Abstract Critical

The Social Bases of Abstract Art, UpDown Gallery, Ramsgate

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

John Bunker, Apparition (Hustla II), 2014, mixed media assemblage, w 185cm

John Bunker, Apparition (Hustla II), 2014, mixed media assemblage, w 185cm

‘…even the most abstract categories despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations’.

Karl Marx, Introduction to the The Grundrisse

I have derived the title of this exhibition from two 1930s essays by the art historian Meyer Schapiro: The Social Bases of Art (1936), and Nature of Abstract Art (1937). The first was initially delivered as a paper to the first American Artists Congress Against War and Fascism, in New York – where Schapiro had lived from the age of three. The second was a review of Alfred H. Barr’s catalogue essay for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ in the same city. Though differently inflected, taken together the texts constitute a seminal moment in the conceptualisation of abstraction and modern art more generally – offering analysis of the evolution of art in relation to shifting social and historical relations from Impressionism through to the opening three decades of the twentieth century. This exhibition does not set out to follow Schapiro’s methodology, but instead proceeds from an interest in one of the central propositions of the two texts: that far from constituting an ‘internal, immanent process among the artists’, ‘a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems’, abstract art ‘bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture’.

To restate this proposition some three quarters of a century later, and in relation to a selection of (largely) British abstract art from across the last fifty years, deserves some explanation.Much of course has happened since the 1930s: the Second World War, The Cold War, The Wars on Terror; post-war reconstruction, 1968, the Neo-Liberal take-over; dramatic shifts in class dynamics that have accompanied the shift from industrial to service economies; the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism, pop art, post-modernism, post-structuralism, performance art, conceptualism, minimalism, post-minimalism, simulated abstraction and the YBAs; a gargantuan expansion of the global art market and culture industries; the moon landings and the growth of the computer and the internet. Standing in the wake of an economic crash and structural crisis to rival that of 1929, however, Schapiro’s aforementioned proposition remains as poignant as ever. Despite the faltering consensus of a ‘formalist’ art history, destabilised notions of canonical modernism and mass expansions in exhibition attendance, art, and abstract art in particular, remains an elusive and contradictory field prone to insular myth-making and obfuscation. Which is to say that a tendency to ‘exclude as irrelevant to its [abstract art’s] history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor’, forcefully remains. Indeed, with the quantity of abstract art ever growing, and the increasingly advanced economic interest in its commodity value ever pressing, the temptation to sink into an expanding echo chamber of internal reference and relation, severed from the field of social necessity becomes ever more acute.

Just as Schapiro noted that, ‘if the tendencies of the arts after Impressionism toward an extreme subjectivism and abstraction are already evident in Impressionism, it is because the isolation of the ideological oppositions of mind and nature, individual and society, proceed from social and economic causes which already existed before Impressionism and which are even sharper today’, so too does the continued relevance of Schapiro’s text proceed from the perpetuation and in recent years sharpening of the social and economic conditions of capitalism. It is within these conditions that art continues to be made, distributed and accorded historical value, and within these conditions that the artists involved in this exhibition have derived their concepts of both art and society – be they in apparent opposition, acceptance or indifference to dominant modes. As Schapiro had it, ‘it is as members of a society with its special traditions, its common means and purposes, prior to themselves, that individuals learn to paint, speak and act in the current manner. And it is in terms of changes in their immediate common world that individuals are impelled together to modify their no longer adequate conceptions’.

This exhibition does not dwell upon the mixture of progressive and alienating factors inherent within this situation – or proscribe an analysis based upon the shifting balance of class relations, and in this departs somewhat from Schapiro’s methodology. The decision to do so is not an attempt to neuter the radical content of the original, or to suggest that such a mode of analysis is no longer relevant, but rather proceeds from a recognition that any attempt at an overly proscriptive analysis of this nature in an exhibition of this kind would risk undermining the complexity and contradictions inherent art’s relation to such factors.

Instead the exhibition takes as its organisational principle five broad themes related to the shared social base to which I would contend that abstract art has devoted considerable attention across the past fifty years or so: History, Materials, Urban Environment, Nature and Systems. These categories (explored in more detail below) are not offered as comprehensive handles by which to approach the primary interests of the artists or work assembled, nor do they – taken together – offer a definitive account of art across the period. Instead they constitute five areas (amongst many possible others) in which I would argue abstract artists have sought, found or extended relations to wider social realities. In grouping the artists in this manner – rather than through their formal or theoretical concerns – it is my hope that something of the diversity of the dynamic and transitory relations which have emerged between abstract art and its social bases may be revealed.

I am extremely grateful to all the artists who have agreed to participate in this exhibition, most of whom will not have shown together before and many of whom have substantially different approaches to making art. In uniting these divergent works under a single rubric it is my hope that fresh affinities and divergences will emerge across the exhibition, and that some light may be thrown onto the nature of abstract art’s continuing relation to the shared social world of experience. It is, for me, in relation to this wider field that abstract art – as with other art – must live or die.


The tendency towards extreme subjectivity and abstraction that Schapiro sees as characteristic of art from Impressionism forwards appears in many ways as a negation of the kind of historical painting that had dominated the high-art culture of the preceding era. The mystical, anti-materialist writings of Kandinsky and a great deal of the pioneers of abstraction indeed contain a marked opposition to precisely the kind of phenomena which are most frequently taken to constitute the realm of history. Looking back from our vantage point, however, the Hegelian teleology which underpinned Piet Mondrian’s abstraction, the Constructivists’ coupling of their art to the social necessities of the Russian Revolution, and the ‘triumph of American painting’ – as theorised by Clement Greenberg and lent financial support by the CIA – all testify to the continuing entanglement of abstract art with broader historical imperatives across the 20th century. The means by which abstraction continues to feed off and relate to wider historical realities run through the entirety of this exhibition. In this section, however, are three bodies of work that I would like to relate – by quite different means, and more or less directly – to specific historical events: namely those surrounding the expanded ‘Wars on Terror’ of the early 2000s.

Of the three bodies of work Gary Wragg’s War and Peace series is the least direct in its mode of association. Whilst title and date suggest a possible relation to the escalating conflicts of the early 2000s, the address remains broadly metaphorical. In this they recall something of the generality of historical allusion theorised by the practitioners of Abstract Expressionism (be it Newman’s ‘horror’ or Pollock’s ‘energy’). Both the nature of the metaphor and the mode of its delivery, however, reveal the particularities of Wragg’s historical position. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in a comparison with the long-running Elegies to the Spanish Republic series by Robert Motherwell (himself a student and friend of Schapiro). Where Motherwell’s elemental pitting of black against white summoned up a partisan positioning appropriate to a conflict many considered to be the last unambiguously ‘moral’ war, Wragg’s muddied grey seems much closer to the moral ambivalence which hangs over the ill-fated conflicts of more recent years. But it is in the use of grey – not as an inert nihilistic monochrome, but as both an active and obscuring agent, wiping out all but sparse traces of the underlying field, that Wragg’s metaphor achieves its full resonance, attesting to the dynamic but irreversible erasures which the sequential pairing of War and Peace inevitably conceal. As in his broader career, Wragg’s nuanced approach to layering here succeeds in extending the metaphorical power of the painting beyond that of egoistic personal expression and heroic gesture, or the moralistic pitting of good against bad, and into the realm of lived and unfolding experience.

The amnesiac aspects of war, its ability to erase, and in turn to be erased and rewritten, were, in the early 2000s accompanied for Western viewers by a novel tension – between the physical distance of the wars and their simulated proximity, via the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle. In this they highlighted the extraordinarily expanded power of the image world, which has had a pronounced effect on artists across the 20th century and into our own. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work has repeatedly cast critical attention upon the interaction of power and image. In their War Monuments series they do so through the use of abstracted shapes (defined by the edges of an absent photograph from coverage of the War on Terror) overlain on pages from Bertholt Brecht’s War Primer – itself a mediation on the hegemonic manipulations of print media in the mid-20th Century. In linking these two historical moments through the ghostly abstract image of absent photographs, whose website addresses are referred to in the works’ titles, Broomberg and Chanarin reveal both continuity and rupture – the long-running patterns of imagery’s manipulation in modern society, and the novel bombardments of such imagery in the age of the internet. The aestheticising impact of the abstract forms thus becomes a cipher for the continuing aestheticisation of politics which links the rise of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the last century with the War on Terror in our own. Piers Secunda’s work meanwhile seems to work in reverse, imbedding the cast bullet holes from walls in Afghanistan into the pure white paint monochromes of the art object. This mode of contextual intrusion seems to cast a critical eye on the seclusion of high art from the burning realities of the world.


Schapiro’s texts do not dwell, as did, for example, the contemporary writings of Walter Benjamin, on the implications for the arts of technical innovations within broader society. The dramatic shifts in material culture which have occurred across the past two centuries, however, have had a profound impact upon art’s evolution. This has been as true in the period since Benjamin’s death as it was in the period before – and is far from confined to the effects of the reproductive image. Within the period covered by this exhibition the examples of collage, assemblage and Duchamp’s readymades have continued to offer some of the most frequent means to imbed the material realities of the world in the fabric of an artwork. From Pop Art, Neo-Dada and arte povera’s varied explorations of the rising consumer culture and its attendant detritus in the immediate post-war era, through minimalism’s embrace of ‘objecthood’, to Peter Halley’s ironic notions of the simulacra, broader shifts in material culture have consistently registered with dramatic impact.


David Mabb, Construct 46 Morris, (Kersey) Arbutus / Malevich (drawing), 2006, paint on wallpaper, 55x55cm

David Mabb, Construct 46 Morris, (Kersey) Arbutus / Malevich (drawing), 2006, paint on wallpaper, 55x55cm

 Through the repeated use of the wallpapers of the 19th Century socialist William Morris, David Mabb’s work evokes an early reaction to the shifting nature of material production. Morris’ ambition to escape the degrading qualities of capitalist modes of divided labour led him to embrace a romanticised vision of medieval craftsmanship, which became increasingly associated with his evolving utopian (but nonetheless revolutionary) socialism. Within the logic of a capitalist economy, however, Morris was forced to concede that his rejection of industrial methods placed his work beyond the limits of all but the ‘swinish luxury of the rich’. Mabb overlays fragments of Morris’ wallpaper with images often derived from the Russian avant-garde – here in the form of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist abstractions. Malevich’s own life intertwined with the moment of the Russian Revolution, which saw, for a brief period, the abstract language of the avant-garde embraced by the revolutionary state. In overlaying these two icons of revolutionary intent Mabb establishes multi-faceted dialectical tension – setting Morris’ domestic, medievalist, nature-based patterns against Malevich’s uncompromisingly modern, metaphysical abstractions; Morris’ legacy as the progenitor of a Middle-England craft aesthetic, against Malevich’s seminal high art status. There is a sense of melancholy in the way the foliage peaks through the black planes – a knowing wink to the gulf that has opened up between the ambitions of the creators and the world in which their works now exist as exalted commodities. Yet there is also a glimmer of hope – that by forcing us to look beyond the allure of the exchange-value, Mabb can go some way towards restoring the contradictory but potentially revolutionary historical value of the work.


John Bunker, Gasoline Man, 2013

John Bunker, Gasoline Man, 2013

John Bunker and Eric Moody take their raw material from the ever-increasing quantities of waste that finds its way into landfills across the world via our streets or dustbins. Bunker’s work wavers between large-scale pieces and more thoroughly domestic objects – the latter often made in small reconditioned frames cleared from repossessed houses. Across both scales fragments of waste collected in the streets of East London are worked into visually tense and minutely worked mediations on colour relationships and the history of modernist abstraction. Folded papers recall the free-floating tectonics of Russian constructivism, hairbands become ciphers of geometric abstraction and a tendency towards low light often gives a nocturnal punkish glare. Moody’s work derives from a more personal domestic realm at times offset with reference to broader historical events. Both artists remind us that collage and assemblage, through the methodologies of re-appropriation and de-familiarisation continue to offer fresh opportunities for mediated expression using the discarded products of our industrial age. Cedric Christie’s work takes a more Duchampian aim at the subject – teasing at the divide between everyday objects and the elevated field of art. His scaffolding poles’ minimally reconstituted recuperation within the gallery space teases at the sanctity of art, even as it hints at the aesthetic value of the everyday.

Urban Environment

And in the new Impressionist techniques which broke things into finely discriminated points of colour, as well as in the “accidental” momentary vision, [the cultivated rentier] found, in a degree hitherto unknown in art, conditions of sensibility closely related to those of the urban promenader and the refined consumer of luxury goods’. (Schapiro, Nature of Abstract Art).


Robyn Denny, Out-line 1, 1962, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches / 152.4 x 121.9 cm

Robyn Denny, Out-line 1, 1962, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches / 152.4 x 121.9 cm


The progress of the arts has been tied time and time again to the evolution of the urban fabric. From Mesopotamia, Egypt or Greece, through the civic spaces of the Florentine Renaissance and the spectacles of 19th century Paris, cities have for millennia been crucibles of social and economic transformations that have placed fresh demands and stimuli before artists. After the decline of Vorticism in the early 20th century, however, a strong tendency can be noted amongst British avant-garde artists towards withdrawal from urban spaces and experience. In the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, for example, we witness a refracted turn towards the rural imagination (see below).

The 1960 Situation exhibition, at the RBA Galleries in London, of which Robyn Denny was an organiser and major participant, can be seen as a seminal moment of return – highlighting a new wave of large-scale abstract painting that had emerged in London in the wake of major exhibitions of recent New York painting in 1956 and 59. It was a transitional moment in London’s history characterised by economic recovery, post-war reconstruction, mass immigration and an expanded social democratic consensus, all of which can be seen to have registered in the art of the time.As David Thompson saw it, ‘in London, scale was immediately interpreted as lateral space, and space as an aspect of environment, of the organization of urban living and of communication control. Whereas New York aesthetics were basically centered on personal self-expression, London aesthetics had a strain of social consciousness’. Or as Robyn Denny commented, ‘I am interested in public art and in urban art – public art as apart from studio art. Mondrian was interested in ideas of what the world should be like… I am interested in what urban art is’. Denny’s formulations of this urban art looked to post-war communications theory and transformations in the social sciences in an attempt to address the modern, urban spectator. Beyond his mural commissions the enduring legacy of Denny’s search remain the environmentally scaled abstractions of the early 1960s. Hard-edged, architectural and frontal they summon something of the containment and envelopment of the urban sphere whilst unleashing a world of subtle and changeable colour relations. Despite their apparent simplicity, they thus conform to their maker’s hope that ‘abstract painting, that is painting which is not about subject-matter, if it is any good should be as diverse and complex and strange and unaccountable, and unnameable as an experience, as any painting of consequence has been in the past’.


Tess Jaray, Minaret I, 1984, etching, 45cm x 35cm (sheet), Signed and numbered from the edition of 15

Tess Jaray, Minaret I, 1984, etching, 45cm x 35cm (sheet), Signed and numbered from the edition of 15


Tess Jaray did not participate in the Situation exhibition but rose to prominence in similar years in association with many of the artists who did. Her long-running interests in geometry (see over) remind us of the longer histories of abstract modes of pattern and decoration and its importance in the formation of public spaces and religious architecture across the world. The works included in this exhibition relate to one of the largest public commissions that Jaray has undertaken periodically since the 1980s – transforming the once tarmac station floor of London’s Victoria station with subtle geometries . Walked over and experienced by thousands each day for best part of thirty years, the floor offers a rare and triumphant example of a direct relation between the studio concerns of an abstract painter and the public realm. In these related works Jaray explores the geometric and perspectival presence of a floor which has filtered into the quotidian passage of millions of distracted Londoners.


Gary Wragg, Webzone 3 into 1, 2006, oil on canvas, 170 x 147 cm

Gary Wragg, Webzone 3 into 1, 2006, oil on canvas, 170 x 147 cm


Gary Wragg and Danny Rolph harness a different mode of urban experience – with the fragmented sensations of the urban environment finding an analogue in the formal dislocations of their painting. For both, the connection to the city emerges as an inevitable and largely unproblematic feature – revealing an openness of approach and a conviction regarding abstraction’s enduringly direct relation to the world of lived experience. In Wragg’s work the urban environment – where it does appear as stimulus – is processed through an expressive, improvisational and gestural approach and complex sequential layering, which harnesses something of the colour, activity, worn surfaces and fragmented temporal jumps of the metropolis. Rolph’s work, on the other hand, pursues a free-flowing unhinged approach to reference with a notable absence of pictorial gravity – a feature he attributes to his having grown up in a tower block overlooking the city. Across the multiple layers of his Triplewall paintings the perspectival jolts and lurid and fragmented imagery jostle and compete for our attentions. For all the urban inflection of this tempo, however, the immaterial world of the screen looms with equal force.


Danny Rolph, London, 2014, mixed-media-on-Tripplewall, H150x210cms

Danny Rolph, London, 2014, mixed-media-on-Tripplewall, H150x210cms


In this technological aspect the example of Peter Halley – the second American included in this show – comes into focus. With his cool ironic mode of synthetic abstraction taking us full circle in its ironic channeling of the frontal format and conduits of Robyn Denny’s 1960s works. But to Denny’s subtle low lighting and technological interests Halley adds the bright garish neon of 1980s consumer culture. In doing so he moved away from the lingering classical humanism of Denny’s approach – his mind less drawn to positivist hopes of expanding art’s social function than to an embrace of its commodity status in an image saturated world of alienation, banality and simulacra. For Halley the defining characteristics of the 20th century were relativism and doubt, and its culmination was the destruction of history, from which ‘emerges a crystalline world responsive only to numerical imperatives, formal manipulation, and financial control’. For all the apparently Marxist derivations of the critical language these end-of-history pronouncements seem entrenched in the isolation of the Western metropolis from the wider structural relocations of capitalism across the world. They offer no place for agency or resistance to the economic determinism of neo-liberalism – which has borne such bitter fruit across the period of Halley’s career.


The Situation exhibition may have marked a resurgence of abstract art based and rooted in London, but the metropolis has been far from the only touch point. William Tillyer, who was raised in the industrial town of Middlesbrough in close proximity to the Yorkshire Moors, and has split his adult life between a home in the North York Moors National Park and bases in London, has focused repeatedly upon the contrasts and tensions implicit in man’s contemporary relationship to nature – the socially determined split between ‘mind and nature’ which Schapiro identifies as a precondition of modernity. Tillyer’s art has evolved a variety of carriers for this tension, offsetting geometry and grids with free-flowing paint or gestural arabesques. In this he pits what Alan Gouk has observed as two competing tendencies running back at least as far as Baudelaire – those for and those against nature – in dialogue. (Tess Jaray’s insistence upon the natural derivation of geometry might be taken as a further contribution to this debate.)


Pete Hoida, Freighter at the Jade Isthmus, 2007, 53x240 cm, oil on canvas

Pete Hoida, Freighter at the Jade Isthmus, 2007, 53×240 cm, oil on canvas


Alan Gouk and Pete Hoida have moved from respective interests in shaped canvasses and post-painterly assertions of the picture plane, towards a more naturally inflected sense of light. Whilst they are not interested in any overtly symbolic connection to the natural realm, the admittance of a sense of naturalistic light and colour into what remains a fairly rigorously relational formal practice is of some note. Alan Gouk’s interpretation of the history of art differs significantly from Schapiro’s, and in some senses from that of this exhibition. Where Schapiro asserts that the History of Art cannot be seen as an internal imminent process amongst the artists, Gouk contends that, ‘whatever the social pressures which surround an artist, into which they are haphazardly born, painters are primarily concerned with other painters past and present to which they are drawn by “convictions of taste”’. Acknowledging the substantial divergence of opinion here, I would posit that his inclusion in this exhibition is borne out by my belief that such “convictions of taste” are themselves made in relation to a wider worldview. Whilst I share Gouk’s distrust of the post-structuralist removal of artistic agency, I would also contend that in his commitment to the continuity of the modernist project which he sees defined in all genres ‘by its tendency to erase the perceiving subject in the kind of “neutral monism” or dissolution of “self” so beloved of radical philosophers of the early 20th century, to see the world as a chain of events… which elides the distinction between mind and world, for good or ill’, he marks out a specific positioning within the wider social realities of our time.


William Tillyer, The Tyranny of the Picture Plane and Other Pressure Tools 1, 2013 , acrylic on foam and anodized aluminium, 26.38 x 26.38 x 9.06 inches / 67 x 67 x 23 cms

William Tillyer, The Tyranny of the Picture Plane and Other Pressure Tools 1, 2013 , acrylic on foam and anodized aluminium, 26.38 x 26.38 x 9.06 inches / 67 x 67 x 23 cms


In the company of the other work of this exhibition and in a wider art world characterised by amnesia, short term fads, and a great deal of underdeveloped reference Gouk and Hoida’s commitment to a painting rooted in improvisational unfolding of visual relations has its own social significance. It is one that can perhaps be best explained by Schapiro’s 1957 essay on the Liberating Quality of the Avant-Garde:by maintaining his loyalty to the value of art – to responsible creative work, the search for perfection, the sensitiveness to quality – the artist is one of the most moral and idealistic of beings, although his influence on practical affairs may seem very small. Painting by its impressive example of inner freedom and inventiveness and by its fidelity to artistic goals, which include the mastery of the formless and accidental, helps to maintain the critical spirit and the ideals of creativeness, sincerity and self-reliance, which are indispensable to the life of our culture’.

Systems +

Across the best part of half a century Gillian Wise, Jeffrey Steele and Peter Lowe – who in 1969 were founding members of the Systems group – have based their practice on an approach Alan Fowler has described as characterised by ‘two related concepts – the abstract art work as being constructed or built up of constituent elements; and this constructional process being governed by some form of predetermined and rational or logical system’. On the one hand such an art seems the furthest from anything we might perceive as a direct social message: resolutely non-representational, it rejects narrative cooption and stands against the notions of metaphor, reference or self-expres sion by which much abstract art maintains its link to the world. As Jeffrey Steele has said it ‘I prefer to see things as they are not standing for other things’. Placed within the wider hegemonic battles of 20th century culture, however, the Systems group’s insistence upon a ‘non-egocentric art’ favouring rationally derived means of construction above and beyond ‘expressive content’ and their tracing of an international lineage through Art Concret and international Constructivism take on a specific position in the wider field of social relations.


Jeffrey Steele, Sytagma Sg IV 96, 2003, ink and tempera on paper,12 x 16 ins

Jeffrey Steele, Sytagma Sg IV 96, 2003, ink and tempera on paper,12 x 16 ins


At the outset the group was marked by its opposition to what they perceived as the dominant trend of expressive US derived abstraction. In this they became embroiled within a wider conflict between rational and non-rational (or expressive) art, which flows through much of the 20th century (think of the fierce opposition between Abstraction-Creation and the Surrealists). Across the late 20th century it is a conflict which many ‘rationalists’ see as exacerbated by the climate of the Cold War – with the CIA’s funding of US Abstract Expressionism confirming an increasing dominance of North American art and a historic devaluation of the Russian and European Constructivist tradition, in which the Systems group trace their artistic heritage.

For Gillian Wise, writing in the exhibition catalogue of the 1972 Systems exhibition, the Constructivist tradition’s ‘vision of the potential effect of technology on art and society’ had left unresolved the extent to which ‘art is a product and fulfilling a social need’. To these ends Wise suggested that both the ‘mystic functionalism’ of Malevich, Mondrian and Vantongerloo and the ‘direct social service’ of Tatlin, Lissitsky and the Bauhaus seemed worthy of more investigation. Whilst she described her work as ‘private studio works done in search for a general principle (and/or formal language)’, therefore, she felt that they also seemed to be ‘projected into an interesting vacuum that could later be filled by different demands of art’.


Peter Lowe, Untitled , 2004, From 25 per Paolo Minoli, Silkscreen

Peter Lowe, Untitled , 2004, From 25 per Paolo Minoli, Silkscreen


In this notion of a vacuum Wise encapsulates something of what Alan Fowler has noted as a tendency amongst the Systems group to turn away from the utopian visions of preceding constructive movements and towards the refinement of the art object. It seems notable, however, that it was a divergence of opinion regarding the political nature of the Systems based work that led to the group’s disbanding in the late 1970s. In Peter Lowe’s account of this moment he contrasts his own faith in art as an apolitical sphere with the more radically inflected Marxism of Jeffrey Steele. It is, indeed, in Steele’s writing that we find the most positive though nuanced thoughts regarding the social importance of Systems based art, its relation to experimental music and its novel ritual function. Writing in 1973 he identified a ‘rough hopefully benign social entropy’ in wider society that ‘suggests a continuing need for forms of art and criticism which are generous of clear, specific, rational, radical propositions’. More recently he has spoken of a ‘deeper emancipatory social function for art’ imbedded in the way in which ‘non-mimetic art displaces the narrative content outwards from the internal to the external, ie from the domain of fiction to that of concrete reality itself’, thus relocating the ‘imaginative sphere’ in the ‘everyday’, and engaging the viewer in thinking about how these ‘sensuous particulars’ came into being.

Andrew Bick, OGVDS-GW [again] WTF, 2008-14, 76 x 64cm, acrylic, pencil, oil paint, watercolour, wax and linen on wood

Andrew Bick, OGVDS-GW [again] WTF, 2008-14, 76 x 64cm, acrylic, pencil, oil paint, watercolour, wax and linen on wood


Andrew Bick’s work as both a curator and a painter has turned time and again to a fascination with the work of the Systems group – yet it is underpinned by a markedly different sensibility. For Bick – a painter raised and educated in the 1980s – on the rising careers of post-modernist figures like Bernard Frize and Jonathan Lasker, and amidst the radical transformations of Thatcher’s Britain the Systems group constitute a rediscovery – a tradition in which the sensations of doubt and relativistic irony which gained currency during the 1980s seem conspicuously absent. In his work across recent years, Bick has merged aspects of a systematic practice (subjecting grids to perspectival distortions), with a distinctly subjective mode of self-reference and complex layering. Any coherent sense of systematic structure thus lies obscured beneath the layers of scratched paint and translucent plastics. His art as such replaces a commitment to rationality and systematic practice with question and doubt – yet seems to mourn something of what it suggests as by-gone certainties of the modernist project. In this perhaps Bick gives form to his belief in the malaise of the contemporary ‘absence of an embedded social contract’.

Between these modes of commitment and doubt, structure and expression, concrete reality and allusion, geometry and gesture, modernism and post-modernism, can be found some of the varied modes by which abstract art continues to extend relation to the wider social realm. Such variation is itself a testament to the fragmentation of our age and some of the hegemonic divides that cut deep across our culture.


The Social Bases of Abstract Art – an exhibition curated by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann – will run from October 4th-November 15th 2014, at UpDown Gallery, Ramsgate.

Featuring work by: David Batchelor, Andrew Bick, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Bunker, Cedric Christie, Keith Coventry, Robyn Denny, Alan Gouk, Robin Greenwood, Peter Halley, Pete Hoida, Tess Jaray, Peter Lowe, David Mabb, Eric Moody, Robert Motherwell, Danny Rolph, Piers Secunda, Jeffrey Steele, William Tillyer, Gillian Wise, Gary Wragg









  1. Ray Thomson said…

    The Social Bases of Abstract Art: The Case of “Exhibiting Space”

    Amongst its many achievements, “Exhibiting Space” (1983 ¬– 1990 –) ‘dedicated to raising the public profile of Systematic and Constructive Art Practices’, will have been the most philosophically informed and best organised challenge to the Popeish, pre-scientific version of ‘Marxism’ relentlessly promoted, within SCAP, by the likes of Jeffrey Steele.

    That is why “ES” had to be destroyed.

    Pre-scientific Methodology

    Sustained campaign of professional and personal denigration aimed at bringing about the disintegration of the social bases of “Exhibiting Space” (its social relations of production).

    Cover the historical traces – enlist the ignorance or carelessness of others.


    Maintenance of the Authorised Version.

    Scientific? Rational? Progressive? Revolutionary? Emancipatory?

    Don’t think so.

  2. Rees Bushell said…

    Brilliant exhibition, wonderfully curated in a great gallery. A must see.