“I was interested in the tension between image and abstraction, how the mind could be engaged with a picture of a recognizable image while perceiving abstract space at the same time. That was in the air at the time, this figure/ground relationship. I took the idea of figurative form and put it on top of a pattern and that’s where the mechanics of these paintings began. It kind of all began at the end of my second semester at CalArts. I was only there for one year, in 1977.” Jonathan Lasker in conversation with Phong Bui, Brooklyn Rail, July 11, 2016.
“Then there’s Mr. Lasker, who refers to his art as an “image kit” and declares that his purpose is to instill “a self-awareness of how one construes a painting.” His description conveys an accurate sense of detachment: In Mr. Lasker’s hands, image and mark (less so color and composition) are means that remain means. With painstaking clunkiness, the paintings transform their components into signifiers—symbols of form, not altogether the real thing. Each canvas is a rebus of painterly affectation.” Mario Naves on Jonathan Lasker, “Clarified and Incoherent: The Art of Jonathan Lasker,” 2012.
Mario Naves description of Jonathan Lasker’s is on point. And I hear similar things from you guys all the time. I understand Jonathan Lasker’s work is conceptual with a capital “C.” These paintings are not about lushness or beauty – though they “appropriate” and consolidate those things with his manufacturing process. His color is difficult and his composition is straight forward. The paintings are deliberately “dumb” looking – sort of cleaned-up-clumsy.
But Lasker is taking on a tradition of American Painting lost in the mannered Brush Stroke and the adulation of the Kantian paint hand. His paintings are stroppy and edgy on purpose. They are complex with a critique of not only the first wave of Greenbergists, but also those later Mannerists who still revered the power of the Brush Stroke. And yeah – they are always not-so-pleasant to look at. So to my friends who take me to task when I bring up his work – I get it and I agree. But like so many of the Abstract Mannerist paintings – these works aren’t made to please. A total punk.
“I play with composition being in balance and out of balance. I do have images in the work, even though sometimes you can’t tell it’s an image right away. Formally, there’s a kind of storytelling to what I’m doing. For example the road paintings might look abstract and people might not think it’s a road until they read the title, “No Passing,” and understand it.” Mary Heilmann in conversation with Paul Laster The Painter’s Painter Theory of Solid Space July 24, 2017.
“Murray paints each panel separately, as if it were a single work. She gets her ideas for color from a paint shop in SoHo. Then, with the help of an assistant who comes to her studio once a week, she begins placing the panels this way and that. “Basically, I follow my nose. I get bored with analytical thinking, arranging. The work appears to be getting more sculptural, but I’m interested in the illusion of making something look three-dimensional in two-dimensional space. Anyway, I want the panels to look as if they had been thrown against the wall and that’s how they stuck together.” Elizabeth Murray Shapes Up Paul Gardner, Artnews, September 1984.
Many of the “New Abstractionists” began to expand upon the idea of the painted thing in order to attack the limitations of Greenberg’s flat surface. David Row broke the thing into pieces. David Reed chose unconventional sizes and shapes for his works and over layed those shapes like windows within those paintings. Elizabeth Murray brought her Surreal imagery directly onto the wall in the same way that Stella’s geometric logic shaped his Aluminum Paintings. Painted things.
“One can refer to it as either post-modernism or as neo-modernism, but what is characteristic of this order is that the elements of modernism are hyper-realized. They are reduced to their pure formal state and are denuded of any last vestiges of life or meaning. They are re-deployed in a system of self -referentiality which is itself a hyper-realization of modernist self-referentiality – though it is now detached from the modernist dream of revolutionary renewal. In post-or neo-modernism, the syntactical elements do not change. The vocabulary of modernism is retained, but its elements, already made abstract, are finally and completely severed from any reference to the real. In this hyper-modernism, the modern is never discarded. It is simply replaced by its formal double.” Peter Halley, Essence and Model, Collected Essays 1981-1987.
Peter Halley had been a rising star in the late 80s – the first abstract painter who was taken seriously as the Neo-Ex movement frittered away. Visually this work was a bit shocking – simple forms, direct presentation and manufactured color. Halley’s work was also based upon new theoretical ideas about the changing world. The paintings not only worked in direct opposition to Neo-Ex figuration they also challenged the process Mannerism of most abstract painting of the day. Halley’s work is usually included in the “Conceptual Abstraction” group shows, but these paintings never sit well next to those works.
“Not only the desiring of the machine, I also was sustaining a lot of issues of other desires: the desire to investigate and bring my interests in photography, installation, and video works into some sort of a coexistence which deals with constant questions of polyvocality, transgender, and so on. I just never think of it as either/or. I just see multiplicity as a possibility against generics. Let’s say the possibility of working with minimalism, not in a reactive way, but working with “a loaded brush,” not just as a conceptual in some sort of charged and re-sexualized way, but in order to bring them all together into painting, and create a new space.” Lydia Dona in conversation with Phong Bui, Brooklyn Rail, April 4, 2018.
Lydia Dona’s work was always difficult for me. Postmodern abstract painters had begun to adapt Greenbergian “all over composition.” Instead of using paint in a “pure” fashion (think Jacks’ “skeins” or Mitchell’s strokes) painters would use linear schematic drawing and filmic “dissolves” or “overlays” to collapse pictorial space and deny illusionistic space. It was a way to remain Modern. Abstraction must keep painting on the surface.
“But I don’t think an abstract painting is something you worship. It is something that is part of the world. It is as if the spirituality in art stepped off a pedestal, or from behind a sheet of glass, and has joined the world of the living. That, of course, is the contradiction with it because many people find it more exclusionary than an icon painting. That is the contradiction with art. With intention and result there is very often conflict. That is one of the issues in abstraction I have tried to address; to use abstraction, I’m not fighting for abstraction. Those battles have already been fought. I’m using those victories to make an abstraction that is, in fact, more relaxed, more open, and more confident. I take it for granted I don’t need to abstract reality anymore; that has already been done. That would be the equivalent of reinventing the wheel. What I am doing is using all the ground that has already been gained; I’m occupying it to try to make something that is more expressive and that relates to the world in which we live. In that sense my abstraction is quite figurative. It is not very remote.” Sean Scully in conversation with Eric Davis, “Why Do You Make Art?” 1999.
Sean Scully was included in the New Abstraction show as well. Of all those abstract painters being presented I think he was the best known. For young abstract painters he held a connection to the NeoEx crew and he talked the talk of authentic abstract painting connected to the Modern era. He wasn’t stepping back or aside to make work, he was directly involved in a lineage. At that time in the early 90s he was a hero of mine. Those big boxy stripe paintings cobbled together into massive wall works looked real and offered those of us who loved AbEx painting some threads of inspiration.
“I hate Greenberg’s rules for painting. He thought light and dark, the values of the colors in paintings, should be even, so the color could be focused on hue difference. It’s a strategy from Impressionism. I want strong contrasts of light and dark, as well as contrasts of color temperature and hue. The one property of color that I wanted to keep even is the intensity. This lets the light move and flow throughout the painting. That’s another reason my paintings seem filmic. That’s my innovation in color: to hold intensity even while varying the other aspects of color in extreme ways.” David Reed in Conversation with Phong Bui, Brooklyn Rail, April 2, 2010.
Especially important in this interview is David’s assertion that – “Our experiences of film and photography have changed how we see the world. Film and photography made new emotional experiences possible, which can now be a part of painting. As painters, we can help define the meaning of those experiences.” This is especially true with the ubiquity of lenses and screens all through our culture. What sorts of emotional experiences do we have through these screens and can painting really be a part of it?
“We have to recognize that the static hierarchies and meanings inherent in the language of classic abstraction are closed and no longer viable. This language has to be broken down and opened again; its imagery has to reflect the fractured provisional and linguistic nature of contemporary life and thought.” David Row in conversation with Demetrio Paparoni, Tema Celeste, January-March 1992.
We still hear calls to arms like this nearly everyday. What is/was classic abstraction? Which Modernism are we talking about? European? American? Is Mannerism the only way forward? What exactly does he mean by “the fractured provisional?” I’m not quite sure, especially at this point in time. One of the things that I like about David’s work is how it breaks into pieces, fractures time and space, much in the way that George Hofmann discussed vision in his essay Fractured Space.
Color difference and scale alone made for spatiality – so it was mostly thru splitting that space could be alluded to; fracturing led to differentiation itself – the breaking-up of space in a shallow field – as subject.
“But the limitation of Stella’s analysis, which explains the problems of his recent art, lies in his fundamental misunderstanding of Baroque art. His formalist analysis both overestimates Caravaggio’s importance and misrepresents his achievement, as when he claims that Caravaggio’s pictorial space is “self-contained.” It leads him to the absolutely mistaken conclusion that the goal of abstracti”on should be to create a literal space, like that of his recent works, which really are large-scale relief sculptures. The true power of Baroque art, and also of abstraction, is its capacity to create an illusionistic space. Stella misidentifies the spectator’s role. Painting circa 1990, as circa 1590, involves the spatial and temporal relation of a spectator to the image. The aim of the Baroque was to reestablish contact with the spectator, which cannot be done with literal space.” David Carrier and David Reed, “Tradition, Eclecticism, Self-Consciousness Baroque Art and Abstract Painting,” Arts Magazine 65, No. 5, (Jan. 1991): 44-49.
In the early 90s there was Scully, Heilman, Read, Row, Halley, Dryer, Zinsser, Lasker, Bleckner, Winters and many others. But don’t be mislead. This wasn’t so much a movement as it was a geek reformulation of Greenberg’s process painting and a throaty reaction to Frank Stella’s ideas of abstraction as presented in his “Working Space.” Unfortunately, this “moment” for abstract painting never unfolded into something culturally meaningful. It never really took flight. Was it a real Baroque movement for abstract painting? I’m not so sure. It always felt more like a full-blown Florentine Mannerism to me – like Bronzino or Pontormo rather than Caravaggio.
I really like the idea put forward by Carrier and Reed in their essay that there was a need for abstraction to establish contact with the spectator through an illusionistic space. But this is something that no one could really agree on – illusion and space, I mean.
I’m not sure where Henri is going or what it’s going to be or how it will look. It seems that talking and writing about Art is just about the most boring thing that anyone can do at this particular moment in time. And I hate to be a bore. The art world has changed and Art along with it.
So I’ve been posting more on Instagram and Twitter than writing anything here. Just a picture & a short comment and then on to the next. We seem to prefer this kind of interaction. It’s far more economical.
So let’s keep this short and simple – easy to see – easy to digest – easy to move past on your way to the next. But before you go have a look at this painting by David Row (new show at Loretta Howard) who along with a number of other abstract painters began the 1990s proposing a more “baroque” form of abstraction.