1970s Re-Imaging

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1975
When, in the 1970s, Howardena Pindell was working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – as the first African-American woman to serve in the museum’s curatorial department – she found she wasn’t always invited to events attended by her colleagues. ‘I was somewhat marginalised,’ she tells me. But there was an upside: ‘I could go home and work. I used the time wisely.’ During these evenings and nights, Pindell had been developing her own body of artistic work…
The earlier works are all paintings: large-format, horizontal canvases covered with layers of tiny dots, spray-painted on through stencils made of hole-punched card. The resulting images are shimmering, multi-hued – like a Seurat landscape without any figures or forms on which to focus. This is an intentional echo: ‘I love Seurat,’ Pindell says. ‘And someone has mentioned to me Monet’s water lilies.’ It was through her encounters with these artists, and many others, while working at MoMA, that Pindell developed her fascination with colour and its effects – something she had already read up on, when undertaking her Master of Fine Arts at Yale University in 1965–67. ‘I studied [Josef] Albers’ colour course. And so I understood colour more than if I had not taken that course.’ [Howardina Pindell in conversation with Gabrielle Schwarz]

After years of “pure” abstraction, media inflected Pop Art and the rarified conceptualism of the 60s painters found that they needed something different – a different idea of painting and imagery. American artists were looking back to ignored or discarded forms of Modernism – Post Impressionism, DaDa and Surrealism – rather than the prescribed pathways of Impressionism and Cubism. This reexamination of Modernism brought a different conceptual critical approach to both imagery and abstraction. It also allowed narrative structures (both critical and personal) into the processes of painting. Artists like Miro, Picabia, Dali, Beckmann, de Chirico – the experimentation of the Return to Order during the 20s and 30s – Brecht, Artaud and Beckett – Benjamin, Adorno and Arendt – all were rediscovered and valued. For European artists all of this was natural – a continuation of their history. For the entrenched American institutions – this reformulation of painting history, the new influx of European philosophy and the rise of Postmodernism were seen as a rebuke and a betrayal of America’s Exceptionalism.

Ross Bleckner Operator 1979
ROSS BLECKNER: … oh God, I hate to say this, but I always felt like I was doing these really
minimal corner of a room paintings and drawings with a paint stick.
LINDA YABLONSKY: With a paint stick?
ROSS BLECKNER: A paint stick.
LINDA YABLONSKY: A paint stick, like an oil stick?
ROSS BLECKNER: Like an oil stick. So she [Lizzie Borden] started doing these big, single-panel things with paint stick that was kind of creating some tension between us. She wasn’t really into the physicality of making art. She just wanted to be an artist, so she kind of did whatever I did. It kind of irritated me. She started going out with Richard Serra. The next thing I know he’s doing these big things with oil stick. She stopped doing them, and she became a lesbian. [Ross Bleckner in conversation with Linda Yablonsky]

Painters in the seventies had it tough. There was little interest in painting. In fact – it seemed there was little interest in art. But all through the seventies all kinds of American Artists were looking at European art – Neorealism & the French New Wave in cinema, Surrealism and Expressionism in theatre and painting, critical theory from the Frankfurt school and the French Poststructuralism – all of it heady, unknown, decadent and dark in its way. New ideas and old provocations began to make their way into the American cultural imagination, and we began to reinterpret our histories.

Eric Fischl Praying Daughter 1977
ROBERT ENRIGHT: Did you recognize in some ways that the Fisher family was a surrogate in some ways for your own family? I mean, was there a way in which there was any autobiographical residue that you were aware of at the time?
ERIC FISCHL: I was trying at the time to absolutely stay away from it, even though I was drawing on its source the whole time. But I was absolutely petrified of people dismissing it based on it’s just my fucked-up family, you know. “Why are you trying to interest me in your problems” kind of thing. And I didn’t want it—I wanted it to be universal. I didn’t want it to be limited to that. So I was trying to find ways of covering it up.
You know, when I found glassine paper—I had been working with these drawings, these fisher family drawings on this paper that I would soak in linseed oil and they’d become very transparent. And then oftentimes I would layer them, put one or two areas, one image covering another, and then I’d write stuff on them. And I got interested in that transparency and then I found this glassine paper which had this really, you know, slick texture to it and it had a—it was four feet wide and a roll was 10 yards long. So I could actually paint large things, life-size figures, you know.
And I got excited about that and I got excited about being able to narrate in my studio the scenes by putting an object on one piece of paper and putting that on the wall and then just talking to myself, you know. “Where is this chair? Is it in the living room? Is it in the dining room? Is it in the kitchen? Oh, it’s in the dining room. Okay. Is there a table? Yeah, there’s a table. Go get the table, paint the table. Now there’s a chair and a table. Are there other chairs? Yeah, there’s a couple of other chairs.” Boom, boom, boom, boom, you know. “Is anyone sitting in the chair? Are they standing by the chair? Are they walking past the chair? Who is it? Is it the mother, the father, the sister, the brother, the husband, the wife? Is it the lover, the this? Is there anyone else in there? Yes. Is it a dog? Is it a cat? Is it a chair, a lamp?” [Eric Fischl in conversation with Robert Enright]

Once the eighties arrived America had chosen a different societal path – away from depression era economics, Cold War diplomacy and Marxist influenced theoretics. And money, big money, global money, began to pour into the art world. This influx of capital would change our relationships to art, theory and culture by reflecting the history of the Modern avant garde through the funhouse mirror of money. Many of us still protest this fact, but in truth we were the ones creating this Neo-Liberal art world. The art world looks as it does today, because we wanted it that way – success changes everything and warps one’s idea of the past. It’s easy to forget the High Times Hard Times and the radical experimentation of the seventies. We tend to see that decade as transitory, ineffectual, and defeated. In truth it wasn’t any of those things. Instead it produced America’s last radical and expansive avant garde of the 20th Century.

Susan Rothenberg Cabin Fever 1976
Susan Rothenberg has always been the most “formalist” of the painters lately and arbitrarily grouped as “New Image”; as of now, she is also one of the most advanced down the seemingly inexorable road to a new flat-out Expressionism. This makes for an interesting tension, to say the least. I’d like to call the very powerful impact of her current work “visceral,” but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. The paintings hit higher than the viscera. Their effect is both frenetic and icy, a frozen violence very much of the head—without being heady, because they are so firmly composed and cannily painted. There is an evident abhorrence of the slack illustrational quality that makes much New Image painting so resist-able. As much as ever, the paint quality, color (or lack of it), drawing, etc., of Rothenberg’s horse pictures aren’t there to add up as style; they’re there to make the individual paintings work. This puts the psychological charge of the bizarre imagery at a kind of, well, “Brechtian” distance, which of course renders it all the more potent. [Peter Schjeldahl on Susan Rothenberg]

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