Reduction Break Off II

“Recently Clement Greenberg published an essay entitled “The Necessity of Formalism.” When I opened the journal in which it appeared I assumed, because of our discussion of a few years ago—about “formalism” as an intellectual vulgarity—that Greenberg meant his title ironically, and I was wrong. Greenberg still sees “modernism” as not exactly “coterminous with formalism,” but he does argue now, that formalism must set the terms of “modernism,” that technical preoccupations “must be [modernism] essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture.” In a “Post-postscriptum,” Greenberg speaks, as he had earlier, of esthetic value originating in content. But the “necessity of formalism” underscores the way that such content arises out of technical preoccupations “when searching enough and compelled enough.” Yet, given the rest of Greenberg’s text, this search and this compulsion are so tightly tied back into form, or what he calls “artisanal considerations,” that all I understand by this notion of content is something like, for example, that sculpture should be about the exigencies of making sculpture. Since most of contemporary sculpture is about the problems of sculpture itself, that notion no longer seems to discriminate much of anything; and further, it fails to note the obvious: that some sculpture is about more than that. Some sculpture has shared in the need to find and express a structure that w ill no longer be “innocent.” When Robbe-Grillet charges conventional narrative with innocence, this does not mean that he wants or even thinks it possible to dispense with narrative. His own novels are intense, continual, even compulsive narrations. But these stories are constantly eclipsed by the point of view of the teller, holding up this point of view, turning it around, examining it, taking responsibility for it, never allowing either himself or the reader at any moment to be innocent about it.” [Rosalind Krauss A View of Modernism]

Pat Steir, Smaller Yellow on Blue Waterfall, 1992

My harping on the artisanal and “formalist” emphasis of Modernism opens the way to all kinds of misunderstanding, as I know from tiresome experience. Quality, esthetic value originates in inspiration, vision, “content,” not in “form.” This is an unsatisfactory way of putting it, but for the time being there seems to be no better one available. Yet “form” not only opens the way to inspiration; it can also act as means to it; and technical preoccupations, when searching enough and compelled enough, can generate or discover “content.” When a work of art or literature succeeds, when it move us enough, it does so ipso facto by the “content” which it conveys; yet that “content”cannot be separated from its “form”-no more in Dante’s than Mallarmé’s case, no more in Goya’s than in Mondrian’s, no more in Verdi’s than in Schoenberg’s. It embarasses me to have to repeat this, but I feel I can count here on the illiteracy of enough of my readers in the matter of what can and what cant be legitimately put in words about works of art. [Clement Greenberg The Necessity of Formalism]

While working on “Reinventing Abstraction” I have often thought of it as a sequel to “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975,” a 2006-2007 traveling exhibition curated by art historian Katy Siegel (who presented a show that was exemplary in redressing the kind of historical exclusions Ive just been discussing). Six of the artists in High Times Hard Times (which featured 38 artists) appear in the present show (Fishman, Heilmann, Murray, Snyder, Whitten and Pat Steir) as does David Reed, who was an advisor to High Times Hard Times.” One intention of “Reinventing Abstraction” is to signal the distinct differences between what these artists were doing in 1967-1975 and how they approached abstraction in the 1980s. However, I am well aware that culture doesn’t automatically change with the turn of decades, and that some of the changes in painting practice were already underway in the late 1970s. Siegel points out that by the mid-1970s, it seemed clear that painting, once again, was contracting in certain ways,” especially in the work of emerging younger painters “who seemed more willing to accept the familiar format of the rectangular canvas as a given.” She goes on to say that this return to the rectangle did not represent an obviously conservative retrenchment to past painting traditions.” Another observer, Klaus Kertess, also points to circa 1975 as a turning point: In the mid 1970s, Terry Winters and such peers as Carroll Dunham, Bill Jensen, and Stephen Mueller began to feel increasingly constricted by paintings and drawings phenomenological order and orders. How to reintegrate more variegated mark making and spatiality, how to give body not just to process but to metaphor, without sacrificing the hard won physicality and non-narrative abstractness so crucial to late Modernism – all of these became overriding concerns.”‘ By the start of the 1980s, painters everywhere were shaking off such constrictions. [Raphael Rubinstein Reinventing Abstraction]

Reduction Break Off I

Frank Stella Avicenna 1960

“One Day while the show, “Three American Painters” was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleries. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. “What’s so good about that?” he demanded. Fried looked back at him. “Look,” he said slowly, “there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquezes, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.” Fried’s voice had risen. “He wants to be Velázquez so he paints stripes.”
I don’t know what the boy thought, but it was clear enough to me. That statement, which linked Velázquez’s needs to Stella’s in the immense broad jump of a single sentence, was a giant ellipsis whose leap cleared three centuries of art. But in my mind’s eye it was more like one of those strobe photographs in which each increment of the jumper’s act registers on the single image. I could see what the student could not, and what Fried’s statement did not fill in for him. Under the glittering panes of that skylight, I could visualize the logic of an argument that connected hundreds of separate pictorial acts into the fluid clarity of a single motion, an argument that was as present to me as the paintings hanging in the gallery—their clean, spare surfaces tied back into the faint grime of walls dedicated to the history of art. If Fried had not chosen to give the whole of that argument to the student, he had tried to make the student think about one piece of the obvious: that Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a 17th-century Spaniard’s; only the point in time was different. In 1965, the fact that Stella’s stripes were involved with what he wanted to say—a product, that is, of content—was clear enough to me.” [Rosalind Krauss A View of Modernism]

Frank Stella Jill 1959

The Stella paintings at hand were not the irregular polygons that Fried would be dealing with in 1966 (those had yet to be painted). The paintings then at the Fogg were the “deductive structure” works: the early banded black canvases (1958-59), the subsequent notched silver ones (1960), and the radically shaped, but still biaxially symmetric copper paintings (1960-61), which Krauss beautifully describes as having luminous surfaces “burnished by the light which flooded into the room”. These objects, soon to be identified as perilously open to the literalist/minimalists’ reductive readings, were here unproblematically sutured to the known sweep of Western painting. As Krauss points out, it was after this exhibition that minimalist Donald Judd would accuse Krauss, Fried, and other “‘Greenbergers'” of a reductionist doctrine Judd called “modernism”. It was only then, I presume, that accusations of reductionism began to have such punitive rhetorical power (for Fried). Greenberg and Judd, polar opposites, both become emblems of reductionism in Fried’s post-1966 account. It was at this precise moment that the former formalist began to dissociate himself explicitly from both. [Caroline A. Jones Response to Michael Fried]

Frank Stella Karpathenburg II, 1996

Saul Ostrow In the 19th century it was how to get photography into painting. My question is, how much does the relationship between technology and art play in your work?
Frank Stella I got hung up in the beginning; building a painting became the issue: building the painting, building the sculpture, building the building—that became a kind of leitmotif. I was looking to get away from that by using smoke as a source of image and form but unfortunately I didn’t, because that ended up being the problem of building the smoke. (laughter) The other problem is that basically making art, particularly pictorial art, has been about an illusion and the basic illusion is that it’s a static art. However, without a sense of motion and direction and all of those kinds of things, it’s no good. You have to have a sense of motion somehow, yet in the end the work is static. The most obvious thing, kinetic art, doesn’t quite do it. So I don’t know what the answer is, but certainly it wasn’t a problem for me until the smoke. It’s about having to follow this sense of motion and action. Everyone likes to see one thing turn into another and interact with another—and then they do it, they’re caught, and that’s just the motion I like best.
SO Is it also about bringing art back to gesture?
FS That’s a given. No art is any good unless you can feel how it’s put together. By and large it’s the eye, the hand and if it’s any good, you feel the body. Most of the best stuff seems to be a complete gesture, the totality of the artist’s body; you can really lean on it. [Frank Stella in conversation with Saul Ostrow]

On Mystery – George Hofmann

August 31, 2019

For a number of years I have wondered where to place Hans Hofmann in history.

It used to be that I saw him as a trailblazer and a teacher, and as part of the generation I admired – the Abstract Expressionists.

Then I began to look at him differently, as an exceptionally charged example of post WW II painting. Always a surprise and always inspiring.

An image of a Hofmann painting in the Art Gallery of Ontario suddenly made me see him as related to historical painting -now I see him between Manet and Richter.

There probably wouldn’t be a Richter without Hofmann; even if Richter had never seen a Hofmann – which is unlikely – it would still be true. These things take place in history, not “in person”, so to speak.

How seeing changes! And it brings to mind an element which I think is lacking in present day painting: the depth and richness of mystery. 

That richness seemed to have departed from painting – in stripping painting bare to change its structure, we lost the richness. There was a richness in Pollock, but the followers fumbled it, as did a lot of Baroque painters: it became muddled and heavy, because it was ill-defined, emotionally confused.

And what of the searching of Giacometti, in his drawings? Is that not a mystery – about space – a question mark that Asks, rather than lays out? Mystery does not mean obfuscating: in painting it serves to show us what is not demonstrable.  

Feeling is at the heart of richness: the emotive world of pain and suffering, joy and gladness – but there is also a world of ambition, competition, and manipulation.  I think where these take precedence, the others are often muted.  

It may be that, in a time of change in art we need the kind of power implied in these to wrestle with the past. At the same time it seems clear that the fundamental emotions of pain and fear, of dread, of elation, anxiety and joy et al, are the deeper and more lasting pictorial sources par excellence. 

Jean Michel Basquiat Side View of an Oxen’s Jaw 1982

Feeling, and Mystery have been present in painting since Abstract Expressionism – in Warhol, in Judd, and other artists – although generally not cited as more than an element, if at all – and as less interesting than subject. A recent photo in the NY Times showed a Basquiat drawing of a jaw – part of the show at The School in Kinderhook. This painting is the equal of an Old Master in its erasure and re-drawing, but more than that in its cover-up of an earlier version – almost cover-up – that left a mysterious after-image – so telling, so prescient at the same time! This is what mystery in painting and drawing can do. 

Once I thought Basquiat taking drugs – the drugs that finally killed him – was just a fashionable and unwittingly, or numbed, and lethal pastime. Now I know that to take drugs like that signifies great pain, and it is pure anguish that often emerged in this artist. Something that touches on Goya. 

Looking at Hofmann again, and looking, carefully, at some artists like Warhol and Judd, at an artist like Basquiat, the richness of mystery has held in art. 

And then, from left field comes a painter like Priya Vadhyar. She says that paintings that don’t lay out everything allow for work to “transform with the viewer… this laying bare has removed the mystery of pain, or dread…elation or love. No matter how much we know, we don’t really know anything. And painting bridges this gap. Here we understand. And here we are understood.” Wisdom from a young painter….

The present may give us an openness to acknowledge this.  I hope so!


Abstract Painting – Regroup IV

Ingrid Calame p-cheeew-chtu-chtu 1998

“But painting’s neck refused to be wrung, of course. The oft-repeated maxim ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’ would seem to work as well as a motto for painting as it does for people; and perhaps this is the key message Schjeldahl sends from the recent past into our present. Of all the artists he writes about in his generous, inclusive essay, he has this to say: ‘In each case something of the wide world- some vernacular tone or maverick sensibility- has flown in through the studio window and been caught in paint, where it propagates. This is the reverse of so-called Postmodern appropriation. Instead of incorporating bits and pieces of received cultural debris into their art, these painters turn over their art wholesale to an inclusive sense of culture.’ Painters who are prepared to wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of Schjeldahl’s ‘choice contaminants’ will be best placed to revivify their art form; rather than finishing it off for good- the implicit or explicit aim of so much Postmodern art- these ‘contaminants’ can actually serve to strengthen painting’s ailing immune system.” [John Bunker on Peter Schjeldahl’s essay Abstraction II and exhibition review of That Was Then This is Now]

Callum Innes Untitled 1996

The mourning period is over. Away with the delicately toned hysterias. History is not only not over, it has reawakened after fever dreams of history. Anyone who does anything now bets on the future. Abstraction is dead. So is the idea that abstraction is dead. No longer ideological causes or independent values, abstract thought and aesthetics are as good as the jobs that they find to do. The jobs are any. First, at this early stage of Abstraction II, comes the imperative to bring abstraction down to equality with other human brainstorms and capacities. No more self-importance. No more fainting fits. In the twenty-first century, everyone and everything must show up for work.
Pragmatism rules. That which succeeds needs no theory. Theory without successful works is dead. The measure is human satisfaction. New art that is really new seeks an original comprehension of what people like. New abstract art seeks such knowledge abstractly, on a plane of predilections: conditions, habits… As viewers of abstract painting, we are invited to be experimental agents of humanity, testing on ourselves certain propositions of how our species operates. This was true also of Abstraction I. Different now is a humbled attentiveness to what people actually and darkly are, not what they ideally and brightly ought to be.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Abstraction II in Abstract Painting Once Removed Catalogue]

Fabian Marcaccio,  Idiotic Model for Several Types of Realness 1992

“I care more about the plot of painting as dynamic archaeology, rather than thinking about formalism, modernism or post whatever. Formalism, to me, is just an obsession. I’m interested in informalism but not as negation of form like the Europeans, instead, I see forms as pleated, being there as mental cartography, you know, pleated as speed of thoughts. I see my work as “painting in spite of itself,” instead of “painting itself” which is what the dogmatic formalists saw.
… basically, it means the painting is going against its own principles. A modern painter like Mondrian talks about the neutralization of every center, and all the hierarchies of the pictorial space to create mutual equivalences. What I am trying to do is to engage all the generic elements of painting, the brushstrokes, lines, ground… to create mutual betrayals…
Painting is more flexible than other mediums because it can absorb, it is more parasitic, it can spread in conceptual activity, and its objecthood is more complex than sculpture. Conceptual art or the failure of its theories, is limited by the domain of its interpreters. Painting was always more flexible, it can deal with anachronism, between Schnabel and Kosuth, with soft histories, with soft categories.” [Fabian Marcaccio in conversation with Shirley Kaneda]

Abstract Painting – Regroup III

Shirley Kaneda The Certainty of Androgyny 1991

“Looking back at the debates over abstraction in the early nineties, several broad areas of consensus stand out. Everyone agreed that canonical Modernism was dead, and that the new abstraction was characterized by heterogeneity and allusiveness. Some critics saw these qualities as defects while others saw them as virtues. But even the champions of the new abstraction seemed to feel that something was missing. As David Row stated in the Conceptual Abstraction catalogue, there was no “Grand Unified Theory” of the new abstraction. Each of these issues deserves closer examination.
The “death of modernism” did not mean that the new abstract painters had any less admiration for modernist artists. What they opposed were the critical theories summed up in Shirley Kaneda’s phrase, “reductivist modernism,” a compound of Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Yve-Alain Bois, along with artist/critics such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd. All of these writers made different arguments, but they seemed to share the belief that what defined the avant-garde was the struggle to uncover the essential qualities of art. The simplicity and clarity of the reductivist model gave it tremendous authority. Furthermore, it privileged abstract art: abstraction was what was left after you eliminated everything else. But it turned out this privileged position was actually a prison cell.” [Pepe Karmel on Conceptual Abstraction]

Stephen Ellis Untitled 1995

Abstraction, once the flagship of modernism, has become merely one formal rhetoric among others. Rather than ruling in splendid isolation at the leading edge of avant-garde experimentation, it now is forced into dialogue with all other modes of visual art both elite and popular. As a result, its signifying force has shifted direction from vertical to horizontal, from succession of modernist movements to a condition of simultaneity in which every movement is potentially contiguous. Like a volcano spewing out a column of ash that flattens and expands as it reaches the upper atmosphere, the spent force of modernism has deposited all its matter in a single diffuse layer.
While this change of state has entailed a loss of authority for abstraction, it has also created a means for its renovation. With the collapse of the modernist mission, its diverse idioms – even those originally in conflict – have become equally and simultaneously available. Such availability allows meaning to emerge from a grammar of connection and juxtaposition rather than from the logic of depletion and negation that powered the efforts of artists like Newman dan Reinhardt (“The import thing for modern art is what it has rejected.”) For the moderns the direct of march was clear: forward. For those working in the present, there is no single imperative direction, only a web of connections. Agility and a sense of orientation in a situation of plethora, rather than asceticism and devotion in a context of depletion, are the requisite qualities.
If modernism in general and post-war art in particular are seen as the classical backdrop against which contemporary artists struggle, then the present might be described as a kind of neoclassical period….” [Stephen Ellis After the Fall 1991]

In painting today there is a growing recognition that the use of the terms “figurative” and “representational” as the defining opposites of “abstract” and “non-representational” is not only inadequate but misleading. These exclusionary opposites have been useful in maintaining circumscribed prescriptions for and interpretations of abstract painting. The terms “non-representational” and “non-referential” refer to a practice that is in fact representational and referential. Abstraction has advertised its self-determination, self-containment, self-sufficiency, self-consciousness, and self-criticality. A closed and mandatory system of self reference is no longer credible. Regardless of the intentions or skill of an artist, or the rigor of a critical methodology, meanings and values in art, being multiple and cumulative, cannot be fixed in any essential or absolute way. Abstract thinking is a part of daily life. It operates spontaneously and independently of specific systems or disciplines. Abstract in this larger sense becomes a link to the world rather than a perpetual elaboration of the self. [Valerie Jaudon Figuring Abstraction 1992]

Abstract Painting – Regroup II

Jonathan Lasker Rustic Psyche 1990

 It’s very hard to not be somewhat self-conscious in this age. It’s very difficult, though I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. There’s a kind of awareness which doesn’t necessarily have to be cynical. But at the same time, it’s perhaps unavoidable. The issue is a question of belief, really. In cynicism, there tends to be a lack of belief in the mark, the gesture that is being made. This is really not my case. I believe in the marks that I make. Yet, at the same time, I think I have a distanced relationship to myself as I’m laying down the marks. It’s a case of the subconscious becoming conscious of itself
To point to a jockeying back and forth between an unconscious and a conscious state. When I was doing these scribbles in the last body of paintings, I would draw them out free hand and then carefully trace them. I was editing my own subconscious, laying down a subconscious passage, but also rendering it in such a manner that it became very clean and orderly. In a lot of those paintings, subliminal passages were put in boxes or other spatial indexes. This was an ordering of a random, subconscious element
Basically a painting’s finished when it works as far as I’m concerned. It has to say something to me that I feel is effective. I’m trying to say certain things with the paintings and if the painting seems to communicate that thinking, then I feel it’s been successful. So, in that sense, conception does prefigure form.” [Jonathan Lasker in conversation with Shirley Kaneda]

At the outset of his career, in 1982, Halley declared that his geometric structures were prisons, cells and walls, and that their geometry expressed confinement: “the cell is a reminder of the apartment house, the hospital bed, the school desk – the isolated endpoints of industrial structure… the ‘stucco’ texture is a reminiscence of motel ceilings.” Everything is caught up in a play of sophisticated references ranging from Barnett Newman to sixties Frank Stella, from Robert Smithson to Ross Bleckner. An obvious contradiction? Hardly, Halley’s philosophy reveals the degree to which abstraction belongs to the real, not so much representing its condition metaphorically as adhering to it, so that the real and its representation mingle, coincide, and strike a balance on precisely that interchangeable identity which, just a few decades earlier, was absolutely unthinkable for an abstract artist. Hence realism (often photographic realism) and abstraction go hand-in-hand, not only in group exhibitions, but also in an individual body of work. Take, for example, Gerhard Richter or Ross Bleckner, who seem to have a double identity (one abstract and one markedly figurative), but who in reality do the same thing independently of the mode in which they work, imprisoning light and embodying it on canvas, expressing themselves in images even when the latter are not recognizable. [Demetrio Paparoni on Peter Halley and abstraction]

Lydia Dona Sites and Identities and the Grammatical Formation of the Flood 1991

The critics who participated in the Tema Celeste debate offered a more skeptical view of contemporary abstraction. Reprising his influential 1984 lecture on “the end of art,” Arthur Danto argued that earlier abstraction had mattered deeply because it was unfolding according to laws of historical necessity dictating the kind of abstract painting that had to be made at a certain moment. In contrast, in the pluralist 1990s, many kinds of abstraction were possible, but none of them mattered much. David Carrier, another philosophically trained critic, questioned whether the history of art had truly come to an end: perhaps it was merely one particular narrative about the history of art that had concluded, leaving the door open to other narratives. Donald Kuspit contrasted the “spiritual inwardness” of earlier abstract painters, from Mondrian to Rothko, to the “profound intentionlessness” and “narcissistic quagmire” of the new abstract artists. Taking up swords against Peter Halley and Stephen Ellis, he denounced artists who wrote “intellectually hyped articles justifying their appropriation and manipulation of the abstract look of the past, liberated from the investment in inwardness it once signified.” Saul Ostrow compared the new abstract aesthetic of juxtaposition to the mix-and-match sensibility of Postmodernism. Like Kuspit, Ostrow was generally suspicious of postmodern art, which he felt merely “reiterated and reconfirmed” the alienated imagery of commodity culture. Postmodern abstraction escaped this stricture, however, because of its “intuitive, arbitrarily illogical and impetuous structure.” Its “confusion and indeterminacy” allowed it to resist commodification. [Pepe Karmel on Conceptual Abstraction]

Abstract Painting – Regroup I

Never as in recent years has abstract painting come so close to the line that divides representation from the physicality of the work itself. Today the commitment of many artists seems to focus on the conflict between reality and the ways in which it reveals itself just as, once, artists addressed the conflict between the real as a physical entity and its metaphorical representation. If the abstract art of the postwar period allowed language and everyday life to coincide, embodying the latter in gesture, or hand-to-hand combat with painting, today language and perceptive experience go beyond the physical nature of the painting-as-object: the linguistic comprehension of what one looks at is made possible only by the philosophy that lies at the basis of the work. Which means that, more than ever before, the project is as important as the work itself. The latter does not necessarily show an image, as the works of Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock or De Kooning do, and a drip mark is no longer really a drip mark, but simply a self-simulation, just as paint is no longer a tool, but language that simulates paint. And so, despite the undeniable differences that distinguish one artist from another, a fine thread connects many of them, suggesting that they may have more in common than is readily apparent. [Demetrio Paparoni La Metafisica Della Luce]

David Row Untitled 1991

The truth is that we no longer perceive abstract form self-referentially. I’ve always had a problem with that anyway, so I’m satisfied with a less closed reading of abstract form. In my own work, I’m interested in abstraction because it allows imagery to exist independently, as objects and events do in the world, rather than being tied to depiction. And as a language, geometric form is communicable and has, potentially, a large and complex vocabulary. Now, because geometric form is relatively elemental and because the inclination of the human mind is to impose meaning, it provokes a wide range ofassociations. Managing the drift and inflection of these allusions within a thematic vein is part of the task. Choosing a language, a vocabulary, and a syntactical approach keeps them from being arbitrary, but a protean quality vis-a-vis meaning and allusion is crucial in keeping the imagery alive. We have to recognize that the static hierarchies and meanings inherent in the language of classic abstraction are closed and no longer viable. This language has to be broken down and opened up again; its imagery has to reflect the fractured, provisional, and linguistic nature of contemporary life and thought. [David Row in conversation with Demetrio Paparoni]

Sean Scully Novaya 1991

Of course abstract painting had never actually disappeared. Second-generation Abstract Expressionists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Michael Goldberg, and Nicolas Carone were still hard at work at the start of the 1990s, often making some of the best pictures of their careers. So were minimalist painters such as Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, and Robert Mangold. However, it seemed to Jaudon and to Janis that these artists belonged to a modernist tradition that saw abstraction as a struggle to get down to the “essence” of painting, stripping away everything related to figuration and the outside world. Jaudon had been a participant in the Pattern and Decoration and Feminist movements of the 1970s and early ’80s, which saw abstraction as an inherently referential aesthetic, linked to age-old traditions of ornamental craftsmanship. Similarly, the Neo-Geo painters of the mid- 1980s—including Bleckner, Halley, Levine, Taaffe, and other painters such as Peter Nagy and Gary Stephan—looked to the histories of art and ornament as readymade sources of imagery and meaning. What interested Jaudon and Janis were these new movements that treated abstraction as a way of talking about the world, not a way of escaping from it.
News that Janis was preparing a survey of new abstract painting percolated quickly through the art world, provoking other galleries to offer their own assessments of the state of abstraction.Conceptual Abstraction, curated by Jaudon and Janis, opened in November 1991, accompanied by La Metafisica della Luce at John Good, organized by art world impresario Demetrio Paparoni. Work by Ross Bleckner, Lydia Dona, Stephen Ellis, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, David Reed, and David Row appeared in both exhibitions. Later that fall and winter there were more exhibitions: Aesthetic Abstraction at Tibor de Nagy; Stubborn Painting: Then and Now at Max Protetch; There is a Light that Never Goes Out at Amy Lipton; Shades of Difference: The Feminine in Abstract Painting at Sandra Gering; and Abstract Painting: The ’90s at André Emmerich, curated by Barbara Rose. [Pepe Karmel on Conceptual Abstraction]

Nick Oberthaler M_O_B Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna – Mike Zahn Summer 2019

Nick Oberthaler’s recent exhibition M_O_B, at Galerie Emanuel Layr in Vienna, is composed of seven identically sized vertical panels. It delineates an expression which is less about where painting may have been and more about how it has arrived at this moment. Exactly where it might take us with Oberthaler is uncertain.

This is a feeling impressed upon the viewer from the first instant of encounter. What the work as such limns are the dimensions of a non-place between discovery and understanding. In an unusually factitious move, the artist has hung these panels lengthwise in a tightly formatted array across the span of a single wall. Their semantic distribution of indecorous hues is marked here and there with navigational graphics which suggest flags, maps, pins, and signage. A radical oblique sections each work, while the repeated orthogonal division of projected planes runs counter to the normal vectors of generalized space. This regulates passage from one point to another and the next within a calculated structure. Oberthaler’s presentation thus becomes critical of local form without instantiating a larger critique. Nonetheless, it systematically tests the logic of mobility characteristic of our age. Indeed, juxtaposed neatly with the static qualities of the objects at hand is the artist’s avowal of constant movement. This brings forth an awareness that experience is global, aggregate, proximate, and synthetic.

Reflective of the communication networks described by Vilém Flusser, Oberthaler furthermore negotiates surface as an analogue which mitigates against the mathematical order of the technical image. Flusser argued for intervention opposed to the circumscription of a programmed world, and championed activities which were in dialogue with a materialism capable of shaping the numerical, imaginative, and textual conditions of our sense of things. His are assertions drawn from traditions which inform histories spread across many fields, and in particular may be read as redressing a modernity which established its methodical systemization of the visual with the introduction of perspective. Flusser surmised this remains a burden from which media may free us, in part by taking a philosophical turn towards linking technological developments to the ethical goals of a neo- humanist society.

Computation is underwritten as binary notation. Its adaptable coding subordinates all the world to a ‘zero- dimensional’ rationale, made from bits of variation contrived to model any random event. In its speculative prescience, Flusser’s theory beheld machines operating at, and upon, the limits of what’s now referred to as post- internet culture. This is an odd area for painting to share with the apparatus of digitized mechanization. What Oberthaler effectively accomplishes with M_O_B is the production of a cybernetic image of an iconic image consisting of successive isochronal images. The recursive lateral spread of his work at Layr insists upon this, and disrupts conventional notions of getting from A to B in any straightforward linear manner. M_O_B shows how the additive nature of Oberthaler’s construction gathers its hypotheses within a realistic schema which, despite its quasi-algorithmic exactitude, is evocative of doubt, or that which makes us what we are, and compels us to act as we may. Could an artificial intelligence accomplish the execution of a picture of painting similar to the one designed by the artist? Answers to this question turn upon how concepts of subjectivity might be inscribed within the norms of invention. How would agency figure into this novel organization of principles? What’s to be gleaned from the difference between the richness of metaphor, which usurps lexical reference, and purely operative symbols, deployed merely as stock quotation? This is the manner of skepticism on display in Oberthaler’s rendering of the contemporary common sphere, and painting’s place in it. Given our position, the bigger picture is sure to change from this which is plainly recognized today to that which will possibly be not, tomorrow.

Drawing & Painting – Martin Mugar

“The retinal processing of light derived from Caravaggio’s insight into seeing became the lingua franca of Western Art for the next four hundred years. Within a hundred years of his breakthrough, one style dominated the western world from Velazquez in Spain to Rembrandt in Holland. According to Michael Baxandall in his book “Shadows and Enlightenment,” both scientists and artists of the 18th century were interested in the nature of perception and particularly the way by which the retina translates patterns of light and dark into form. For Baxandall, the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is an invention of the seer. The painting’s center of gravity is always within the observer.” [Martin Mugar on Drawing & Painting]

The really nice thing about Martin Mugar’s new handbook for drawing and painting is how he links visual thinking and technique with theory, philosophy and ultimately to the processes of abstraction. The book begins with an exploration of vision and technique – how the artist can use light and space to create convincing objects and ultimately construct exciting compositions. He then takes us through the history of drawing and painting connecting the changes in art and art technique to social and cultural changes and advances in science, technology and philosophy.
In this book Martin also discusses his journey through art, his teachers and inspirations, as well as how his students came to learn and use his insights and lessons on vision and art. And as he relays these stories to us he lays out a comprehensive structure for learning, experimentation and understanding one’s own personal vision. He weaves the ideas of masters and philosophers all through this discussion of drawing and painting telling us that the making of art and the exploration of one’s vision through art is not simply about making convincing pictures or beautiful designs, but about something far deeper and more affecting. Martin is a thorough and complete artist and a wonderful teacher.
For more on Martin and his work and writing you should visit his blog

Martin Mugar Untitled 2014

“Abstraction that is created by the power of the concept to shape and establish structure is visually exciting. When it becomes mechanical, it loses its élan. The concepts that we teach are not new to the world but they are new to the student and the freshness of discovery is part of the experience of drawing and painting. All the concepts that give us space and the objects in it are embedded in the visual apparatus of the eye and mind and when they are uncovered there is often a sense of surprise and enhanced power. The revelation of the concept can carry the student’s work along for weeks, as it seems to magically shape their visual world.” [Martin Mugar on Drawing & Painting]

Painters Reply – A Reboot V

Lisson Gallery Painters Reply Exhibition 10th Ave Gallery 2019

The recent Lisson Gallery show made clear that the seventies were indeed High Times Hard Times and that Painters were desperately trying to Reply to institutional Greenbergian abstraction and the newly minted Minimalist reductionism. But as this show proves not every idea worked, not every painting was memorable and not everything done was especially “experimental.” But thankfully – the fight was on! These particular painters challenged (and continue to do so) the punishing and reductive tendencies of Post-War American Abstraction. But how? Well, many of the painters of the sixties and seventies used Dave Hickey’s explanation of the forty year rule. They began to incorporate forgotten and ignored Modernist ideas – about imagery , process and illusion – and used these tools to rework and enliven the endgame of reductive abstraction. And for my money many of the visual ideas that were appropriated by these Postmodern painters can be found in the work of Picabia and Miró from the twenties and thirties.

Installation view of the exhibition Joan Miro Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937

Between the years 1927 and 1937 Joan Miró’s creative output was marked by an expansion of his usual palette of materials and supports, ultimately involving a truly vast range of both. Some, such as canvas, oil paint, paper, pastel, egg tempera, were traditional, used by artists for centuries, while others were highly unconventional, often simple found objects from the street or his studio. With these varied materials he constructed works both in accordance with some of the most time-honored painting traditions and in a consciously rudimentary fashion, forming in his work the basis for a constant dialogue between historical painting technique and experimentation. During this period Miró frequently returned to a material but employed it differently or rearranged its relationship to others, plumbing the depths of its possibilities for creative expression. As he told his friend Michel Leiris, in 1929, “I often change the way I paint, looking for means of expression; always I am guided by this burning passion, which makes me walk from right to left.” [Jim Coddington on The Language of Materials Miro Exhibition Catalogue]

Installation view of the exhibition Francis Picabia Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction

Consider, for example, the case of the younger Surrealist painter Joan Miro, seemingly an attentive viewer of Picabia’s work from 1920 or perhaps before.” In a 1928 interview, Miro spoke of his disdain for the idea of “lasting,” describing how, when he completed a work, it was only a point of departure for what he would do next: “I’d paint it over again, right on top of it. Far from being a finished work, to me it’s just a beginning, a hotbed for the idea that’s just sprouted, just emerged… Do I have to remind you that what I detest most is lasting?” Of course, almost any painter at one time or another is likely to have painted over an earlier work, whether for reasons of economy, dissatisfaction, damage, or, as suggested by Miró’s words, as a catalyst for the creation of new forms. Among the Dada and Surrealist artists, however, it is not Miró but rather Max Ernst who most actively pursued the practice of over-painting in this latter sense. Ernst’s earliest results consist of small-scale works on paper, in which the artist used gouache to transform encyclopedia illustrations and other didactic images into otherworldly, proto-Surrealist dreamscapes and narratives (fig. 9, for example).
With Picabia, however, the stakes are different. His layerings participate in his nihilism and self-negation in a way that Emst’s do not. Also unlike Ernst, whose aces of over-painting highlight as much as conceal the features of his sources, Picabia’s confound legibility almost to the point of incoherence. And as Picabia would demonstrate as well, transparency and opacity prove to be opposite sides of the same coin. In 1919-2o, with his Dada “masterpiece” Danse de Saint-Guy (St. Vitus’s Dance), known today only through a photograph and a late-1940s reconstruction, Picabia created a work that could literally be seen through, one whose interior composition is almost entirely dependent on its external and unpredictable surroundings, in a manner similar to Duchamp’s use of glass in works such as To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918) or The Bride Stripped Barr by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23). In his Transparencies of the late 192os, Picabia reprised the real-world string lines of Danse de Saint-Guy in fluid paint, creating curvilinear configurations that have a quasi-calligraphic and deliberately graphic quality… Motifs drawn from art history and popular culture are superimposed in complex arrangements that flirt with tropes of decoration, cinema, and temporality but which intentionally fail to add up or resolve themselves into any one, easily decipherable narrative or composition. [From the MOMA Picabia Catalog Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change]

Many thanks to the Lisson Gallery for the extremely interesting show and to the curators of the show, Alex Glauber & Alex Logsdail, for reminding us that painting can still be challenging and exciting. – Mark Stone