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]

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