The discussion of John Seed’s article on new figurative art opened up a lively back and forth about the past, present and future and the direction of painting and sculpture. I thought we might continue in a new post directed specifically at the meaning and use of space in 21st century. I think that the way we approach space, understand it has to be thought through once again. Modernism for the most part relied on what would typically be understood as a flat landscape space. This had a great deal to do with the fact that abstraction was not interested in depicting space but using space. Illusion of any kind, except maybe in the case of optical illusion or accidental illusion, was verboten. For the Modernist there are only theoretical spaces, spiritual or “sublime” spaces, but never figurative ones.
Greenberg’s Neo-Modernism set the final distinctions for space in abstract painting, and taken to its logical outcome, brought painting to an exploration of its tools and techniques – materiality and process – a thing on the wall, a thing on the floor, or a thing in the room. One does not look “into” a painting, painting is no longer an image to be seen, but it is a thing to be encountered. It is a physical reality, a form made manifest, and if you’ll forgive me Robin, a near sculptural thing. For abstraction Minimalism is the endpoint, endgame. The logocentric form, the unassailed logic of the surface and side, the reneging of any kind of illusion brought abstraction into the Postmodern era.
Of course this grew up right along with appropriation and the proliferation of the lens-based image – the reproduced image, the found image, and/or the overlaid image – all of it aimed at the space of the Neo-Modern surface. Lens-based images were used as flat things to collage over the empty “billboard” maintaining the appearance of Neo-Modern space. What remained in this photo based art was process, materiality and of course flatness – the hallmarks of consumer production. In this case Murakami’s idea of the Superflat hits the nail on the head. This space is a hybrid of the Neo-Modern space elucidated by Greenberg and the Cold War aesthetics of Mad Man culture. Clem’s idea is that this is Kitsch space, and it’s manifested in the consumer culture developed in the 20th century. It’s in these spaces that the Pop artists were able to connect consumer culture to Modernist theoretics, where retro-painting of all kinds links to market spaces, where the economics of auction house art truly exists. None of this work is directed at physical vision. It is produced and manufactured like any other economic abstraction – like junk bonds, housing bubbles, quantitative easing, or derivatives. What we are talking about is the space of exchange value, where actual vision is not needed or expected, where physical encounters slow the flow of abstraction. This kind of space is meant for the screen, the lens and the program. Space that goes nowhere, defines nothing and is infinitely flat. Space designed not to be seen but to be sold.
This is where abstraction has come to in the 21st Century. And I think this is an interesting place to be. We have a chance to redefine vision in this new abstract environment, recreate abstract space, outside of the program. Robin Greenwood believes that painting cannot accomplish such thing without resorting to figurative means, and if I’ve read him correctly, abstraction cannot exist in a figurative space, at least not on canvas. For Robin, it is sculpture that has a better chance at redefining these abstract spaces, making them more “figurative,” let’s say. John Seed takes this a bit further and actually says that pictorial figuration is the key to moving on. He insists that we must look back to our history to find a precedent, some idea of vision that may make fleshy sense of the current spatial dilemma. And Martin Mugar agreed with this idea of our extensive history being a resource. His further point that one’s personal vision determines the processes for seeing and painting makes a great deal of sense to me. His article about Cezanne finding a specific technique related to both his hand and his eye is a wonderful elucidation of the way we might move forward and define a different kind of space, a more quirky and personal one.
Of course all of this is a simplistic wrap up of the discussion, but I think that we are rounding onto something interesting. So I throw it out there once again – what is space at this stage of abstraction’s development? Is it possible for painting to move ahead (or backward) to a different kind of space and would that include abstraction? Can painting rework the Modern legacy of those early years of the 20th Century and find a different idea of what space might look like here in the 21st Century? Can a figurative space exist with abstraction? As Robin and Martin stated, there were a lot of ideas left unexplored in the work of Matisse and Cezanne, (and I might add Picasso) ideas about space, form and composition that were never developed in the Modern Century. And I have to ask once again – is it possible to make abstract painting without the Modern legacy and what would that look like?