Abstract Critical


Written by Mark Stone

“What has happened that has made images (and by image we mean any sign, work of art, inscription, or picture that acts as a mediation to access something else) the focus of so much passion? To the point that destroying them, erasing them, defacing them, has been taken as the ultimate touchstone to prove the validity of one’s faith, of one’s science, of one’s critical acumen, of one’s artistic creativity? To the point where being an iconclast seems the highest virtue, the highest piety, in intellectual circles?” What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars? Bruno Latour.

As long as I can remember we’ve been hearing about the “crisis” facing painting. What this “crisis” is, exactly, never seems to be elucidated for us with any real certainty. Frank Stella in Working Space and David Hockney in Secret Knowledge made differing arguments about how we got into this “crisis” and what the solutions might entail. But neither painter has been able to really change the dialog about our current Postmodern endgame, nor have they managed to capture our visual imaginations long enough to attack the problems exemplified by this ongoing, unspecified “crisis.” The last 30 years in painting has been one long  avoidance of the legacy and history of Modernism. And that avoidance has kept painting in stasis and the “crisis” unresolved.

The usual suspects arrive to solve the problem at long table discussions, podium depositions or late night drinking bull sessions. We hear of things like the return of beauty, the need for context, the problematic nature of painting in an image based society, the academic nature of our critique, etc. But all of that rhetoric fails to address the problem of Modernism directly. Our blindness boils down to two things – we must take a look at HOW we approach our thoughts about the last century of painting and HOW we translate what we see of our contemporary lives into paint. This is exacerbated by the fact that painting as an active avant garde activity no longer exists. Instead the use of paint has been marginalized, mainly to translate images created in other media. Painting, as it’s currently being used, is an affectation, a fetish used to tart up these images giving them a historic luster and shine. Painting is no longer the medium of active, questioning vision, so to speak.

I have made the observation before, and I assert it again. Landscape painting has been the primary vehicle used to elucidate Modern vision, what it would entail, how it would work – first with the depiction of literal process and materials, and second, with the valorization of flatness as a means to “sublime” space, flatness as a connective to spiritual understanding. From Monet to Cezanne, from Kandinsky to Pollock, nearly every Modern innovation into abstraction entails the tropes of the landscape genre. What I am proposing here is that we reframe our expectations and our questions about abstract painting. Look at the possibilities of  abstraction through a different genre, use the strengths of visual interaction that we see in other media, particularly lens based media, and attack the “problem of abstraction” and the “crisis of painting” from a different visual perspective.


Paul Strand, Torso (Rebecca Strand), Taos, New Mexico 1930. Click on the enlarger on the left side of the image.

This powerful image is by Paul Strand. His Venus is earthy, alive, strong and real. She’s formidable. This image brings along with it a history of formidable female forms; from the Venus of Willendorf to Picasso’s Demoiselles, from Greek sculptures of Aphrodite to Manet’s Olympia. Strand’s form is in repose, but it’s not static. The contrapposto stacks the figure’s muscles, charges the torso with an uneasy tension. The line that moves down the figure’s left hip cuts through the flattened space behind it, helps to pronounce the volume of the form, defines the shape of the thing. The dark space behind the figure’s right hip pushes the form into high relief. The shadow beneath the breast, rounded, heavy and full, describes the weight of flesh. That shadow also balances the “geometric” tangle of dark hair, helps to locate the slight twist of the waist. The visual forms fall into abstraction, the lens pulls them back to reality again. Strand has also tried to remove figurative specificity by cropping this image bringing our attention to wider precedent, to history, to memory. He wants us to find something thicker in the form, a deeper visual sexuality, one connected to a physical encounter with a living thing seen as an abstracted ideal. He wants us to remember our visual past through this being/image. Though coded, it is also sensual and real, a direct visual experience of another thing.

What Strand was channeling is a kind of visual confrontation that remains ever-elusive to most Modernist painting. This kind of vision demands a deeper involvement with necessary form and structure, direct composition.  We tend to think in terms of logos and graphics, signs and symbols, networks and context to provide meaning. We always-already understand the references ingrained in the elided symbols, and we look no deeper in our own experience for understanding. But in this photo we must engage visually rather than rhetorically. We must see the thing rather than scan the meaning. We’re not dealing with the overlaid or translucent, provisional or transient, ephemeral or floating world of the Postmodern landscape. This is a direct image of a thing that reveals itself through its own existence, its own moment of capture. And because this confrontation is so immediate and bare, thick with histories and associations, we have a hard time engaging with it. It assaults us. The image takes up our space because of its impropriety, not just in subject matter, but through its visual truculence, its insistence on its own being. This rising subject will not submerge into the electronic ground or fade into the program of our flashing screens. It defines itself as a being, then an image. What we find ourselves doing is confronting our own expectations and preconceptions because its being as an image forms the space it occupies. It transforms our reality, not simply as a lens capture of an ephemeral moment, but as something solid and real, something reaching into our consciousness. It means we must come to some kind of understanding about its visual existence in this very moment, in this particular reality. It has no intention of conforming to our expectations, instead we must move to it.

Staring Eyes and Gnashing Teeth

Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52, Museum of Modern Art

In Greenberg’s essay on Modernism he set out in two lines the problem for those of us who are abstractionists but not Modernists. “Modernist painting in its latest phase has not abandoned the representation of recognizable objects in principle. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit.” What is interesting is his use of “recognizable object” and how this kind of object could not exist in Modernist space. On the flat surface of painted landscape abstraction the thing must adhere to that space, must be subordinated to the spread of space across the surface.

This “principled” idea of abstraction, the singular articulation of flattened space as the subject of abstract painting has predominated ever since; the shallow space of the gridded surface, the overlapping space of the photo montage, the translucent space of the magician’s scrim. These ideas have been institutionalized as a priori principles guiding the making of Postmodern abstraction. What one could paint and did paint has had to remain tethered to the surface, had to involve the processes of its making. Greenberg’s Modern ideology could bear no other, no being, in these flat spaces, and when De Kooning dared to move from the landscape to the woman before and within him, Greenberg, famously, brayed his disappointment. An abstracted being/image had returned in the work of a strong painter creating its own space on the flat surface of Modern painting.

Look at the way De Kooning’s figure actually forms the spaces around it, the way it begins to emerge out of the surface. The abstract silver bar down the right side melts, the geometric flatness eroded away by this image. The being shapes the visual confrontation just as a thing does in life. Think of the way a room changes when someone enters and sits across from you, or an elevator becomes a different experience as more faces enter. The form, this being/image itself keeps tearing away the polite spiritual surfaces of Modern reverie and sublime contemplation. De Kooning channels Picasso’s prostitutes. This figure’s huge eyes stare right through us. The teeth bared, snarl. Her form is strong, powerful and aggressive, and like Strand’s photo, fraught with sexual power and historical precedent. De Kooning was indeed a Modernist, but he still painted volume, shadow and form. He conjured up Greenberg’s dreaded recognizable object with its rich visual history and its transgressive space. In “Woman I” there is the understanding that real things can and do arise out of the ground, that an image, a singular confrontation with a thick being, is what had been missing in the endless floating landscape spaces of Modern painting.

Lenses and Paint

The actual grand legacy of the 20th Century was lens culture, this we can not deny. Nearly every memorable image in Art during that century has been connected to the proliferation of the lens in some way. Most of the radical changes in painting were directly informed, either pro or con, by its immediacy and power. It became the force for iconic vision, and painters have been trying to dismantle that power ever since. But it hasn’t worked. Images of all kind proliferate and reproduce at such a rate that the power and legacy of painting looks retrograde and untenable as a progressive medium.

John Coplans, Self-Portrait (side torso bent with large upper arm II)

Where in abstraction can such a visual encounter as the one above exist? Yes there are figurative painters that have accessed the idea of Modernist process, but they tend to rely on Expressionist solutions – slashing paint, scraped surfaces, or scumbled passages on flat surfaces. What we don’t have for painted abstraction is a visual equivalent of immediate form, compositional structure, and as Frank Stella says, caricature.

The artist/photographer John Coplans took the idea of lens abstract reality and ran with it through his later years. His compositions are tinged with the Modern; a strong single thing defined by the borders of the lens/screen. The figure is pushing itself against the surface, defining its presence through its being. The lens captures the overripe flesh, the muscles strain and pull the volumetric values supporting the leaning column. The vision seems large, the scale feels big, because it is isolated, presented as a mythic vision. The figure, however, doesn’t float in a Modern landscape. It forms itself as factual presence in the world. We are right with this vision, encompassed by the space formed by it. We are drawn in because the being/image creates space out of its own reality, from the thing in itself. We can feel our visual history slip through this vision; Rodin’s Burghers, Caravaggio’s Pietro, Velasquez’s Borrachos, Newman’s Zip. We respond to the ongoing reality of being, the onslaught of time, the consideration of entropy in the real abstract thing. It exists. It is.

These ideas of solid abstract imagery, of visual confrontation with volume, value, and iconic being are in contrast to the current Postmodern craze for what Bruno Latour calls an “iconoclash” – the headlong urge by today’s painters to eradicate images, to maintain the flattened landscape at the cost of creating new iconic imagery that questions the legacy of Modern painting. Today, much of abstract painting relies wholly on processes of negation that undermine actual visual confrontation with a thing, keep the rising subject submerged, maintain the comfortable ground. And as the Modern/Postmodern era has shown us, this kind of iconoclasm, this destruction of thick imagery, has kept us in stasis, has maintained the flat legacy of Modernism, has made painting a second tier academic activity bereft of new visual ideas.


Christopher Wool eradicates his patterned photographic surfaces melting them away with chemical baths and spray paint notations. Gerhard Richter, as documented in the recent movie “Gerhard Richter Painting,” begins with an extremely banal Expressionist landscape and finishes by squeegeeing layers of thick, viscous paint over it until there is nothing left but an expansive caked surface of glistening oily material. Sigmar Polke, David Salle and Jeff Koons layer media images one over the other like photoshopping demons of SuperFlat commercial inconsequence, collapsing space, being and meaning into a melange of overlapping optics. Never once does a thing come into view. Instead we are left with the physical outcomes of process, the glorification of surface and material. Postmodern painting is a mannered reminder of the once sublime Modernist landscape stretched loosely across a contemporary billboard.

In the 21st Century the subject of our painting, especially abstraction, is not directed at the lives we live, or more specifically, at the world that we see and experience. Rather we abstract painters have been more concerned about eradicating visual confrontation with being/images. We are more comfortable with warped re-presentations of style. We prefer the documentation of our painting processes over the depiction of visual things. The rhetoric around this iconoclasm is just as predictable. It’s usually accomplished when the artist states that the process, even though it is the subject of the painting, is actually inconsequential, a byproduct. We no longer deny the accidental as Pollock famously did. We claim no control of the image, no framing of the processes. The Postmodern artist removes himself from processes altogether, claiming that the artist is not, should not be, involved in the making of images whatsoever. The painting, the document, becomes a found object. The recent retro-tinged conversations online over Wade Guyton’s use of a printer in making his handsomely banal abstract paintings is a perfect example of the intellectual emptiness of this current moment. The point is to remove the icon maker, and in doing that, to remove the icon. It’s almost as if one can only paint if one intends not to do so. Since the sanctification of Duchamp at the beginning of our Postmodern era, every painting emerging from our studios comes equipped with its own mustache.

My personal battle with abstract painting has been about locating what was lost in the flat transcendent landscapes of the 20th Century. Painted abstraction as we’ve come to know it and practice it, can not and does not give us the being of an other, the vision of a thing. There has been no room for the kind of physical unfolding of existence that we witness all through the history of Western painting. Instead we have chosen to optically float through the nebulous world of dematerialized abstractions, bask in the breathless critiques of facture or lapse in reveries of contextual stylistic discourse. We willingly erase our own history, our own imagery and our own visions. Whatever we see in painting is all done through a prophylactic of language, through the distance of second-hand references, and through the haze of unsatisfied Postmodern desire. We do not confront the being/image directly. This thing between us, both the bittersweet moment and the bodily lived experience, the moments that we see, seek to understand, have been sorely missing in our very short history of abstract painting. Our painting, especially over the last 50 years, has been about the spaces that occur around things rather than things seen in themselves. And I keep finding myself wondering why? Why can we not address the intimacy of actual being through abstraction? Why does our experience of abstraction leave out so much of our contemporary visual existence? Why doesn’t abstraction have a deeper history of actual lived imagery?

  1. Peter Stott said…

    I think the ongoing crisis in painting is that artists are inadequate to the task of fulfilling its potential, signified in the wish for machines to take imaging further, because of the catch 22 of Modernism, that being that the very thing that allows for virtual form to be represented by a flat surface (anamorphic projection and isomorphism), is the very thing that stops one from accessing the vision. Instead, one’s base object recognition system dominates i.e. seeing crude significations of things like faces, in visual chaos. Trying to erase all depiction obviously doesn’t solve the problem because the problem is that one is hard-wired only to see the objects of the perceived external world. Obviously, the ‘avoidance of the legacy and history of Modernism’ won’t make the problem go away.The statement that ‘painting as an avant garde activity, no longer exists’ doesn’t really hold water, because the same essential Catch 22 of perception remains to be solved.
    One gripe I have with the article is the use of ‘we’. Who is this ‘we’? e.g. “We do not confront the being/image directly” and “we prefer the documentation of our painting processes over the depiction of visual things”. This is not my painting practice.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    “Why doesn’t abstraction have a deeper history of actual lived imagery?” Well, from my point of view, the less imagery abstract art has, the better. I’m not sure that I understand the direction that Mark wants us to move in (and looking at his own work only makes me more baffled), but the two figurative photographs and the figurative de Kooning don’t seem to me to have anything to contribute. Better to concentrate on what abstract art is doing, rather than what it might look like or refer to.

    And whilst we could agree that abstract painting is on the whole too flat, in all senses of the word, I don’t see that as being much to do with landscape (are Constable, Cezanne and Poussin part of the problem? I think not), only to do with a lack of ambition to make abstract painting more spatial, and so push it past the point it got stuck in a while back, to do with the processes of painting itself, which in themselves are not abstract at all.

    As ever, this speculation is all painting-o-centric. Thinking about these issues from a sculptors point of view, and how abstract sculpture might become more abstract and more spatial (it couldn’t begin to take on this imagery thing without becoming completely ridiculous) might be of benefit. Imagery tends to get defeated in the quest for three-dimensionality.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Robin,in order to try and introduce some balance towards sculpture and away from(but still inclusive of)the “painting-o-centric” bias in the general debate about the possible directions/criteria that might be considered appopriate for abstract artists we could consider these words from Mark Stone’s essay (beginning fourth paragraph from the end: “ideas of solid abstract imagery, of visual confrontation with volume”. I agree when,in essence,you say that sculpture is better placed (almost by default) to realise a strong abstract three-dimensionality than painting. Perhaps painting (assuming of course that it wants to) can break out of flatness by attending to “solid abstract imagery” and “visual confrontation with volume”

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Maybe. But “solid abstract imagery” seems a contradiction. As for volume, that implies that there is a “something” to be volumetric. I think then we are back with Frank Stella, who uses a lot of volumetric imagery of “things”, which for my money are neither spatial nor abstract. I think there is a place for “thing-ness” in abstract art, but no place for a depiction of things. That may seem a worse contradiction to you than “solid abstract imagery”, but I think I touched upon a similar idea in my essay on Gillian Ayres’ early work and the difference she managed to achieve between depictions of space of a falsely illusionistic, representational kind, and actual, “real”, illusionistic abstract space.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Robin, I do see how “solid abstract imagery” can be read as a contradiction. That said, it seems reasonable, if difficult, to talk in some way in terms of images in the context of the making of abstract visual art. What I imagine as solid, abstract images, however they are produced, will almost certainly have as their objective what you refer to as “thing-ness” or alternatively as specific visual character informed by a strong three-dimensional eye. The imagery would not be in any sense depictive or employ depictions/associations in any way.
        Also,I’m not sure why dealing with or using volume (or indeed mass) necessarily implies that there has to be “something” (I presume you mean “something” as having an established image or identity) to be volumetric. Given that as artists we are supposed to be imaginative then surely what we produce can be made to be abstract by our use of materials in relation to quite generally-shared physical properties that are not tied to specific objects,identities or phenomena.

  3. mike said…

    Key Action Key Action
    a Insert after cursor A Append to end of line
    i Insert before cursor I Insert at beginning of line
    o Insert line below cursor O Insert one line above cursor
    [CTRL][J] Move down one line [CTRL][W] Move back one word
    [ENTER] Add a new line [Backspace] Move back one character
    kill Delete line (set by stty) [CTRL][H] Move back one character
    [CTRL][I] Insert a tab [CTRL][T] Move to next tab setting
    [ESC] Returns to command mode [CTRL][V] Quote next character

    . . .

    “These epochal changes (of the 18th Century) affect the conception of historical time as well. The erosion of proven methods of inferring the future from the past at first increased freedom in relation to goth past and future by allowing for a transfiguration of the past (not just of antiquity, but of the Middle Ages as well) that left the future indeterminate, and turned it into a summons. What became politically an open question after the French Revolution corresponds artistically to the problem of self-confirming form. As Novalis puts it, ‘We have outgrown the age of valid forms’ . . . To the extent that the factual limitations of what is artistically permitted fall away, relevant art forms are defined in terms of a temporal relationship to previous forms. The avant-garde claimed to be ahead of its time, yet since like everyone else, it could not act in the future, this claim boils down in practice to a distanced, critical, and polemical attitude within a shared present. Even the self-descriptions of postmodernism suggest historical periodization, but claiming a historical position requires unambiguous structural decisions of the sort postmodernism refuses to provide. These trends converge in the effort to eliminate an excess of communicative possibilities by means of the form of utterance, rather than via the kind of information it entails. In other words, one tends to privilege self-reference over hetero-reference. This appears to be the deciding factor in the further development of art.”

    – Niklas Luhman, ‘Self-Description’, Art as a Social System, pp. 287-288.


  4. Matt Sheridan said…

    I really enjoyed this article and its premise until I saw its limitations, which are based in romantic nostalgia for landscape and figuration.  This romantic nostalgia, camouflaged by a reverence for “tradition,” is in fact the crisis facing PAINTERS, which thereby restrains abstract painting’s development and prominence as an engine for 21st century images and iconography.  Andy Warhol is in fact the elephant in the room of this essay, not Marcel Duchamp.  While I agree with the general premises of this essay, throwing Wade Guyton under the bus in favor of Willem de Kooning’s figurative work, with all its loaded issues, is a questionable strategy at best for moving forward.  As I’m finding myself substituting terms like “thingness,” “attack,” “release,” “imaginative space,” for “existence,” “expression,” “figure,” etc. I suggest some alterations to make this more open-system or perhaps more user-friendly for the 21st century abstract painter.

    Yes, abstraction must be reframed to prevent it from becoming the new academic painting.  I’m not convinced “genre” is the solution; in fact I see genre as the problem. Many painters profit from making work which stylistically retreads or resumes at the point exactly where other painters died or moved on (Sarah Morris riffing off Frank Stella’s heyday, Cecily Brown’s sampling of de Kooning, and John Currin’s infatuation with Dosso Dossi, for example).  This problem with figuration — style reduced into icons for derivative representation and reproduction — explains why it cannot be the salvation for abstract painting in this essay. 

    Abstraction is an agent of change — a free space where anything can happen, languages can be invented and experiences are transformed through rematerialization.  Figuration and landscape — unless their tropes are dismantled in new and inventive ways that challenge how we experience both — bring us back to all the ideological problems (read: forced narratives in and behind the work) that have plagued abstraction since its Modern inception into the Western canon from Impressionism to Expressionism to Russian Constructivism and well beyond.  
    “Our blindness boils down to two things – we must take a look at HOW we approach our thoughts about the last century of painting and HOW we translate what we see of our contemporary lives into paint.”  Yes, but what is missing here is the third thing: how the technology of our times affects our vision AND our experiences, and how we as painters transpose/translate those into material presences.  There is no sublime space in painting — Pollock, Newman or Rothko — only sublimated (channeled, concentrated, diverted, minimized) space.

    Landscape and figuration are art historical-ideological safeties, crutches, ways for painters to AVOID consideration of contemporary sublimated spaces/subjects such as cyberspace, digital compression, travel, and altered psychological states beyond counter- or sub-cultural visual tropes.  The only reason to paint something photographable is to transform that representation into a new third thing, which painters are rarely successful at nowadays, but occasionally work out from time to time.  The painter who forwarded me this article, D. Morgan Russell, is one of these revelatory exceptions.  Abstraction functions in Morgan’s work — landscapes — as a transformative catalyst against that which is initially recognizable by color or gestalt.  Recognizable things are painted amorphously enough that, upon closer inspection, they fragment the composition as a whole, changing sections of imagery into something else — voids, blockages, eddies — which alter and distort our initial feel of the spatial relations in, on, through and across the picture plane.  By the time one is done looking at one of Morgan’s works, it it no longer a landscape, but something other — a state of mind continuously becoming across a canvas.

    So when I mention contemporary sublimated spaces/subjects, I’m not talking about painting images downloaded (therefore pre-vetted and focus-grouped) through Google image search, in my opinion one of the most literal and least imaginative ways to make a painting in the 21st century.  I’m talking about painting the spaces, states of mind, and bodies we experience but can’t see.  These are not things to be depicted but subjects to be rematerialized in the imaginative space of painting using movement, relief, edge, texture and optical perceptions inherent to it.  To do that entails making the painting itself iconic — whether it is filled with heretofore unseen iconographic imagery is up to the painter, which is why painting has become the difficult enterprise it is today.  

    It’s also Warhol’s fault.  Warhol would not exist without Duchamp.  Duchamp’s innovation was to make us recognize the emptiness of the icon and the power we project into and upon “thingness” from what that thing, that object, that image means semiotically to us.  The key is that all icons, religious or otherwise, are meaningless until we project our ideologies onto/into them.  This projection of belief upon the object, painted or otherwise, gives it power.  Use-value provides nostalgic reverence — I often think of all the countries my combat boots have touched ground in, for example.  

    The problem is painters look at great paintings that way, with nostalgic reverence, now; instead of deconstructing them to see why they work now. Warhol was Duchamp 2.0 in that his work forced consideration of 20th century iconography — the religiosity of “brands” and the “star complex,” what it means to be a “brand” or “star”, what is gained and lost in becoming/being a brand/star, how brands/stars are made, broken and immortalized in our daily “use” of them.  And we apply that information® to our careers as painters with variable effect.

    All Warhol’s figurative paintings are portraits in drag, thus blurring gender and social expectations toward the iconography in them.  We feel them based on what we can read from them, and this reading changes over time as we gain experience; more marketing savvy at work on us. This has become a shallow game since the advent of the computer, which uses icons we choose to fill or empty at will (“HD,” “Trash,” etc.), one reason abstraction, specifically the iconophobic kind as found in “New Casualist” abstract painting, for better or worse, has risen to the forefront now.

    Warhol was iconoclastic in that he used the silkscreen to break down photography into a more mass-produced from — emptying the image to recreate the emptiness of those icons he chose so he and his assistants could fill them with (exhausted) AbEx paint moves — a marketing innovation expanded upon from the detergent box sculptures, also empty.  The problem now is the silkscreen has been done to death, as shown by a recent 2012 survey at MOCA Los Angeles entitled “The Panting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol.”  Rarely in the exhibition was color other than black squeegeed through the mesh.  Often in the exhibition paint was subjugated to the realm of the photographic where flat skin reigns over surface.  Thanks to relational aesthetics and curatorial favoritism, Warhol appeared fresh in the exhibition compared to Guyton and Wool.

    If we’re going to be talking about abstraction germane to lensing in painting without retreading the territory of the camera obscura, please refer to a painter who uses photography in the the 21st century (for better or worse) rather than a painterly photographer from the 20th referring back to the Venus of Willendorf, a sculpture.  Lascaux a better choice here. Men talking about naked women in paintings always comes down to dudes talking about tits: next thing you know more than half the readers are alienated.  But to play along, I’ll submit Jenny Saville as a usefully problematic example of a painter who rematerializes photo-collages into large-scale, painterly, paintings.  Host (2000) is a huge painting of a pig’s carcass where highly abstract action painting strokes come together to depict a porcine torso covered in, well, nipples.

    Saville is an excellent draughtsperson, like her hero de Kooning.  She can paint like a lens — less detail and blurry edges for soft focus, fisheye distortions, etc.  In Host her senses of brushwork, color and drawing with charcoal meet on the underbelly of the pig in her DEPICTIONS of its nipples. She saves the monochromatic underpainting of one nipple, better than all the others, spotlighting its black and white THINGNESS, while tying the rest of the nipples, and ultimately the whole painting, together in a fast web of brushstrokes.  But the abstraction of marks across surface only happens when you get up close, where the edges of color and texture become highly apparent as relief.  From the back of the room it’s an illustration of a pig’s carcass rendered with great skill.  Is it abstract painting or a painting which USES abstraction? 

    Saville’s painting is iconic in her oeuvre, but will you remember the the pig itself as iconic or your favorite component parts as a viewer?  The pig’s carcass is banal and anonymous, far more so than carcasses by Rembrandt or Soutine.  The combination of large scale and edit/patch/select rules this painting plays by are what make it different — iconic — even if stylistically derivative in its exploitation of a banal image using abstraction as a means toward illustration.  Saville’s spectacular paintings tend to hit the viewer over the head with a sense of voyeuristic guilt and bombastic disgust.  She suggests in interviews this is what our modern times are about, but somehow the depiction of a body rendered as a document of brushstrokes feels passé.  A pig is still a pig, no matter how you paint it: I say this as a painter who admires Saville’s technique.

    Similar but better arguments focusing on the amorphous qualities of abstraction  regarding “emergence of {thingness} from surface” vis-a-vis de Kooning can be made by substituting Door To the River (1960, Whitney Museum of American Art) for Woman 1 (1950-2).  It’s a door without a wall, a door on fire atop a pile of flesh, is it a bodily opening, a house?  Where’s the river — is it the blue underpainting? Or the brown line under the yellow and fleshy marks “in the distance” IMPLYING a landscape?  Is the river the whitish umber in the foreground?  Or the fleshy gray on the right side of the canvas? Nasty, from the back of the room and up close.  We know it’s a door is from the title, and the river’s location remains at large.  But those landscape narrative ideas don’t matter as much as that thing, the subject, that explosive “door,” which adheres to and springs forth from “the space across the surface” at once in a dialectical rather than subordinate relationship, revealing a void of sorts beneath layers and strokes of paint.  But is it a document of a landscape or a document of brushstrokes?

    The painting is a landscape because we want it to be (and because de Kooning directs us there), not because it faithfully DEPICTS a landscape.  It INTERPRETS AND TRANSFORMS A LANDSCAPE.  Turn it 90 degrees clockwise and it becomes a room such as in Pop works by Richard Hamilton or Postmodern work by Paul Sietsema.  But WE make it a landscape because we need the comfort of that framing when faced with the intense movements and jarring colors of the brushstrokes.  Door To The River is an aggressive body of information in itself with absolutely no fear of iconography with no Picasso or prostitutes necessary for shock value — it’s all in there already.  

    Saville, inspired by de Kooning, is at her best when she, like him, realizes the unity of the shared “space across the surface,” a sticky space for the tactile eye no matter how fragmentary, trumps the ideal of a unified image to be read off the surface.  Let the viewer finish the painting!  The difference is Saville wants us to know EXACTLY what body she’s created, where de Kooning is willing to let us wonder about it a bit, enticing us to explore the painting further ON OUR OWN TERMS — that’s where the power of abstraction lies.  It’s also where nostalgic reverence and stylistic mash-ups become problematic for contemporary iconographers like Saville, Dana Schutz and Salle.  As a landscape, Door To The River is highly charged, uncomfortable and fierce, with a river in which I don’t want to swim but may already be knee deep in outside the picture plane.

    Next there is the problematic introduction of “the document” in this article –  are we to aim for documents of depiction and representation or documents of brushstrokes; performances?   Both are tiresome and neither are 21st century.  Is the thing to be depicted an object, a figure, a “real” thing?  Or is it a state of mind?  Is it an action?  If it’s an action is the document a record of a performance?  Perhaps, to solve this, we can transpose the 21st century “digital” meaning of those terms to painting.  A document is a file of compressed information which unpacks itself to those who access it — a painting is this and does this.  

    Operations (a series of actions linked together) and “expressions” (in the compressed digital sense of the term, linked operations) used in abstraction now should be far more advanced than Newman’s zip, which is only an action.  Often contemporary abstraction eschews complexity of painterly movement favoring the pedestrian order of layers — chicly referred to as painting’s “time base”– because of an unhealthy attachment to or repulsion from the ridiculous theory around Abstract Expressionism, much of it put forth by the artists themselves back then but pales in comparison to what those paintings ACTUALLY DO IN THE ROOM TODAY, IN THE HERE AND NOW.  To become truly culturally relevant in the 21st century, abstract painting should stop clinging to these ideological benchmarks of history (AND of the “crisis” between analog and digital); the whininess of those poses do us no favors.

    Which is why dissing Wade Guyton’s paintings is perhaps convenient in the short term but myopic in the long term.  Guyton’s batting average is about 50/50, but when he’s on, he’s all the way live.  The medium sized X paintings from 2006-8 each pack a mighty wallop in variable degrees.  The inkjet swaps brushstrokes for spray but maintains a release and attack that is other.  What I don’t understand about the critique of Guyton put forth in the essay is that Guyton is doing exactly what the author wants: he’s literally using an iconic image with lived history and existence on canvas.  

    The X paintings are not found objects, but rematerialized objects printed from light onto canvas.  The object it’s printed upon uses Stella’s terms from his Black Paintings to make it a painting. The tactility of the marks is altogether random and different from silkscreening, more like made by the hand of a machinic other.   But this doesn’t matter because the X paintings maintain intense presences in the rooms in which they hang, whether together or collectively.  Just because the image of the X is minimal and based in language doesn’t preclude it’s richness as a painterly move, as an icon, or as a thing in itself.  

    Guyton’s X paintings are neither portraits nor landscapes but rematerialized things-in-themselves across white voids of deep sublimated space.  Semiotically X is a mark loaded with multiple meanings to make it a shifting signifier — even more slippery than de Kooning’s Door.  Which makes it all the more interesting to see it break, especially when the terms of production back up the de Kooning quote of the impossibility to make the same mark twice: here Guyton is using a machine of mass production designed to make exact multiples to create works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction that can’t be repeated exactly the same way twice.  

    There is an optical tactility to the surface to boot — perhaps not with same the bounce between mark and ground in a Pollock, or the vibration of color in a de Kooning, but does it really need those?  It’s interesting that a painting made by a machine can have a dynamic range — in this case, quiet and loud at the same time, which is another of the X paintings’ strengths.  They trump Warhol’s icons for emptiness because, again, like de Kooning, Guyton trusts his audience to think for themselves.  What’s more exhausted than a alphabetical mark not subject to universal language but instead used in nearly all lived, spoken languages?

    What I do think is lacking, not entirely missing, is invention of imagery that only can be created by and accessed with paint.  This does not preclude painting with a digital mindset. I see a lot of effects painting but not a lot of affect painting.  I don’t see much abstract painting asking questions of itself the way athletes do, instead I see a lot of abstract painting aspiring to be interior decoration.  Try living with Door to the River in your bedroom and waking up to it everyday, or the psychological affect of seeing the X paintings every time you walk out the door.  Host would be a great backdrop for a cooking show…. ok, maybe not.  And what are the new things, the new subjects, the new objects to be painted which are germane to current contemporary situation?  I agree a new language and iconography can be invented now. Let’s work on that.

    Ultimately I disagree with the overall assertion that “painted abstraction as we’ve come to know it and practice it, can not and does not give us the being of an other, the vision of a thing.”  Contemporary abstract painters who begin to do the things mentioned at article’s end well — addressing the intimacy of being through abstraction using contemporary visual “existence” (which is slippery at best) and lived imagery (also rarely what it appears to be)  –  while also using lensing, rematerialization, and fragmentation are David Reed, Charlene von Heyl, Patrick Hill (whose wall-based sculptures function as paintings), Amy Sillman, Chris Martin, Carrie Moyer, Albert Oehlen and Kim Fisher.  They are rooted in the traditions of Western painting without being literal stylistic slaves to it by thinking 300 years ahead, not 70 years behind. 

    They don’t depict icons in their work, their works ARE iconic in their own right (like Pollock’s best, which TRANSCEND figurative/landscape beginnings), because they expose spaces WITHIN things, stuff the history of art (and iconography) is all about.  To discount Christopher Wool’s subtractive abstractions — which use lived imagery and contemporary visual existence in NYC neighborhoods as a basis for making abstract paintings — is to deny William Kentridge’s figurative erasures. There is room for both (a Kentridge animation made of abstracted fragments would be a wonder to behold, though).  I dare say Wool’s work is more iconic than Kentridge’s because Wool’s are still “images;” but that’s another essay for another day.

    My list of current abstractionists is too exclusively white — that too is another essay for another day.  I for one am tired of these articles which begin with inspirational ideas only to use those ideas to attack artists of our times using an all-white male (and with the exceptions of Stella and Hockney, conveniently dead) cast of painters of thirty to fifty (to in this case seventy) years prior as a basis for negation to prop up individual agendas seeped in nostalgia, which is in fact the crisis of painting today.  Nostalgic reverence in making paintings is the enemy and trotting out iconophilia/phobia and image/anti-image are tired, reactive arguments from LAST century.  Time is better spent in the studio inventing and rematerializing NEW iconographies built from and reflecting our contemporary condition — a lived experience in a technological sublime — in the here-and-now while enthusiastically discussing the works of living artists rather than fawning over passé greatest-hits loops as a mechanism for negation of our times. 

    • John Holland said…

      I think you’ve made some very interesting points, but I find the last paragraph in your post worrying in its teleological and ethical assumptions.
      When you describe your weariness of seeing writing that “attack(s) the artists of our times”, I wonder where you read all these irksome pieces; not, certainly, in the ‘mainstream’ art press, which is relentlessly Boosterish in its promotion of anything and everything that might find a place in the great art market machine, or of the ever-growing quantity of curating, writing and ‘managing’ within the broader art economy. When did you last read a piece about a successful contemporary artist in an art glossy that was not essentially an intellectually rarified puff?
      We live in a consumerist technocracy that is precluded on the generalised submission to the Big Yes; in many ways, what we need, in the face of the destruction of the planet, the de-politicisation of discourse and the technologically driven solipsism of human culture in its totality, is a greater place for the Big No. What is or isn’t ‘of our time’ is as much a political, cultural and ethical choice as a matter of empirical fact. Who is to decide what is ‘relevant’? No artist can base their art on this premise, because no artist can know, in any meaningful sense, what is or is not relevant to ‘their time’, rather than what is relevant to them personally. Even nostalgia could have a place- if only as an emotional brake put on to the wheels of a culture intent on consuming its own life support system. Samuel Palmer was an utterly unacceptable irrelevance to his time for precisely the reasons that many people value his work now, and indeed revere him now as spiritual precursor.
      I spend a little part of my life in your “technological sublime”- but then I spend far more nowhere near it. This irrelevance is chosen, it’s an aesthetic and ethical choice, just as it might be to NOT enthusiastically discuss living artists (or at least the living artists promoted to me by the Artworld Economy). I certainly reserve the right to reject or ignore technophillic and deterministic value systems, if I wish. The judgement of ‘irrelevance’ is very often the judgement of the controlling orthodoxy against dissent, one heard consistently made by neo-liberal economists against any questioning the naturalisation of their particular paradigm.

      Sorry, this has ended up being very political, when your post was by and large not, but I do think that this Big Yes, this coersive cheering on of a particular conception of our future, can be as damaging in art right now as everywhere else.

      • Matt Sheridan said…

        1. It’s possible, indeed preferable, to enthusiastically discuss something dialectically, in this case PAINTING, without engaging in boosterism. Re-reading what I wrote in detail about contemporary painters Saville and Guyton, there is no boosterism of careers going on there, rather an enthusiasm to talk about where the work succeeds AND fails without outright dismissal. Defending one particular set of Guyton’s work after saying he hits the mark about half the time is a request for reconsideration, not cheerleading. Other than the X series I described, Guyton leaves me cold.

        2. If i am to imply, for example, “New Casualist” painting is a negative development in accordance with Mr. Stone’s article, it’s my responsibility to offer rigorous alternatives. Every work and painter I discussed in this response I have experienced “live,” as a lived bodily experience before paintings made by these painters, in real space, at least once. I don’t need magazines (or internet) to tell me how to think according to some “big Yes”, as you put it. And I don’t need a biography of de Kooning to see and understand his work on my own terms, unlike venture philanthropists who hire art consultants to economically conform to a subjective universality of a particular moment germane primarily to the art market. However, if I am to subscribe to a big No, I want to hear solutions that are thinking independently, not speaking from an ivory tower feedback loop harping on the past, and most certainly not based on negation alone.

        3. In no way am I cheering on life in the technological sublime, either. One could argue that my proposal is also a retro strategy when considering the influence of cinema upon the cubism of Picasso and Braque. What I was suggesting was possible ways for abstraction to do what Mr. Stone was asking for in his excellent, if nostalgic, essay without resorting to the academic minimalism that has been so trendy of late in the USA. Europe seems to have deemed painting irrelevant in favor of neo-conceptualist wall texts cheering on the politics championed and prioritized in this reply over the issue of painting. I see abstraction in painting as not only relevant to our times, but also as a way out of this hum-drum aesthetic ethical conundrum.

        4. Yes, we all have the right to reject away as we please; it’s worked so well since 1968. I’m simply saying that if we have any say in the matter (which is alternately and conveniently suggested in Mr. Holland’s reply we both do and don’t), perhaps rather than looking back, or being so literal about the present as to co-opt “big Yes” formulations that fall flat (as in Saville, Google image search, stylistic substitution for iconography) we should take opportunities to think ahead, invent and predict as strategies for aesthetic progress in abstract painting. What Samuel Palmer has to do with that, I’m not entirely sure.

      • john holland said…


        I certainly wasn’t defining your critiques of those artists as boosterism, they aren’t (though I’m intrigued, given everything you say, by your admiration for the abstracted forest-scapes of D morgan Russell); I was only questioning your accusations of nostalgia, negativity and ‘negation of our times’ within the context of the overwhelmingly self-promotional and reverential mindset of the contempory art-world generally, and the art press in particular. I would defend Mark’s right to dismiss Guyton’s work if he really feels it to be bad; he hasn’t ‘thrown anyone under a bus’.
        I agree about neo-conceptualist political wall-texts- that’s the last thing I have any interest in, and they are subject to the same lack of serious scrutiny by the institutions that promote them as anything. They are more often than not academic in every sense, but I do feel nervous when these rather teleological models of ‘relevance’ arise, along with condemnations of nostalgia and definitions of what is or is not sufficiently ‘of our time’. Historically speaking, most attempts at radical alternative paradigms have made use of (often mythological)evocations of a better past- our ability to conceptualise the essence of our present is mired in fog.

  5. Anthony Boswell said…

    As an artist exploring abstraction, with a deep interest in the modernist work, I can only respond to this article by saying how I approach abstract painting myself; from the side of personal experience around my life and mortality, infinity and the eternal, from letting that experience get into a dialogue with the work that must exist on its own and confront me, and then let the whole thing become a point of being universal and of use to others who spend time with it. In this way, I hope to let my abstraction reflect the world around me by being a place to be in, by letting it be that connection between life and the work.

  6. Jim said…

    Wonderfully said Mark. Bravo.