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.
“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]
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]