Abstract figuration. There – the dirty, filthy words have been said. You can almost here the air rush from the room. No one, it seems, has any need for such a disreputable beast. I am exaggerating, hopefully, but after the debacle of Eighties NeoExpressionism, the failure of Postmodern abstraction and the continuous ABFIG hegemony displayed by the German painters one has to wonder why a bunch of ‘meriCanes would even be brash enough to bring it up in mixed company. But I feel the time is now, just as so much HOT air is beginning to escape from the pumped up economy andthe insular and equally pumped up Postmodern art world.
On the left is a late painting by Picasso. After Matisse’s death Picasso tore through paint as he never had before, and laid bare a body of work that we have, shamefully, all but ignored. The thing that I’ve found extremely intriguing and sophisticated in these paintings is how visually advanced the work really is. The work is about the materials, it is about painting, but it is also about seeing, about being present in vision. This is a concept hardly known to American painters any longer. The triumph of American painting, which was based on a different experience of seeing, came out of the final aesthetic equation proposed by Euorpean Modernist theoretics. Basically it went like this – cubism plus surrealism plus materialism equals Abstract Expressionism – and inherent in the answer was the Postmodern endgame strategies we have come to know. Not soon after Action Painting we got Minimalism and Conceptualism. It was the end of visual history and painting dynamics leaving us with materialism, touch and surface fetishism – or as Santayana described – “unity in multipicity through uniformity” which in my feeble misreading means that by bringing the similar “many” together the “One” is created.
The pocked and scarred surface of Richard Serra’s steel banners becomes a vast uniform billboard of beautiful colors and marks. Andre’s stacked rail road ties cut to exact proportions creates a hoary patterned surface of measured material. Judd’s manufactured boxes of exact sizes, placed at exact distances in a vast boxy warehouse become uniform linear objects defined by shiny machined surfaces. Or, let’s just bounce this concept further and higher. How about the endless “series” of works that artists have machined and outsourced – photos, prints, sculputures, paintings each in differing colors or limited editions? In a word reproduction – multiplicity through uniformity. This sort of visual experience is about looking rather than seeing, it’s about knowing rather than understanding – these works are physical illustrations of ideas rather than encounters with thought. The material thing one comes upon is but one of a multiplicity of similar material things. Sight isn’t important to understand these sort of encounters. What is important is the recognition of the concept and the familiarity of contextual uniformity in the object’s “thingness” – Allan McCollum comes to mind. Sight merely confirms the Platonic point. Truly, this was a moment when existential visual ideas collapsed under the unsupportable weight of mid-century material rapaciousness. It was a time when the gaze of the other became a blank stare, and the loaded play between seer and seen vanished. Barnett’s quip about sculpture (you bumped into it as you stood back to see the painting) suddenly reversed. Inexplicably, painting willingly climbed off the wall and sacrificed its support structures on the altar of mass produced manufactured objects. Picasso, didn’t acknowledge the materialists. He chose instead to continue to exist through the confrontation of vision. It is this distinction between vision and looking that is important and it’s our starting place.
In our post “Wacked Out” we discussed, a bit, the new vision of the 21st century – as we have all along – but here we want to relay a thought or two as it relates specifically to the figure. As computer programming gets more sophisticated we are beginning to understand that conciousness, once fettered to the chains of fleshy reality, is now free to roam. On that point – many of the world’s spiritual hustlers began with a lesser idea of attaining pure conciousness by leaving one’s earthly bonds through death. Here and now in the electronic ethernet your inner existence can inhabit programs and affect material life in places you’ve never actually been – without actually having to go tets up. It is like we are all angels dancing on the head of a pin. Unlike Columbus, Rasputin or Timothy Leary our vehicles to this other world aren’t ships, religion or drugs, but programs and light. We inhabit programs through light. What this actually means is that conciousness circumvents our very own senses in favor of coded existence. McLuhan said we turn ourselves inside out and become a vast nervous system unable to remain private beings. We have lost our autonomy in the process. So what has this all got to do with vision? Everything as it turns out.
As Postmodernism became more and more about the billboard, the consumer images and objects, historical precedent and economic power – Painting in Picasso’s studio was boiling over with the heat of physical space and movement and a constant, dynamic affirmation of Western visual history – including his own. Picasso using Matisse’s color and arabesques began to reformulate the great painting of the 17th, 18th and 19th Century. The mix of masterly touch and Picasso’s visual imperatives moved this “expressionism” away from materiality and into a new way of seeing. While the art world proclaimed flatness, surface and structure Picasso was daring to re-assert the primacy of visual thinking and form – how we see – through the haze of POMO theoretics. Make no mistake these are not neo-expressionist paintings – though the 80s POMOs sought to conflate these works with their own theoretics – these paintings are about sight, vision, confrontation and responsibility.
Picasso in those last years was working alongside and in spite of the beginnings of Postmodernism. A huge surge of Neo-Surrealism mixed with American retail/media culture was transforming the larger art world into what it is today. Picasso realizing his irrelevance to this new culture began a furious studio adventure by radicalizing his primitivism and cubism in the midst of the early electronic age.
Look at the first painting. What initially seems like a messy Cubist work becomes more complicated. Picasso begins with the idea of artist and model – in this case conflating the artist with the Musketeer – Dumas’ defenders of the realm. He sits pipe in hand, the nude model both muse and provocation – the Musketeer and the model are caught in an intense gaze of complicity. Picasso plays with our understanding of form – first flattening and then pushing it into our space – the rounding of the woman’s body and face, the flattening of her legs and feet – the sculptural arm that weighs down on the hand of the Musketeer. The eroticism is explicit – her stare commands his attention. Unlike the nude Muse the Musketeer is not as fully formed – until you get to his feet. The leg crossed toward the woman and beneath her touch is becoming tumescent (you read that right), rich and full. The other leg is a caricature, a flat cypher. Matisse’s decoration is flourished against and through the Musketeer, and in comparison to the fullness of the Muse, his image is like wall paper. What is even more interesting is how Picasso has visually pushed us in closer to the figures. We are not across the room, but practically in their space, in their laps, and this idea of being in close, of using one’s eyes to feel is imperative to understanding vision and figuration in the 21st century. You can see these ideas in the other paintings presented here as well. The play between form and flatness, the warping of intimate spaces, the push beyond materiality to form and depth, and the cubist idea of omnipresent vision conspired to open a new intimacy and interiority in Picasso’s last paintings. These works are pure collaborative visual communication between human beings, poetic and real. What has become really important in these works is a type of painting where unfettered consciousness can inhabit complicated intimate spaces, figures and painterly thought.
We’ll discuss the importance of new abstraction to 21st Century figuration in part 2…