This article originally appeared in Abstract Critical, January 23, 2013. My thanks to Sam Cornish and Robin Greenwood.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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?