Lens Reality

Gerhard Richter Man Shot Down 1 1988

“But the history of history painting is itself a history of the withdrawal of a subject from painting’s ability to represent, a withdrawal that ultimately generated the modernist notion of aesthetic autonomy. In this development, forms of traditional representation were divided into, on the one hand, a referential function based on resemblance (a function that photography would increasingly and more convincingly assume beginning in the mid-nineteenth century) and, on the other, the complementary formation, that of a liberation of painterly means, whose lasting and only triumph was to become the systematic negation of the functions of representation. In their refusal either to give up painting for photography tout court or to accept the supposed lucidity of photography’s focused gaze, Richter’s photopaintings have consistently opposed the universal presence of that gaze and its ubiquitous instrumentalization of the look.” Benjamin Buchloh on Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977.

In the early 2000s cell phones began to be built specifically to disseminate photographic imagery over the internet. This seemingly harmless byproduct of the digital revolution has changed our culture, our society and our reality. Many of the Abstract Mannerists took note of these changes and began to examine how they made their work. But for the most part they continued to concentrate on painting and reproduction processes while ignoring the deluge of photographic imagery and what it might mean. Painters have yet to confront this new world of images preferring instead to keep abstraction Modernist in structure, theory and critique. 

David Reed Painting #650 2003–16

“Today there is nothing magical about using a smart-phone equipped with multiple filters and other digital enhancers to generate “selfies” that are capable of being instantly published to millions of similar hand-held devices all over the world via social media and other online platforms. In the history of human communication, has a medium ever evolved this quickly?  – No wonder we don’t understand. It is the very effortless proficiency with which photographs are made, reproduced and circulated in contemporary life that ought to raise philosophical questions about what it is we are doing, because if you really look at a photograph, you’re bound to ask yourself at some point what it is you are seeing.” Carl Kandutsch on Todd Hido’s photography.


Luc Tuymans John Playfair, 2014

“We can paint by following a certain movement, we can also develop our individual style – which, in my opinion, is rather dangerous – but the most important thing is the meaning that we create in our works. Everyone can use the possibilities offered by today’s technologies to create their own images and meanings. Because, in my opinion, art cannot be created from art. It is created from reality. The reality in which we live, the reality that has been created by history. They are connected.” Luc Tuymans in conversation with Elīna Čivle-Üye, November 7, 2013.

Can Abstraction be real? Can it be reality? What would such a thing look like? How would it act as a painting? For Luc Tuymans reality comes from the imagery that washes over us. It can be found in the processes, productions and manufactured reality of programs.

“I had a fascination with that time period, because I had clearly made a decision not to make art for art’s sake. I wasn’t interested in slotting into a tradition of modernism or postmodernism — to try to position myself in such a way was not an option. The only option was to work from the real, and to look at a time period that was close to mine, historically, and which was decisive. Apart from the autobiographical element, it’s also one of the periods when Europe lost its powers. With the idea of the Holocaust comes a psychological breakdown. Those elements were culminating, and had to culminate in a lot of imagery.” Luc Tuymans in conversation with Jason Farago, October 29, 2018.


Thomas Houseago Baby 2009

“The danger here is less that this art promotes an illusory autonomy or cynically concedes to the market than that it reveals the discourse of art as now consisting of nothing but the market. Needless to say the collecting class, largely unexposed to the critique of modernism and still driven by humanistic myths of creation, celebrates any return to the promise of an autonomous, self-possessed maker yielding highly aestheticized products through mostly Intuitive means. For this generally older demographic, the return to modernism is perceived as combining the street cred of a younger generation with a vetted inoffensiveness that closely echoes the classics of the past century. So a Thomas Houseago sculpture may invoke the primitivist heroics of Picasso while a “face painting” by Mark Grotjahn can echo Klee or Poussette-Dart.” David Geers, Neo-Modern, October, March 2012.

Jacob Kassay Installation at Gallerie Art Concept Paris 2011

Zombie Formalism is part of our cultural world and the artists who embody this kind of Mannerism have become favorites of the contemporary art market. But what is it exactly? What is its purpose? Is this particular strain of Modernist Mannerism, Process Abstraction or whatever you want to call it, a separate movement, a speculative bubble aimed at hungry collectors, or does it embody our 21st Century zeitgeist? Maybe it’s all three. Either way these Abstract Mannerist works beautify and make elegant the contentious theoretics and disruptive innovations of the Modern Era. 

“Nowadays we see endless arrays of decorous, medium-size, handsome, harmless paintings. It’s rendered mainly in black, white, gray, or, more recently, violet or blue. Much of it entails transfer techniques, silkscreening, stenciling, assemblage, collage, a little spray painting or scraping and the like. There might be some smooshy blocks of color or stripes or other obvious open-form abstraction or geometric motif. A few painters are doing the same thing but with brighter colors, larger areas of paint, hints of gesture, or even drips. All this work has readymade references to preapproved, mostly male painters like Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Michael Krebber, Wade Guyton, Laura Owens, and Sergej Jensen, or to the Minimalism or Pop movements, and of course it all calls up Warhol, Richter, Kippenberger, or Prince.” Jerry Saltz on Neo-Mannerism, October 10, 2013.

Lucien Smith Two Sides of the Same Coin 2012

“…it is one thing to attempt meaning and fail; it is totally different to assume failure and couch your work in a feigned sense of futility. Or not to allow any meaning at all as the Zombie Formalists assert. But what kind of meaning do you want? The work of the modernist has a positive meaning with its faith in science and a clear sense of the subject/self or its reversion to the chthonic symbolism of the pagan. But isn’t the irony of this irony that somewhere once upon a time there was a kind of painting that was authoritative for this new eternity of weak painting to exist at all. In its insistence on irony it keeps blocking any chance of a new language of time and space. It is a kind of negative religion, a negative eternity from which we can’t escape with its own rituals that any good MFA student can learn.” Martin Muger on Zombie Formalism, May 23, 2015.


Cecily Brown The Girl Who Had Everything 1999

“I very much believe in peripheral vision and that you’re working on them without paying close attention. So a huge part of it is just time and putting things away and bringing them back and seeing… I trust the fresh eyes, but if you haven’t looked at something for a couple of weeks—and you weren’t sure—then when you flip it back ‘round you usually know straight away. When you’ve just worked on something, your relationship to it is too hot, overheated, and emotional, and neurotic, and you so want it to work. And sometimes you really want something to be done, just because maybe it’s gone on so long, and maybe the paint’s getting more built up than you want it.” Cecily Brown in conversation with Jason Rosenfeld, December 13, 2017.

It’s funny how so many artists still regard the term Mannerism as a pejorative term when many of the great artists through our history were in fact Mannerists. One of my favorite artists is Tintoretto who declared that his style would be made of the drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian. And his Mannerism created new twisted spatial experiences and an even stranger warped figuration that is astounding to see – especially at San Rocco. But to get back to our present – Cecily Brown traffics in Mannerist AbEx process. And even though we’ve seen it all before, know where it’s going, understand its meaning, it’s still fun to see a painter with the juice actually use this process to work out their personality quirks. Is it new? Will it change our minds? Does it comment on our time or our society or politics? I doubt it. But what’s wrong with using an old mythology to tell old secrets?

“I think most people, artists of my generation, balk even at the word style.” Like, “I don’t have a style! What are you talking about?!” It’s not Abstract Expressionism because that was a long time ago. Is it fifth-generation Abstract Expressionism? I think it pulls from a lot of different periods in art. It’s sort of Post-Post-Modern. It draws on an awful lot of sources but it hopefully churns them all up to become its own thing. People always talk about how I work from Old Masters, but I feel as though I try to absorb everything and chop it all up, fragment it, and hopefully it comes out as something new. So I don’t know how I would describe my own style.” Cecily Brown in conversation with Nicole Rodriguez Woods, September 2015.


Joe Bradley Untitled 2012

“I look at the work you’ve been making over the past few years and it’s clear to me that this is a person who really embraces the history of modernist painting. These are not, in any way, subversive of that history; instead, they kind of continue it. One can connect them with early historical modernist painting, and aspects of New York School paintings in the ’50s, but there’s a physicality, as I said earlier, a scruffiness, a kind of attitude present in your paintings that doesn’t feel like anything else one has really seen within that mode of working. They’re not in any obvious debt to anything, and they seem to be things that you have to find each time. They look like Joe Bradley paintings, and you couldn’t have really known until you started what that would be.” Carroll Dunham in conversation with Joe Bradley, June 24, 2017.

Reboot is the term that Corporate Hollywood uses to describe the re-marketing of a movie franchise. Whole new industries pop up, social media freaks out and if the “creatives” are clever enough they create a cultural watershed from a common mythology. In this way Comic Con Conceptualism takes hold of the collective imagination. Joe Bradley has learned this lesson and applies it to our Mannerist era. He uses the faded and antiqued Modern Era and its common mythology to court debate about the relevance of painting – in other words his work is click bait for Modern Art Geeks.  

“I’ve always been preoccupied with the sculptural quality of painting, or rather, the fact that the painting is also an object. We tend to ignore the fact that a painting is a physical, three-dimensional thing, and to treat it more as a window, or a portal. Paintings have that power and that quality, they can function like that – but they’re also these rickety things that have a backstage area we’re not privy too. I have this idea that there’s something suspicious about painting – I think that’s part of it. A sculpture isn’t pretending to be anything other than a sculpture – a painting asks you to suspend disbelief, there’s an expectation of an illusion that you’re being treated to. I guess I like to drive home the fact that it’s a thing, made out of cloth and paint.” Joe Bradley in conversation with Samuel Reilly, October 25, 2018.

Letting Go

“I want people to have the option to understand it, or to at least have the option of understanding how it was made. In many of my works, there isn’t even that much to understand. If anything, I would like to take the mystery out of art-making. There doesn’t have to be some kind of technical trick where you should have to explain it somebody in order for an average person to understand it. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Art materials are applied to something else, and then you just roll like that. I think people appreciate my style because I’m good at letting go. There’s not a lot of precision to what I’m doing. It’s all about the perspective. The viewer can make things as precise or as open as they want.” Josh Smith in conversation with Alex Greenberger, September 26, 2013.

Josh Smith Untitled 2010

Josh Smith’s work exemplifies the focus of the new generation of Abstract Mannerists. Most of this kind of work repackages Late Modernist style and technique while dispensing with any theoretical critique. This work is about the “tastes” of the artists and their audiences. And it’s this question of taste, of what we have come to value as Art that’s interesting. Who decides? Whose “taste”? Which may be why Josh has created many  bodies of work incorporating all types of Modernist styles while using his name as the subject matter. 

“It sticks in your brain a little. I can only talk about my paintings, really, but I think it has to do with the size, the feel, and the attitude with which they were made. I strip out all the meaning before it’s presented. Like a lot of times when an artist—or someone who says they’re an artist—presents a painting, they just put something on the wall like they want to show it to you.” Josh Smith in conversation with Harmony Korine, April 19, 2011.


Mark Grotjahn Untitled (Circus No. 2 Face 44.19) 2013

“I also take pleasure in the so-called negative power in Grotjahn’s work. That is, I love his paintings for what they are not. Unlike much art of the past decade, Grotjahn isn’t simply working from a prescribed checklist of academically acceptable, curator-approved isms and twists. His palette isn’t only the voguish trio black, white, and silver; images aren’t taken mechanically from newspapers, the Internet, or other media; his paintings aren’t comments about comments about Warhol; they’re not coolly ironic. These qualities don’t inherently make Grotjahn’s art brave or even good (although it is good). They make you realize just how locked-in and unsurprising so much market-driven work has become.” Jerry Saltz on Mark Grotjahn, June 5, 2011.

Mark Grotjahn has been called the perfect artist for our time. His paintings reference and re-present many specific styles and processes of the Modern Era. And like many of his 21st Century contemporaries Grotjahn has removed any critique of the past in order to create a more user-friendly Abstract Mannerism. Grotjahn’s paintings are wonderfully made mashups of the abstraction of the 20th Century and they’re great to look at.

“… as Picassoid as they are, Grotjahn’s paintings also are reminiscent of work by a number of proto- and early modernists, as well as a host of primitive-by-way-of-Picasso–inspired artists from Klee to Pollock to Basquiat… Such associations are a matter less of style or imagery than of envisioning and giving image to different kinds of pictorial space — the space of the unconscious, the space of the spiritual or otherworldly, the space of collage and montage. The results are works that fuse renaissance space, cubist space, abstract and nonobjective space with surrealist and dadaist space, pop space and visionary-modernist space — a fusion that generates the real sense of the uncanny that the imagery only points at.” Christopher Miles on Mark Grotjahn, March 25, 2010.


“If the Abstract Expressionists sought to vanquish the focal points of traditional painting through a balanced fragmentation of the picture plane, Saccoccio does the opposite. Rather than rely on Cubist precedent and correlate the figure to the ground, she doubles down on her targeted point of interest, the center, and then does all she can to demolish it via a wholesale effusion of solvents.” Thomas Micchelli on Jackie Saccoccio, September 19, 2015.

Jackie Saccoccio Portrait (Widower) 2017

For many of the younger Abstract Mannerists there isn’t really a need to confront the traditions of Late American Modernism. Those traditions are simply part of the landscape for painting. Jackie Saccoccio’s work uses that era and pushes it forward into the 21st Century. She works with color field and AbEx techniques and styles while reaching back to underused classic genres like portraiture. What she creates is a complex and lyrical kind of abstraction. 

“I love these naughty issues of beauty, opulence and transcendence. Like the young painters that you mention, I went through great pains to eliminate traces of beauty in my painting, so as not to obfuscate the ‘serious’ nature of my work, or so I thought… The result was that I sent all the wrong messages, and the response was disheartening. Now, as I’m more accepting of this beauty thing seeping into the paintings, it’s not only not an issue, but viewers are more likely to bring up transcendence or ephemeral references, which has been my aim. The odd thing is, in those early years, I was making paintings with literal references to these. Now, in these portraits, with their mass and weight, they elicit ideas about impermanence.” Jackie Saccoccio in conversation with Ridley Howard, May 3 2013.


Laura Owens Untitled 2013

“One of the most interesting aspects of Owens’s work is that photography is not at its center. Digital logics, yes, but the photograph, no. Instead, drawing carries out the task of mimesis—an explosion of drawing both handmade and cribbed from elsewhere, of everything in the world: trees, buildings, numbers, monkeys, soldiers, ladies, couples, fruit, boats, cats. The show overflowed with handwriting, outlines, cartoons, sketches, stencils, shadows, and their graphic proxies, drop shadows. The magic of drawing—and Owens is a fantastic draw-er—is that you can remake anything you see or think of with your own hands. You take a picture, but you make a drawing.” Amy Sillman on Laura Owens, April 2018.

What’s interesting about this younger generation of Abstract Mannerists is that they don’t have to fight the same fights about abstraction. Abstraction is not new, not disparate. It’s just part of the world. To repurpose Dave Hickey’s comment on big money in the art world – “Abstraction is just laying on the ground.” Laura Owens picks up Modernist styles and Postmodernist techniques and uses them like an everyday language. Her approach to painting is matter of fact and at ease and her subjects are quotidian and ordinary. These paintings to me feel like a kind of genre painting for the 21st Century.

“In an era when many younger artists struggle with issues of heroism and the weight of achievements past, Los Angeles-based painter Laura Owens seems to have opened her umbrella and floated over the art historical baggage collecting on the tarmac. Owens borrows where she pleases—from modernist movements past such as Color Field, Op Art, and Pattern and Decoration, from European painters like Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, from anonymous mediums such as textile and embroidery. Art historical references and any sort of imagery, high or low, that Owens feels like incorporating are co-opted with finesse and a clear-eyed sense of no-fuss entitlement, in service to a larger goal: her own precise vision for what makes a painting pleasurable to behold. Despite this precision she is highly versatile, and her paintings vary from abstraction to figuration to kooky nature landscapes in which the animals co-habitate in a harmony that limns the absurd (a monkey reaches out playfully to a butterfly, an owl stakes out a fragment of moonlit night amidst a backdrop of blue sky and puffy clouds).” Rachel Kushner on Laura Owens, May 1, 2003. 

Concept Abstraction

Charline von Heyl, It’s Vot’s Behind Me That I Am (Krazy Kat), 2010

“What effect has digital technology had on contemporary painting? Mark Godfrey, curator of international art at Tate Modern, discusses a new display of paintings from the last ten years exploring how artists negotiate the world of iPads, scanners and smartphones.”

Abstract Mannerism and all of its permutations has been going on for a long time. And in the 21st Century artists began to connect painting processes to electronic programming. Many of the older artists saw the reproduction and manufacturing potential in this new kind of imagery making tool. The younger artists have naturally followed suit. 

Conceptual Abstraction and Process.

Painters have not only appropriated new technologies and software as studio tools but also addressed how these media might make us appreciate the real layers of materials on a painting rather than a digital image… In these conditions many artists are also interested in working either within or against the established traditions of abstraction. Abstract Expressionism was often associated with the heroic male painter, each gestural brush-stroke supposedly a trace of his emotions. But how might abstract painting be pursued when this narrative is distrusted, and the gesture, through the use of technology or otherwise, can be faked or non-assignable? Tate Modern, June 8, 2015.