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Hoffman and Dowell @ Ventana

George Hoffman and Ben Dowell are opening their show at Ventana in Brooklyn tonight!

“Dowell and Hofmann both build a systematic element into their processes, to isolate the gestural, and allow for the nature of the materials used to influence form. Through this method , the artists distance themselves from the gestural process just enough to create a self awareness. The result is a psychological space for the artists to avoid trappings of nostalgia and stylization.”

For info about the show and how to get there click here!



0Phillipe Halsman, “Clement Greenberg,” 1959.

At the moment there are questions going on in my circle about originality and quality – what those things are, what they entail, and if we are even able to recognize what those things might look like in a painting at this late date in the Postmodern era. Let’s face it. The old and by now VERY conservative ideas that drove the Modern movement, abstraction, flatness, process, materialism and “formalism,”  are the go-to painting tropes for our professional Modernists. In fact painters  have become more like curators, DJs, MCs, aficionados of taste, collaging and collapsing one well known style into another, looking for resonance and harmony among period pieces much like Baz Luhrmann does in his movie The Great Gatsby. We prefer to use “approved” artists’ works that have the correct kind of taste, the correct kind of presentation, the correct kind of look or feel rather than create something from scratch, something from our own existence. For instance Jerry Saltz recently wrote an article that discussed the sameness of many painters’ works and ideas even including illustrative slide shows of groupings of paintings done in similar styles. I thought this was eye opening.

“These artists are acting like industrious junior post­modernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction, deploying visual signals of Suprematism, color-field painting, minimalism, post-minimalism, Italian Arte Povera, Japanese Mono-ha, process art, modified action painting, all gesturing toward guys like Polke, Richter, Warhol, Wool, Prince, Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Wade Guyton, Rudolf Stingel, Sergej Jensen, and Michael Krebber.”

Jerry’s critique comes on the heels of Walter Robinson’s Zombie Formalism, which is a fun way to describe visual ideas whose “sell by” date has long since past.

“Formalism” because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting (yes, I admit it, I’m hung up on painting), and “Zombie” because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, the man who championed Jackson PollockMorris Louis, and Frank Stella’s “black paintings,” among other things.”

And the assertion that Clement Greenberg is still an aesthetic force to be reckoned with is rather amazing at this late date. His theoretical preferences for painting, what it should do, what it should look like, still carries weight especially in our institutions. And I find that a bit strange, because unlike most of the innovators in 20th Century art Clem did not paint or sculpt. He did not “create” a style in painting, though admittedly, he did direct it. No other critic since the inception of Modern art is so connected with the creation and rise of a style of art-making. No other critic is considered a major component in the aesthetics of the movement itself. And Clem’s success, not merely as a taste maker, but as a non-practicing theoretical force, set a strange kind of precedent for artists and for critics as well. Critics became real “creative” forces and artists had to assume the role of cultural theoreticians. It’s been nearly 65 years since Avant-Garde and Kitsch became the defining essay for the direction of 20th Century art, and its importance can not be overlooked. Clem’s essay actually changed the direction of Modernism, began the Postmodern art world, and it still hangs over our contemporary art world, specifically painting, like a Sword of Damocles. Its continuing strictures keeps many of us in place.

Our stasis is connected to Clem’s discussions of originality and quality surrounding painting, two things that come up quickly and profoundly in AG&K. These are the issues that many abstract painters discuss on a loop. What does Clem mean by quality or uniqueness? Is that where the visual work of art becomes powerful, meaningful? Are these combined qualities or do they exist separately? Can something be unique and have no quality, can something have quality and not be unique? Where does the “new” come into play? If something is “new” does the work have quality and/or uniqueness? As you can see these are tail chasing thoughts, and I don’t know a painter that hasn’t considered them at one time or another. But rather than directly confront them in a definitive way most of us choose to ignore them, put them to the side and overlay another style or process on our canvas. Postmodernism, luckily, has provided us with a Clem Dispensation, a back door to the program, so to speak. What we tend to look for in our Zombie Formalism is individual “difference” and professional craftsmanship. We prefer the well-made painting by a recognizable “hand” in a digestible “style.” But as Jerry’s essay shows there’s very little individuality or uniqueness in those slight differences. Rather we get product, handsome things to sell that vary only in the upgrades. And the question has to be WHY?

I’m convinced that Adam Curtis is right, that our culture is soaked and sodden in its past, that there can not be originality in the way we approach cultural ideas when we do not question what those ideas actually mean or what those ideas actually do.

“Throughout the western world new systems have risen up whose job is to constantly record and monitor the present – and then compare that to the recorded past. The aim is to discover patterns, coincidences and correlations, and from that find ways of stopping change. Keeping things the same.

We can’t properly see what is happening because these systems are operating in very different areas – from consumerism, to the management of your own body, to predicting future crimes, and even trying to stabilise the global financial system – as well as in politics.

But taken together the cumulative effect is that of a giant refrigerator that freezes us, and those who govern us, into a state of immobility, perpetually repeating the past and terrified of change and the future.”

Also in the case of AG&K contemporary painters do not question the “either/or” endgame of Clem’s essay, its blatant nostalgia for a failed Modernism of purity and process, and its subsequent presentation of Kitsch as a more inclusive, more parasitic, and thus, more dangerous form of art. The Modern problem as outlined by Clem is paramount to understanding the workings of our culture in the latter half of the 20th Century. It turns out that Clem’s dreaded Kitsch, the possibilities for using Kitsch as aesthetic critique have been far more popular and radical than his ideas for a nostalgic, romantic Modernism. And that dichotomy of cultural power, of aesthetic insight, and even his defense of classist values of quality and taste are all used to make his point, to move Modernism into a very specific final phase. As we will discover there are so many interesting arguments to be made!

The artist/painter/theorist Paul Corio recently wrote to me about the issues of originality, uniqueness and newness. We had been discussing Greenberg and AG&K. And I think Paul shows us part of our current problem, part of our understanding of the current problem – that painting has always used its past, that painting has always gone back to go forward, and it would seem that Postmodern painting is trying to do the very same thing.

“I guess when I try and define originality for myself, it means something sufficiently original.  If Morandi were strictly copying Cezanne, or Bonnard were any closer to Matisse, it would block my enjoyment of the paintings.  But those parallels are still right there, the way that Velazquez was so obvious in early Manet.  And to reiterate an earlier point – paintings by Pollock, Caravaggio, Morandi, Bonnard, Manet, and Velazquez are now all old, as un-new as can be, but they’re still great.  

So what do I mean by quality in painting?  The seamless disposition of color, scale, composition, surface, texture, subject (if one goes that route), space, light, atmosphere.  Here it’s easy to brand me as a formalist, I know, but I’m not – I have no interest whatsoever in purity or distillation.  Especially the latter – the Baroque remains the height of painting for me, and it’s the polar opposite of distilled.”

Paul made some valid points. Each artist he mentioned managed to create a singular break with style in their work, managed to imprint their personality on that very past, managed to move that past into the artist’s present. And I think this has to do with other issues, with how we use our cultural tools, with how we see IN our time. And again I refer back to Jerry’s and Walter’s observations. Why does it feel as if there is nothing new going on when we see Zombie Formalism or Jerry’s slideshows? Why doesn’t this work seem to have built something on the ideas of the past? Why does this work seem static, of another time? What is it about this time, about us, that “keeps things the same,” that re-presents old ideas without the benefit of distance, of place? And why are content to do this? Why is this unlike the changes to style, to visual ideas that we see in Manet’s use of Velazquez or Morandi’s use of Cezanne?

These are all issues, especially those brought up in Greenberg’s AG&K, that we will examine in more depth in the final Untethered posts to come.

Adam Curtis on our Cultural Stasis

Wonderful essay on the origins of endless past.

“What Amazon and many other companies began to do in the late 1990s was build up a giant world of the past on their computer servers. A historical universe that is constantly mined to find new ways of giving back to you today what you liked yesterday – with variations.”
Adam Curtis, “Now Then.”

Scruffy Dog Days

The last few days for McKenzie’s “Color as Structure” which closes August 2. If you’re still in town and haven’t seen the show you should stop by to have a gander! There’s some wonderful abstraction on view! Corio and Voisine                     Paul Corio and Don Voisine on view at McKenzie Fine Art

George Hofmann on Abstract Critical!

If you have a moment you should check out the always magnificent George Hofmann’s recent article on Gestural Painting written for Abstract Critical. George is one of my favorite painters/theorists/artists working today, and he’s asking all the right questions of us and of his own work. His main point of finding some emotion, some humanity and individuality in our work is not lost on me. The comments section also has some very interesting arguments about abstraction and emotion, gesture and authenticity. Highly recommended reading!

“The significant problem we are facing is the want of real emotional understanding: we are not versed in this in society, and not schooled in its precepts in art; sadly, nothing much today prepares us to perceive in depth – except, perhaps, at moments of true horror in life, when we face the inexplicable and the unfathomable – in art not at all.”

Kwik Links

My good friend Paul Corio is included in a new show at McKenzie Fine Art on Orchard Street.

“Color as Structure examines the ways artists use deliberate color choices to create sculptural or architectonic space in their work, as well as exploring aspects of weight, movement, rhythm, light and optical vibration. Some artists employ systems to determine color choice, as in Paul Corio’s use of winning thoroughbreds from New York racetracks to determine the position of the colors within each pinwheel in his painting…”

The opening is on Friday the 20th – See you there!

New Article On Abstract Critical

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 7.02.26 AM

As a kind of addendum to our last post on Untethered I’ve put together an article discussing the Modernist Artist. I wanted to expand some of those ideas just a bit and ask a few direct questions about our involvement in the “systems” of art. It’s entitled The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist.

“We have no interest in overcoming the Modern, moving beyond it, challenging its theoretics. We do not ask questions, we do not take the 20th Century legacy to task for its failings, for its obvious capitulations, its formulaic visual engagements.”

Part II of Stasis will be up soon! Untethered continues…

Untethered – Stasis – Part I

“What looked one day like the end proved on the next day to have been only the beginning. Nothing could have been more ingeniously designed to maximize the suffering, and also to insure that as few as possible escaped the common misfortune. The fortunate speculator who had funds to answer the first margin call presently got another and equally urgent one, and if he met that there would still be another. In the end all the money he had was extracted from him and lost.”
“The Great Crash of 1929,” John Kenneth Galbraith, 2009 ed.

Oops, I think that clip may have been a bit more recent… Well, the truth is the economic world wasn’t all that different at the beginning of the 1930s. The markets had blown up at the end of October 1929, and there was a new economic reality to be faced, a “new normal” for how the world would conduct, well, not just business, but practically everything. Sure, stock markets had crashed before, and the economic consequences were tough, but this was the first Globally connected crash, the first to really create a monetary domino effect. Unprecedented.

All through the Roaring Twenties, especially during the last couple of years leading up to crash, the rising “wealth” of the soaring stock markets was a foregone conclusion in the minds of the general public. Wealth and the accumulation of wealth had become the golden sexy abstraction, the blood-earned “gift” bestowed upon the Modern movement. Those investors that were buying into the game expected fattening balance sheets and rosy futures. It was their “due.” That’s how an abstraction works, especially Modern ones. They redistribute reality, mitigate it, reformat it while simplifying, minimizing, and outright excising any contrary realities. A powerful abstraction creates its own “complete” systemic reality. Its ease and promise will flourish in the minds of its believers. Right up ’til that moment when the entropic nature of lived experience creates an anomaly, a glitch. Then the abstraction falters and what was a once considered a virtue of the system, what was once the point of the abstraction, flips and becomes virulently “real.” We call this a “Black Swan.” Actually, the anomaly comes down to matters of statistical imbalances. Users of the abstraction greedy for more of a good thing will manipulate the rules of the abstraction, customize and game the abstraction for their own benefit. Additionally, as more “users” join the abstraction to participate in the “good times” resources feeding the abstraction begin to tighten. This means more customization of the abstraction to accommodate the new “users,” etc. One feeds into the other. Malthusian complications ensue. Entropy takes hold. The abstraction blows up.

Diminishing Returns

If you watch the clip above you’ll see someone with their “hair on fire.” Well, what hair there is anyway. This is how our sweaty, nervous traders were reacting in 2008 as the Reverend’s pin was poised to pop our huge debt-inflated market bubble – a once magnificent money-making abstraction whipped up by Alan Greenspan and company. But the world was no less volatile and desperate back in ’29. Black Tuesday exploded after months and months of erratic gains and losses, unexpected sell-offs and buy-backs. This wild activity revealed the anomaly in the abstraction, and it hinted that all was not as perfectly “abstract” as was assumed. By the end of October, however, even those who were desperately trying to shore up the failing system, who were frantically holding on to the “reality” of the abstraction, had to admit that the jig was up. The entire market imploded flipping the once gilded economic construct into a new harsh, dark reality. Unlike our contemporary crash there were no “support systems” in place to shore up the resources feeding the abstraction. There was no bank of last resort to lend money to failing institutions, no FDIC to recover one’s savings, no Hank Paulson pulling a Godfather routine with the banking industry, no Bernanke TARP. No Postmodern net. Nope. At the time these kinds of contemporary systemic backups sounded very much like Communist economic policies (still do to a number of market purists,) and after the establishment of the USSR in ’17 anything that looked slightly pinkish made those in Capitalist power positions itch. In ’29 those very same Capitalists still believed that laissez faire controls would fix what had been broken, and the governments in thrall to the flow of those finances staunchly held up that particular party line. At least for a little while. In other words the first thing that the powers-that-be did to shore up the collapsing markets and imploding abstraction was absolutely nothing. And as they continued to hold to this course of ineptitude the common folk, the hoi polloi, began to lose everything; jobs, savings, homes, and mostly, hope. This part of the Modern era came to be known as the “Great Depression,” and even today the mention of that “thing” can still send cold shivers down the spines of middle class families saddled with mortgages, car payments, college tuitions and health insurance premiums, or as it has come to be known, the “American Dream.”


What I find really interesting about Cramer’s televised rant is the moment when Postmodernism, our era of abstraction, steps in. I’m not talking about the very real display of human anger, panic and fear – there was plenty of that going on back in the Modern thirties. Nor is it the terrible temper tantrum of a privileged Baby Boomer experiencing the black impurity of his abstraction as it implodes before his eyes. These are tried and true emotional responses to stress and fear, and these kinds of emotions have been happening to the human race ever since we stood erect. No. The Postmodern moment happens at the very end of the piece when we are presented with an authoritative disclaimer, or as I like to call it, the POMO “deus ex machina.” Basically the disclaimer provides absolution – says that what we’ve just witnessed is someone’s opinion, someone’s subjectivity. This is typical of the way our Postmodern theoretics constantly eviscerates any shared realities, undermines the presence of a thing by refocusing our attention not on the thing itself, but on the spaces around the thing. It is the way we keep abstractions, even failing ones, right on abstracting. The contextual disclaimer splices the thing out of the picture so to speak, and the thing as it is, in this case the problem with the market, is not really the focus of our attention. Instead we look at the “dressings” of the moment – the power relationship between the man and the woman, the media programming running through the obviously fake set decoration and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen, the “performance” of the “actors,” the political, social, cultural, and sexual associations that unwind through these contexts. We are constantly directed to what isn’t rather than what is. In that way we can be comfortable with our own interpretations of the abstraction.

The Postmodern world excised “grand narratives” or “meta-narratives,” destroyed objective realities. Reality does not exist outside of the confines of the abstraction. The “ever-present” disclaimer is, quite literally, a stopgap in the abstraction. And it is employed to contain the anomaly. For instance when our markets finally collapsed on Damien’s Day in September of 2008, the system, the abstraction, hiccuped, stopgaps were employed and the resources running the abstraction were re-booted. By January the abstraction had changed nearly all the accounting rules making the anomalies within the abstraction disappear. By March of 2009 Citibank, whose balance sheets had plummeted to junk status during the slide, suddenly showed profits in the billions of dollars even as its stock remained in the single digits. This is an abstraction of immense power and epic resiliency. Theater of Cruelty indeed…

Thirties – Modern Apogee

In 1930 the Great War generation was having to face diminishing economic prospects and sudden devastating poverty. There were also growing military threats from some very nasty reactionary abstractionists. The USA, Peru, Columbia, Spain, Italy, Germany, the USSR, China and Japan were all experiencing a steeped rise in fiery Nationalist dogma and revolutionary rhetoric while threatening white-knuckle expansionist ambitions. Modern theoretics based in purity, of means, of spirit, of technology, of race, and of privilege had flipped, become something far darker. The leaders of these strong arm political parties were very busy pumping up their bewildered and frightened populations just as the air was escaping from the ballooned economies of the world. Desperate, fearful people do desperate, fearful things, as we all know. And by the mid-thirties a new and dangerous Modern industry based on political, cultural, and quite frankly, racial scapegoating was in full swing. The Modern World was, once again, about to become a very dangerous place to be.

What was new about these splintering abstractions, what was newly Modern in fact, was that all of this activity, these “happenings,” were being followed by the world, for the first time, in what we now call “real time.” New electric technologies captured and broadcasted the vindictive public rhetoric right into the private sanctuary of people’s homes. One could turn on the radio and hear what was happening in the world as it unfolded from the comfort of one’s easy chair. Movie house newsreels and the ubiquity of picture magazine formats brought images of the world right into one’s hands seemingly overnight. In this new culture where public and private were starting to merge people began to discover that Modernity was what one lived with, began the day with, and more important, Modernity was now the last thing one encountered before going to bed at night. The electrified world was creating a new kind of Modern human being, informed, connected, dream-like and surprisingly pliable, infinitely malleable.

The Stasis of Surrealism

“I think the art world is definitely already going in this direction, and my auction is just a fast-forward,” Hirst intended to enact a democratisation of the art market. He explains: “It’s very difficult to buy a work in a gallery, you walk into the gallery, you get put on a waiting list by an intimidating woman or something and they want to know who you are.”
 Damien Hirst, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008.

In the 1930s’ Art World Surrealism continued to dictate the actions and aesthetic decisions of the avant garde, and Modernism as a once vibrant, daring theoretical artistic movement, stood defiantly still. In this way the thirties became a decade of retrenchment, especially as the stock markets continued to flatten and the unemployed began to multiply. Money dried up faster than a flash rain in the Mojave. It became extremely difficult for artists with new ideas to find collectors and patrons, and these new artists found bohemia all that much more difficult to navigate. You can bet that during these tight years “many a flower was born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” The tried and true avant-garde that came up during the teens and twenties, however, were still fashionable, still financially viable. Those who had been invited to the parties in the ’20s were still being invited in the ’30s. In fact there are very few new faces, new ideas, new styles developing in the Modern canon during the ’30s. How could there be? Innovation, especially in Capitalist systems, needs seed money, and in the thirties no one with money was seeding anything, not in Society, not in the Economy and not in the Art World.

We have a somewhat similar cultural experience happening today with the “seed money” being directed at a very particular kind of art. And this became apparent in 2008 not too long after Cramer’s meltdown. Our static art moment catalyzed, became systemic with Damien Hirst’s massive sale. This auction happened on the very day when the storied investment bank Lehmann Brothers went tets up. As panic set in and the value of the market abstraction deflated a group of exceedingly wealthy oligarchs were bidding up Damien’s works to unprecedented values – hundreds of millions of dollars. Damien’s Day was the most awesome moment in recent cultural history, a watershed like no other. The sale of these luxury goods had absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics or theoretics, nothing to do with way culture had been advanced in the past. Up until this point an artwork’s value was assessed through its cultural significance, whether it was aesthetically daring or vibrantly influential. The value of Art, up until this point, had to be vetted by other artists, by critics, by historians, by institutions. On Damien’s Day the way an artwork was valued, the way it was quantified, was completely untethered from Art History. In other words the Art Object was reprogrammed, the rules were changed so that the object’s value resided in its economic viability rather than its cultural significance. Damien’s Day marks the moment when we witnessed a repudiation of everything theoretically, historically Modern. This is also Postmodernism’s apotheosis, its final encapsulation and evisceration of the Modern abstraction, the actual endpoint of the thirties’ legacy. In fact it marks the end of the entire legacy of Modern Art beginning with Manet. This is the moment of the “flip.”

In the Art World of 2008 suddenly every last Art Gamer (artist, critic, gallerist, curator and collector) with half an online brain realized that the Postmodern program had been resolutely “fixed,” “encrypted.” Specificity of intention and innovation were now only possible through the sanction of auction house cabals intent on dealing with an economic “product” containing Modernist (rather than Modern or Postmodern) Art. And this is the difference that many of us have refused to accept as we struggle and moan in our studios. We no longer make Modern Art or Postmodern Art, but Modernist Art – a radicalized economic based art designed for market participation rather than aesthetic/theoretical innovation. As a very specific luxury product it remains static, locked into the Postmodern economies, technologies and programs of the Business World. Art as it was once known, as it was experienced by artists and their communities, no longer exists.

For our purposes the Thirties are the key to understanding how Modernism and Postmodernism became Modernist. It’s where we’ll find a new direction for Abstraction and for Painting. And we will continue to look deeper into this amazing, frightening decade, making comparisons to our own time and looking for answers. For now I leave you with this…

“You Did That.”

The greatest work of the 1930s and perhaps of the century was painted by Picasso, the reigning grand master of Modern Art. He had been given the task of making work for the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris. Pablo took as his subject the bombing of the small town of Guernica in Spain. The attack by the Fascists had killed and wounded hundreds of innocent, unsuspecting townsfolk going about their market day business. Once again the efficient horrors of Modern technological war came crashing back into view, a frightening premonition for what would come. Since its exhibition Guernica and its creation have grown to mythic proportions in our imaginations. Its visual power, its cultural impact is unrivaled in the 20th Century. It set something off in Picasso as well, and he experienced a new flurry of creativity in its wake. He began to examine himself, his own life, his own actions through very uncomfortable emotions. These new angular, acidic paintings unraveled his intimate life. They came to look more violent, more cruel, more specific and more unforgiving. It is Picasso at his very best and his most revealing.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973
Pablo Picasso, “Weeping Woman,” 1937. Oil paint on canvas, 608 x 500 mm, Tate Collection.

Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” one of my favorite paintings from this time, is about his relationship with Dora Maar, his discomfort with himself and his complicity with the Modern world. She clutches a handkerchief, dabbing her crying eyes, her mouth gnashing at its corner. The angular, spiky clothing and the strange, folded hat look ill-fitting, sharp, uncomfortable. A too-tight earring painfully shuts her ear against a verbal barrage. She’s made up her eyes and brows, carefully combed her hair, obviously dressed for something “else.” Dora wasn’t expecting this violent surge of unrestrained feeling and the “mask” is slipping. This is what Pablo sees, this is what he experiences, this is the outcome of his own actions, his own provocations. Picasso, an underrated colorist, uses it to intensify the emotional impact of the work. The hat in primaries, solid, heavy and sharp against the secondary greens, purples, oranges and acidy yellows, creates a clash of hue. It heightens the angst in the image, makes this particular domestic spat something more – an existential failing, a terrible sign of fear, regret, and anger, an image of an oppressive and turbulent love affair. Picasso once said that women were “suffering machines” and Dora would always be his “weeping woman.” And indeed, she is.

Pablo painted these kinds of rigorously intimate images all through his life. He abstracted his visual world to emphasize the conceptual tension between line and form, flatness and illusion. But these thoroughly Modern conventions were merely tools used to define the reality of his own experiences. In the end Picasso was the oldest kind of artist working among the Moderns. More than any other painter of the day Pablo was able to create a visceral connection between abstraction, figurative imagery and his own emotional life. Rather than physical size or material precedence he sought out and encountered a singular, powerful image, and through it, a deeper connection to the history of painting. Over and over again Picasso’s paintings would come to grips with the fact that there would never be an escape from the primitive power that a distinctive image can hold over us. His paintings would never be pure objects for distracted contemplation, never sounding boards for spiritual issues, never an easy chair for a tired businessman. They would always be a confrontation, a reckoning. And in this way Picasso would never be wholly, truly Modern, never fit comfortably into the abstraction of Modernity even as he helped to define what Modern Abstraction would look and feel like. I dare say that in our Postmodern Art World this kind of understanding, personification and confrontation with abstraction is truly an heretical idea – an idea that demands that we purposely not be Modern, that we not accept the Modern as an a priori assumption when we create an Abstraction. Picasso, the Modern Prometheus, still has much to teach us all. What this small, powerful painting shows us is that our images do not weep.

Untethered – Stasis continues….

2013 – A Year in Abstraction by Brett Baker

Brett Baker of Painter’s Table has written a really terrific year end round-up for Abstract Critical chronicling the continuing issues that face abstraction today. Brett kindly mentions Henri’s post on Malevich and early Modern Abstraction entitled “Untethered – Spirit.”
I’m very grateful to Brett, Painters Table, and to Abstract Critical, and I send them Thanks! from Henri.


Untethered – Blur

The twenties for the most part were a blur, and by blur I mean that everything in society, culture, politics and art was consolidating and speeding forward at a breakneck pace. The War was over, but the ramifications of its outcome were still being felt. The “winning” side had decided to punish the German people so badly that they would never again have the will or means to begin another war in Europe. This was done through exorbitant reparations and stringent economic sanctions, basically assuring that the German economy would languish and die. There was no understanding that causing such instability would be disastrous to the new German government, their very fragile economy and fractured society. Shortsighted views of human nature would prove to be one of the major reasons for the rapid rise of Nationalism, particularly among the classes most affected by the economic fallout. In fact during the 1920s fervent Nationalism was on the rise all through Europe, and it came hand in hand with the so-called “Return to Order,” a nostalgic “movement” looking to reclaim a “golden age” of respectability and social cohesiveness. You have to understand that there were all kinds of Modern-looking organizations spouting reactionary blinkered beliefs and outright prejudices. Italy, Spain and Germany were all experiencing the rise of dangerous warrior classes which were made up of men and women ready to fight and die for warped ideals of purity and power. (And these two things, purity and power, seem to come up again and again when we look at the Modern world.) It wasn’t long before the “right of purity” rhetoric began to be taken seriously, especially as Western countries fanned out across the world looking to exploit new trade routes, newly discovered natural resources and cheap (slave) labor. Modern modes of travel made such economic expansion possible. Southeast Asia, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East, were all becoming more and more important to the life of Western Civilization, and a real nasty bit of competition began to manifest among those countries. The supremacy of one’s race, country or alliances made foreign intrigues seem like a natural right. Needless to say dominos were being set in place.

In Russia the new Communist government was starting to look a little less like a Marxist Republic and lot more like a strong man dictatorship. They were trying to consolidate the republic while fighting famine, armed resistance funded by European governments and civil dissent in the failing cities. The country was fracturing under the strain. Stalin saw this as an opportunity and came to power through a “house cleaning” that was miles away from anything in the Communist Manifesto and more like a chapter right out of Caligula’s diaries. All the while the USSR was busy building its manufacturing and economic capabilities in an effort to become a Modern technological world power. Russia was also making inroads into China exporting the “revolution” to a country torn by poverty, civil war and deep political unrest. It was in the 1920s that Mao began his rise by using constantly shifting military/political alliances to gain and consolidate power. In the United States Prohibition was instituted with an amendment to the Constitution. Suddenly the entire country had become dry. No alcohol served here, at least not over the counter. The new law transformed the once local underground, creating a nationwide shadow economy run by a newly empowered and very organized crime syndicate. A whole new chapter of illicit social business was practically formed overnight. America’s Puritan heart, once again, guided the nation into a Protestant world of sin and redemption, good and evil, right and wrong. All of these changes show that a radical reformation of society was happening around the world, all at once, so it seemed.

In the meantime the social and cultural worlds were exploring new indulgent experiences. The twenties, as it turned out, were about to turn into the Roaring Twenties. Stock markets soared, money was on the ground, the Arts flourished, people got loaded, laid and languished. The twenties presaged the sixties; lots of sex, drugs, but instead of Rock and Roll, they had Jazz. The rich became famous and the famous tried to get rich. Youth was sexy, skirts were short and the Charleston was all the rage. There was the rise of Hollywood, the proliferation of air travel, radio and transatlantic telephone communications making the world seem smaller. Photography was becoming ubiquitous along with the rise of magazine publishing. Advertising was quickly becoming an art form. In fact you could say that everything that our society esteems today came from the consolidation and institutionalization of Modernity and Modernism in the 1920s. Paris was still the place to be especially for American artists with avant garde ambitions. Most all of them had buggered off to Europe where the moral climate was more conducive to bohemian culture. African Americans found Paris more receptive, less overtly racist and absolutely mad for their cultural contributions. American writers and artists gathered at Gertrude Stein’s to learn, to engage and to make waves. The truth is that America’s Lost Generation was not so much lost as they were banished from Puritan America. So, they all went to the city where they could find encouragement, get involved in the conversation and mix it up with other like minded souls.

At the beginning of the twenties Paris was busy looking for the next big thing, the next party. This is what happens, or at least it used to, in the cultural capitals of the world. Dada was losing its edge looking a bit tired and predictable to a new generation searching to define themselves. Andre Breton, a theorist, author and publisher, had been a part of that earlier Dada crowd, a kind of Johnny-Come-Lately to the movement. He was eloquent, combative and provocative. He liked the experimental nature of Dada, but found that it left something out of the mix. Dada was an entertaining and clever critique of culture and society, but little else. Its artists were content to point out the absurdity of Life and Art without risking themselves in a real way. Breton thought that there should be something more to it. Something that could and should provide a deeper experience of the strange fractured nature of Modern existence. He wanted art to explain and exploit the feelings and needs of the Modern individual, to examine our very primitive urges and desires. Needless to say when looking at the problem of Art from this perspective Sigmund Freud’s theories were liberating. His work delivered insights and solutions for the way that people lived their lives in the highly bureaucratic, highly stylized Modern world. Breton began to experiment with Freud’s ideas of consciousness and unconscious living, the dream life, the darker more shaded world of human passion. After all, this is what the 1920s were all about, the liberation of the Id, the release and confrontation of one’s inner desires and demons after facing death and destruction.

“It was only fitting that Freud should appear with his critique on the dream. In fact, it is incredible that this important part of psychic activity has still attracted so little attention. (For, at least from man’s birth to his death, thought presents no solution of continuity; the sum of dreaming moments – even taking into consideration pure dream alone, that of sleep – is from the point of view of time no less than the sum of moments of reality, which we shall confine to waking moments.) I have always been astounded by the extreme disproportion in the importance and seriousness assigned to events of the waking moments and to those of sleep by the ordinary observer. Man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all at the mercy of his memory, and the memory normally delights in feebly retracing the circumstance of the dream for him, depriving it of all actual consequence and obliterating the only determinant from the point at which he thinks he abandoned this constant hope, this anxiety, a few hours earlier. He has the illusion of continuing something worthwhile. The dream finds itself relegated to a parenthesis, like the night. And in general it gives no more counsel than the night.”
Andre Breton, “The First Surrealist Manifesto.” 1924

This kind of thinking was taking the cultural world, particularly the younger artists, by storm. It seemed to open a new unchartered world of illicit passions and theoretical defiance. There was something Romantic and sexy about the inner struggle. Paintings, both abstract and representational, took on the appearance of “dreamscapes,” weird and woolly depictions of the absurdity of Modern life, Modern passions. Breton hoped that this work would be made through “pure expression,” a purity that came about from thought without reason, existence without control, passion without morality. He was after the very life of passions stirring beneath the facade of civilized existence. For Breton the unconscious is where art came from, where art was made. All through this series we’ve come across this mania by the early Modernists to hook into “purity,” and it seems it was also rife in society as well – purity of blood, race, country, allegiance, expression, art, culture – you name it. And it’s the idea of “purity” that the later Postmodernists would take to task.

The_Elephant_CelebesThe Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 125.4 x 107.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London. 1921.

The painting above by Max Ernst is classic Surrealism. Sexy Maxy hits all the highlights; machine culture, classical mythology, Modern abstraction, incidental lighting, antithetical collage, empty dreamscape. It’s strangeness comes from the dissimilar and fragmented imagery all clustered together in the same pictorial non-space (or as we might say today Junk Space.) It’s a “grab bag of arch references” all designed to make the viewer question what’s going on in the picture, a “Where’s Waldo” of unconscious distraction. There is no “correct” viewing, no “point” explicitly laid out in the picture itself, just an image that cuts into our preconceived notions of propriety and comfort. The logic of A to B to C has been deliberately thrown into turmoil. Nothing clicks into place, and it’s up to the viewer to find connections and meanings in their own subconscious, their own understanding of the meaning of images. (A very similar use of “meaning” would become a prominent strategy in much of Postmodern painting.) Additionally, Surrealism was heavily sexual filled with anxiety and pain. There are plenty of references like this in Ernst’s painting, and I’ll leave you to it. Death also plays a role in the “unconscious” life, and I dare say that you’ll find that referenced in this painting as well.

“Most of the pain we experience is of a perceptual order, perception either of the urge of unsatisfied instincts or of something in the external world which may be painful in itself or may arouse painful anticipations in the psychic apparatus and is recognised by it as “danger.” The reaction to these claims of impulse and these threats of danger, a reaction in which the real activity of the psychic apparatus is manifested, may be guided correctly by the pleasure-principle or by the reality-principle which modifies this.”
Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” 1920.

It is perception itself that so many of the Surrealists latched on to. Where does perception begin? What do we perceive? How do we perceive? How does it define our reality? For the Surrealists our “expected” ways of seeing and understanding the world were up for questioning. But even more pressing was how one’s perception would make one feel, how it could make one react. The uncertainty, the fragility is paramount in Surrealist work. It’s why so many of them screwed around with the standard techniques of realism and illusion. Nothing is as it seems. This feeling was part of the realization that humanity was becoming more expendable with every head count, with every charge over the trenches, every shelled village. The Surrealists were desperate to understand the moment, the aftermath of survival. They were fascinated by the ferocity that lay within the human psyche and how quickly it merged with technology, how quickly it accepted these mechanical extensions, how quickly it overlooked the consequences. In Fritz Lange’s movie Metropolis, these themes are all played out. The faceless legions servicing the machines, the melding of technology and human life, the tragic consequences of Modernity itself. And for painting Picasso’s ferocious masked prostitutes were the order of the day, more so than the clarity and order of Malevich’s geometries or Matisse’s nostalgic reveries. Demoiselles D’Avignon, would be the precedent for Surrealism, a precedent that Breton freely promoted.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.07.34 AM“Le Signe de la mort”
Paris, January–mid-February 1927
Oil and aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4” (73 x 92 cm)
Private collection. Courtesy MaxmArt, Mendrisio, SwitzerlandMaxmArt, Mendrisio, Switzerland. © 2008 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Truthfully, I can do without the melting watches, empty theatrical townscapes, and limp phallic hoses. But there is one painter that I think is truly wonderful. Miro was able to bridge the gap between process and psychology, experimenting with new forms and materials all through his career. He was particularly attuned to materials, to the way they worked in the paintings, the way the unconscious would immediately gravitate to the look and feel of things. In the show at MOMA a few years ago we got a taste of Miro’s experimental work. It looked and felt contemporary in every way, which I found a bit disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any stylistic distance between what I was looking at in the galleries of Chelsea and what was on the walls of MOMA, paintings made 80 years ago. How could that be? Truly, the only real difference was the scale. Where had we gone so wrong? Why had we not moved on? Seriously, if these had been 7 foot paintings made in Brooklyn two weeks ago they could easily have been featured at Gagosian and sold for scads of money. Oh well, c’est le vie, POMOs.

For now let’s have a look at this repro. First, there is the raw ground. Not many paintings of that time let the ground be in just this way. Miro’s scraped a brush lightly over it, just marring the pristine surface with a bit of white paint. There’s something about the beauty of raw linen, yes, like paint straight out of the can? But what’s really ‘new’ and antithetical to Modernism of the time is the composition itself, the spareness of the “things,” the “imagery” that’s collaged onto the painting. Here the abstract nature of process, the multiple meanings inherent in the happenstance of the forms, begins to play with our unconscious. We have to connect, engage our subjective lives to get meaning. The cryptic phrase over the red spill adds some heat to the picture, the cross and the number enigmatic and final somehow. Miro is letting the paint, the specific color, work like found objects, all the while directing us to mortality. It seems absurd, but Miro uses that, makes the absurd visually poetic. The spareness of this painting, the rawness of its means, are its beauty and its immediate power. No wonder Miro became the go-to guy for the Abstract Expressionists.

Consolidation and Acceptance

The Roaring Twenties were the decade when Modernity and Modernism finally gelled in the consciousness of society. This is how the world was going to look from that moment on. All of the experimentation and speculation had been done and now began the process of fleshing out this new life. We can also see the coming critique of Modernism, the beginning of a backlash for its failings. The Frankfurt School was formed. Husserl and Heidegger were the philosphers of the day. Adorno, Benjamin and Arendt were beginning their lives as thinkers. All of these writers would later become central figures in our understanding and practice of Postmodernism. Artaud was producing new plays at the Alfred Jarry. The Ballet Russe was working with Stravinsky. It’s really quite astounding, the depth and breadth of cultural progress! For the most part you could hang a sign at the beginning of the decade that says the 19th Century ends here. When we look back most of us working today have to understand that the basis of what we do, the very foundation of what we are as artists begins here – the need for “expression,” the questioning of perception, the reliance on materials and objects, the beginning of the age of the photograph, advertising culture. All of it.

I’ll end this post in 1931 with a bit more popular culture of the time. After the market crash and the start of the Fascist rise, the movie Frankenstein immediately invaded the imaginations of people around the world. Mary Shelley’s harsh Romantic story struck a chord. In the movie a “mad scientist” creates a man from dead body parts and brings him to life using technological wonders. The revived corpse then goes off to wreak havoc among the populace killing or maiming any and all who had a hand in his current damnation. The monster, feared though he was, was a victim, a tragic anti-hero of Modernity itself. People went nuts for this movie. I mean seriously nuts. It was a blockbuster. But for me the movie’s become a kind of turning point in my view of the Modern/Postmodern divide. You have to understand that by 1931 the survivors of the Great War generation were now middle aged with families of their own. The roaring 20s had been good for populations after all, and there was a bit of a baby boom. But the Great War was still there, still to be seen everywhere one went, not only in the remaining destruction and political intrigues, but in the people themselves. There were thousands and thousands of the “walking wounded” missing arms, legs, faces, still experiencing psychoses and illness, all of them trying desperately to fit back into the populations. All looking to get back home. If they didn’t have families they were shunted aside, left to fend for themselves, a veritable tribe of “monsters” reminding the world around them of the cost of Modernity. There were many artists greatly affected by this new world and they painted it, painted the brutality of it. Additionally, all through the 20s there was the spectre of things to come, that the so-called civilizing aspect of Modern society, were a sham. Beneath the calm face of acceptance and respectability monsters lurked. No one wanted to believe that such atrocities, such destruction could have ever happened or would every happen again. The refrain was said over and over in the media of the time. When Frankenstein appeared on the silver screens it hooked into those memories, hooked into the possibility that the ferocious destruction of life could happen again. The Monster could rise from the ashes and set the world on fire once more.

“You are in the wrong,” replied the fiend; “and instead of threatening, I am
content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not
shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and
triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities
me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those
ice-rifts and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands. Shall I respect man
when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and
instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude
at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable
barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I
will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and
chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear
inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor
finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.

Untethered continues….