Abstract Critical

Ha Ha What Does This Represent?

Written by David Ryan

An exhibition of contemporary abstraction at the Standpoint Gallery sponsored by abstract critical. 2/3 – 31/3.  Contains work Andrew Bick, Biggs & Collings, Katrina Blannin, Hazel Chalk, Ben Cove, Stewart Geddes, Dan Hays, Vanessa Jackson, Roger Kelly, Caroline List, Gina Medcalf, Alex Gene Morrison, Carol Robertson, James Ryan, Francesca Simon, Daniel Sturgis, Trevor Sutton.

“Ha Ha What Does This Represent?” is a group exhibition featuring the work of eighteen contemporary British painters, and takes its title from a satirical cartoon by Ad Reinhardt made in the 1940s. A common theme present in the exhibited work, in the broadest sense, is commitment to abstract or non-representational work in some form or another. The fact that painting today, as a practice, feels as vibrant an activity as it does – despite the increasingly spectacular nature of contemporary art with its sensational, inclusive and participatory agendas- is remarkable enough. But add the lure that abstraction continues to hold for so many contemporary painters, and we can discover its sustaining fecundity as a set of mutating traditions, discursive sites and historical syntheses.

Vanessa Jackson, Close Up, Oil on Canvas, 46 x 46cm

In the present context, most of the work included is marked by an engagement with geometric structures, subdued gestures, colour, and a deep-rooted concern with the processes of making or constructing. Such a list may well be as banal as describing the conditions for a piece of music, say, an E Flat major scale, a quartet of stringed instruments, a schema of tonal modulations etc., without mentioning the composition itself  (or for that matter what a Beethoven, Schubert or Debussy might do with this same shared material). However, it does highlight the neutral or neutralizing elements that can inscribe working towards abstraction. This is perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of any approach to abstraction: its relationship with a form of labour in order to particularize its forms. In this sense abstract painting does not refer to an immediate style or a given type of image (anyone can illustrate an abstract painting…), but more a work upon, or with, these neutral elements to create something both singular and articulate in some form. Nor does this demarcate some differentiation between a sense of ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ painting. There are many routes towards abstraction within this daily labour upon its forms – from the highly indeterminate to pre-meditated, pre-fabricated or even appropriational directions. This is another reason why the processes and methods of making are closely and semantically tied within abstract painting. Often the work may grow purely out of these working processes, from ‘nothing’ in particular, or breaking a received image down by means of deconstruction and in doing so allowing the means to take precedence over the reception of the image’s original source.

Ben Cove, Crosses and Quadrangles, 2011, Oil and Chinagraph Pencil on Linen, 36 x 36cm, Courtesy Ine Gevers

Interestingly, it is with the rise of abstraction in the early years of the last century that, albeit highly symbolically, the artist became ‘divorced’ from nature, or was seen to internalize its means. This is the viewpoint put forward by Wilhelm Worringer in his doctoral thesis written over 100 years ago, ushering in an alternative to ‘empathy theory’, which had dominated aesthetics and theories of beauty toward the end of the 19th century. Abstraction, for Worringer, had marked each of those cultures for which empathy theory proved all but useless: the Byzantine icons, the entire Islamic tradition, and the artefacts of Africa. These artifacts represented the opposite pole of the creation of any naturalistic unity of space (as in classical Greek decorative landscape painting, which created, according to this argument, a situation of empathy with the organic reality of nature within the viewer), but on the contrary realized, “The possibility of taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of eternalising it by approximation to abstract forms, and in this manner, of finding a point of tranquility and a refuge from appearances.” i

In pictorial terms this means a suppression of representational space, and an invocation of the self-referentiality and ‘absoluteness’ of geometrical forms. Worringer’s essay, published in 1908, was in many ways a defence of expressionism (synonymous then with most earlier modernist forms) – it predates abstract painting in fact. And yet, it is not such a great leap to Mondrian’s theories and procedures. As it stands Worringer could be said to have laid the groundwork for a modernist theory of non-representational work and also its means – geometric form and flatness. But more than this: he articulates the germination of long-standing arguments around content, universalism, or the place of the ornamental, the decorative, etc., and also highlights the fact that abstraction is not just a modernist idea, but an interwoven discourse that cuts across both temporal and geographic limits. As Hubert Damisch points out;

Even from a strictly historical point of view, no matter whether the historical perspective turns into narrative as such, we would have to agree that the problematic of abstraction, considered as an operative mode or as a thought process, totally surpasses the restricted area allowed to abstract art in the program of modernity, to say nothing of the temporal as well as the conceptual limits, thus relegating it to the status of a “genre.” Abstraction, in the broader sense, is something that goes upstream far beyond the medieval period and the so-called dispute of “universals,” up to what is conventionally regarded as the Greek origins of Western thought, which by the way coincide with the origin Geometry.ii

Abstraction, as Damisch rightly distinguishes, is a mode of operation that lies outside of any notion of ‘abstract art.’ It has touched almost all disciplines and human activities, “from the most elementary forms of measurement and calculation to the most ethereal mathematics and from logic and philosophy to the natural sciences.”iii Why then, it must be asked, was abstraction in the visual arts seen as such a disruption, ‘a quarrel’ as Damisch puts it? Partly because it was seen as ‘unnatural’, as a turning away from nature, outwardly at least (this is strong in early theorists such as Worringer or Herman Bahr), which for so long had been the touchstone for art and notions of beauty. It still does not explain the vehemence with which abstract art was met, again, as Damisch comments;

How are we to understand the fact that painterly abstraction was made the object of such fervor among its practitioners and in response, awakened such strong resistances, sustaining so much hatred? To the point if being denounced by the Nazis as ‘Jewish’ and assuming a central place in the catalog of the art vilified as ‘degenerate’; or, in the United States characterized as ‘un-American’ with some rashly speaking of at as Ellis Island Art? Iv

Reinhardt’s cartoon that prefaces this exhibition reflects these drawn battle lines. Dating from around 1945 it impatiently deals with the depicted beholder’s mocking bewilderment of expecting a painting to be ‘of something’. Ridicule was common for the reception of abstract art for this very reason, suggesting either incompetence or evasion. The painting in the image, which springs to life mirroring the accusatory gesture of the mocking viewer, is not unlike one of Reinhardt’s own from this period, with a freely calligraphic and yet constructive turn to its design. This viewer is a typical New York petit bourgeois, a company employee maybe, ‘The man in the street’ – or Wilhelm Reich’s ‘little man’: too quick to mock that which steps outside his ideas of ‘normality.’v Most of Reinhardt’s cartoons were published for PM, a left- wing newspaper with contributions from him up until 1947, including most famously the “How to Look” series; many of these cartoons, including “Ha Ha What Does This Represent?”, act as a foil for Reinhardt’s other writings and lectures. At the time, he was formulating a distinction between a picture, which, “has some subject matter, tells some story,” contrasting this with a painting, which, for him, was synonymous with ‘pure’ or abstract painting;

Because it is universal, unhistorical, and independent of everyday existence doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any meaning. […] It is more difficult to write or talk about abstract painting than about any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story, but in the actual painting activity. Consequently, anyone not actively involved in line, colour, and space structures will find abstract painting difficult to understand, naturally .vi

Reinhardt was acute to the split, as he saw it, between ‘picture-purpose’ and ‘painting reason’ and saw these as essentially mutually exclusive: “I will do one or the other for completely different aims”vii And in this sense his cartoons act as means of proselytizing, albeit humorously, for modernism, and in particular abstraction. Unlike many of the other playfully didactic cartoons, “Ha Ha What Does This Represent?” addresses a further split between what we might call ‘picture expectation’ and ‘painterly embodiment’. For Reinhardt, like Worringer, the post-cubist abstract painting not only creates and controls ‘a world’ in itself, but also frees the artist, “completely, from a brutal, barbaric existence.” viii It is this schism that is parodied in his cartoon, and implies Reinhardt’s argument that a deeper level of representation is at work within abstraction that will be missed by a cursory, or ineffectual engagement, as his later so-called ‘black paintings’ clearly exemplified.

Untitled, 1938. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Gift of the artist. © 2012 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Unlike later abstractions emanating from New York, Reinhardt’s paintings, while formulating a down the line materialist position, never completely jettisoned the idealism that marked an earlier generation of abstractionists. Such idealism, though, is realized through an increasingly analytical and yet ritualized ‘painting reason’ – what Reinhardt referred to as ‘art-as-art dogma’ – refining painting’s purity and its ‘otherness’. While this has been caricatured as mechanically reductive, if his entire output is scrutinized more closely, it can be seen as surprisingly expansive, albeit compartmentalized. That is, if we see his writings, his paintings, and his photographs documenting world artefacts, not to mention his ‘needling’ witty postcards and cartoons, as forming parts of a whole, then it is possible to sense a complex dialogue around abstraction: a sequence of negative dialectics at work. Theodor Adorno once pointed out that the bourgeois ideal of a regulated ascetic working life which is contrasted with a hedonistic ‘richness’ garnered from art was, in fact, the wrong way around: life should be rich and art ascetic. Reinhardt in his own way exemplifies this in his strict compartmentalization of his practice and life, while adopting something of a position as a moral conscience of modernism, with his hatred of business, careerism, and even ‘success’ (much to the bemusement of those watching his own career rise shortly before his death in the mid 60s).

Abstract Painting, 1963. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Gift of Mrs. Morton J. Hornick. © 2012 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Being an abstract painter from the beginning (he was elected to membership of the American Abstract Artists group when he was twenty-three in 1937) Reinhardt’s productive output from the 1930s reflects a slow absorption and assimilation of various abstract trends from the neoplastic, collage, painterly calligraphic tendencies, through to the narrowing corridor of his blackpaintings, with their strict canon of prohibitions. Perhaps more than any other painter of his generation he encapsulates, in Damisch’s more general terms, the fact that abstraction is, “The weft of the story of Modern Art, or more exactly: of being its disgrace, insofar as its determining concept coincides with the closure of this story.”ix So often Reinhardt’s work has been seen as this vanishing point, a full stop, both in terms of modernism itself, as well as painting’s ‘flagship’ embroilment with it. With his oft-quoted remark, “I’m merely making the last painting which anyone can make”x the artist himself would seem to further emphasize that full stop. Hence the relevance of his work for the emergent minimalist and conceptual scenes, but also for the‘end of painting’ argument that certainly doesn’t need repeating here. But it does lead to certain questions for the present context of this exhibition: for example in prefacing this show does Reinhardt’s cartoon’s have any relevance today apart from the historical?

In the 1940s abstract art as a practice had been around for only 30 or so years. What was met, then, with incomprehension, irritation, mockery or outrage (even from quarters of the art establishment), would be more liable now to meet with indifference. Abstraction is no longer a sign for all that is at the forefront of the outrageously modern as it once was; its role, in that sense, long overtaken by other modes and forms of practice. This is part and parcel of Damisch’s allusion to its seeming ‘disgrace’: its lost utopianism giving way to the closure of its historical moment. So, if Reinhardt’s cartoon embodied the social and aesthetic split abstract painting necessitated in its ascendancy as a mode, then what now? Certainly, abstraction requires a new context and only through examining current practice in exhibitions like this can new critical frameworks arise. But Reinhardt’s cartoon still hits an important point: namely, the questions around representation and abstraction which remain a thorny issue on many levels, too complex to rehearse in detail here; this points to the difficulty of how we access meaning from a visual work, which carry through from Reinhardt to the present. The expectation of the work ‘to be about…’ is one that persists perhaps more than ever. This probity is not the kind of philistinism that Reinhardt thought he was fighting, but perhaps more the legacy of both post-conceptual art and the highly discursive sites of contemporary theory and curatorship each requiring determined representational frameworks. The landscapes of these discourses often carry with them (at least as an unspoken given) the narratives of abstract painting’s supposed ‘disgrace’ and, of course, its closure.

Numerous critics from Hal Foster to Boris Groys have bemoaned the pluralist reality of contemporary art (where nothing is ‘at stake’); and yet it seems that the only alternative they propose is a lurch constantly towards the demystification of art and its contexts. Groys has even suggested the adoption of an ‘art-atheism’, the practice of which, “would be to understand artworks not as incarnations, but as mere documents, illustrations or significations.”xi While this points to what Jean-Francois Lyotard, years ago, referred to as the ‘cultural’ as opposed to art per se (always indeterminate, according to Lyotard, in its relation to the cultural), Groys, on the other hand, believes that in reducing the art work to a discursive ‘prop’, it would lead to a more secular triggering of both imagination and engagement amongst spectators. In this way objects and images are required to articulate a new form of ‘picture-purpose’ to reuse Reinhardt’s phrase. Lurking in such a position is the old argument (which I broadly agree with up to a point) of art being both materialist and linguistic. But abstraction, seen from this perspective, and perhaps because of its particular roots, is all too often viewed with suspicion: ‘eternal forms’, muteness, spirituality, elitism, its extraction from reality, or autonomous differentiation, and its supposed ideological fog – these are the clichés projected onto its practices, and each questionable in the present context.

Painting, in particular abstract painting, will always come off badly in any neo-Benjaminian critique. Looked at baldly in this light it is hard not to agree with Gerhard Richter’s idea of painting as ‘pure idiocy’xii – which he suggests as a paradox. Adorno, one of the few philosophers to be really critically engaged in the actual making of aesthetic production, puts it another way:

Aura is not only – as Benjamin claimed – the here and now of the artwork, it is whatever goes beyond its factual givenness, its content; one cannot abolish it and still want art. Even demystified artworks are more than what is literally the case. The ‘exhibition value’ that supplants ‘cult value’ is an imago of the exchange process. Art that devotes itself to its exhibition value is ruled by the exchange process […]xiii

This “more than what is literally the case” has always been a bone of contention to those sniffing out the ideological apparatus of art; also, no doubt, those partaking in ‘art-atheism.’ This does not mean that the ‘excessive’, fundamentally illusionistic and fictional spaces of painting (and in fact all art practice as Adorno would have it) are about blind belief; rather, in the latter, it is about engaging with the paradoxical nature of making. This is why Reinhardt was never totally claimed by those seeking him for either minimalism or conceptualism. He remained a painter, engaged in its paradoxical nature (for example, the writings revolve around, remain adjacent to, but never completely address nor close down, the paintings); Reinhardt’s paintings are infinitely more than his textual notations for them, despite the ‘negative’ operational strategy of denying composition, colour, parts, space that underpin his writing – on an experiential level, as Reinhardt was well aware, these are actually accentuated, albeit in the half light of the darkened corridor of his later production.

While Reinhardt’s inherent search for purity of form and the experience of an absolutist autonomy may well seem alien to the current landscape of abstract painting, his practice essentially shares with those dedicated to exploring abstract form the basic reality of the painterly processes: the negotiation of material, method and controlled repetition. Elements of play, subtle connections with the world at large (a ‘relative autonomy’), and renegotiation of geometric procedures mark out the work in the present exhibition. These forms no longer point to any neo-Platonic essentialist sign of the geometrical as the unchanging or eternal, but rather ‘graphs’ or ‘topologies’xiv – forms which can endlessly be refigured, reminding us that painting itself is the work of transformation, where its meaning can still be found “in the actual painting activity” itself, just as much as the narratives which are currently encircling and defining contemporary art practices.

i See Worringer, Wilhelm, Abstraction and Empathy,1963, Routledge Kegan and Paul, London, pp.3-25

ii Damisch, Hubert, ‘Remarks on Abstraction’, trans. Rosalind Krauss, October 127 Winter 2009, p. 136

iii Ibid., p. 140

iv Ibid. This last statement refers to the site of New York’s old immigration station at Ellis Island. P. 134

v Reich’s Listen Little Man was published in 1948. Reich, an ex-communist and psychoanalyst, wrote this text in exasperation at aggressive, and often misunderstood, denunciations and resistances to his admittedly eccentric experiments and ideas. Hounded in his later years, he was incarcerated at Ellis Island in 1941, dying in an American prison later in 1957.

vi Reinhardt, Ad, ‘Abstraction vs Illustration’, 1943, in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Rose,B.Documents of 20th Art, 1975, New York, Viking, p.49

vii Ibid., p.49

viii Ibid., p.48

ix Damisch, 2009 p.135

x Reinhardt, Ad. ‘An interview with Ad Reinhardt’, 1965 in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, p.13

xi Groys, Boris, Art Power, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008, p.48

xii This quote from Richter was used by Douglas Crimp in his famous ‘The End of Painting’ essay. See October 16, Spring 1981,pp. 69-86

xiii Adorno,T.W., Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota: Continuum, 1997, p. 56

xiv Damisch makes this point strongly in ‘Remarks on Abstraction’ by looking at the notion of the graph rather than sign: “The graph doesn’t lead to any signified; in its very linearity, it is the vector of an operation”, p.149

  1. jenny meehan said…

    Rather random comments from me, apologies,

    Wow! David Sweet, you nailed a few things down there! Very interesting. Thank you. A fundamentally interesting and helpful addition to the comments.

    Robin Greenwood…

    “Meaningful visual content” should be obvious in a singular painting, I prefer it that way myself, and I get tired of this confusion of concept of the written, logic, rational kind and the “meaning” delivered through the painting which I think appeals to the limbic parts of our brain anyway. Recognisable subject matter brings a more logical mode of understanding, or maybe rather, interpreting, a painting.

    Geometric Abstraction does to my mind possess a strong sense of it’s own rationality and overtly expressed internal structure, which kind of invites the option of working in series in order to experiment with deviations.

    “In the course of a lifetime of making paintings, whether figurative or abstract, the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process.”

    Yes, very true, and there is a LOT of interest in this.

    So much more to comment on, but that’s my little part for now.

  2. David Sweet said…

    The guy in the Reinhardt cartoon, who, as David Ryan points out, ‘represents’ the common man and not the modernist subject, is a victim of the success of Western painting. By providing an organising principle governing pictorial construction that complies with our everyday experience of the perceived world, the invention of perspective made the content of pictorial art available to the ordinary viewer. To access literary art you not only have to be educated enough to read, but amass a vocabulary encompassing a wide range of cultural references, have the time to spend with books, and so on. Reinhardt’s viewer, obviously on his lunch break, resented his exclusion from the painting, hanging from a nail on the wall, not because of the issue of representation – after all, a sauce bottle can represent Napoleon (see Nelson Goodman) – but because he could not find an alternative point of access to the pictorial material in a work which had abandoned the familiarity of perspective. He didn’t know where to start looking.

    The pictorial economy of a painting cannot be identified with its materiality. Its function is to offer an intelligible argument to support that materiality, as the organising principle of perspective orientates the brush marks in a Titian. But neither can this principle be identified with painting’s aura, although it does mitigate the literalness of material components. It’s neutral, (in Ryan’s terms) but, like a computer’s operating system, essential.
    There are two distinct organising spatial principles to be found in abstract painting, one, which is based on the sign or symbol, harks back to the pictorial anatomy of Byzantine and Siennese paintings, and the other, which is based on the plane, evolved from the processes of schematisation started by Manet. Sometimes they combine, sometimes they are combined with the default perspective system. This latter conjunction produces ‘figstraction’. There’s a lot of that about.
    Symbol-based pictorial organisation follows the same principle as this text. The letters do not overlap and each word is separated from the next, to foster an essential legibility. Symbols can’t function if they are obscured by other symbols. Miro’s paintings exemplify this legibility principle.
    The planar pictorial economy emerges from the gradual compression of the spatial field of perspective, inaugurated by Manet. Because he over-illuminated his sitters, his pictures did not need to accommodate roundness. Their forms, and the pictorial depth they would have displaced, were condensed, not dispersed. Although his paintings are supposed to be ‘shallow’, both volume and space remain central to the experience of the work. That’s simply because all the pictorial content, which formerly stretched from the picture plane, through the middle-distance and towards the vanishing point, was still present, crammed into the foreground.
    The evolutionary trajectory of this paradoxically non-reductive flatness invests the plane, in ‘geometric’ abstract painting, with a specific density, borrowed from the repressed memory of perspective. But that history disqualifies the plane from legitimately participating in traditional pictorial illusion. Painters have used different methods to open up the pictorial field without invoking the third dimension; Hofmann had ‘push-pull’, Newman uneven, thick/less thick pigment, and Reinhardt, warm black/cool black.
    Reinhardt’s cartoon viewer would have needed some experience of French painting of the 1860’s, and perhaps have spent an afternoon at a Mondrian exhibition, to understand the organising principle of the work in front of him. But, given that the operating system is neutral, he could still have had a strongly negative critical reaction to what he saw.
    David Sweet

    • Robert Linsley said…

      David, very interesting and very clear. I would like to qualify with the observation that there may be more than two organizing spatial principles; at least we might hope so. But what caught my eye was your notion that “the plane…[has]…a specific density, borrowed from the repressed history of perspective.” This is something I’ve been working on, a kind of condensed memory of space in the plane, something like data compression, and I have found another method of “opening up the pictorial field without invoking the third dimension,” that is to say different from the ones you mention. Although that wording is not correct – you mean without using perspective. The third dimension must be invoked, the question is how.
      To connect back with the review under discussion, again, “neutrality” is not a value in art; art must be specific, particular and concrete. So if the underlying spatial system, which you liken to a computer operating system, is neutral, that is where a critique must start.

  3. John Holland said…

    I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, so I cannot comment on Robin’s opinion of the work shown, but his point about contemporary art’s
    habitual reliance on the series, the ‘practice’, the ‘ongoing negotiation of the strategy’, or whatever, as opposed to the specific, self-sufficient statement, is important.

    It’s surprisingly rare now to feel, when faced with a new piece of art, that it really worth engaging with it as an object that takes itself, in its particularity, seriously. The old paradigm of the work of art- that it is of sufficient specificity and complexity that everything needed for a serious and profound engagement with it could be found within its individual parameters- has largely been replaced by the conception that any one piece of art is like a road sign, directing the viewer to a destination. Like a road sign, it’s not, in itself, meant to be very interesting. One would be making a fool of one’s self spending too long looking at any one manifestation of much contemporary art, rather than engaging with the entirety of the project.

    As I say, I don’t know if this applies in any way to ‘Ha ha…’.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      John, I am deeply sympathetic to what you are saying, however, the more I think about it the less simple it becomes. This has been a topic on my blog, extensively treated over the last couple of months. I might draw your attention to a post called “Words and material things,” near the bottom of the first page. The blog is at http:newabstraction.net

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Reinhardt is a painter of no particular interest to me, and I confess to not having read Worringer, but this Reinhardt quote from David’s essay caught my eye:
    ‘It is more difficult to write or talk about abstract painting than about any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story, but in the actual painting activity.’

    Superficially, I would agree with that, though paradoxically I think it should make us all examine more closely our discourse on figurative art, which for me often has more ‘abstract-ness’ than so-called abstract art. Because, with reference to the second half of the statement, does not the real meaningful visual content (as opposed to subject-matter) of a figurative painting depend equally upon the ‘painting activity’ (perhaps we should better say the ‘painting’s activity’ – what the painting does – to distinguish it from the process of painting)? If abstract art has taught us anything of value so far, is it not to be able and willing to take so much pleasure in the ‘abstract-ness’ of Poussin and Constable, without the baggage of subject-matter?

    The comments so far on David’s essay have focussed on just that – the essay – but I would like to relate it to the work itself, i.e. the exhibition which it accompanies. I do, however, find it difficult to relate this rather complex bit of writing to the simple paintings on view in the ‘Ha Ha…’ show. Two things I think about this. Firstly, it is often the case (and Reinhardt is a good example) that the simpler the paintings, the more complex is the philosophy which attempts to supports it. To be honest, I find this frustrating and annoying, because really what I want to do is to look at complex, interesting, demanding art; I would much rather do that than read complex, interesting, demanding essays (though I will do that too, occasionally). If the art is mediocre, as it is here, no amount of philosophy will rescue it.

    Secondly, the paintings in the show all look as though they are token works, part of a larger scheme or series. Of the artists I know about, I think that it is true to say that they all produce numerous works that look similar, with perhaps only colour or geometric variations. Even if this is not the case, I still think there is cause for concern in the disengagement these artists reveal for their work. Every individual painting feels slight, uninspired and formulaic – which, of course, if they are part of a prescribed series, they are. It’s not that I need to see painting attempting grandiosity or wearing its heart on its sleeve all the time, but I do crave something more ambitious for the individuality and singularity – and thus the particularity of meaning – of each work. Perhaps what would suite me would be to know that the artist thinks this is the very best one of the series, and I don’t need to look at the rest, and they have all been burnt.

    There seems to me to be a connection here with the dreadful current show put on by Mary Heilmann at Hauser and Wirth. Here again, no single painting has anything at all of substance to offer; or rather, they only offer us the chance to revel in some trivial subjectivity of our own making. Heilmann gives the impression that she views her canvasses as small parts of some bigger conceptual context ( which is what both a series and an installation is), and downgrades the business of putting paint to canvas to some kind of skittish romp through the appropriations; figurative, abstract… whatever. Again, there is philosophy (of sorts) to back this up, albeit a kind of hippy, trippy sort of communing with the painted gesture. It looks to me that in both the ‘Ha Ha…’ exhibition and the Heilmann show, these artists are a very long way from particularizing the forms they use (to paraphrase a bit of David’s essay), and the geometries employed seem on the whole pretty second-hand, generic and slack. I strongly suspect these geometries of being a big part of the problem.

    Robin Greenwood

    • Francesca Simon said…

      The seventeen paintings in Ha Ha were chosen to hang together, no one work dominating any other within the limited space available. It’s a small scale, mixed show which aims to show a particular form of contemporary abstraction. Each work chosen is representative of the individual artist’s work. In the course of a lifetime of making paintings, whether figurative or abstract, the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process. These works are produced by artists with an interest in exploring abstraction with the discipline of some sort of compositional structure; gesture, if it appears, is deliberate and controlled.

      David Ryan’s essay is a complex piece of writing, which repays the effort of reading and re-reading. An abstract painter himself, he understands well the approach of artists like those in this show, whose work emerges, as he says, from “the negotiation of material, method and controlled repetition”. Robin Greenwood’s observation that the writing and the show are mismatched imagines some ‘ideal’ in which writing and painting make the same revelation. They do not.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d like to hear more on your statement that “In the course of a lifetime of making paintings… the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process.”
        This begs a lot of questions for me. Is this the real reason for making a series of very similar and fairly simple works? Is the real interest of such painting in its nuanced difference from the previous one? If the meaningful content of the painting therefore resides in the context of the series rather than the individual work (as indeed I suggested), why then ever show one work at a time?
        As you may have gathered, I would much rather be faced with a painting that was a self-sufficient repository of meaning, which had intrinsic properties of value, regardless of context, intellectual or physical. This does not in itself rule out the idea of working in a series, and many great artists have done so to great effect, particularly if they can use such an approach to home in upon their content more powerfully. But I can’t quite get my head round the idea that the meaning of abstract painting is in the variation. A singular painting can only be judged by what it in itself achieves or fails to achieve. A painter, it seems to me, is then evaluated by the accumulation of such singular judgements, in a comparison with other painters.
        In any case, I can’t presume to think that that someone (in the future?) will be interested in an in-depth study of the subtle variations of handling and thought-processes in the art of you, me, or anyone else working now.


  5. Robert Linsley said…

    Re-reading Worringer I see that my own position is the empathetic – however, the dialectical Worringer does not claim an absolute, unchanging distinction between the two positions. At one point he even concedes that in later periods abstractions themselves must be apprehended empathetically.

    Art can never be “neutral,” or move toward the neutral, it can only be specific and particular. This is what I hear said in the present review:
    “This is perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of any approach to abstraction: its relationship with a form of labour in order to particularize its forms. In this sense abstract painting does not refer to an immediate style or a given type of image (anyone can illustrate an abstract painting…), but more a work upon, or with, these neutral elements to create something both singular and articulate in some form.”

  6. Francesca Simon said…

    David Ryan quotes Reinhardt’s assertion …… here very roughly paraphrased …… that abstract painting, whose content is in the painting activity itself, is difficult to understand unless you are actively involved as a practitioner. Very nearly seventy years later this is still a problem for abstract artists in this country, who are encouraged to explain their every move, perhaps in the hope of placating viewers who like their painting to have a subject or story. Little by little, perhaps, through shows such as Ha Ha What Does This Represent?, for which David Ryan’s essay was written, this situation may alter as the forms and models of contemporary abstraction are assimilated into a more widespread currency. As one of the curators of the present show, I sincerely hope that this will happen.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Just to offer an assent. It does seem sometimes that only the rare viewer really gets it. To explain everything is very wrong, but that’s the normative position in art today – a “message” or a “meaning.” So let’s continue with the alternative.

  7. Robert Linsley said…

    Worringer is a very original thinker, and worth some time. I hope we can discuss him a bit further. However, just to respond to Sam, I take it that what Mr. Ryan means by the “neutral” is something that is outside the human realm, without any already collected associations. So geometry, for example, could be seen as pre-existing us, waiting, as it were, to be taken up. Then the use that abstract artists make of it adds some layers of feeling, association, memory, meaning, what you will. That Platonic description of geometry may not be the correct one, but he is on to something about how we make use of the world in art. One picks up a pebble on the beach, an arbitrary pebble, indistinguishable from all the others, and, after carrying it for a while, and looking at it, and touching it, it becomes a specific pebble with its own identity. I hope that others know this experience. Our attention brings things to life, or, more modestly, separates them out from everything else and gives them a kind of glow or presence. Is this how “neutral” geometry becomes art, more than geometry, through use? My argument is that geometry is too human already, and that every grid is the same grid, a social prison for art. But the mechanism of absorbing the “neutral” is very interesting.

  8. Sam Cornish said…

    Hi David, thanks, I enjoyed this (and was also puzzled at lack of response – though perhaps, as I did, everyone is taking their time to think it over)

    I certainly have a problem with the idea of abstract art just being associated with neutral or neutralizing elements. In the case of Reinhardt, I have some sympathy with the idea that his work presents a kind of speeded up version of the problems – the dead end – which neutralizing can run into. I also don’t think that opening it up to the ‘negative dialectics’ of his ideas about painting helps (though I like the cartoons for themselves) – surely his work most in some sense stand on its own? (On this tip I was slightly confused by the phrase used early on ‘painting today, as a practice, feels as vibrant’; surely ‘painting today feels…’, would have sufficed? – what else is being got at?)

    Reading Reinhardt through Worringer, I certainly think that the latter would have dismissed the cartoons as merely literary. But a bigger problem is thinking that only the ‘Abstract’ part of WW’s Ab & Emp is relevant to discussion of abstract art. (I’m basing the following on notes I made a year or so ago – so would welcome correction). WW completely discards the representation of the outward appearance of nature from consideration of all art, for him all that is relevant is ‘form’, ‘whose inner essence is regularity’ (though crucially the ultimate purpose of his scheme is to have access to a wider sort of representation, the ‘worldview’ of the epoch whose art is under consideration). Having denied naturalism or overt representation he then places abstraction and empathy as two poles on a sliding scale. These ‘poles are only gradations of a common need… the deepest and ultimate essence of aesthetic experience: this is the need for self-alienation’. So from this perspective both abstraction & empathy provides an explanation for art which is does not overtly represent the external world, as a kind of bringing out of the self, the providing for it of a refuge (a Matissean armchair).

    Within this abstraction and empathy provide two different types of sanctuary. Abstraction, which he associates with, amongst other things, the plane and the denial of space, is a more total, and pessimistic, alienation. It needs a refuge from all aspects of the external and contingent world, and aims ‘to wrest the object out of the external world of its natural context, out of the unending flux of being, to purify it of all its dependence upon life… of everything that was arbitrary, to render it necessary and irrefragable, to approximate it to its absolute value’. (this could perhaps be called a neutralizing?). In contrast the empathic pole comes not from a need to get away from the world but from ‘an urge to alienate oneself from individual being’, to project one’s feeling for life into an object; ‘art was objectified self-enjoyment’. The aim of an empathic art, as expressed in Renaissance ornament, was ‘to project the lines and forms of the organically vital, the euphony of its rhythm and its whole inward being, outward in ideal independence and perfection, in order, as it were, to furnish in every creation a theatre for the free, unimpeded activation of one’s own sense of life’. And I should stress again that WW frequently and explicitly distances this type of form or structure from overt or naturalistic representation, and so provides a foundation for an abstract / non-representional / non-figurative art which it would be very difficult to describe as neutral or neutralizing (doesn’t the description of Renaissance ornament evoke Pollock?)

    Beyond the theory what is missed in an idea of abstract art as neutral / neutralizing is perhaps the input of post-war abstract art, the opening up created by Abstract Expressionism or their European counterparts… But I’ve gone on too long so will leave it there…

    • David Ryan said…

      Thanks Sam for your thoughtful comments. I’ll try and briefly respond to some of your points:

      a) ‘Painting, as a practice…’ was simply (perhaps awkwardly) a way of trying to direct the reader to the actual formation of painting – as being made now in studios across the country and the globe. ‘Painting’ of course can be seen in other ways: as an ‘institution’, and a history…

      b) The neutral and neutralizing elements – I don’t think I was saying that abstraction is just associated with these aspects but rather it is a strong thread running through approaches to abstract art. Reinhardt is a good but extreme example of course. Abstraction and repetition might illuminate the need to individualize and inflect neutral elements, to find a way of re-novating these forms, and this is why I alluded to Damisch’s view of topologies and graphs being the ‘vector of an operation’. Even with Abstract expressionism it is possible to see the whole process of composition as an urge, a double motion, to move away from, but back to, the neutral; even, eventually, with the gesture (as the recent Joan Mitchell show brilliantly showed) becoming its own ‘self-alienation’ at the service of their global distribution.

      c) Your points regarding Worringer are extremely well made. But in emphasizing the ‘crystalline inorganic’ and the turn away from the ‘entanglement of phenomena’ in my own essay, this felt more pertinent to the discussion of Damisch and Reinhardt, as WW says: ‘For here (within geometric regularity) the last trace, dependence on life, has been effaced, here the highest absolute form, the purest abstraction; here is law, here is necessity, while elsewhere the caprice of the organic.’ There are hints in the text that WW sees the laws of abstract regularity as being ‘implicitly contained in our own human organization’ (which pre-empts the basis of Structuralism in this sense). But WW works his way from this absolutism, and ‘inner necessity’ and intuitition sublate the absolutist abstract approach back into a relation with the organic (as you illustrate), and which is why his theory had much resonance for expressionism in fact. But to address the whole of WW’s text would be more complex as you rightly point out.

      d) In relation to Reinhardt’s ‘negative dialectic’ in terms of his overall practice – that’s a moot point. Of course, on one level they should stand alone – as he would have wished no doubt. But the question is how we arrive somewhere within a practice – here, in his case, the necessity of the writing as a catalyst, addendum, ‘stripping out’ of what might interfere with the ‘purity’ of the painting, takes on a ritualistic relationship to the paintings themselves. This is an interesting (for me) inter-relationship.

      Thanks again Sam for the useful points you have made…

  9. jenny meehan said…

    Lots of interest here, I’m going to need to read it through and think a lot more about it. Thank you so much for writing it, and I was looking forward to the comments which are not here! I will come back with something more specific in a short while! Great read, thanks so much!

  10. Robert Linsley said…

    Mr. Ryan, a very thoughtful effort. It’s unaccountable that you are not getting more comments. I am very interested in your idea that abstract artists work on the “neutral” (meaning geometry) to make it specific, particular and unique. However, I wonder if the products do not always suffer from a kind of sameness. Isn’t the concrete particular in some sense an implicit critique of geometry?