Playboy Prankster

Francis Picabia Hera 1929

“Picabia would reinvent himself yet again in the mid-1930s and into the following decade, creating the so called ‘kitsch’paintings. Derived from photographs of Hollywood stars and images found in ‘girlie mags’of the times, the ‘kitsch’paintings again demonstrate Picabia’s willful disregard of convention in painting. For decades these works were virtually ignored by critics and art theorists, who deemed the works amateurish or insincere. The enormous impact these works had on subsequent generations of artists is only now being considered.” Michael Werner Gallery’s exhibition of Picabia’s Late Paintings, November 2011 – January 2012.

OK then – let’s go back a bit further. DaDa was always the fly in Modern ointment. Their criticism of the Modern was both cultural and social, and painting as they saw it was elitist and ridiculous. Modern Painters and Modern Critics of painting dismissed these DaDaists for their theatricality, their nihilism and their anti-painting theoretics. But dismissal is always problematic – nobody puts DaDa in the corner.

Picabia, the Playboy Prankster, derided and dismissed in his later years, had been laying out the groundwork for a painterly critique of Modern Era culture and painting. There he was an aging decadent living large on the Côte d’Azur and taking the mickey out of Modernism. In the 1960s young artists especially in Europe began to see his work with new eyes. And by the end of that decade Picabia, the DaDaist painter, had become a hero to many of the Postmodern painters.

“He [Picabia] made important contributions to both Cubist painting and its nemesis, Dada, with its art-barbed hijinks, and refused to cultivate a personal style that deepened with time. Instead he toyed with kitsch and calendar art, and based paintings on found photographs. When he returned to abstraction at the end of his life, he tried several styles. But lately — when multiple mediums and styles are increasingly the artistic norm — Picabia’s stature has grown. His work seems more alive today than that of any artist of his cohort, even Duchamp.” Roberta Smith’s review of the Picabia Retrospective, November 17, 2016.

Bob’s Your Uncle

Robert Rauschenberg, Scanning, 1963

““This is the moment [Rauschenberg’s Golden Lion win at the Venice Biennale] when the art conversation opened up decisively internationally, so it wasn’t owned by Europe,” says Wallach of the historic American victory at the art-world Olympics. “It’s an opening shot.” Gleefully pulling the trigger was curator Alan Solomon, who had previously mounted retrospectives of the work of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at New York’s Jewish Museum. Spreading what he described as a “lively show of advanced art” across two American-owned venues in Venice, he proclaimed that the center of the art world had shifted from Paris to New York. the Old Guard (and seemingly the entire nation of France) was furious.” Stephanie Murg, Modern Luxury, March 2018.

There’s no denying that most all Conceptual Painting as we have come to know it begins with Robert Rauschenberg. Bob’s career spanned the last half of the 20th Century – the entire Postmodern era – influencing everyone in some way. And if we really think about it one of the very first Postmodern critiques that took Modernist theoretics to its logical endpoint was “Erased De Kooning.” (“It had to begin as Art.”) 

What’s also interesting about this Oedipal gesture is Rauschenberg’s involvement in the work. Over his career he never developed the cool distance practiced by his Postmodern contemporaries. Rauschenberg’s work is always a Southern hot mess – smart, direct, emotional and personal.

“But around 1962, Rauschenberg began to use not things but the images of things. He gathered photos and enlarged them into silk screens, so that they could be printed directly on the canvas. This had two main effects. First, it enormously increased his image bank, because just about everything in the world, from mountains to beetles, from spermatozoa to Thor-Agena rockets, has been photographed. And second, by reusing silk-screened images from one painting to the next, it let him use repetition and counterpoint across a series of works in a way that wasn’t possible, or not easily possible, if he had been using things themselves. In doing this, he was adapting to the great central fact of American communication, its takeover by the imagery of television.” Robert Hughes on Robert Rauschenberg, The New York Review, November 14, 2015. 

New World

Sigmar Polke Untitled 1983

“Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?” Hal Foster reviewing Polke’s MOMA Retrospective, June 19, 2014.

One can not underestimate the huge influence that Sigmar Polke has had on advanced painting since the 1980s. Along with Richter Polke rethought the American schools of AbEx, Pop and Minimalism. They then repackaged these movements with a deep history of European skepticism, philosophy and painting theoretics creating the era of Conceptual Abstraction. Their influence is still thick with us today.

“What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.” Peter Schjeldahl’s review of Polke’s MOMA retrospective, April 28, 2014.

It has to look good.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (809-3), 1994

“I was a bit afraid I would become a specialist for photo painting, so I made abstract and I discovered the pleasure, the fun, it was good. The one step to abstract painting was great, it was great painting it]. I was so unsatisfied with what I did and it was a bad painting so you feel helpless and you destroy it and over paint it and you discover that it has a quality, a very special quality. It tells in a way the truth, but it has to look good. This is hard to explain.” Gerhard Richter speaking with Nicholas Serota, TATE, October 11, 2011.

Polke and Richter. Those are the artists we all heard about in the Conceptual Abstraction of the 90s. And we can see their influence in so many artist’s works of the time. I think more artists emulate Polke than Richter, still do, but that’s because Richter is that much harder to emulate. To do Richter you’d have to be an amazing technician of paint. And here in America those kinds of skills are not taught and haven’t been taught since the 1940s. Richter takes the history and theoretics of the Modern era and creates lush painterly simulations of those styles and processes. A perfect Mannerist, a one off. 

“Richter is a philosophical artist, not a philosopher of art… Richter has taken on the big critical issues in painting since the nineteen-sixties. He has seemed close at times to the position of theorists who argue that technological advances and deconstructive analysis render the old medium obsolete. And Richter’s ways of working—they include making oil copies of banal photographs and creating abstractions with a swiftly wielded squeegee—might seem like anti-painting when you think about it. But trying to think at this show is like trying to play three-dimensional chess while drunk. One work after another attains a sublimely pleasurable stillness and silence.” Peter Schjeldahl, Reviewing Richter’s MOMA retrospective, March 4, 2002.

In the head

 Albert Oehlen Geschmeidig 1999

“Oehlen offers an insight into why digital pictorial mediums can be exciting—and certainly are triumphant in global visual culture—but still fail to sustain intellectual interest or to nourish the soul. They are all in the head. Oehlen attacks with paint the shallow clamor of transferred digital pixelation and, in some works, glued-on advertising posters. He wrestles their visual quiddities—how they look, irrespective of what they represent—down into the body and makes them groan.” Peter Scheldahl, New Yorker, 2015.

Albert Oehlen’s has everything an abstract painter could want – materiality, process and Postmodern critique. It’s a style of painting and visual thinking inherited from Sigmar Polke. And over the years he’s pushed this painting and critique further from the landscape material abstraction into billboard conceptual abstraction. His is a career of constant experimentation and change done in an effort to find the limits and meanings of painting and abstraction in an era overrun by these things. 

“In 1991 Oehlen began making drawings on the computer without knowing too much about the technical details. The resulting images were printed out, silkscreened onto large canvases, and worked on some more with paint. The computer-drawn lines became monumental, raising questions around the nature of materiality. While the digital offers no resistance and can be modified at will, paint insists on a life of its own: its sheen varies, depending on the way the light falls; it drips or is too matte or thick in all the wrong places. There is a certain arrogance to its materiality – a quality foreign to the digital, which is so endlessly compliant.” Daniel Bauman, Spike Magazine, 2015

To the Wall…

Rudolf Stingel Untitled 1997

“In 1989 I rented the former showroom of “Magic Carpet” on Houston Street as a studio. There was wall-to-wall carpet covering the entire floor of the loft space. John Currin and the Landers brothers were upstairs. It took me a while but at some point I realized that taking an entire space by laying carpet was more powerful than the paintings I was doing at that time.” Rudolf Stingel in conversation with a bunch of admiring curators, Flash Art, 2013.

The thing about the other side of the Mannerist movement is that it’s all about mechanical processes rather than painting processes. Stingel actually wrote an instruction book in the late 80s on how to make one of his silver paintings, which I dare say was probably a precursor to a couple of Zombie abstractionist in the twenty teens. Stingel’s book has a step by step recipe for the Conceptual Abstractionist in training, and it lays out an idea of a mechanical step-by-step painting application that can be easily reproduced. And this idea comes not only from Warhol, but from the 60s Minimalists as well – these paintings are made like Stella’s early stripes in particular.

But this was just the beginning for Stingel as lens based reproduction took hold of his abstract work – which over time became mainly images of Wallpapers and Carpets.  Slight variations in the application of the images played with the idea of both abstraction and decoration.

Stingel once remarked that “…artists have always been accused of being decorators, so I just went to the extreme and painted the wallpaper.” Clem used to caution abstract artists on this exact thing. It’s an interesting argument. So one has to ask – what’s the difference between abstraction and decoration?

Concept is King…

Christopher Wool Untitled 1999

“Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a pop artist or dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low. But despite the many apparent contradictions the work is singular, strong, organic, and as deep as it might appear shallow.” Glenn O’Brien, Apocalypse and Wallpaper, 2012.

In the early 90s Christopher Wool was making his now famous “word paintings.” His work was indeed Conceptual painting, but he was not considered an “abstract” painter. In the late 80s early 90s his “abstraction” was a machined-looking wallpaper pattern, but this gave no hint of what was to come. By the mid 90s Wool was working towards a direct confrontation with the Greenbergists, but he was doing it not through painting processes but from the other side of Process using Warhol’s examples of photography, the Pictures Generation ideas of imagery, and the rising use of programmed replication and reproduction.

“It can’t have been clear at the time that Wool’s middle way, of earnest painterly invention, which was anything but seductive, would triumph. Several other gifted painters—among them Peter Halley, David Reed, and Jonathan Lasker—gained success with conceptually alert abstract styles. Those artists now seem a bit dated. Wool doesn’t. His works ace the crude test that passes for critical judgment in the art market: they look impeccable on walls today and are almost certain to look impeccable on walls tomorrow. Lately fetching millions at auction, Wool’s art leaves critics to sift through the hows and the whys of a singular convergence of price and value. Would that the expensive were always so good.” Peter Schjeldahl Writing on the Wall 2013

The Other…

Andy Warhol Rorschach 1984

When Andy first did this painting most of the painters making abstract paintings just thought it a joke. But in the 90s this abstraction was influencing another side of Mannerist Abstraction. The imagery is simple. The process is direct and “mechanical.” The finished abstraction is singular and strong. And as it turns out – this series of “abstract” paintings may very well be Warhol’s most “original” paintings of his career.

“Warhol invented his own, achieved by painting one side of a canvas and then folding it vertically to imprint the other half. Ironically, Warhol originally misinterpreted the clinical process, believing that patients created the inkblots and doctors interpreted them: “I thought that when you went to places like hospitals, they tell you to draw and make the Rorschach Tests. I wish I’d known there was a set.” Because of this misunderstanding, Warhol’s Rorschach series is one of the few in which the artist does not rely on preexisting images.” MOMA description of Warhol’s Rorschachs.

Greenbergism and Reproduction began to look and feel almost exactly like the very same thing. And a light bulb went off in the heads of a lot of conceptual painters.


Philip Taaffe, Desert Flowers, 1990

“The 20 artists in the show all helped shape abstraction’s previous revival in the 1980s. They all participated in an important 1991 exhibition, also called “Conceptual Abstraction,” at the Sidney Janis Gallery, documenting that florescence. And they all continue to produce characterful work today, as attested by the inclusion, in the Hunter show, of both vintage and recent paintings.” Conceptual Abstraction by Holland Cotter, NYT, November 1, 2012.

After “New Abstraction” came and went in the early 90s Mannerist abstract painters went underground. But truthfully the underground wasn’t really a hot-house of fermentation and growth. This underground felt more like a Terry Gilliam bureaucracy. The artists continued to show and in some cases to teach at well known universities. The critics that were behind this work kept publishing, teaching and curating major museum shows. So the direction of abstract painting in NYC pretty much stayed the course. And yeah, this has gone on for quite a while.

“It is painting that exchanges the hermetic Modernist ideal of pure form for a different ideal, or anti-ideal: the real world, with its bodies and buildings, movies and messes, politics and pop culture.” Now I think this sounds good, but it doesn’t exactly describe what this work was/is doing.

In 2012 twenty years after the first show there was another Conceptual Abstraction reconsideration put on by Hunter College including all of the artists from the 90s shows. And though many people went to see it, the conversation about the future of abstraction was once again cut short. And this is because in the late 90s and early 2000s another group of Mannerists had taken abstract painting down another path…

Abstract Romantic…

Ross Bleckner, Architecture of the Sky, 1989

“Essentially, I want a world to exist that I can get into. A world that has to do with certain kinds of illusion and that is also confrontational. The paintings hold you outside of their making. I work very much like a rubber band. I start with an idea or an image and then I stretch it out and let it collapse back into itself.” Ross Bleckner in conversation with Aimee Rankin, Bomb Magazine, April 1, 1987.

Ross Bleckner was known for his clever abstract paintings. But by the late 1980s the world had become a more dangerous place and Bleckner’s work  changed. Slowly the irony that had defined his work was pushed aside and he painted without the filter of a Postmodern critique. His abstraction was concentrated on tight form and rigid compositional structures, and his painted “process” began to exemplify and define those things creating lush surfaces and illusions of depth.

Yet as we all know there’s always a catch when one deals with one’s Devil. By removing the “critical” distance and confronting his own experience of the world Bleckner constantly risked sentimentality and tweeness. And sometimes he fell into that trap. His retrospective in the mid 90s was a difficult exhibition, because it showed the risks he was taking and how he could miss the mark.

But when his paintings work – like the Architecture of the Sky paintings – they are strong and affecting abstractions. These paintings opened the idea to me that Abstraction could actually reach into the world for meaning. In this way these paintings break, just a little, with the other Abstract Mannerists.