Abstract Critical

The Indiscipline of Painting: An Email Interview with Daniel Sturgis

Sam Cornish: The exhibition seems to be an eclectic one, bringing together a mix of generations, the well known and the more obscure and generates a number of surprising juxtapositions, and includes artists whose work seems almost antagonistic. So I’d like to ask first about the scope of the exhibition, how it came about and what guided the selection of the artists?


Daniel Sturgis: The Indiscipline of Painting is an artist selected exhibition – it shows a body of work that I am very enthusiastic about – and that I find interesting and inspiring. But it is also an exhibition that is about asking questions. Questions that are drawn from my own studio practice – and that I think about when making work. These revolve around how abstract painting – if there still is such a thing – can remain critical, and how different artists have chosen to do that.  And I guess the show is also about the absurdity and logic of putting together a group of paintings that purportedly look abstract now. So unlike some other recent large-scale painting exhibitions this show was not conceived of as being merely a celebration of painting – it was rather an exhibition that focused on some of what I see as the problematic areas of painting – and how different artists have negotiated these stumbling blocks. Things like the role of gesture, or the idea of advancement or newness, or the way the history of modernist painting relates to the present. That latter point was one of the reasons why the show stressed more marginal figures – important nonetheless – but to make the point that the history of painting is not just one thing, not just a progression of a canon of greats – the culture is far, far broader than that. 

The opportunity to create this exhibition came from an invitation from Sarah Shalgosky at the Mead and Martin Clark at Tate St Ives. We worked very closely throughout the process. They knew my paintings and knew about some of the other exhibitions that I had curated which were also connected to abstract painting – like the Daniel Buren project I did for the Wordsworth Trust and the Jeremy Moon retrospective.


Sean Scully, East Coast Light 2

You are quite correct Sam, some of the works in the Indiscipline of Painting do seem opposed to each other. How can it be that a mid 70s Sean Scully can sit bang next to a recent work by Cheyney Thompson? But then on a slightly deeper level I think connections emerge – sometimes formal, sometimes conceptual. In this example both works are to do with light, and are about trying to capture place and the act of making – albeit in very different ways – so many of the seeming differences and oppositions whilst always being evident, give way, or do so for me.


SC: The number of works which purportedly looking abstract but which in various ways deny this certainly struck me looking at the catalogue. This sleight of hand (if you would let me call it that) seems to raise lots of questions, to provoke various contradictions, and for me lots of difficulties. For one, and perhaps we should return to this, it seems to suggest that what is abstract is already known; one of the central propositions the exhibition rests on is that instead of abstraction being a step into unknown territory, as many of the early abstractionists viewed it, it is now a limited set of visual tropes that cannot be added to but instead are open for reference or cross-breeding. But leaving aside that general point for the moment, one of the most obvious strands of ‘purportive abstraction’ here is that which is based upon a coincidence between certain aspects of modernist abstraction and visual languages from outside a fine art context, most commonly utilitarian or commercial. These would include Francis Baudevin’s wall painting, which appropriates a record cover design; Oliver Mosset’s Blps, with their origins in exclamation points; Andy Warhol’s Eggs; Tim Head’s images based upon the obfuscatory patterns inside envelopes and pay-slips; Peter Halley’s use of the patterns created by silicon chips and Richard Kirwan’s lines of asterisks. Would you say that these artists tend more toward wanting to undermine or contaminate the supposed purity of abstraction or whether they want to use abstract tropes to bring into a fine art context aspects of the world outside art that they want to discuss or draw attention to?



DS: I would see the artists you mention less as contaminating a purity – as I doubt whether that purity existed – but rather as enriching and complicating received ideas about painting. And one of the received ideas that has been complicated is the idea that paintings are either abstract or figurative. Clearly such distinctions are at best very fragile and often not what they seem. 

You are correct in your observation that many of the artists use or relish the shared languages that past abstract art or painting seems to have given the world of utilitarian and commercial design. This area, and its reverse, I think is especially interesting as it is one of the most difficult places for the painter to act. How to make work that recognises this place – and move beyond it.  

I also think that the actual physical quality of the paintings selected – even the ones with the most graphic or appropriated graphic feel – and you don’t get this just from the catalogue – allow them to resonate strongly as paintings. That is to enjoy their materiality and scale – the way they have been made as well as to how they connect to past paintings and debates about painting, and of course the broader culture that they come from. (And maybe painting is just another culture among many?

For example the smooth sheen of the enameled surface of the Gerhard Richter painting is as much part of its uniqueness as the grey colour-chart that was its inspiration. And the way that it was made, and its gesture, is an affirmation of what painting can do – what abstract painting was and can be, because that is definitely referenced – as well as representational painting, for it is of course a representation of a colour-chart. And in a way for me, because the Richter painting ‘Two Greys Juxtaposed’ encapsulates so much of the artist’s other work in its make-up, it was an obvious choice when thinking about which piece of his to include – It is a grey painting AND a colour chart – its sheen almost glass like – and the grey and white border hints at the photographic border. 


Two Greys Juxtaposed 1966 200 cm x 150 cm Oil on canvas

SC: Visiting the exhibition over the weekend I was indeed struck, and to be honest struck more forcefully than I had anticipated, by what you call the ‘actual physical quality’ of the paintings. Works that particularly stood out were the varying sensuality of the minimalist paintings of Blinky Palermo, Robert Ryman, Niele Toroni and Olivier Mosset, the quasi-gestural painting by Katharina Grosse, the beyond the frame pieces by Daniel Buren and Imi Knoebel, the dots of Peter Young, and the strange visual character, intense yet somehow irreverent, that both Myron Stout and Mary Heilmann (in her Pink Sliding Squares) achieve, albeit in different ways. Even paintings and objects I did not care for – and there were admittedly a number that seemed slight or under-resolved – seemed to bounce off their neighbours and claim a place within a kind of overall visual logic (though as you alluded to before, a logic with a strong dose of the absurd or at least the capricious)

Two questions seem to result (or rather two main ones from quite a number):

The first is in relation to the ‘purportive abstraction’ we have mentioned about before. It was refreshing that within a public gallery context there were no labels explaining the images, so that they had to stand on their own feet, so to speak. I would say that without reading the catalogue, it would be very difficult for viewers to understand the quasi-figurative origins of works such as Francis Baudevin, Tim Head, Olivier Mosset or Peter Halley. But this does not seem to me to be a limitation, rather the opposite – when I was aware of it this knowledge seemed to somehow undercut the works, to provide an explanation for the paintings which is both more final and thinner than their visual presence, their actual physicality. Is it perhaps not the case that instead of being a disruptive force, a clear statement of origin in, say, the patterns inside envelopes, is actually one with a neatening rather than an indisciplining effect, that the explanation allows for the viewer to account for the visual impact of the painting (‘oh it’s an envelope’) and then move comfortably on, satisfied they had ‘got it’?

Peter Young: Dot Painting


DS: I was so delighted that the installation at the Mead was without labels – as you say such a move lets you really see the paintings and the installation as a whole. And of course you are correct that none of these artists made work that they thought needed any more explaining than the form that the final work took. The artwork always has to say it all – simple as that. And the title may provide a way in – a pointer if you like. Maybe knowing the origin of the Tim Head piece does the work a disservice – for its visual effect is really about interference – it is called ‘Continuous Electronic Surveillance’ after all – and its meaning is built on its scale, colour, handling, size –  and the familiarity we have with seeing such a design in culture and the world around us. It is from a great series of paintings he showed at Nicola Jacobs in the late 80s, which really seared itself onto my memory, due to their scale, blankness and simplicity. Audacious paintings – and from an artist who only made paintings for a very short period in his career. Maybe that idea of recognition (from culture, from other art you might have seen…) and trying to interpret what you see in front of you, is as much as you need – certainly I would say it was for all the works you mention, An exception is the Diao – where what we need is a familiarity with a very specific, important and revolutionary image in art’s history – perhaps in a similar way that some writers might base a work on, or quote from a past ‘canonical’ work of literature. 


SC: And second is the overall importance of a kind of minimalism, that stretched beyond those artists who painted monochromes and touches almost all the works in the exhibition, which in the main have a reduced or all-over surface and gain much of their visual impact from a kind of concentrated frontality. What this minimalism seemed to touch on was the fact that all we need to identify something as a painting is a flat surface hung on a wall, and this was something most of the artists used to their advantage. In this respect Katharina Grosse’s painting (similar works can be seen here) really stood out, as the only work to deal (however ambiguously) with the illusion of things, even if abstract things, in space and exposed to light; it is possible to see into her painting in a way that you could not see into others in the exhibition. You mentioned that past abstract painting has never been pure, and it is on this point of the illusion on a flat surface of things in space  that I see the impurity of canonical abstract painters such as Hans Hofmann or Jackson Pollock resting. I would be interested to know why only Grosse’s painting dealt with illusion in that way (as opposed to illusion in the op-art effects of the very good paintings by Bridget Riley or Peter Young); is it perhaps accounted for by your personal preferences or do you see it as reflecting broader currents within the development of abstract painting?


DS: Katharina Grosse’s canvases are splendid. We are so lucky to have been able to gather all this wonderful work together. She did a great wall painting in St Ives – but I thought it important to show both sides of the practice. Though, as you say, we couldn’t get it into the book on time. It is a very recent work. I love the way that in this show different people focus on different works – and are also sort of looking for different things – and I hope surprise themselves with what they find.

It is though a personal selection – one built on my concerns – but also with generosity at its core. The illusion of things in space, as you put it – is something that I am less interested in finding in recent work. Or rather I am more interested in other work – work that confronts the legacy of minimalist and modernist painting and its fission with the contemporary world that surrounds us. For me that is a crucial issue – or it is at the moment. And really it is through a similar frame that I am interested in Pollock – in the way his paintings are about that historic period and its, or his, specific reaction to painting’s past culture – as indeed are the Stouts, which date from around the same time – though you probably wouldn’t think it. And interestingly Stout is said to have been Hofmann’s favourite pupil. There is a great group photograph of the Hofmann school in Provincetown in ’53 – with Stout sitting next to and eagerly conversing with his teacher.  (It’s reproduced in his Journal that was reprinted in 2005.)


SC: Myron Stout was just one of a number of artists I was pleased to discover in the exhibition, and the link to Hofmann, for me at least, reinforces the interest. Hofmann was of course, though deeply involved in old art, of a generation who felt they could make art new, push it in directions it had never been before. In its look across the last fifty or so years, the Indiscipline seems to question modernist assumptions of progress, though I was interested to read you write about artists who could ‘move beyond’ a collision of design and previous languages of abstraction. Perhaps it would be appropriate to end by asking what the think the future holds for abstraction, or even to ask if you feel that it has a future?


DS: I think that each generation is asked to reconsider and reinvent abstract painting for itself. The history of the medium, its context and how that is viewed, clearly impact on what might at a specific moment seem important. The Indiscipline of Painting, unlike many recent large-scale exhibitions about painting, focuses on what we might call recognisable ‘paintings’ – as opposed to an expanded field which includes films, video or sculptural work that are informed by painting. I find great invention, irreverence and beauty in that contained format – and perversely an indiscipline in a seemingly ordered methodology.  I have no doubt in the future, both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ painting, wonderful works will be made that likewise focuses on the legacy and continued history of abstraction.