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]

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