subsequently been expanded by other curators and writers[iii] who have enlarged his basic taxonomy into an ever widening ecosystem of artists who seemingly eschew craft, finish, precision, virtuosity, and even ambition. The central problem is that the discourse surrounding provisional strategies does not rise above identification. The label is trend-spotting or cool hunting for the newest fashion, but since the provisional is not an organized movement, school, or even well defined set of tendencies it can easily be applied to almost any art or artist. Rubinstein linked them to some of the most heralded names in contemporary painting, which helps cement the idea within our visual vocabulary, but the underlying biology has gone largely unaddressed. Fleshing out of the connections to the practice of younger artists and scenes other than at the pinnacle of the art market points to not just how diverse and vibrantly varied these strategies have become, but also how they have diffused throughout recent history and are used without any reliance on a central dogma.
The unfinished nature of “Provisionalism”[iv] was encoded into the DNA of modernism with Manet’s vacant, scumbled spaces and the en plein air canvases of the Impressionists. From there historical precedent is rife with a churn of examples: it is found in the chance compositional strategies of the Dadaists and Surrealists[v], in the struggle with resolution of the action painters of the New York School, in the inclusion of commonplace objects and physical detritus in Johns and Rauschenberg, in the destruction of the painted surface in Klein or Fontana or Burri[vi], or in the sculptural accumulations of Arte Povera or the performative remains of the Gutai group.[vii] Fertile ground was found where a direct gesture was (or is) left unmediated or where painting intersects with sculpture and its nature as object. The legacy of both process based abstraction and Post-minimalism[viii] is that painters have been able to fundamentally reassess notions of composition, failure, and finish. With the contemporary ground for art so open as to appear strip mined and barren, the question becomes why artists are increasingly drawn to methods of working that embrace the casual, the provisional?
An obvious place to start is with the germination of an artist’s practice and the influences exerted at the beginning on the structures where art is made. As any organism evolves, adapts and grows into the geography it occupies, young artists working in major metropolitan areas face increasing pressures of limited space and economic constraints on their time. The urgency to make work trumps fetishistic perfectionism or the unifying, grand statement. As big things come from small beginnings, the work is seen as something that can incubate and expand as circumstances and successes dictate, or constrict during hard times. As their practice develops and their career progresses they may move on to more finished modes or not, but that early experience remains.[ix] In this regard Rubinstein’s focus on artists who are much more established is telling as he is pointing to how the trends have been tested and utilized successfully; that there may be a host of failures[x] speaks to the vitality of the underlying idea.[xi]
Likewise, craft has been downplayed within the current art world[xii], and the extra time[xiii] it takes is seen as something that can be outsourced to specialists, assistants, and fabricators. The singular artist as a true craftsperson has become increasingly rare.[xiv] While a provisional approach need not scorn craft and careful construction, the tenacious expenditure of time and labor required to fully employ that knowledge and experience sits at the opposite end of the production spectrum. Any spectrum will tend towards concentrations now and then, and then adjust and change over time. When I first moved to New York it seemed as if the galleries were filled with clean paintings that must have required miles and miles of masking tape to produce, and as I was enthralled with my new (but very worn) surroundings, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why young artists weren’t mirroring the scuffed, scratched, and beaten surfaces around them. These surfaces spoke to a deep history and a different kind of beauty and it was only a matter of time before there was a shift back (or back to) a handmade art that embraced a patina of habitation and use.
The greatest threat to the continued relevance of abstract painting is the possibility of its ossifying into a new academy. All too often, the guides that are laid out when a journey begins harden into not only a map for individual practice but an expectation that others will follow it as gospel. Examples of dedication to the tenets of modernist abstraction can be found as bad décor and the unironic and uninterested embrace of banal geometry.[xv] Advances in the formal structure of painting are usually of a specific time and do not easily translate through generations. Dealing with the fractured visual space of today’s culture via a retreat to cubism would read as quaint; to wrestle with one’s personal struggle to express a personally authentic gesture on a blank canvas in the vein of the abstract expressionists would seem histrionic and unseemly. This is not to say that these (or any other) references are unavailable, but only that to effectively function in the present[xvi] they must be approached and utilized within a contemporary framework lest they be mere exercises in nostalgia.[xvii] Academies are about perpetuating their own ideas and ideals, of achieving stasis rather than growth through challenge and evolution. The latter is a function of unseemly mutation, of embracing rather than rejecting the aesthetic other. In this regard Provisionalist trends over the last century serve as an antipode to any strict formalisms, geometries, or theories that may infest the medium.
The current proliferation of provisional abstraction should not just be analyzed as a swing of the art historical pendulum or knee jerk rebellion against stuffy elders. It does any artist a disservice to suggest that they merely respond to their history and environment to the exclusion of finding something deeply affecting at the core of what they make. Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards. The long-term success of painting can be attributed to its ability to colonize and assimilate outside ideas and approaches, stretching form and content to the breaking point so that the project of the medium is ultimately made stronger. If a provisional vocabulary can provide a timely reinvigoration of the expression of individual concerns, that should be all the ambition anyone needs in a painting.
[i] Think of the circumstances of the Neo-expressionists, the allies of Dave Hickey’s crusade for beauty, the rise of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilds.
[iii] See Sharon Butler’s New Casualists essay for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as further essays by Sam Cornish on Abstract Critical, Lane Relyea on Wow Huh and an anonymously penned feature on The Painted Wrd. (And this list is by no means comprehensive.)
[iv] You can only dance around the language for so long before just breaking down and labeling it as an “ism.” The problem is that the tendencies, strategies, methods, and concerns that would make up “Provisionalism” do not have the same unifying focus that bound together more familiar “isms” of art history.
[v] See Inventing Abstraction at MoMA
[vi] See Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at MOCA.
[viii] Specifically how aesthetic concerns interact with an art object that has been reduced to a remnant of an action.
[ix] It may be coincidental that Provisionalism has emerged as the competitiveness (and expense) of M.F.A. programs has turned the emerging artist towards a more professional track, but it also cannot be ignored that it seems that young artists with more limited time make up the broad base of provisional work.
[x] Of which there will necessarily be exponentially more of, but in appealing to an evolutionary context I hope that the broader process of integrating different ideas points to the number of failures proving the project’s success.
[xi] Imitation still being not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also indication of influence.
[xii] To say nothing of our broader culture and the world in general.
[xiii] And therefor expense.
[xiv] I’m thinking of painters like Terry Winters or Bill Jensen, or sculptors like Martin Puryear, who even though they have assistants, are deeply engaged with the craft associated with their materials and are not turning the production of their work over to fabricators or an atelier system.
[xv] If extended into the sculpture, the tendency becomes ever more pronounced in the monumental, blocky stone carvings and welded metal assemblages that barricade office plazas and concourses.
[xvi] And thus present them to and communicate with contemporaneous audiences.
[xvii] At this point Impressionism is the province of Sunday painters and naturalists with a flair for color.
[xviii] Young and old alike; the historical context shows that the trends encompassed by Provisionalism are neither a new phenomenon nor only the province of the young.
[xix] Perhaps this is where painting finds common ground with the so-called new aesthetic, as the rise of the digital is built on rapidly obsolete and repurposed technologies.