Abstract Critical

Rock and a Hard Place

Written by John Bunker and Robin Greenwood

A conversation by email: John Bunker and Robin Greenwood exchange views on the occasion of John Bunkers show at East Gallery, ‘Landlopers’.



Saw your show today. Despite the fact that assemblage is not really my thing – I am conventional only in so far as I like things to be fully into getting the most out of being either paintings or sculpture these days – I am nevertheless impressed by a certain clarity of thought in your work. There is a degree of visual organisation in what you do, and a natural visual ambition, that comes across even in the ‘hybrid’ form you choose to work in. I have no problem with it really, though in the end I think it will limit you rather than free you. But let’s see…

Well done,


Who's Afraid by John Bunker

Hi Robin,

Many thanks for getting out to sunny Stratford to take a look at the show. I really appreciate it! Thanks also for your observations and insightful response to the work.

What immediately comes to mind while reading your email is a duality at the heart of my grasp of the history of Modernism – which I think I’ve been trying the grapple with in my work. I seem to have two distinct ways of looking at abstract art.

My first version of abstraction seems totally involved in finding the essence of what a painting is. A rigorous removal of ‘baggage’. This idea of ‘abstraction’ (always linked to Greenberg, but I contend, has many other histories) also had hitched to it ‘geometry’ . This version of abstraction is also linked (wrongly or rightly) to a post war humanism of universal values – trying to find essential visual languages that communicate on some level to all. I don’t have much sympathy for the utopian aspect of abstraction BUT remain fascinated by it – visually.

My other ‘modernism’ seems to be almost exclusively urban and more about ‘rupture’ rather than ‘rapture’. It is abstraction that is not about the transcendental or ‘formalisms’ but is a place where ‘the transient, the ephemeral, the contingent’ (Baudelaire) can grow new hybrid forms. I forget who said that collage was Modernism’s great invention – but also it’s great undoing….. I relate to the exhilaration induced by juggling formal complexity, then the tipping over into utter chaos and the minutia of everyday life.

I’ve become really fascinated by the way paint can hold different materials and elements within itself – it acts so well as a kind of binding agent. But there is a tension here, that you’ve picked up on – between paint being allowed to be itself, and making paint react to a challenge from outside of itself. I guess I want my painting practice to be in some kind of dialogue with the objects and the life around me and that means the ‘low’ stuff as well as the ‘high’ stuff. There was a piece by Frank (Bowling), in his summer show at Rollo that was dotted with the used tips of insulin pens. This piece really worked for me, it seemed so beautiful and dangerous. Beautiful in the mastery of colour and paint but also somehow a record of human dependency, an archive of survival….

Again, many thanks for your time.

All the best




Frank Bowling Dodo 2010 Acrylic on canvas 39 x 32 inches. Courtesy of ROLLO Contemporary Art



You see, I do like your attitude! I suppose that in the end one might want synthesis of the two sides…

Actually, although I think Greenberg started out as a very good critic and writer, I would disagree even with Frank about his current relevance. I think he became in the end a bad influence on a whole generation of painters, and he was not very good at all on sculpture! But then, who is/was?

I have been wondering for the past year or so if we could take modernism out of abstract art, and what that would leave – or rather, what it would free us to do. Modernism, which I confess to loving as much as anyone, I now begin to see as a constraint.


Hi Robin,

Therein lies the rub for me – because the political (not necessarily utopian) versions of Modernism were vital in dismantling the visual conventions that elites depended upon for their power. One only has to look back in this country to Reynolds – small minded painter of the well to do – in relation to Turner, Constable and of course Blake. All three were at once innovators and iconoclasts (maybe at certain times in history it is impossible to be one and not the other). But it gets complicated for me when one compares Courbet with Friedrich for instance as did Rosenthal in ‘Modern Painting And The Northern European Tradition’. With little imaginative verve it’s easy to place abstraction as a direct development of the romantic tradition in art. Rosenthal, for his own reasons is trying to remove Parisian modernism from Rothko’s endeavours (make of that what you will)….Just as Greenberg tried to deride the influence of Surrealism on the first generation AEs.

Even though it sounds absurd as I write it – I feel like I’m trying to work out a different history for abstraction that has its roots in realism – not representational painting – but the spirit of realism…..and its political/social awareness. This spirit of realism and this essential aspect of modernism might be about ‘Flatness’ (Greenberg again) but it is also about being made aware of conventions that parade as truths. Is it possible to have a political abstract art?



O'l Commercial by John Bunker


Is it possible to have a political abstract art? Imperative, I’d say. Political and moral. But I would say that it is in the form of the work that one must be most inventive, as in Matisse. Finding a way through the thicket of restrictions that are part of modernism’s baggage now might be that way of freedom, and as such would be political. Of course, modernism was once, in itself, a great liberator. Cezanne and Manet (and to a lesser extent Courbet), if one considers them as the early modernists, overturned conventions in painting that had got stuck very fast in the grip of the establishment. Even up to the early Sixties, modernism was overturning convention. Then, I think, by degrees it became a set of conventions of its own; and thus the political and radical content got hived off from the form of painting and sculpture, manifesting itself more in performance and conceptual art.

I’ve just picked up on something in your last-but-one email:…a tension here…between paint being allowed to be itself, and making paint react to a challenge from outside of itself. But ‘paint being allowed to be itself’ is not really, for me, abstract, it is literal. It is the generic mistake of much abstract painting now and over the last thirty/forty years that it conflates the processes of painting with the end result. This is no longer radical, but deeply conservative, and the truly radical thing for abstract art to do now is invent completely new form(s) and new meaning, through what the paint does (which, of course, needs at least a paragraph of explanation in itself). Such form will, I predict, not have any truck with flatness. Maybe this would ease the contradiction in your thinking about modernism’s duality – though I suspect not. Besides, your angst about this is only healthy.

Kind regards,


Hi Robin,

Many thanks for wading through my various contradictory thoughts on modernism! Lots to think about… Your point about the ‘literal’ and ‘what paint does’ are very pertinent.

One of the most important texts on modernism for me is Leo Steinberg’s ‘Reflections On The State Of Criticism’ (in itself an interesting title…); if we want to talk about ‘Modernism’ as a set of ‘conventions’ let’s start here! Although I don’t want to restrict a dialogue too much by getting too involved in a ‘text’….


Bafflement and Surrealism. That’s what Rauschenberg and Johns were into. (In fact, Twombly, Warhol, the whole lot…)

Hi Robin,

Surrealism definitely, but Duchampian Dada specifically! In many respects this realm of influence has been decisive in the ‘re-branding’ of art (a certain idea of it anyway), of which ‘Sensation’ would be one example. I would look at it like this….. I’m not into potted narratives but I’ve tried to re-think my painting practice in historical contexts that make sense of my art education and concerns as a practitioner now. This means placing contemporary abstract painting in social and historical contexts wider than just those of its own history of forms. This was what was lacking (amongst other things!) at the artist’s talk on Weds night (‘Nothing Fixed’).

Artists working in the 60s and 70s (The generation who taught me at BA level) tried to disengage themselves from ‘The Market’ with strategies, involving site, action, the primacy of language and a deep suspicion of painting. Many of these practices seem to have been absorbed by the very ‘Market’ it pitted itself against. By turns ‘painting’ in the 80s attempted to disengage itself from ‘modernism’ as such. Many painters turned to pre-modern techniques, styles, figuration etc. The 90s saw the main subject of arts practice become ‘The Market’ itself. The conflation of the languages of appropriation, dissection, dismemberment, and mutation with those of display, seduction, glamour and the ‘selling culture’ gave us ‘Brit Art’.

As I said before, I’m not into neat and reductive historical categories, but I believe there are aspects of the modernist project in general and non-representational painting in particular that continue to question the apparent contradictions between the making of abstract art and political/social realities that surround us now. Could it turn out to be a false dichotomy propagated by the conceptual Left, but extended by an inherently conservative art establishment? I feel there’s got to be another way, that is neither ‘ modernism’ as a set of tired conventions or an ‘art world’ obsessed with novelty for it’s own sake…… Rock and a hard place indeed…….



  1. Julia Cooper said…

    Your last two paragraphs John is a sensible way of looking at it. Why tie oneself into political or social meanings. Why can’t abstract art be literal Robin? Visual reality hits the soul first and last.