John Seed’s Back to the Future

There’s an interesting article on the Huff Post by John Seed about the situation facing, well, mainly, painting, and by extension, the now non-existent avant-garde. One of his conclusions that seems right on the money is:

“The problem is that the definition of avant-garde needs to be revised to encompass and include art and artists that are brave enough the reach backwards and forwards at the same time. The avant-garde of the future needs to feed itself with hybridization, consolidation and assimilation.

I think that painting has to look back over its shoulder to realist and academic painting before the Salon des Refusés; in fact, it can and should go all the way back to Lascaux if it needs to. I see the history of painting as a very long line with no beginning and no end.”

A Brief Rant on the Exhaustion of the Avant-Garde, Zombie Formalism and What Contemporary Painting Needs to Move Forward, John Seed, HuffPost, June 27, 2015.

I do not agree with all of the premises he suggests in the piece. Seed seems to think that representational work can offer us a way out. Though I love figurative art, I believe there needs to be a really different engagement with that history. “Representation” has to find some other kind of visual basis, some real visual urgency if it’s to have any relevance and innovation FOR us. The problem is that “representation” is ubiquitous. We are too enthralled with our lenses, too limited by the representation of reality that we see in our programs, too busy with our selfie sticks. Look, there is more contemporary “representation” stashed in my iPhone than I can take some days, and I certainly don’t want any of those images translated directly in paint! Especially not by an academic realist. And please, spare me the nude in the studio business. If you want a new kind of urgent Realism check out Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake.

Additionally, technique and process are great, but that’s not going to move us forward! Perfecting a skill does not make for progressive art. Vision does. What pushed the early Modernists to innovate was the urge to understand new and different ways of seeing and understanding the times in which they lived. What they found was that they had to adapt old techniques in order to do it – laying differing colors side by side to create optical illusions was nothing new – Michelangelo did it on the Sistine ceiling centuries before, and the more contemporary Delacroix demanded a weird mottled color in his own Romantic visions. Maybe it’s all been done, but that’s no excuse. We must hone to our vision, to seeing, and do what that demands of us. Simple questions – how do we see the world, what do we actually see, and how does that define our lives? This will drive innovation backwards or forwards – it always has.

If we as artists do look back along the long history of art it must be in order to find something that can make sense of this moment, of our life in this time. And if we do find something that can work, this kind of “hybridized” work will look strange, clunky and uncomfortable to those schooled in the Postmodern academies. I agree with John. This should be a risk we painters should take – especially at this time!

Paul Corio Comes to Henri!

Paul Corio, artist, painter and theorist, will continue his famous gallery round up right here on Henri. As many of you know Paul has been assiduously following the gallery scene in New York City, and writing some of the best criticism about painting and abstraction that you’ll find online. His first column will be posted shortly! Stay Tuned!

Paul’s new painting “Guns of August,” a wall sized work at 9 x 15 feet, will be shown at Ventana in Part II of Oysters with Lemon. The show opens this Friday from 6 to 9 pm!   Andrew Huston’s and Michael Zahn’s ongoing exhibitions also include many exciting abstract painters, both known and unknown, and they are a “must see” for anyone interested in the continuing relevance of abstraction and painting!

Paul Corio Guns of August

 

 

Lindemann’s Lament

The great Adam Lindemann is discovering that toiling in the trenches is not as much fun as riding in the limo!

“What’s missing today is connoisseurship, and original thinking. People can’t be bothered. They don’t have time for it or they simply don’t care. No one has patience for listening and learning; high stakes art selling relies on creating the feeding frenzy that triggers an irrational impulse-buy. The market is fueled by pure hustle; the most successful dealers are the ones who are best at selling the sizzle, because no one gives a damn about the steak.”

 

The Year of the Black Dog Barking!

The wonderful Orson Welles had a visceral image he would use for his recurring depression and worry. He would say the “Black Dog is barking.” And I think that’s an appropriate image for my past year. A nagging philosophical debate has been warring in my mind about the state of art, the state of the art world itself and if I want a place in it. I have found no true or false answers, no easy solutions, but quite frankly, I’ve grown tired of the tautologies and the solipsism. My barking dog has been relentless, tireless. I’m sure every artist goes through something like this at some point in their lives, a moment when one’s cherished philosophies must change in order for one to proceed – fight the fights worth fighting, let go everything else. But who knows, maybe it’ll all wind up in the dog house anyway.

matisse chair

 

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

For me there’s something deliciously decadent and hopeful about this image of Monsieur Matisse. There on the right a slightly disapproving, square-jawed matron sternly observes the scene – a drawing of a tangled figure and a painting of a movie set interior, a dog sleeping on the patterned abstraction. Matisse himself sits with a book (sketch book?), his feet casually crossed on the stacked leather pillows. There’s a bourgeois elegance to the image, a discrete artistic nonchalance and surprising bohemian excess that so few of us can carry off these days. And why should that be? Life and art exist at once in this picture. It’s as if Rauschenberg’s famous “gap” hasn’t yet taken hold of our imaginations. You know, that gap between art and life that opened up right after the AbExers ran out of steam in ’55. That gap that turned art making into art production. That gap that became synonymous with the Postmodern era.

Wanting

Dave Hickey is famous for espousing the 40 year law of art – after 40 years it’s permissible to start stealing from the art of that particular era. He then added the proviso that if you thought that the particular 40 year old art in question still sucked, then you had his permission to go back further and steal from an era where the art did not suck. What Dave didn’t explicitly say was that when one does this one has to make that stolen art one’s very own. It’s not enough to just add your signature. For those who want to make art that does not suck stealing is not just about the patina of age, the legitimacy of an art form or the nostalgia for a golden era. Instead it’s about the life and excitement of an idea. Stealing in this sense becomes more like a biblical coveting, something illicit, a sin. It’s like sneaking around with your neighbor’s sloe-eyed spouse or joy riding in a smokin’ hot Little Red Corvette that you picked up in a 7/11 parking lot. Nor is this kind of stealing about the academic “exigencies of desire” or our contemporary mania for appropriating and curating, which to my mind look more like mergers and acquisitions rather than passionate assignations. No, we are not looking to expand our fiscal holdings or do away with a bothersome market competitor. We are not looking for synergies or symbiosis.

What we are looking for, what we are doing is actually involving ourselves in the provenance of the stolen goods, actually folding them into our lives so that they become ours, become part of us; inviolate, inseparable, whole. We’re interested in the life of an idea, not signatures or attributions. This requires actually embodying these non-sucking things, right out there in the open for all to see. It’s something that David Shields called Reality Hunger – the need we experience for authenticity, reality. We are not disguising our stolen properties, our stolen kisses and thick assignations through shell corporations or wholly owned subsidiaries. We do not curate them to a wall so that our Instagram will look interesting to instantaneous clickers. Instead, we who steal cherish what it is that we have stolen. We enfold those things, make them our very own, keep them FOR us rather than for others. In other words stolen things should be “cloud”-less. So maybe this 40 year law is not about time or eras or the past at all, but about the sucking…

Rocket Raccoon: Question. What if I see something that I wanna take and it belongs to someone else?
Rhomann Dey: Then you will be arrested.
Rocket Raccoon: But what if I want it more than the person who has it?
Rhomann Dey: Still illegal.
Rocket Raccoon: That doesn’t follow. No, I want it more, sir. Do you understand me? What are you laughing at? What? I can’t have a discussion with this gentleman?

Who would have thought that an animated raccoon would define what it means to be an artist? A thief who wants it more. Not someone looking to corner a market or come up with a gimmick. But someone who just wants it more. For instance – shouldn’t we want abstraction to be more than it has been? Shouldn’t we want painting to be more than it has been? Shouldn’t we want more ideas that challenge the status quo? Shouldn’t we want artists who love art more, not artists trying to prove a point? For me that means Modernist art, the Postmodern era, the Neo-Liberal Economic Fun Base of professional artists everywhere has to be challenged again and again until the penny drops. It also means throwing the baby out with the bath water – no more Modernism or recombinant Modernism in any form – period. Make an abstraction, a sculpture, a video, whatever, without the Modern tropes. Think! Do! Be! 40 years, Hell! Go back to just before the 1860s and find a contemporary abstraction in that!

Look, do we really need to sit in awe of things like this – Billionaires Chasing Warhols Fuel $16 Billion Art Sales.” – for yet another year? Nope! I was finally able to get my black dog to sleep soundly on my abstractions, and for the moment, he seems fairly at ease. At least he’s not barking so loudly any longer, though he does growl now and then.

One thing at a time…

Happy New Year.

The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist

This article originally appeared on Abstract Critical on April 2, 2014. My thanks to Sam Cornish and Robin Greenwood. http://abstractcritical.com/article/the-rise-and-rise-of-the-modernist-artist/

 On September 15, 2008 Damien Hirst held an auction that officially ended the theoretical legacy of the 20th Century. One can honestly say that Damien’s Day was such a pivotal moment in our Post-historical culture that one can actually track “the before” and “the after” from it. Part of the reason for this watershed moment was the stock market crash that happened on the same day, but let’s not quibble. Yes, there’s been some jostling about this event in the press, but for the most part, it seems, that most of us have just folded this information right into our everyday existence and gone on like nothing had happened. What I’m on about is the fact that on that day the criteria for determining what art actually IS irrevocably changed. Art is now produced, manufactured, valued, traded and admired from an entirely different set of criteria. The old fashioned idea that art should be appraised and vetted through its aesthetic influences, theoretical challenges and art historical importance no longer matters one wit. Instead our long held tenets, those valued by the Modern movement, espousing innovation, aesthetic challenge and radical style change have become passé. Contemporary Art has become more like a financial product, and it’s appraised through market values and economic realities in the same way that a commodity or security is valued. In other words the very concept of Art itself has become redundant.
The rank and file shows go on, of course, as do the polemics (like this one), the discussions, the defenses, the debates. Most of us continue to believe that traditional art concerns still exist, still have meaning for the culture. We blithely indulge in the rehearsed historic programs. We continue to believe in the “power” of style or theoretical daring. Yet, real visual difference remains as elusive as Bigfoot. Our art remains structured around the tenets of Modernism. And this is because we have done none of the things that defined Modernism. The last 50 years of recombinant Postmodern pastiches have created a mannered, clever, impersonal Modernism-Lite. We produce handsome and professional work to be sold in the endless seasonal cycles of art commerce. Our works have become so similar, in fact, that we have come to rely on “name recognition” in order to distinguish them. Thus the rise of the brand name artist, the insatiable quest for media coverage, the personal appearances, the cross branding with entertainment/fashion corporations, etc…
For the most part we all perform in the circus and hope to make a living from it. So we play to the audience’s expectations. We make our works bigger, we pump up the mechanics, reorganize the formulae, or if we’re really feeling expressive, we rub a bit of stank onto something that we find a bit outré. We re-mix, we appropriate, we curate our work into existence from a well-mined history of style. All of it ready for purchase, prêt-à-porter. Culture has come to seem so very rehearsed and familiar, so very predictable, and as Derrida wrote; always-already. And it’s the fact that the culture actually is familiar that makes contemporary art so accessible, so approachable, so “classic.” Koons’ balloon dogs, a mixture of Pop insouciance, Modern classicism and Disney World fabrication play to one’s Postmodern entertainment sensibilities. Hirst’s dots are just that, dots, tastefully riffing on the mechanics of a Modern abstract grid painting. Fischer’s squished clay balls art blown up to gargantuan proportions so one can see his giant-sized fingerprints, a clever pun on Rodin’s “Hand of God.” Josh Smith painting at breakneck speeds whips out a cheesy palm tree landscape in lurid drippy colors accessing both “bad” painting and the history of just plain bad painting. All of it is handsome, smart, light, expensive and tastefully accessible to those schooled in the rudiments of 20th Century culture. Nothing we haven’t seen before, experienced before, or confronted before, and all of it presented to us as if the ground has opened beneath our feet. And the best part is that all of this work looks like Art! The product delivery systems of our art market work overtime to apply a sheen of Madison Avenue glamour and class aimed at the collectors and the publicity outlets. In other words the hierarchy of the gallery system elevates the “status” and “prestige” of the work we see, like a Prada showroom designed by Rem Koolhaus or Lady Gaga trained as an acolyte by Marina Abramovic. The brands collide in a perfect consuming spectacle.
This new art economy has been transformative, especially in our studios. The “subject matter” of Art, what the narrative might entail, the engagement and poetry of the work, are all incidental to the market value, the means of production and delivery, and the branded import of the art object itself. Today, the most “innovative art” foregoes the avant-garde debates over style change or aesthetic transformation that once raged at the Deux Magots or the Cedar Bar. Rather, our innovators’ “arguments” revolve mostly around business problems, particularly “fair use” and “copyright infringement.” We have been transfixed by the legalities and finances of business, preferring them to issues of aesthetics. Our culture in other words is being determined by institutions whose only skin in our game tends to revolve around who is allowed to profit and for how much. So the art we see remains static, familiar, all too familiar, in the same way that “New Urbanist” communities, drive-time radio shows, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues, 70s fashion statements, and slow motion videos projected on gallery walls are familiar. All of this re-purposing of legally sanctioned processes, of “fair use,” has no real influence on the direction of art itself, but it does create and maintain markets and money. It’s in this way that our contemporary recombinant culture, our Retro-Culture, actually upholds and supports the stability and continuity needed for a thriving economic market.
Most of the Moderns would have found this idea of a purely market driven Art, our Neo-Liberal Art World, incomprehensible. Aside from the fact that they were nearly all lefties, and in some cases, Communists, their main focus was to overthrow the societal/cultural powers then in existence. The avant-garde was experimenting with new aesthetic ideas and iconoclastic theoretics, but mostly, the Moderns wanted to assert the power, sovereignty and worth of individuals, every individual, through new modes of expression, through “emotion.” Nearly every manifesto of those early years lays out this very idea. And this focus on emotion, on emotional connection to vision, was the last and only humanist position an artist should take in the face of unrestrained technological advancement. Think of it. In 40 years, from the first air flight at Kitty Hawk to the breaking of the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert, the world experienced two world wars, a devastating plague, a global economic cataclysm and the splitting of the atom. In the face of these unprecedented challenges a small, engaged and aggressive avant-garde desperately focused on what it meant to be human, what it meant to feel. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. How could it be? Modernism’s human challenge to the uncompromising technological expansion failed as governments, bureaucracies, institutions and corporations re-formed human existence, captured, categorized and contained humanity. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust effectively ended the Modern movement, and with it, the Modern avant-garde. The Postmodern age would be different, more “practical.” And so it began with a portrait of a Coca-Cola bottle.
“If art cannot tell us about the world we live in then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something that we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on, that nasty question that never used to be asked, because the assumption was that it was answered long ago. What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? And an art that is completely monetized the way that its getting these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes, “The Mona Lisa Curse”, 2008.
Damien’s Day finally defined the idea that artists are no longer Modern or Postmodern, but simply put, Modernist. And the distinction to be made is found in the way we use the 20th century legacy to make our work. We have no interest in overcoming the Modern, moving beyond it, challenging its theoretics. We do not ask questions, we do not take the 20th Century legacy to task for its failings, for its obvious capitulations, its formulaic visual engagements. We’re, all of us, true believers. We believe that the Modern was correct, its look correct, that its processes and techniques continue to define our time, that its tenets and aesthetics are sanctified, deserve our continued support and allegiance. We are Modernists in the same way that Capitalists, Socialists, Christianists or Islamists unquestioningly believe in the rightness of their tenets, in their right to power. And like them we use our unquestioning belief in the Modern as a path to power, as a monetary right, as an a priori economic artistic precept. And so we continue to ply its long dead principles in our paintings and sculptures, in our theatre and film, in our writing and poetry, and mostly, in our programs and technologies.
I began the current series of articles on Henri Art Magazine entitled “Untethered” in order to find a different take on the Modern Century. I’m still forming my understanding, still open to ideas, but my discontent with our current Modernist era has hardened as I’ve asked questions of the past. I do not have any illusions about what that means, especially when confronting the massive economic order that determines what art is. And I don’t mean for any of this critique to be taken as a paranoid fantasy or a screed from a reactionary. The new paradigm of a purely economically driven art based on the tropes of the 20th Century is the reality and inevitability of our time. That said, I am more convinced than I ever was that Art, and especially for me, abstract painting, must decisively and firmly untether itself from the 20th Century. I am adamant that we find a new humanism within the program, a new way to assert one’s ideas, to innovate, to express, to feel, to create vision, without the strictures of economics and without the worn out and flaccid Modern legacy. It is the only way we will find something new. And so I leave you with a few questions.
Why must we continue to ply the 20th Century’s outdated principles, its tropes, techniques and factures, its cartographic spaces and flat worldview? Why must we follow the rules of Postmodern Art Commerce? Why must we believe and accept that Modernist art, the art preferred by the corporate plutocracy, should set OUR debate, should set the “standards of excellence” for artists today? Why is there so little art, especially abstraction, that directly engages in what it means to be alive, to be human in this, our time, the way Picasso, Matisse, or for that matter Monet and Manet, did in their time? Why do we not innovate instead of transform? Why can we not discuss the way we SEE the world using new abstract images, different visions, rather than continue to make familiar recombinations of Modern productions? Why do we not really question the legacy we all so blindly follow? And as Robert Hughes so succinctly put it, why have we not asked these questions of our work?

Iconophilia

This article originally appeared in Abstract Critical, January 23, 2013. My thanks to Sam Cornish and Robin Greenwood.
http://abstractcritical.com/article/iconophilia/

“What has happened that has made images (and by image we mean any sign, work of art, inscription, or picture that acts as a mediation to access something else) the focus of so much passion? To the point that destroying them, erasing them, defacing them, has been taken as the ultimate touchstone to prove the validity of one’s faith, of one’s science, of one’s critical acumen, of one’s artistic creativity? To the point where being an iconclast seems the highest virtue, the highest piety, in intellectual circles?” What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars? Bruno Latour.

As long as I can remember we’ve been hearing about the “crisis” facing painting. What this “crisis” is, exactly, never seems to be elucidated for us with any real certainty. Frank Stella in Working Space and David Hockney in Secret Knowledge made differing arguments about how we got into this “crisis” and what the solutions might entail. But neither painter has been able to really change the dialog about our current Postmodern endgame, nor have they managed to capture our visual imaginations long enough to attack the problems exemplified by this ongoing, unspecified “crisis.” The last 30 years in painting has been one long avoidance of the legacy and history of Modernism. And that avoidance has kept painting in stasis and the “crisis” unresolved.

The usual suspects arrive to solve the problem at long table discussions, podium depositions or late night drinking bull sessions. We hear of things like the return of beauty, the need for context, the problematic nature of painting in an image based society, the academic nature of our critique, etc. But all of that rhetoric fails to address the problem of Modernism directly. Our blindness boils down to two things – we must take a look at HOW we approach our thoughts about the last century of painting and HOW we translate what we see of our contemporary lives into paint. This is exacerbated by the fact that painting as an active avant garde activity no longer exists. Instead the use of paint has been marginalized, mainly to translate images created in other media. Painting, as it’s currently being used, is an affectation, a fetish used to tart up these images giving them a historic luster and shine. Painting is no longer the medium of active, questioning vision, so to speak.

I have made the observation before, and I assert it again. Landscape painting has been the primary vehicle used to elucidate Modern vision, what it would entail, how it would work – first with the depiction of literal process and materials, and second, with the valorization of flatness as a means to “sublime” space, flatness as a connective to spiritual understanding. From Monet to Cezanne, from Kandinsky to Pollock, nearly every Modern innovation into abstraction entails the tropes of the landscape genre. What I am proposing here is that we reframe our expectations and our questions about abstract painting. Look at the possibilities of abstraction through a different genre, use the strengths of visual interaction that we see in other media, particularly lens based media, and attack the “problem of abstraction” and the “crisis of painting” from a different visual perspective.

Being/Images

torso paul strand

Paul Strand, Torso (Rebecca Strand), Taos, New Mexico 1930. 
Torso, Rebecca Strand, New Mexico, 6.7 X 6.6 in (17.02 X 16.76 cm), Gelatin silver print, 1930.

 

This powerful image is by Paul Strand. His Venus is earthy, alive, strong and real. She’s formidable. This image brings along with it a history of formidable female forms; from the Venus of Willendorf to Picasso’s Demoiselles, from Greek sculptures of Aphrodite to Manet’s Olympia. Strand’s form is in repose, but it’s not static. The contrapposto stacks the figure’s muscles, charges the torso with an uneasy tension. The line that moves down the figure’s left hip cuts through the flattened space behind it, helps to pronounce the volume of the form, defines the shape of the thing. The dark space behind the figure’s right hip pushes the form into high relief. The shadow beneath the breast, rounded, heavy and full, describes the weight of flesh. That shadow also balances the “geometric” tangle of dark hair, helps to locate the slight twist of the waist. The visual forms fall into abstraction, the lens pulls them back to reality again. Strand has also tried to remove figurative specificity by cropping this image bringing our attention to wider precedent, to history, to memory. He wants us to find something thicker in the form, a deeper visual sexuality, one connected to a physical encounter with a living thing seen as an abstracted ideal. He wants us to remember our visual past through this being/image. Though coded, it is also sensual and real, a direct visual experience of another thing.

What Strand was channeling is a kind of visual confrontation that remains ever-elusive to most Modernist painting. This kind of vision demands a deeper involvement with necessary form and structure, direct composition. We tend to think in terms of logos and graphics, signs and symbols, networks and context to provide meaning. We always-already understand the references ingrained in the elided symbols, and we look no deeper in our own experience for understanding. But in this photo we must engage visually rather than rhetorically. We must see the thing rather than scan the meaning. We’re not dealing with the overlaid or translucent, provisional or transient, ephemeral or floating world of the Postmodern landscape. This is a direct image of a thing that reveals itself through its own existence, its own moment of capture. And because this confrontation is so immediate and bare, thick with histories and associations, we have a hard time engaging with it. It assaults us. The image takes up our space because of its impropriety, not just in subject matter, but through its visual truculence, its insistence on its own being. This rising subject will not submerge into the electronic ground or fade into the program of our flashing screens. It defines itself as a being, then an image. What we find ourselves doing is confronting our own expectations and preconceptions because its being as an image forms the space it occupies. It transforms our reality, not simply as a lens capture of an ephemeral moment, but as something solid and real, something reaching into our consciousness. It means we must come to some kind of understanding about its visual existence in this very moment, in this particular reality. It has no intention of conforming to our expectations, instead we must move to it.

Staring Eyes and Gnashing Teeth

De Koo Woman

Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52, Museum of Modern Art
Woman I,  Date: 1950-52, Medium: Oil on canvas, Dimensions: 6′ 3 7/8″ x 58″ (192.7 x 147.3 cm) © 2014 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

 

In Greenberg’s essay on Modernism he set out in two lines the problem for those of us who are abstractionists but not Modernists. “Modernist painting in its latest phase has not abandoned the representation of recognizable objects in principle. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit.” What is interesting is his use of “recognizable object” and how this kind of object could not exist in Modernist space. On the flat surface of painted landscape abstraction the thing must adhere to that space, must be subordinated to the spread of space across the surface.

This “principled” idea of abstraction, the singular articulation of flattened space as the subject of abstract painting has predominated ever since; the shallow space of the gridded surface, the overlapping space of the photo montage, the translucent space of the magician’s scrim. These ideas have been institutionalized as a priori principles guiding the making of Postmodern abstraction. What one could paint and did paint has had to remain tethered to the surface, had to involve the processes of its making. Greenberg’s Modern ideology could bear no other, no being, in these flat spaces, and when De Kooning dared to move from the landscape to the woman before and within him, Greenberg, famously, brayed his disappointment. An abstracted being/image had returned in the work of a strong painter creating its own space on the flat surface of Modern painting.

Look at the way De Kooning’s figure actually forms the spaces around it, the way it begins to emerge out of the surface. The abstract silver bar down the right side melts, the geometric flatness eroded away by this image. The being shapes the visual confrontation just as a thing does in life. Think of the way a room changes when someone enters and sits across from you, or an elevator becomes a different experience as more faces enter. The form, this being/image itself keeps tearing away the polite spiritual surfaces of Modern reverie and sublime contemplation. De Kooning channels Picasso’s prostitutes. This figure’s huge eyes stare right through us. The teeth bared, snarl. Her form is strong, powerful and aggressive, and like Strand’s photo, fraught with sexual power and historical precedent. De Kooning was indeed a Modernist, but he still painted volume, shadow and form. He conjured up Greenberg’s dreaded recognizable object with its rich visual history and its transgressive space. In “Woman I” there is the understanding that real things can and do arise out of the ground, that an image, a singular confrontation with a thick being, is what had been missing in the endless floating landscape spaces of Modern painting.

Lenses and Paint

The actual grand legacy of the 20th Century was lens culture, this we can not deny. Nearly every memorable image in Art during that century has been connected to the proliferation of the lens in some way. Most of the radical changes in painting were directly informed, either pro or con, by its immediacy and power. It became the force for iconic vision, and painters have been trying to dismantle that power ever since. But it hasn’t worked. Images of all kind proliferate and reproduce at such a rate that the power and legacy of painting looks retrograde and untenable as a progressive medium.

Coplans Side Torso

John Coplans, Self-Portrait (side torso bent with large upper arm II)
Self-Portrait (side torso bent with large upper arm II)1985, Gelatin silver print, 45.8 x 56.4 cm, Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Where in abstraction can such a visual encounter as the one above exist? Yes there are figurative painters that have accessed the idea of Modernist process, but they tend to rely on Expressionist solutions – slashing paint, scraped surfaces, or scumbled passages on flat surfaces. What we don’t have for painted abstraction is a visual equivalent of immediate form, compositional structure, and as Frank Stella says, caricature.

The artist/photographer John Coplans took the idea of lens abstract reality and ran with it through his later years. His compositions are tinged with the Modern; a strong single thing defined by the borders of the lens/screen. The figure is pushing itself against the surface, defining its presence through its being. The lens captures the overripe flesh, the muscles strain and pull the volumetric values supporting the leaning column. The vision seems large, the scale feels big, because it is isolated, presented as a mythic vision. The figure, however, doesn’t float in a Modern landscape. It forms itself as factual presence in the world. We are right with this vision, encompassed by the space formed by it. We are drawn in because the being/image creates space out of its own reality, from the thing in itself. We can feel our visual history slip through this vision; Rodin’s Burghers, Caravaggio’s Pietro, Velasquez’s Borrachos, Newman’s Zip. We respond to the ongoing reality of being, the onslaught of time, the consideration of entropy in the real abstract thing. It exists. It is.

These ideas of solid abstract imagery, of visual confrontation with volume, value, and iconic being are in contrast to the current Postmodern craze for what Bruno Latour calls an “iconoclash” – the headlong urge by today’s painters to eradicate images, to maintain the flattened landscape at the cost of creating new iconic imagery that questions the legacy of Modern painting. Today, much of abstract painting relies wholly on processes of negation that undermine actual visual confrontation with a thing, keep the rising subject submerged, maintain the comfortable ground. And as the Modern/Postmodern era has shown us, this kind of iconoclasm, this destruction of thick imagery, has kept us in stasis, has maintained the flat legacy of Modernism, has made painting a second tier academic activity bereft of new visual ideas.

Iconophobia

Christopher Wool eradicates his patterned photographic surfaces melting them away with chemical baths and spray paint notations. Gerhard Richter, as documented in the recent movie “Gerhard Richter Painting,” begins with an extremely banal Expressionist landscape and finishes by squeegeeing layers of thick, viscous paint over it until there is nothing left but an expansive caked surface of glistening oily material. Sigmar Polke, David Salle and Jeff Koons layer media images one over the other like photoshopping demons of SuperFlat commercial inconsequence, collapsing space, being and meaning into a melange of overlapping optics. Never once does a thing come into view. Instead we are left with the physical outcomes of process, the glorification of surface and material. Postmodern painting is a mannered reminder of the once sublime Modernist landscape stretched loosely across a contemporary billboard.

In the 21st Century the subject of our painting, especially abstraction, is not directed at the lives we live, or more specifically, at the world that we see and experience. Rather we abstract painters have been more concerned about eradicating visual confrontation with being/images. We are more comfortable with warped re-presentations of style. We prefer the documentation of our painting processes over the depiction of visual things. The rhetoric around this iconoclasm is just as predictable. It’s usually accomplished when the artist states that the process, even though it is the subject of the painting, is actually inconsequential, a byproduct. We no longer deny the accidental as Pollock famously did. We claim no control of the image, no framing of the processes. The Postmodern artist removes himself from processes altogether, claiming that the artist is not, should not be, involved in the making of images whatsoever. The painting, the document, becomes a found object. The recent retro-tinged conversations online over Wade Guyton’s use of a printer in making his handsomely banal abstract paintings is a perfect example of the intellectual emptiness of this current moment. The point is to remove the icon maker, and in doing that, to remove the icon. It’s almost as if one can only paint if one intends not to do so. Since the sanctification of Duchamp at the beginning of our Postmodern era, every painting emerging from our studios comes equipped with its own mustache.

My personal battle with abstract painting has been about locating what was lost in the flat transcendent landscapes of the 20th Century. Painted abstraction as we’ve come to know it and practice it, can not and does not give us the being of an other, the vision of a thing. There has been no room for the kind of physical unfolding of existence that we witness all through the history of Western painting. Instead we have chosen to optically float through the nebulous world of dematerialized abstractions, bask in the breathless critiques of facture or lapse in reveries of contextual stylistic discourse. We willingly erase our own history, our own imagery and our own visions. Whatever we see in painting is all done through a prophylactic of language, through the distance of second-hand references, and through the haze of unsatisfied Postmodern desire. We do not confront the being/image directly. This thing between us, both the bittersweet moment and the bodily lived experience, the moments that we see, seek to understand, have been sorely missing in our very short history of abstract painting. Our painting, especially over the last 50 years, has been about the spaces that occur around things rather than things seen in themselves. And I keep finding myself wondering why? Why can we not address the intimacy of actual being through abstraction? Why does our experience of abstraction leave out so much of our contemporary visual existence? Why doesn’t abstraction have a deeper history of actual lived imagery?