Archive for the ‘Review’ Category
As part 1 of this essay considered the metaphorical space of the desert as a model for the new condition of painting within Postmodernism, the physical space of Forever Now is equally revealing. The exhibition is on the top floor, sitting in stark contrast to Matisse’s cut outs. Compared to the lyrical journey on a pleasantly winding path that circumnavigates one of the high-water marks of modernism and pure pleasure in color and form, how is an exhibition mucking around in the creation of the grimy present supposed to stand up? The show feels as if it is being hyped to raise its profile as much as possible just on the way to the 4th floor. A large painting hangs over the main lobby like a billboard and several monumentally framed pieces are propped against the wall on either side of the entrance, like outsized carnival barker’s signs. Once inside the large space is divided into a series of branching chambers with partitions encouraging meandering and no strict path, but also no exit except back the way one came. Dead-ending against the back wall forces the viewer to rebound and wind one’s way back through the show and make new connections and consider different relations and viewpoints. The exhibition layout cancels any hierarchy and allows for slipping glimpses of how some model of the whole might lock together. Looking at the show is an exercise in exploration, of navigating terrain that is not set.
Other than being painting made recently, the work has no common denominator, outside of perhaps generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale, although many of the works have bits of the real world peeking through. The artists share no agenda or style; they are simply trying to make paintings that reflect how they interact with and process their world. That their work shows its influences and continues a dialog with art of the past does not necessarily point to any “atemporal” influence of the net, beyond its reality as a condition of our shared world. All of the artists have started making their mature work, if not lived their entire lives since the advent of Postmodernism; the interaction between the history of images and present production is ingrained in how they approach the canvas.
Amy Sillman’s abstractions provide the clearest model of how painting can make something new when the language of invention is played out, and in the process they show just how obsolete the idea of “newness” is. They are often (and incorrectly) labeled as a grab-bag mix of styles, a criticism that latches on to surface similarity rather than looking at just what Sillman creates for herself. She has found her voice in the direct handling of paint, getting colors that don’t easily go together to mix with gesture, shape and space to form a hard won picture that just barely keeps their different compositional elements in balance. They teeter on the edge of falling off the ledge, but the constant revisions within the picture are what give them their subtle vibrational energy and move the eye through the painting. The more complicated she gets the better; her simpler paintings flatten out as though with too few pictorial balls in the air there is not enough to sustain interest, either hers or the viewer’s. While there are no intimations of the figure here, it has often made appearances in her work; when it does it is more complicated in its relation to abstract elements in the picture than Guston while remaining much more autonomous than in deKooning. Just because she is working with a subject others have used, she is not beholden to them and her practice allows her raise content in subtler ways than her supposed sources.
Nicole Eisenman’s large portrait heads combined confrontational scale with unassuming demeanor. They confront Picasso with a sly rejoinder born of a contemporary eye. Her large frontal slabs of color are as precisely keyed as Sillman’s, and the paint surface is as worked and rewarding of close inspection. In several of the paintings she has pasted ethnographic clippings onto the surface. Their shapes echo those built in paint, put they flicker irritatingly, causing a difficult shift in resolutions of scale as the dull grisaille of newsprint or Xerox tries to hide against oil paint, but sit on the surface pushing the space in the painting back. They continue to grate, itching the brain; the fact that I want them removed is probably why they’re there. It is also an example of just how aware a critic must be of one’s own biases. One of my favorite paintings by Eisenman, The Break up, has a similar format, but lacks additional collage. I found myself longing for its unadulterated surface, and spent time going back to see if I could get the artist’s intent rather than trying to make them fit into my own preconceptions. Her Easter Island portraits make for a dynamic conversation with Mark Grohtjahn’s mask paintings, which explode out with color and minute gesture – the mass is the same as Eisenman’s, but built as a mosaic rather than a slab; we get to see to very different artists approaching a similar idea in very different ways. In Grohtjahn any sense of a source portrait is obliterated in a flurry of paint. His works are not without their own material quirks. Impasto paint curls around stretched linen, but the paint is actually on cardboard. If you look carefully you can detect the slight deflection of the surface plane away from the wall in one of the panels.
These sorts of material inconsistencies and deviations from “pure” painting run throughput the work in the show. Greenberg’s purity of medium was being discarded almost as quickly as it was becoming established dogma, and what a painting is made out of is considered only when it is blatantly foregrounded by the work, and then if it is so obvious the work usually falls flat. Rashid Johnson’s scratches in soap and wax fail for inserting a Twombly-esque distraction where none is needed; if the resonance of the materials and their importance to the artist’s cultural and ethnic experience is the central point then shouldn’t the simple act of just matter-of-factly putting them on the surface be enough? Trying to make it look like art seems more self-conscious and is ultimately unconvincing. On the opposite end of a similar spectrum Richard Aldrich’s wispy gestures are interesting as sketches writ large, an idea proposed quickly in the studio, but they do not read as full blown statements – it is here that we start to encounter the slippery slope of just how much work really is needed to make a painting. It seems as if the critical eye may slide over some paintings that seem to easily made, too strategized into being. By contrast Dianna Molzan breaks apart the components of a painting to make charming and inventive objects that inject personal idiosyncrasy into the cool ontology of the painting as object. Every aspect of her wry objects is carefully considered, and this investment results in a warmth and humor in a small scale object that stands up to an empire of large canvases.
Twombly’s influence runs deep through the exhibition, like a common genetic marker. His off-handed and scrawling gesture is a common antecedent to Provisionalism and other strains of the abject in contemporary painting. Critics have not laid the blame at his doorstep, but he is the precursor for the aesthetic developments that are the most troubling to the old guard. He heralds the obsolescence of virtuosity, the divorce of the monumental work matched to a grand statement. To put it another way, when Richard Serra called Twombly the bravest person in modern art for taking on Pollock with only a pencil, the other side of this is that it was possible not only to take on Pollock with only a pencil, but to win. In winning he shifted the stakes and scope away from the tortures of labor and towards the academics of abstraction. He removed doubt from the process of making a painting that was an anathema to Guston and deKooning. It’s instructive to compare his Treatise on the Veil to Forever Now and see just how much contemporary painting falls under his influence. There are other such giants that loom over painting (Polke comes to mind) but Forever Now’s focus on abstraction is what foregrounds Twombly.
Perhaps the most surprising comparison to Twombly is Julie Mehertu, who has covered her trademark precise pen line with flicks of brushed ink. It’s as if turbulent weather and atmosphere has descended to surround her previous architectural subjects. In the larger painting on view it is possible to discern her more standard pictorial language in earlier layers, giving these works the feeling that they were unsatisfactory works that were treated as salvage experiments. They also seem to come out of the small scale (and definitely less-produced) paintings in her recent solo show at Mariam Goodman, but whether they represent a new direction or merely a tangent in her practice, they stand out for how they relate to the exhibition’s curatorial conceit. Mehertu’s iconic works are steeped in the relationships of systems and the transfer of information across global networks; there is a robust thread connecting them to the digital references the concept of the atemporal suggests (and William Gibson’s writings practically demand), but Hoptman’s focus is on the recycling and reclamation of images and references rather than the mechanisms and infrastructure of that transfer. As such whatever formal turns Mehertu takes, the comparison of the exhibition is limited to surface similarities of the aesthetic qualities of the objects themselves and not to exploring the deeper implications of the interactions.
Collector’s darling and critical whipping boy Oscar Murillo is presenting his paintings for the first time in New York. Given the arc and design of his career it would seem to raise expectations perhaps beyond what the paintings can support. Murillo seems aware of the possible bind, and his interest in moving his art past just being pretty pictures on the wall is on view in a pile of unstretched canvases left lying in the corner to be dragged around and rearranged by the show’s visitors. The gesture speaks to a common desire by painters, especially those working abstractly, to be taken seriously and express something beyond mere decoration. Murrilo’s answer is to allow the viewer to interact with his works as he does before they are finally stretched. There is a frission to be found in touching and moving works in a museum, however the artist’s studio is not necessarily an ideal arena for viewing art, and importing its processes into a museum trivializes his choices rather than lending them gravitas. Instead of revealing thought and process they become just an opportunity for the audience to take selfies. The gesture also feels arbitrary, as his stretched paintings on the walls are not out of place with the rest of the exhibition. The bruised surfaces and casually gestural compositions belie an elegant colorist with a keen sense for collage and editing together fragments to form a cohesive whole; his integration of the separate parts and seams are much more integrated into his overall process and the resulting paintings than Albert Oehlen’s recent exhibition with a similar focus. The youngest artist in the show, he is emblematic of the potential problems of a new, metastasized art market that limits judgment to such a narrow career arc, without allowances for growth or change.
Forever Now is MoMA’s first exhibition of painting in 30 years, but beyond the imprimatur it is neither encyclopedic or revolutionary; instead it continues a line of exploration that maps trends and similarities in Postmodern painting. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 at the Whitney Museum explored how painting turned towards objecthood in the wake of Minimalism and the advent of Postmodernism. Cheim and Read presented Reinventing Abstraction, a less known history of the 70’s and 80’s as a source of continuing rehabilitation of abstraction in painting during a period when Neo-expressionism crested into a second wave of conceptual art; it showed painting that was being made in studios the last time MoMA put on a painting show, and illustrated just how much influence can shift and change. In the vein of the shifting landscape of criticism and fashion, one should also consider the Whitney’s Remote Veiwing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), which explored contemporary painting’s relation to dense and personal networks of information. An exhibition a decade past, its links and history organize a thesis that is not dissimilar to that of Forever Now, but with a drastically different focus. The network of Remote Viewing leads to practices of labor-intensive detail, to an exhaustive search for a framework that will mesh with a personal vision. Forever Now references the contemporary Internet, where the birth and appropriation of images are midwifed by brand identities and the ease of cutting and pasting over a wi-fi connection. That so much of Forever Now seems to fall flat may point to this ease of execution; as labor is devalued across the economy, the less demand there is for works of art that grate with a material density that cannot be easily replicated by a JPEG or digital scan, but the most successful works on view maintain their material reality as paintings. This remains true throughout the medium’s history, no matter the whims of the bazaar.
The essay concludes in Part 3.
 Conveniently coinciding with the exhibition title, entrance to the show is not timed.
 Which is not dissimilar from the large gallery spaces where most of this work is exhibited.
 A strategy well known in the design retail stores.
 Most of the works lock in at a large, but not overwhelming scale.
 Who could only get close to head-like lumps when working abstractly.
 Who made the abstraction of the figure the entire subject, the figure was the space of the painting, never really in it.
 Johnson’s inclusion is curious as he is primarily known for much stronger sculptural work, and the “paintings” included are a minor strain in his practice. These works fit with the exhibition in a way that one of his mirrored shelving reliefs do not, but that speaks more to his being included as a broader marker representing his practice; this in turn points to a possible agenda not encoded in the works themselves.
 I’m reminded of deKooning stepping back and wondering if his start could contain a picture, and it seems like for Aldrich the answer is not only “Yes” but also “…and it’s done.”
 Just examine the care and detail in the construction of her stretchers. The more common commercial stretcher builds would interrupt the delicate geometries she creates.
 And they are objects as opposed to pictures; their depth and the relation of the inside to the outside are inherent to them in a way that separates them from “Painting” proper.
 Much like Richard Tuttle in sculpture.
 Think of the references to graphitti that abound around his work and consider the confidence of his marks as someone stepping up to a wall with limited time and no room for doubt.
 I do not think it was necessarily a good idea to hang Mehertu’s paintings adjacent to Rashid Johnson’s works. The superficial similarities, albeit played out in contradictory materials (ink separated by isolating layers of acrylic vs. the earthy weight of soap and wax) are a facile comparison. It would have been just as obvious to hang Jacob Kassay’s silver mirrors across from Johnson, if he had been included.
 Then again, maybe not. One can also look at the recent trend of museum-quality shows in commercial (mega)galleries and then think that maybe David Zwirner has a much cannier strategy mapped out (remember the giant killer robots mentioned in the notes of Part 1? They’re coming in Part 3).
 It may be a litmus test for how you feel about the show and contemporary painting in general if you consider that to be a good thing or bad thing.
 It is startling to read contemporary criticism of the show and to see the nascent fragmentation of painting as a medium and similar concerns that are the same after so much time. Perhaps there is an origin for Provisionalism in Vernacular abstraction, or at least a historical precedent.
 There is always room for curatorial kvetching: I would’ve cut Bradley and Josh Smith and replaced them with R.H. Quaytman and Joanne Greenbaum.
Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism” has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism” where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds have been exposed.
Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to. From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”, with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.
For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new” is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered. This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.
Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture. The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination. Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur. Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.
 Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.
 I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.
 Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.
 The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else
 With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.
 A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.
 You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.
 And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.
 If not advertised as loudly as possible.
 In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.
 Taking the red pill as it were.
 I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.
 An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.
 The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.
Depending on what art world you inhabit and where you spend your time, reactions to Wade Guyton’s work run the gamut from young sensation to collector’s trophy to critical whipping boy to hollow symbol of political inequality. His work is polarizing in a way that recalls the bygone era of the shocking avante garde; it seems some view Guyton and his work with the same suspicion the British public did Carl Andre’s stack of bricks. And just as the cost of Andre’s manipulation of a pedestrian object became a focus of the outrage (and misunderstanding) surrounding his work, so too do critiques of Guyton simply devolve into economic complaint. In a sense art only now has to deal with the implications of mechanization that other laborers dealt with a century ago. In an arena where individual vision sets every artist up as John Henry, Guyton has taken the side of the steam hammer.
I must admit that I missed Guyton’s first exhibitions and came to his work late. I first noticed them only in tiny, glossy reproductions in art magazines; not knowing how they were made, I assumed they were paintings and was struck by the combination of typography (either as a bold, central form or as a group used to articulate a field across the canvas) combined with a disjointed, abject surface. Despite the hard edges, they weren’t perfect geometric renderings; the entire surface was activated with skittering marks and impositions on the form. Of course it turned out that they weren’t paintings, except that of course they are. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Wool (among many others) had already dispensed with brushes for mechanical processes, and as those processes went digital it should not come as any surprise that artists followed suit. Shifting to making paintings with only an Epson printer should not be seen as a radical step; that it is so blindingly obvious in retrospect may account for some of the animosity directed his way. So to must the apparent ease with which he can turn out a show, just as earlier layout designers recognized hours of work now accomplished with a few clicks, Guyton has turned mural-scale painting into an afternoon project. Back when young artists talked matter of factly about process, the labor involved in moving and manipulating stuff was self-evident. Being an artist was work, and many espoused a political affinity with strains of Marxism, or at least a blue collar pragmatism that could be read as such. But to capitalism the point of digital technologies has been to reduce or remove the need for skilled labor wherever possible, and Guyton clearly buys into that when he talks about avoiding the need to work to make his paintings. This isn’t necessarily a problem, except that to then talk about the disregard with which he drags and kicks his canvases around the studio floor seems too ingratiating, too much an appeal to the labor of process that he ultimately undermines. Indecision breeds contempt just as easily as familiarity (and by now pretty much everyone is acquainted with Photoshop and Microsoft Word).
Coming out of his Whitney retrospective, the most interesting question was what would he do next? The works on paper were scattered across bright colored flooring in vitrines, as if the artist didn’t trust them to be out on their own. Likewise his sculpture seemed beside the point: a bent metal tube that was previously a chair by Marcel Breuer has a certain frission in the Whitney Museum, but otherwise relies on the name recognition of the artist for aesthetic important. His fabricated “U” sculptures are shiny steel simulacra of the ideas referenced by his painting, available in an assortment of sizes, and are almost nakedly commercial for that variation. The exhibition showed the printed paintings as his one good idea; he had established the utility of his approach, but seemed to be at the boundary of what he could make with his single tool without simply repeating himself and making new versions of the old work ad infinitum. This is complicated by the sense that all of his paintings function as wry comments on their own making, existing both as paintings and “paintings”; the level of quotation and reserve would seem to preclude Guyton from risking failure on the messy and labor intensive investigation that might lead to a new body of work, a new approach, or a new idea.
Instead, Guyton has chosen to focus on the quotation marks, using the paintings as a lens to focus in on the environment and act of looking at the paintings. His new paintings at Petzel further leverage Post-minimalist compositional strategies. Cinemascope swaths of white linen hold striated rectangles that trail off into the remnant tracks and traces of being pulled through the printer’s mechanisms, almost like waste paper run through to clean it out. The stretchers measure the full span of the gallery wall, or separate paintings meet in the corner. These compositional strategies draw parallels to Richard Serra’s use of steel plates as a way to measure and change the gallery space via mass. The surface similarities of steel and printed linen are superficially similar, and while Guyton’s use of black and white achieves a level of austerity that Serra might envy, he doesn’t affect the space in the same way. The inherent presence of a Serra makes one consider one’s path around the room and approaching the plate something to be cautiously planned. On the other hand Guyton’s paintings are thin and without any sensation of mass, and the viewer is pulled right up to them to examine the staccato tracks of the printer. Guyton’s paintings lack Serra’s attention to inherent tension, the black rectangles’ measures are arbitrary and don’t push back against the viewer or the space. Just as the final two paintings at the Whitney measured the walls between Breuer’s iconic window without doing much else, these chart a space that is primarily notable for its blankness. These are a sort of reversal from the paintings he installed at the Carnegie International. There he stripped the coat room as far down as it could go, exposing old paint and layers of carpet adhesive hidden by the removed racks. His paintings were handsome example of minimal intervention, mostly white with a few smudged forms to articulate the space. Installed in a space not typically devoted to art he created a lounge more akin to unfinished basement; the same materials that an earlier generation of artists mined and hefted into the gallery shows up here as history left on the floor and wall, left to reflect back at the paintings. But at the end of the day the paintings will still go home to presumably stately environments, devoid of any extra window dressing; these plays on installation are a veneer layered on top of the situation the work inhabits, rather than something that is ingrained in the paintings. With Guyton all we get is the surface.
For all his Warholian slipperiness about content and belief, Guyton’s achievement of his printed paintings is to totally remove the artist’s hand, to make the aura of the artwork indistinguishable from the glow of a screen, and still wind up making paintings that are utterly individual, as unique as a fingerprint. But he’s wound up at the point where the novelty has worn off and the audience doesn’t just want to see pictures of where we’ve been. It’s come time for Guyton to get rid of the quotation marks, to roll up his sleeves, and get to work.
Wade Guyton continues at Petzel Gallery in New York City through February 22nd.
 Which are an issue affecting all artists, but become a lens that distorts via magnification as the artist in question becomes more successful; the gravity of money around an artist winds up shaping the discourse like light bending around a dense star.
 Or as late as one can come to an artist who’s retrospective spans little more than a decade.
 This is not necessarily to say that Guyton got there first either, but he is certainly the standard bearer of “printed paintings” and if we were to rediscover a different pioneer she or he would need to answer the same aesthetic questions as Guyton. The only difference would be that this hypothetical artist would not be held accountable for the sins of the market associated with Guyton.
 Starting with the abstract expressionists use of paint as an index of decisions of process and continuing to the post-minimalist extension of that action out into space.
 Depending on your feelings about Warhol anyway.
 Although, to be fair, this criticism applies to huge swaths of the art made today.
 And if it is not clear, I think it is a damn good idea.
 And it is safe to say that given his means of production he could easily print on demand enough to more than satisfy (overwhelm) the market.
 Of course it’s possible that Guyton really doesn’t care about doing anything new, but since he has not just flooded the market with reprints of his greatest hits and has continued to push at the context his paintings are seen in, I think it is safe to give him the benefit of the doubt.
 Which are simply a rescaled and reprinted version of the digital file he used to create his black monochromes that were shown at Petzel in 2007.
 All reproductions of Serra’s work are in black and white, no matter the handsome patina of rust or the oily sheen the marred surface the plate holds. I assume this is to emphasize mass and volume, but it nonetheless stage handles the work in an odd fashion.
Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.
Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.
The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.
Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.
Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.
In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.
This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii] His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.
When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]
Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.
Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]
On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.
The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.
[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.
[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.
[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.
[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.
[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).
[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.
[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.
[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.
[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.
[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.
[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.
[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.
[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.
[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.
[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.
[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.
[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.
My essay on Wendy White’s exhibition Pix Vää at Leo Koenig is up now at Idiom. Click here to read it.
My essay on the retrospective of Richard Serra’s drawings that has hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Menil Collection is up now at Idiom: http://idiommag.com/2012/06/on-site-serra-at-the-met-and-the-menil/
My review of the mini-retrospective “Fred Sandback: Decades” at David Zwirner Gallery is up on Idiom.com. The link is http://idiommag.com/2012/04/playing-out-the-string/.