Drama

Kerry James Marshall Untitled (Blot) 2015

“A handful of large paintings, representations of Rorscharch test–like inkblots that look at first blush like pure abstraction, were an even more dramatic shift for the three curators to reckon with. “I’m doing blots in part to confuse the idea of abstraction,” Marshall told me. “A blot is not an abstraction, really, because we know what it is. It’s a blot. And a blot is a particular kind of figure.” Marshall placed one at the entrance to the Zwirner show, which he called “Look See.” “I wanted to disrupt expectations immediately,” he explained. “I thought that was a dramatic way of introducing looking and seeing.”” Sarah Douglas on Kerry James Marshall, ArtNews, March 2, 2016.

Kerry James Marshall is mostly known for his wonderful figurative paintings. But when I saw his painting installation at the 2015 Biennale I spent a lot of time with his abstract paintings. I made connections to the Abstract Mannerist paintings of Christopher Wool’s paint blots, Warhol’s Rorschach paintings and David Reed’s use of hyper-activated color and process. They are beautiful in the way that Florentine Mannerism is beautiful – they overstimulate the senses.

“The logic of mirrors, reflections, and optical deceptions is at the heart of Marshall’s practice. His work points toward the major paradox of vision: while we may choose to see or not to see others, we remain somewhat obscure to ourselves and need a counter-presence to throw back at us our more or less distorted reflection. To depict the black figure, Marshall employs and inverts traditions, stereotypes, and expectations established by white culture. The image he constructs becomes another mirror, in which black and white Americans may face themselves and each other.” Kerry James Marshall review by Tatiana Istomina, AIA, March 24, 2017.

Attenuation

Cy Twombly Quatro Stagioni Autunno 1994

“…it is precisely as an attenuated Abstract Expressionist that Twombly has won a place in history. He preserved the Romantic subjectivity of a movement that, as American culture turned witheringly skeptical, lost all conviction. He did it by hazarding that conviction is overrated. Mere whim will serve just as well. Younger poetic abstractionists who bucked the tide of the sixties, notably Brice Marden, took heart from Twombly’s heroically languorous example. Around 1980, a retroactive recognition of his influence combined with the resurgent prestige of contemporary European art to boost his fame.” Peter Schjeldahl on Cy Twombly, March 7, 2005.

In the 1990s Cy Twombly was enjoying an artistic regeneration in his work and reputation. His AbEx process was offhand, loose, literary, brash and beautiful. In the 90s I walked into Gagosian gallery on Wooster Street and saw a giant Cy Twombly canvas covering the entire righthand wall of this cavernous building. It was a study of material, process and restraint – the exact opposite of Frank Stella’s “kitchen sink” corporate abstractions. Over the years it’s been this “provisional” quality in Cy’s work and process that’s provided a precedent for the many Abstract Mannerists that have followed. 

“…we must not forget that Surrealism itself was based in two divergent concepts, one in which works of art were first elaborated in the mind and then translated into pictorial matter. And another, which was based on the idea of automatic writing, or an interest in spontaneity, and of course that was the aspect most embraced by the Abstract Expressionists. However, Twombly’s work is remarkable, in part, because we always see him combining both ideas, collapsing them into a precarious equilibrium.” Olivier Berggruen and Mary Jacobus in conversation on Twombly, December 11, 2015.

Suspension

Shirley Kaneda Momentary Suspension 1999

“My practice is based on the idea of having multiple spaces within the same field, so it’s about challenging the idea of a unity or a whole, or consistency. I question the notion of consistency and why that is privileged. That is part of my work using or trying to achieve a kind of complexity in space. So, different forms don’t seem to exist in the same space… And then, of course, there are differences in term of the parts of the paintings, they are not only geometric forms, but also lines and organic areas… I would not say painterly, because I am not really a gestural painter. I paint for the most part with flat, smooth edges.” Shirley Kaneda in conversation with Olivier Gourvil, April 26, 2012.

One of the 1991 Neo-Abstractionists was Shirley Kaneda. Her paintings are mainly about discontinuity. She collages Modernist abstract forms and processes across a morphing Cubist space. By the turn of this century Kaneda had digitized these forms using computer programming to stretch and elongate her imagery.  – “Most of us will agree the old values that were taught to us no longer work, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t and be able to explain why.” (Kaneda and Clarkson)   

“…everything can be authentic and inauthentic now because the magnitudes of our experiences have become so compounded that it’s difficult to draw the line between the real and the synthetic. How would you draw the line? There are definitely painters who take a consciously distanced view, and then there are those who still believe that they are making more authentic work because you can see the hand of the painter attempting to embody some meaning through materiality. Does that make it more authentic than my using tape to produce hard edges? I think those kinds of explanations are just not relevant to our experience of the world anymore.” Shirley Kaneda in conversation with David Clarkson, Bomb, April 1, 1995.

Reveal

Cady Noland Untitled 1989.

Her entire project has the feel of incomplete research and unfinished construction—and that seems the point. As surveyed by Noland, America ap­pears a country driven delirious by its own sense of mission. Committed to a destiny that won’t reveal itself, it must contend with all the doubt and para­noia that intervenes in revelation’s absence, must endure an ambivalence it can’t abide. And yet the only thing perhaps more terrifying to America than its own symbolism is the secret desire to let that sym­bolism die.” Lane Relyea on Cady Noland, Parkett, 1996.

In the early 1990s before her disappearance Cady Noland was quite simply The Boss. Her installations are a devastating and sharp critique of American history and culture, of American hubris, and ultimately of American Modernism. These installations are smart, thorough, in-your-face and matter-of-fact all at once. And in today’s political and social climate her work is still absolutely relevant. Many painters may not understand what they might find in this work that’s relevant to painting, but vision, especially the best visions, have always contained mind games – think Velasquez or Goya. 

“In the United States at present we don’t have a “language of dissension.” You might say people visit their frustrations on other individuals and that acts as a type of “safety valve” to “have steam let off.” People may complain about “all of the violence there is today,” but if there weren’t these more individual forms of venting, there would more likely be rioters or committees expressing dissatisfaction in a more collective way. Violence has always been around. The seeming randomness of it now actually indicates the lack of political organization representing different interests. “Inalienable rights” become something so inane that they break down into men believing that they have the right to be superior to women (there’s someone lower on the ladder than they) so if a woman won’t dare them any more they have a right to murder them. It’s called the peace in the feud. In this fashion, hostility and envy are vented without threatening the structures of society.” Cady Noland in conversation with Michèle Cone, JCA, 1990.

Theatrical

Louise Fishman A Little Ramble 2017

“I see a theatricality in the new paintings, which comes from a number of things, for example, the grandness of opera. There’s, of course, an operatic tradition of painting; the works in San Rocco and many other scuolas and churches have this drama, and it’s like theater. So there’s a rising, celestial grandness in all these paintings. I’ve always loved Titian and Tintoretto, but I tended to like the Titians that were much more reserved like the ones I saw at the National Gallery in London and the Prado in Madrid, particularly “The Deposition,” and also the “Pieta.” I thought those paintings were the most sublime. But being in Venice, I became involved in a whole other layer of his work as well as the work of Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese.” Louise Fishman in conversation with Sharon Butler, Brooklyn Rail, October 4, 2012.

Louise Fishman is a not-so-underground legend among New York Mannerist painters. Fishman took the American Modernist era strung it out and re-formed it throughout the fin de siècle. Her Abstract Mannerism hangs onto Greenberg’s surfaces while pushing the “10th Street Touch” aside using a nuanced process, melting grids and imagistic color. 

“Her aim was to reinvigorate the medium of painting—which at that time had been declared dead—through the addition of a strong female perspective. This new series of works, while abstract, shows Fishman exploring her visual vocabulary with tremendous confidence. “My intention, always, was to not repeat a painting, was to not repeat aspects of paintings,” Fishman said in a statement featured in the show press release. “My intention in painting is to keep discovering and to keep changing.” That is the hallmark of Fishman’s work: her ability to capture, through classical abstraction, the joy of reinvention.” Louise Fishman reviewed by Henri Neuendorf, Artnet, October 3, 2017.

Magic

Brice Marden Study for the Muses 1991-95

“There are possibilities to make paintings that people don’t pursue. The whole post-modernist thing is about closing down possibilities—that’s just bullshit. What about magic? Okay, magic. You look at all the religious paintings very formally, you look at them historically, but what about Zurbarán painting something and just going out of himself. To me it’s possible. It was a big thing with the abstract expressionists. How you could go and paint and work but there was only a small amount of time when you really painted. And that was when you were in another state. You’re coasting right along, you’re not even thinking. It’s just all coming out. You’re the medium, and to me that exists. This could be an aim.” Brice Marden in conversation with Saul Ostrow, Bomb, January 1, 1988.

Brice Marden started his career as a “Minimalist.” However his monochromes with their heavy color and waxy surfaces felt different, looked different than the other art of the moment. Instead of the 1960s machine aesthetic these works were all about touch and romance. In the 1980s Brice began to reevaluate his connections to Abstract Expressionism and in doing so he created an elegant Abstract Mannerism. Of course there were discussions of Eastern calligraphy and mysticism, but these works actually contain a hard driven and elemental reappraisal of the spaces, color, forms and edges left unexplored by the AbEx painters.

“Then we get into a situation where the abstraction became very much, “What you see is what is there and what you see is what you get.” That whole Realist aspect. No bullshit. I used to get totally embarrassed because I’d make a statement or something and it would be this romantic stuff. In terms of what was going on at the time it was silly — or open to mockery. I always felt as though I was the Dumb Artist believing in this kind of stuff rather than being really smart like Stella and Judd. There was a rationale for everything they did and I didn’t have any rationale. I was still painting as an Abstract Expressionist.” Brice Marden in conversation with Glenn O’Brien, Purple, F/W 2012.

Transmutation

Moira Dryer Portriat of a Fingerprint 1988

“I’m doing more diptychs with signature boxes and more fingerprint paintings, which are constantly transmuting into a new identity. They started out as something quite specific, the use of the finger print; it was a joke on artistic identity and authorship, and I didn’t think I was going to take it this far. It was also a way of being able to make a lot of different kinds of paintings. It was an image I could group the work around. It developed away from that really, on its own will. It’s been exciting.” Moira Dryer in conversation with Klaus Ottman, 1988.

Moira Dryer’s paintings are not well known outside of New York City. But her Abstract Mannerist paintings on plywood have had a huge influence on the work of many painters that followed. Dryer uses veils of thin color to create diaphanous illusions of space and light which open up and critique the structures and theoretics of American Modernism from the 50s and 60s. Dryer’s paintings are quiet, lovely abstractions with a sly sense of humor and a romantic vision.

“Dryer used experimental materials to create richly hued fields of color by melding orderly elements, such as patterns or loose stripes, with visceral drips and organic bursts, calling to mind early Frank Stella, Clyfford Still, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others. With a background in theater, Dryer described her emotive pieces as ‘props’ – which became active characters in their own performance or narrative. The artist often customized her paintings with cutouts or holes; paired them with shelves; or applied found objects, such as locks or luggage handles to the sides, suggestive of objects that had parallel lives beyond the gallery wall.” The Moira Dryer Project, 11 Rivington, 2014.

Opening Out

Robin Greenwood Babybath I, 2018

“Sometimes Robin’s work can be seen as an assemblage of parts, the parts being groups of smaller ‘things’, wholeness therefore being in the overall shape, form. Mark [Skilton] talked about ‘opening out’ and asked where Robin thought the particular piece he was looking at could go?
Is opening out an extension of language, an extension of content, complexity and variety – certainly variety? Varying the condition of the material to affect the whole, the space, the welcome movement, to introduce ‘pause’ to change the ‘pace’, to create varying kinds of space to take on the dominating groups of over physical material, groups that you feel can be separated, bits taken out, without losing the whole. Tony Smart on Robin Greenwood’s recent Brancaster exhibition, June 30, 2018.

Robin Greenwood has been a formidable advocate of Late Modernist painting and sculpture, but over the last couple years he has been questioning and experimenting with these theoretics and Mannerisms in both his work and his art writing. In Babybath, 2018 (he’s still revising this work) Robin has brought drawing into his sculpture and the work cracks open. The speed of these drawing elements creates an internal visual energy which explodes the collaged elements throughout the interior fractured spaces. There’s something different going on here that feels not quite Modern and not quite Mannered.

“Both these painters [Mantegna and Bellini] make art of such compelling human content that it challenges many things we might assume about the making of abstract art and the scaled-down narrative of its backstory – except, that is, its necessity to be made anew. If we assume that abstract art is different from, and has no need of relations and comparisons with, the greatness of past figurative art, we diminish the possibilities and close down the options of what, in our own present-day context, we are capable of re-inventing as essentially human.” Robin Greenwood writing on National Gallery show, September 30, 2018.

Treachery of Images

Christopher Wool Untitled 2011

“. . . the fact that you can make a picture without trying to make a picture seemed very liberating. I guess it’s a picture-making strategy for an abstract painter. To rely on process is to make a painting without relying on the usual formal considerations that were supposed to define a successful painting.Christopher Wool in Conversation With Katy Siegel, Spring 2017.

The Abstract Mannerists – nearly all of them – rely heavily on what might be seen as an hyper-activated Surrealism. In Christopher Wool’s Untitled from 2011 we are looking at a reproduction of a paint spot which is acting like a painting while not actually being “painted” – in other words – a perfect simulacrum.

…the entire system is fluctuating in indeterminacy, all of reality absorbed by the hyperreality of the code and of simulation. It is now a principle of simulation, and not of reality, that regulates social life. The finalities have disappeared; we are now engendered by models. There is no longer such a thing as ideology; there are only simulacra. Jean Baudrilliard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976.

Fractured Space

George Hofmann, Henry at Agincourt, 2015-16

“Eventually, the combination of frontality and fracture, the mix of virtual and real, the juxtapositions of subjects, and the speed that characterize media began to underlie, more and more, the feeling of almost all paintings. The reverse, of course, is also true: collage and fracturing are now everywhere in media; Cubism probably made Windows possible.” George Hoffman on Fractured Space, No Hassle at the Castle, 2010.

Here in the Mannerist Abstract era or Conceptual Abstract era or New Abstraction era, whatever you’d like to call it, it’s very difficult to find advanced painting that breaks, just a bit, away from the party line. George Hofmann began with the New York School and he was what could be called a classic Late Modern abstractionist.

But something happened with the change of the century – not only in his life, but with his art. He saw the changes in our culture and society and began to think deeply about these things. He reached out, listened, talked and formulated. He was then brave enough to challenge his own beliefs and make different and difficult work.

In the Birch board series George reworks his own history, pushing Greenberg’s theoretics into a real formalist confrontation with our current Mannerist conventions of process and imagery. His idea of classic process abstraction with its visual imperatives of space and light suddenly are transformed on the surface of a manufactured reality – not exactly Late Modern, not exactly Mannerism, but something different.

“Especially in reproduction, one can see the space of these paintings “giving way to that which hints at depth.” The acrylic paint floats above the surface of the birch board as though far above it, opening out space between the image and its ground in a way not unlike the way that an icon will float above the surface of a computer desktop.” Piri Halsz reviewing George’s show at Showroom, September 28, 2012.