Walter Rosenblum Ad Reinhardt in his studio 1953
“There’s nothing else to say?” I asked.
“No,” he said.

The one struggle in art is the struggle of artists against artists, of artist against artist, of the artist-as-artist within and against the artist-as-man, -animal, or -vegetable. Artists who claim their artwork comes from nature, life, reality, earth or heaven, as ‘mirrors of the soul’ or ‘reflections of conditions’ or ‘instruments of the universe,’ who cook up ‘new images of man’ – figures and ‘nature-in-abstraction’ – pictures, are subjectively and objectively rascals or rustics. The art of ‘figuring’ or ‘picturing’ is not a fine art. An artist who is lobbying as a ‘creature of circumstances’ or logrolling as a ‘victim of fate’ is not a fine master artist. No one ever forces an artist to be pure. [Ad Reinhardt Art as Art]

Lately, I’ve been seeing a great deal of abstraction online that looks a great deal like Motherwell’s CubEx collages. Only these contemporary works are blown up to about 6 times the size of the originals. And not surprisingly these blown up paintings look good. They’re handsome works based on handsome works, well made, professional, presentable and they make a statement in a huge empty loft space. And I think this kind of abstraction is a hallmark of this moment. Artists have been trained to know what abstraction looks like and how it’s supposed to behave. And as a trained professional one does not break with precedent – one builds on it. So it seems that everyone’s making familiar abstract art these days. And it shows up everywhere – especially in the lobbies, conference rooms and hallways of corporations and institutions all over the world.

Robert Motherwell, Studio with Aladdin Label, 1977 (left); Red, White and Blue No. 1, 1967

Everyone – Everywhere – Twenty Four Seven – Three Sixty Five (three sixty six this year) – abstract painting is globally ubiquitous, a classic luxury merchandise made and presented to us like designer bags in Giorgio Armani or Louis Vuitton. And like those desired luxury goods there are many cheaply made abstract paintings that duplicate and replicate that sought after style for far less money. So how do we value what’s good and what isn’t? How do we tell the Canal Street knockoff from the “real deal.” Is it easily apparent in the work? The CV? The artist? The history? Who was first? A combination of all these things? How do we actually know what’s good, what’s innovative, or what’s different when so much of the abstraction we see has reached an astonishing level of high-end replication and production and looks-like, feels-like and acts-like well-known-museum-installed abstract work made 50, 60, or even 100 years ago?

Previous studies showed that people with different personality traits exhibit a preference for particular art styles. Specifically, participants with higher scores for Neuroticism, Extraversion and Openness like abstract artworks more than other artistic styles (Furnham and Avison, 1997; Furnham and Walker, 2001; Rawlings and Bastian, 2002). Here, we provide evidence that even for one particular art style (i.e., abstract art), aesthetic preferences depend on individual personality traits. The present study is a follow-up to a study on image statistics by Mallon et al. (2014), who showed that subgroups of participants prefer images with different SIPs. Here, we extend these previous findings and show that high values in Neuroticism are linked to a preference for objectively complex images, while high values in Openness can be associated with a preference for a portrait orientation of images. Güclütürk et al. (2016) described that two groups of participants differed in their liking of digital images with varying complexity. One group of participants showed increasingly lower liking rates for increasingly more complex images while another group showed the opposite pattern of preference. Here, we extend these findings by showing that, in addition to their general preference for abstract artworks (Furnham and Walker, 2001), participants with higher scores for Neuroticism also prefer more objectively complex abstract artworks as compared to participants with lower scores for Neuroticism. [Evaluating Abstract Art Nathalie LyssenkoChristoph Redies and Gregor U. Hayn-Leichsenring]

I wondered how the market determines the quality of an AbEx painting—that is, how dollar and cent values are ascribed to paintings. Michael Macaulay, Senior Vice President and Head of Evening Sales Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s, is quick to note that the wide breadth of AbEx art means the label can lose some of its usefulness.
The result is that market evaluation is “artist-specific and then focused painting-by-painting,” he said. “We are of course bearing in mind its historical significance. We are evaluating a number of more quantifiable factors, like scale, palette, mode of execution, condition. And then there are a lot of softer factors to consider, like aesthetic appeal, which of course is very subjective.” Collectors have different tastes independent of the art-historical canon, too, perhaps valuing a Rothko over a Pollock, for whatever reason. And just as the general canon values women and AbEx artists of color less than their male counterparts, so too does the market. [Isaac Kaplan on Good Abstraction]

Art-historical significance used to mean two things – changing the rules of visual encounters and influencing those that followed. Picasso said those who innovate have to break through walls. And that’s not necessarily a pretty thing, and neither is the art. He completed this thought by saying that those who followed could make these new ideas, this innovation, pretty because the hard work was already finished. And that seems to describe the process. But today’s Modernists don’t innovate per se – it’s more like they rearrange the furniture, add a little feng shui to visual ideas and art theoretics that are already known. Think Jeff Koons and David Salle making James Rosenquist’s paintings or every assemblage artist ever making one aspect of Robert Rauschenberg’s various combines or most every painter that came to market prominence in the 2000s and Joan Miro.

One Comment

  • gwh12

    Reinhardt would be aghast – and laughing – at what we have going on now. And completely at home – so much of it is a repetition.
    And the market: the market is a beast, unseeing, blind, prone to many blunders. Was the market of the Popes and the Cardinals any different?

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