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]


  • Martin Mugar

    It is the Baxandall quote you repeated in your review of my book that explains why I have a hard time with this “neo-classical” work.The decisions are made on the canvas not from the locus of the eye/mind.A lot of the flatness seems like deserts/wastelands.

  • MStone

    I understand, Martin. But some artists were born and raised in the deserts and wastelands, and they naturally gravitate to those sorts of environs.

  • Tom

    Isn’t it enough to assume that an artist is giving, without regard for anything but the outcome? Why would anyone judge someone else’s creation using historical reference? All art, ANY art, is by definition unique, and worthy on its own.

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