Abstraction, both contemporary and historical, is now being tested and contested in the galleries, museums, and journals with surprising vigour. I can remember a time not that long ago that an exhibition of abstract paintings was the exception in New York – now they’re everywhere. Along with this renewed interest in abstraction are various attempts to rewrite its history, which is a project long overdue. For many years, abstraction was considered indissoluble from the famous Modernist teleology; a forced march of formal distillation that would ultimately lead to the last pure painting.
Scholar and historian Robert Hobbs offers his particular perspective on such matters in Cellblock I and Cellblock II, two concurrent exhibitions at both of Andrea Rosen’s Chelsea spaces. From the shows’ extensive supporting material:
The work of art […] incarnates and incarcerates an idea in distinct materials while contradictorily and momentarily springing the release of these media from their confines, permitting them alternatively to be read as signs and symbols as well as to be seen for themselves, thus briefly obviating a given work’s metaphysical references.
Full disclosure: this brand of curation and accompanying essay, so common in the 21st century, always raises a red flag for me. Until the very end of the 20th century, the curatorial role was critical, but largely transparent and after the fact. Now it’s common for curators to posit their own narratives for shows and find work that fits the theme. The danger is that the art takes a back-seat to the curatorial idea.
All that said, Hobbs is a good candidate to play a role in the reinvestigation of abstraction; he embraces post-modernist and feminist theory, but doesn’t reflexively dismiss painting and/or abstraction – twp positions that many would consider to be mutually exclusive. The two exhibitions have more than their fair share of excellent pieces, but even though I believe Hobbs’ has an earnest enthusiasm for the work, the shows also highlight the pitfalls inherent in the contemporary approach to curation.
The strongest works in Cellblock I were three Robert Motherwell paintings from the “Open” series: Premonition Open with Flesh over Grey (1974), Open No. 22 (1968), and (picture above) Dover Beach III (1974) These works present an excellent place from which to begin a fresh look into abstraction as an entity that’s not strictly literal and reductive. Motherwell was an artist who was especially resistant to the idea of making a picture devoid of external references, and even when he turned to geometric abstraction, arguably the most aggressively abstract genre of painting, the pictures still talked about issues outside of their own existence and materiality. The Motherwells are open in the visual/aesthetic sense – lots of negative space and no formal resolution at the top of the canvas – but also playfully open in the narrative sense; they depict simplified open-topped vessels.
There were three Peter Halley paintings in Cellblock I, one of which I enjoyed very much: Prison Cell with Smokestack and Conduit from 1985 (see image at head of article). Halley is a natural for a show on this particular theme, because he’s always been in the business of questioning Modernist abstraction’s aspirations to a non-referential visual utopia. But I’ve always felt a fundamental disconnect between the rhetoric and the pictures: at his best (and I think he’s made some very good pictures) he makes high quality, highly resolved geometric abstractions. The strikingly balanced yellow squares in Prison Cell with Smokestack and Conduit pack a real punch, and their placement on the delicately contrasting grey ground called to mind Albers – both the Homage to the Square group and the cover of the pocket edition of Interaction of Color.
Halley’s The Big Jail from 1981 and Stacked Rocks (Cinema Cavern) from 1990 wholly addressed the “Cellblock” theme, but weren’t nearly as interesting as Prison Cell with Smokestack and Conduit. The Big Jail was just too literal: a stucco wall, a prison window, and a flesh-colored triangle as a stand-in for a flesh-colored person left no real space for my imagination to participate. Stacked Rocks, which was a fiberglass casting of stones set against a grey framing ground, was a surprise that I initially enjoyed by virtue of its departure from Halley’s more familiar group of motifs. But it didn’t keep my attention for very long. By the time I investigated the hollowed out back (it was hung with about a foot between the picture and the wall), I was largely through with it – It was a nifty piece of theatrical staging, but didn’t seem to go much further than that.
The real sleeper in the show was Sterling Ruby’s monumental SP181 from 2011 (above, right). The “SP” in the title stands for spray paint, and this is perhaps the first time that I’ve seen that particular stuff used in a way that didn’t scream out “graffiti!,” with all its attendant references to gangs and anarchists. The misty bands of color hovered in a nice spot between Olitski’s spray gun pictures and Richter’s vaguely photographic blurry abstractions. Which is not to say I found the picture overly derivative – I think Ruby has carved out a nice niche for himself with a tricky medium, and at 12′ across, he shows a bravura handling of really huge scale, a skill that I think is highly undervalued right now (but might gain some new traction as people re-engage with abstract painting).
I found the other Ruby piece in the show to be considerably weaker, particularly after being so impressed by SP181. One of Ruby’s signature subjects is the California “Supermax” prison called Pelican Bay. The ten mainly black painted collages that made up Black Formal Pelican Bay (2010) call to mind the screens in the guard’s booth at the prison (or the sets of screens that typify any surveillance command center, real or cinematic). The nicely framed and matted pictures transformed the techno-fascist source material into safe, tasteful fine art without losing the reference to the former, and thereby analogizing the two. But it also transformed the piece into something tedious and didactic, and this is also where the curatorial theme began to grate just a bit. The jail idea was of passing interest at best, and became particularly tiresome when it was called upon to prop up less than stellar work.
The rest of Cellblock I was filled out with work that advanced the exhibition’s message but was somewhat flat on its own. Kelley Walker’s inkjet bricks pasted on large canvases created literal and figurative stone walls to the space and meaning beneath – one of Hobbs’ stated curatorial concerns – but they were dull and heavy looking; their somewhat limited idea couldn’t rescue their visual banality. Duller still were Alice Aycock’s prepatory drawings for what were presumably un-buildable underground brick structures. The show’s accompanying literature suggests that these spaces are analogous the dead-end reached by geometric abstraction. That particular brand of hermetic institutional critique seems to finally (after nearly fifty years!) be retreating just a bit, and not a moment too soon. There was also a Robert Smithson drawing in the show, which functioned as an afterthought at best.
The curatorial theme to Cellblock II was essentially the whole show, and in case this wasn’t clear enough, the subtitle was “An Essay in Exhibition Form.” The strength of Cellblock I was that the curation didn’t wedge itself in between the strong works and the viewer – I could enjoy the pieces on their own merit and reflect, object, or agree with Hobbs’ proposed affinities retrospectively. The jumbled hanging of Cellblock II hampered my appreciation of even the strongest works: a small Motherwell “Open,” painting, a Reinhardt print based on one of the black paintings, an engaging Beverly Pepper stencil drawing.
Hobbs strength as a curator lay in his real engagement with the work – he’s written extensively about Motherwell and many of the other artists in the two shows. Even in Cellblock II, I didn’t get the impression that he chose work for which he didn’t have a deep underlying admiration. But that said, the weaker aspects of Cellblock I and the whole of Cellblock II cast a harsh light on a mode of curation so common now that it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t done this way (when was the last time you saw a show entitled “Recent Painting in New York?). When the storied white cube acts as a kind of aggregated Tumblr or Pinterest page, the individual works will almost invariably suffer.
The exhibitions run unti lthe 2nd of February. There are more images and information here.