Abstract Critical

2013 Round Up – Abstraction’s Re-invention

Written by Brett Baker

Installation view Frank Stella – The Retrospective. Works 1958-2012 (08.09.2012 – 20.01.2013), Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012, Photo: Marek Kruszewski

Installation view Frank Stella – The Retrospective. Works 1958-2012 (08.09.2012 – 20.01.2013), Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012, Photo: Marek Kruszewski

The most recent “rebirth” of painting, has been defined, in large part, by various modes of abstract painting. These modes are not homogenous, but are linked by a common enthusiasm and a shared belief in abstract painting as a realm of renewed possibility. This feeling of possibility no longer derives from abstraction’s “newness”, but rather from a century of proof that abstract painting is capable of an ever widening range of expression. Artists, curators, and critics are all re-examining the history of abstraction with the contemporary benefit of instant information, and they are finding it richer and more diverse than they once imagined. 

There were over 600 posts about abstract painting featured on Painters’ Table in 2013. Rather than distill these into a general “Top 10” list, I have chosen to highlight fifteen posts that are representative of ways abstraction is being re-examined. These include the re-evaluation of the origins and canon of modernism, fresh investigations of the expressive potential of color, technique, and materials, a questioning of the boundaries of painting, and reflections on the capability of abstraction to carry meaning.

It is a pleasure to have this list published on abstract critical, a platform dedicated to in-depth discussion and debate about abstraction year-round.


Re-examining the Origins and Canon of Abstraction 

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

1. Inventing Abstraction: Soil and Air

Viewing the exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Viktor Witkowski found that the show captured the common excitement about the possibilities of abstraction shared by artists in the early 20th century, a excitement that might energize contemporary artists. He concluded that early abstraction was “not about arriving at a final state or drawing a conclusion. Abstraction was never meant to be finished or concluded. Abstraction (hopefully) resonates with a part of us that welcomes all suspension of ideologies and beliefs. Abstraction is a long-term project, acutely relevant and still nourishing today’s paintings.”

2. Inventing Abstraction: Exhilarating & Wrong

Reviewing the same show, Jed Perl also saw an energy and openness in the work but found the curatorial definition of abstraction too narrow, giving the impression that abstraction is “a prescription rather than a permission.” Banished from the exhibition, Perl noted were “Paul Klee and Joan Miró, two seminal figures whose profoundly abstract visions did not exclude ‘recognizable subject matter.’” He argues that “abstraction in fact released painters to approach experience in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.”

3. Hilma Af Klint: ‘Interview’

Another artist omitted from Inventing Abstraction was Hilma Af Klint, a painter who developed her own abstract painting language independent of the early 20th century avant-garde. Af Klint’s reemergence as an abstract pioneer has generated much excitement, yet Matthew Collings, in the guise of a clever “faux interview” asserted that Af Klint’s current popularity as an outsider and a pioneering female artist overshadows a rigorous consideration of her significant visual achievements as a painter.  

4. To Be a Lady: Forty-five Women in the Arts

James Panero wrote about another show, To Be a Lady, curated by Jason Andrew, that focused on the significant, yet overlooked contributions of female artists to the story of abstraction. “With its concentration of abstract artists,” Panero wrote, the show “suggests, in particular, why women’s voices have been essential to the evolution of modernism.”

Elizabeth Murray, Sentimental Education, 1982, oil on canvas, 10 feet 7 inches x 96 inches, 322.6 x 243.8 centimeters

Elizabeth Murray, Sentimental Education, 1982, oil on canvas, 10 feet 7 inches x 96 inches, 322.6 x 243.8 centimeters

5. Raphael Rubinstein on NY Painting in the 80s

The show of the summer in New York was Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s at Cheim & Read, curated by Raphael Rubinstein. In a conversation with the Brooklyn Rail’s Joan Waltemath, Rubinstein described how he was inspired by painter “David Reed’s notion that there’s a ‘street history’ of painting that painters share with each other, a set of references and concerns, and a sense of where they’ve come from and where they’re going. This street history almost never gets into official versions… Even though most of the painters in my show are quite well known, they’ve largely been left out of the official histories of the 1980s because they don’t fit into Neo-Expressionism or Appropriation Art or Neo-Geo.”


Embracing Color, Technique, and Materials

Frank Bowling, Lenora Seas, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 47 1/2 inches

Frank Bowling, Lenora Seas, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 47 1/2 inches

6. Who’s Afraid of Hot Pink, Canary Yellow, and Midnight Blue?

Hyperallergic’s John Yau writes frequently about artists who have been excluded from the mainstream of art history, but in this post he described with delight a cluster of shows defined by an unabashed immersion in color. “For a few days it seemed as if New York was awash with color,” he wrote, “and that both the scientific and improvisational sides of the conversation were ably represented, perhaps for the first time in many years… For these artists, color is a palpable thing and an abstract event… each of them offers us a different pleasure, a different kind of looking, and a different, optically rich space in which to reflect upon that act.”

7. Poured Painting: Oil as Water

In Artcritical, Franklin Einspruch reviewed the two-venue exhibition Pour at Asya Geisberg Gallery and Lesley Heller Workspace. For Einspruch, the works on view “established that the desire for good abstract form, achievable by way of liquid paint, is a perennial concern.”

8. Improvisation in Abstraction

Robert Linsley explored the idea of improvisation in relation to abstract painting. He wrote: “Improvisation does not mean pulling art out of thin air. It is a congerie of techniques that enable the possibility that the new will appear, the foremost of which is repetition—at least that’s what we can learn from Jazz. The Jazz musician/composer aims to create a music, and it is built gradually, over time, by constantly working through a set of motifs, repertoires, devices, mannerisms, techniques, so that the relation between the elements is incrementally changed until the whole edifice, a life’s work, stands apart—a unique construction…. It turns out that skills are best learned in the act of creation.”

9. A Provisional Explanation

“Provisional” and “casual” painting (an approach and an aesthetic) was a highly visible and influential mode of abstraction in 2013, particularly in New York. Painter Brian Dupont penned an impassioned explanation of the “provisional” noting that “artists today are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus, and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards.”


The Boundaries of Abstraction

Rosy Keyser, Eve’s First Confusion Between Penises and Snakes, 2012. Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I, Installation View. Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection, the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York. Photo: Tim Bowditch

Rosy Keyser, Eve’s First Confusion Between Penises and Snakes, 2012. Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I, Installation View. Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection, the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York. Photo: Tim Bowditch

10. The Edge And A Little Beyond

An interview with painter Julie Alexander, curator of the show The Edge and a Little Beyond at SOIL Gallery, Seattle. In her curatorial statement, she noted that the exhibition “brings together six abstract artists whose work pushes out the edge of the painting, playing with the basic structure of wood supports and stretched canvas… The work, verging on sculpture, clearly comes from a painter’s mind. These six artists, through abstraction, both work within and challenge the perimeter of the painting, pushing beyond the boundary and entering the viewer’s space. They do it with a personal mark-making that values joy and uncertainty.”

11. Paint Things – Beyond the Stretcher

Reviewing the exhibition Paint Things: Beyond The Stretcher at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Robert Moeller wrote that the “increasingly heated oscillation between the two mediums of painting and sculpture grapples less with answers but rather more with questions… the assemblage of work is a smartly executed foray into the blurred and frenzied and ever-shifting world of contemporary practices. Looking backward in time, too, the exhibition pays homage, directly and indirectly, to the work of a host of artists whose presence is keenly felt, making the balance struck seem remarkably current.”

12. Painting in the 2.5th Dimension

In his review of Painting in the 2.5th Dimension at the Zabludowicz Collection, John Bunker wrote that “the extra 0.5 of a dimension we get in this show is not so much about the protrusions of the paintings from their surfaces or the wall. Instead it’s an historical dimension and concerned with how other media (mostly photography and the impact of context and site) rebounds on the painting process here in the 21st century. I guess the question has always been this: Are these direct references to the past of the medium and importation of other media into its facture a crutch or new point of departure for abstract painting?”


Re-examination of Meaning

Julie Mehretu, Beloved (Cairo), 2013, Ink and Acrylic on Canvas, 118 1/4 x 287 inches (300.4 x 729 cm), The Broad Art Foundation, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photo Credit: Tom Powel

Julie Mehretu, Beloved (Cairo), 2013, Ink and Acrylic on Canvas, 118 1/4 x 287 inches (300.4 x 729 cm), The Broad Art Foundation, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photo Credit: Tom Powel

13. Kazimir Malevich: Becoming Revolutionary

In e-flux, Boris Groys re-examined the political significance of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Groys writes that “the suspicion arises that Malevich’s famous Black Square is unrelated to any political and social revolution—that it is an artistic gesture that ultimately has relevance only inside artistic space. However, I would argue that if Malevich’s Black Square was not an active revolutionary gesture in the sense that it criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution, it was revolutionary in a much deeper sense. … Malevich shows us what it means to be a revolutionary artist. It means joining the universal material flow that destroys all temporary political and aesthetic orders. Here, the goal is not change—understood as change from an existing, ‘bad’ order to a new, ‘good’ order. Rather, revolutionary art abandons all goals—and enters the non-teleological, potentially infinite process which the artist cannot and does not want to bring to an end.”

14. Kazimir Malevich: Untethered – Spirit

At Henri Art Magazine, Mark Stone offered another reading of the same body of work by Malevich. Stone wrote that “Malevich wanted a kind of direct optical language that would cut through the blur of lived experience and bring one straight to a meaningful encounter with purity… In these ‘Supreme’ paintings there is no visual time, no sequence or event, no viewpoint, no figure ground relationship, no dimension. One would simply encounter, all at once, always already, the immaculate.” He concludes “For me this kind of massively reductive visual nihilism directed at the history of painting leaves out so much… But still I’m drawn to the inevitable presence of this Square black thing and the direct confrontation it evokes in the face of an elusive, evocative idea.”

15. Painting and Reality: Art as Analogy

In his article which won the 2013 abstract critical Writer’s Prize, James Hassall argued that “the role of abstraction, in its infinite plasticity, is as relevant as ever. We just need to keep making new analogies that reveal both the minutiae and the majesty of our present… abstract art can be an important means of understanding the implications and machinations of our present: the role of the subject amidst complex hyper-connectivity, the massiveness of data networks, the ideological stranglehold of capitalism, the absurdity of the Internet. Abstraction can operate in that space where the sensible exceeds the conceivable.”

  1. mark harrington said…

    words as definition can be misleading. abstraction in painting does not imply derivation, and the representational painting is not what it may appear to be: paintings of animals do not bite!
    perhaps representation is the more abstract, and abstraction is purely presentational.

  2. John Holland said…

    Robin- yes, I thought, now that it’s the New Year, it’s time for a new scrap.

    Sorry to have misread you; your phrase, as you say, was about ‘representational illusion’. I suppose I’m still having some difficulty understanding, in this context, what unrepresentational illusion might be, if space in painting is considered to be representional.
    I was being a bit disingenuous about the sculpture of the past- I can see your point that freedom from figuration might have more liberating potential for sculpture than painting.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Well, yes, I think that is my point, that (even) in abstract painting the illusion of space is some kind of representation of it; whereas in abstract sculpture, space is space, and the illusion is to do with how that space is manipulated, heightened, controlled etc. by the material.

      I’m unconvinced that there is such a thing as ‘abstract’ space. Happy New Year.

      • Noela said…

        Seems like this is a catch 22 for abstract painting ! I would be interested in your views around thinking about ‘light’ rather than ‘space’ for abstract painting.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I guess it is a catch, but perhaps no more so than the configuration of the body was a catch to figurative sculpture, which didn’t stop some good stuff being made, despite generally constraining it. So, yes, light could be an interesting thing to think about, as could many peoples’ notion of what is central to abstract painting, namely colour. And I guess you would deal with light through colour…? But I personally find difficulty in divorcing either of those things from spatial structure.

        Can you point us at some work where you think this is happening? Poons I think you mentioned before…?

      • Noela said…

        I think I was struck by Poons’ comments about light always being surprising and a new experience when seen in a painting. Looking back at the Brancaster painters I feel that the works that resonate for me have a ‘light’ quality, or radiance of some kind, namely Hilde and Emyr. ( I know it’s bad to judge art on the screen ) I do get your point, though, about dealing with light through colour.

      • Noela said…

        ps. the above is not a rule because I am sure Fred Pollock’s work is amazing.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    And now for the 2014 round up of abstraction’s re-invention: “It’s figuration”…

  4. John Bunker said…

    This is the fundamental danger for the Critic; that she /he ‘looks’ a lot but doesn’t see anything. Decisions have already been made, criteria of what is good has been pre-set. Clique, peer pressure and their prejudices etc- the list of potential blocks to the recognition of something ‘new’ (I’d call it ‘liberation’) goes on, does it not? But the idea that criticism, theory and history have suddenly taken some disastrous wrong turn in their development just rings hollow to me and somewhat tastes of sour grapes. Post-Colonial studies in these subjects highlights this dilemma. Ben W Kaufmann has raised the problem of how to value art made outside of, or in the shadow of, the Western Canon. What ‘rules’ if any apply to studying art now? If the rules you use are based upon the prejudices and preoccupations of self serving elites defined by class, gender and race- what use will these rules have in the future?

    I’ve noticed that art historians (old and young) have a general scepticism toward artists who have become successful at an early stage in their career. Some try to put such success down solely to Art World hyperbole mobilised to inflate prices by constantly defining the next big thing, just as the music industry did in its hey day etc. But as the big players in commercial music are losing their grip on their target markets, I hope the big players in the art world will lose theirs. Fragmentation on a scale that only the keenest of Cubists could have imagined is upon us. In contrary fashion the very same technologies are bringing disparate individuals and groups together, who a few years ago would not have known each other had existed. Conversely ‘taste makers’ and Corporate strangle holds are weakening- gradually. I think watching and learning from younger artists is important in this respect.

    New alliances are being forged and detailed information is being exchanged on a level unheard of before (between the generations of artists, critics and historians across cultures worldwide). What this will do to the future of art and it’s making can only be guessed at right now. Abstract Critical is playing its part in this process, but should be aware of alienating potential readers and participants from debate whether they see themselves as a sculptors or a painters…..Or whatever……..
    Here’s to the future!

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Of course there is a risk to a critical viewpoint. But there is at least an equal risk (greater, in my opinion, though I don’t know how one would evaluate it) from a non-critical one. We might agree that the aim is “liberation”, but from what, and to what? If it is liberation of form, I’m with you. If it is liberation from form, I’m against. I know you think my criteria are “pre-set”, but I think the same of you. I think my insistence upon new form is a radical stance, artistically and politically. Blurring boundaries and whipping up a hype about everything that has a novelty value is not helpful to the task of discriminating what is genuinely new.

    • John Holland said…

      The thing about this particular future, though, is that it’s essentially the same hyper-consumerist model that applies to everything else.
      There is a process of de-centralisation, of growing multiplicities of perspectives and voices, and this is inevitable and often a good thing, but it’s all part, ultimately, of the universal commodification of experience. All things as mere choices amongst other choices, as the things that are considered, in conventional ‘left-wing’ thought to be oppressive and hierarchical- exclusion, judgement, a ‘canon’- are also the enemy of the new hyper-consumerist utopia.
      Consumption of things and activities and information must, above all, grow, regardless of where, how, or why. Anything is good, whether it’s chocolate-flavoured cheese or exhibitions of radical environmental art. The only thing we will NOT do, is do less.

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    I am yet to be convinced that we have proof positive of abstract art’s capability for “an ever widening range of expression”, though I too remain optimistic. But it seems to me that, taken as a generalised whole across all practitioners, abstract painting’s expressive capacity is presently rather constrained – certainly compared with the imaginative variety that figurative painting has historically offered. I don’t think it can be truly said, as Brett does, that abstract painting has been “re-invented”. Again and again we see the same mannerisms and tropes re-used and recycled, any semblance of “newness” dependent often upon a philosophical or conceptual twist rather than a genuine invention of new content. “Casualist” painting, for example, is a rather typical example of conceptual art of a particularly weak strain masking its intellectual shortcomings by mimicking clichéd trappings and traits of previous formalist abstract painting, whilst resolutely denying the need for hard-won structural originality. But Casualism or Provisionalism are not the only postures in painting guilty of this basic dishonesty about their own achievements. The exhibition “The Show is Over” at Gagosian, reviewed on this site, was an exhibition full of so-called abstract painting comprised almost entirely of yet more weak and pretentious conceptual art. Far from being optimistic, such exhibitions generate despondency.

    I think, as I have said before, that what optimism I harbour stems from signs that the “widening range” will emerge in sculpture rather than painting, and that it will leave most abstract painters rather stumped in its wake. I realise the conceit of this claim; but it derives from the contradictory nature of space in abstract painting, and the constraint therein. I can see no way to make space anything other than representational in painting, which is why, I think, the “materiality” thing so frequently rears its corny old head, in an effort to mimic the natural “reality” of sculpture; whereas in abstract sculpture, real space is real space, and the sculpture can up the stakes by making that space more and more extreme and more and more real, without in the least having to resort to representational illusion of any sort. In sculpture, even the illusions can be dealt with in real space – and indeed in real time.

    My only doubt about this theory is that there are very few abstract sculptors and very, very many abstract painters. But I would still put my money on it. The apparent ease of abstract painting, the ubiquity of it, and the similarity of much of it, will in the end count against it. It is for the most part just too familiar, unchallenging and self-perpetuating. Abstract art needs more than anything a bolt from the blue, something entirely new and unexpected… something that will turn inside out our understanding of how to build expressive content in abstract art.

    Then again, we are going to see 120 of Matisse’s late cut-outs at Tate in April, so that might shred my theories. Or are they figurative?

    • Noela said…

      Just watched a video where Larry Poons talks about light in paintings. He felt that one couldn’t remember light and so it was a fresh experience every time one found it in a good painting. Perhaps this is the key to finding something new in abstract painting. Space is an obvious avenue for sculpture but light would be something to strive for in painting.

    • Martin Mugar said…

      Thoughtful response.I believe that many of the names we hear about fit into a sort of intellectual trope that was started many years ago and seems to be pushing the limits of abstraction’s origins in either materiality(Colen) or cool flatness(Guyton).It may be that this is the endgame and there is nothing beyond but just bumping its head against the limits.See my take on these artists on Painters Table:http://painters-table.com/blog-roll/painting-martin-mugar

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      Well said. Undoubtedly there has been a revival of sorts with regards to abstract painting, but the elephant in the room is that much of it is pure garbage. Despite is past revolutionary glories, contemporary abstraction has been “re-invented” as the default choice of both bankers looking to decorate million dollar condos and academicians keen on justifying their conceptual practice with a token object.

      It’s become all too common to see can’t fail canvas’s laden with the correct proportion of disparate touch mined from the rich seams of art’s past, sprinkled with a healthy dose of the latest buzzwords. Good art is hard, and this stuff is just to easy.

  6. Phyllis Tuchman said…

    One of the most important shows of abstract art in NYC this past year? Larry Poons’ early
    paintings at Loretta Howard. Just closed. In ’58, ’59, so many artists could not figure out how
    to make abstract paintings, much less great ones. Just look at the careers of Donald Judd, Sol
    LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris. They all solved their problem by working in three-dimensions.
    Not Poons! Like Stella, knew what to do. This exhibition was exhilarating. Poons doesn’t get
    credit he deserves. What a master!

  7. Sam said…

    * even so it is telling

  8. Sam said…

    “This feeling of possibility no longer derives from abstraction’s “newness”, but rather from a century of proof that abstract painting is capable of an ever widening range of expression.”

    Of course there is a partial explanation in the name ‘Painters’ Table’ but even it is telling how abstraction is synonymous with abstract painting, and that sculpture appears really as an uneasy extension of painting in constructions which are at best ‘sculptural’.

  9. An anonymous woman said…

    I guess there weren’t any notable articles or reviews written by women this year? This testosterone-rich list is yet another reminder why we need more women in the blogosphere.

      • John Holland said…

        I’m interested to know, Robin, why you say ‘illusion’ is Bad. Is it a religious or ethical sort of thing, like the Budhist attitude, or is it more phenomenological and qualitative, to do with a quest for precision or intensisty of experience?

        And does it mean the greatest art of the past is, by definition, sculpture?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Where have I said illusion is bad? I haven’t.

        What I’ve said somewhere up near the top of the page is that the illusion of space in abstract painting is representational. For the record, I think illusion in both painting and sculpture is of the essence. And I also think that figurative sculpture taken as a whole is vastly inferior to figurative painting, for reasons I’ve dealt with elsewhere. And I also think that positions may be reversed in abstract painting and sculpture, with the former being at a disadvantage. I would have though I had made that pretty clear by now, but obviously not.

        Not quite sure where your question came from… Not trying to pick a quarrel with me now, are you?