Abstract Critical

Provisional Painting, Three Hypotheses

Written by Alan Pocaro

If you’re interested in contemporary painting you’ve probably noticed that a massive realignment in the art-world is underway. As if waking from a culturally induced coma, abstract painting is back and ready to make up for lost time. Leading the critical charge are what’s been christened “provisional” or “casual” paintings; flagship abstract styles that seem to embrace aesthetic poverty as a positive factor. Wildly diverse in scale, scope, media and quality, these paintings share few formal or technical traits and are bound together mainly by their inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike. However, if you find the hype disproportionate to the reality of this revival of abstraction, you’re not alone. Here then, are three hypotheses that explain its current popularity.

I.

The first, owing to its prosaic nature, is probably the most correct: provisional painting is an illusion. As the product of several gifted writers’ fertile imaginations, treatments on provisional painting are simply the literary equivalents of making a five-star meal out of leftover McDonalds. Bad painting has never had it so good, been more prevalent, or had so many well-placed, intelligent champions. There’s no malicious intent here, these writers mean well, but ultimately they’re just doing what writers do; trying to tell a good story and making the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative. No harm, no foul.

II.

Hypothesis two is slightly more complex and I’ll have to bore you with a bit of my own history to explain it. For several years after completing my MFA I had the great fortune to adjunct-instruct at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. The Art Academy of Cincinnati has a long and prestigious history and is endowed with excellent professors who are dedicated and talented artists.(1) But as an incubator of creativity par excellence, the Art Academy, like art schools across the globe, has a tendency to attract a particular sub-set of student which my current employer, a public four-year university, is strangely bereft of.

These students could be found clustered in small groups just outside the school’s front doors outfitted in regulation torn leg-wear, leather jackets, strategically unkempt hair and immersed in a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke. They were my favorite students, smart, funny and happy to bum me a smoke when I needed one. In addition to a particular type of dress, many of these students made a particular type of work. Whether 2D or 3D, much of it looked “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling” (2) and it frequently displayed “a studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness” (3) that didn’t just court failure, it was set to marry it.

While Raphael Rubenstein might have called this work “Provisional Painting” and Sharon Butler may have dubbed it “The New Casualism”, at the Art Academy, a few adjunct instructors and I had a different term for it: Poseur-Art. Far from “reassessing basic elements like color, composition, and balance, based on 1920s-vintage Bauhaus principles” (4) these students probably never understood those concepts in the first place, nor did they care. Much of the work appeared “causal” and “dashed-off” because it was, often moments before a group critique. Despite the paucity of visual achievement, they were adept at discussing their work as if its creation had involved genuine existential struggle.

Don’t get me wrong, they were good kids, and in many ways they’re the legitimate heirs to the art-world post-modernism bequeathed them. A world where the old gods of talent, originality, inspiration and authorship were killed; replaced by a pantheon of Marxist-inspired impotents and deified by a university-museum-gallery complex more interested in semiotic connotations than impeccable craft. Is it really such a leap to go from Duchamp’s art-as-intention, to art-as-attitude?

What we are witnessing with the ascendancy of provisional or DIY abstraction is simply the widespread institutionalization of the “poseur” mentality as a viable art-making strategy. It’s a mindset that values the idea of being a painter and the sociological approach adopted in the studio far more than the arduous reality of making good paintings, or even of the painting itself. While it may be true that, as Walter Darby Bannard has said “there is no sweat equity in art”(5) surely there should at least be some sweat? The core tenants of conceptualism have so thoroughly colonized the “discourse” that the return of circa 1980’s “bad” painting can be hailed as a triumph while Roberta Smith quickly dispatches highly-skilled work as “rotten” and “radioactive”(6).

Today, “artist” is just another option on a buffet of available lifestyle choices that emphasize style not substance. Not nearly thoughtful enough to be conceptual, nor skillful enough to be aesthetically captivating, provisional painting falls harmlessly and lifelessly in the middle. Easy enough for anyone to make, It’s the ultimate peoples’ art with a decidedly American flavor. Provisional painting fits perfectly into an art historical narrative conceived in Marxist terms; one that thrives on the novelty of the new and the myth of historical progress.

III.

My final hypothesis explains the popularity of provisional abstraction in somewhat more pessimistic terms. This vaunted “re-birth”, hailed across the art-world, is merely another manifestation of the wider cultural nostalgia industry; a longing for the look, feel, and glories of the past in a backward-looking present thoroughly corrupted by indifference and cynicism. Since we cannot imagine what a future for abstraction might actually look like, a bevy of painters mine the past, adopting desiccated gestures as if there were meaningful aesthetic victories at stake. But there aren’t.

The heyday of abstract painting as a cultural force is well and truly over. There are no longer any significant cultural-aesthetic resistances against which to assert an individual stylistic vision and as a result, making bad painting doesn’t look revolutionary, it just looks bad. That doesn’t mean important abstraction ceases to be made. “It survives” as Greenberg once said “in the face of this new rationalization for the lowering of standards” (7) in the hands of practitioners who value the sweat of the brow at least as much as the life of the mind, and for whom pictorial quality may require formal novelty, but is not beholden to it.

There’s no reason to give up painting, but there are good reasons to stop making claims on its behalf. Disquisitions on “new developments” in abstract painting –or any kind for that matter- make for good copy, but they have the side effect of keeping last century’s spurious theories on life-support. The old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century. It’s time we set aside old habits and seek new avenues for production and new paradigms for discussion.

 

1.Founded in 1869, is was the first art school in the United States to admit women as students and some of its more notable alumnae include Tom Wesselmann, Julian Stanczak, and Petah Coyne.

2. Raphael Rubenstein “Provisional Painting” Art in America, May 2009. 

3. Sharon Butler “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists” The Brooklyn Rail, June 3, 2011

4. ibid.

5. Walter Darby Bannard “Aphorisms for Artists” Chapter 21.

6. Roberta Smith “Blazing a Trail for Hypnotic Hyper-Realism” The New York Times, March28, 2013

7. Clement Greenberg “Modern and Postmodern” in “Clement Greenberg Late Writings” ed. Robert C Morgan, originally Arts 54, no. 6, February 1980 p.66

 

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  1. Martin Mugar said…

    I have written a new essay that starts with the reality of provisional painting as grounded in weak metaphysics and suggests a way out to a new way of thinking.
    http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2014/03/can-you-jump-out-of-enframementor-is.html

  2. Brian Dupont said…

    Sam, Ben Street and I had planned additional writings on the Provisional in painting; with Alan’s piece serving as Abstract Critical’s opening engagement, my response is here:

    http://briandupont.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/provisional-criticism-and-the-new-mannerism/

    While I did not agree with Alan on much of anything, responding to his piece did give me the impetus to put in writing some ideas about art writing & criticism/ history I’ve been thinking through for awhile.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      This was originally posted to Brian’s site:

      Brian, I don’t want to beleaguer this, but I do think you’ve mischaracterized my essay. While I conclude with the desire that we seek new avenues for discussion that escape last century’s critical structures, the purpose of my piece is to offer three hypotheses, of varying degrees of seriousness, that attempt to explain the phenomenon of provisional or casual or whatever-you-want-to-call it painting; its primary purpose is not, as you say, to “search for a way forward”.

      Additionally, at no time in the essay do I suggest that these are the only possibilities which explain these strategies. My “limited set of options” has more to do with being mindful of a word-count than any “unimaginativeness” when it comes to the possibilities of painting or “unwillingness to consider a different point of view”. There is a palpable ad hominem character to some your statements. The underlying accusation being that I am a conservative and a reactionary, and by implying that I have the art-world equivalent of leprosy and I am keen on “Refusing the utility of careful looking and thinking” you can easily dismiss my criticism without really addressing it.

      The irony of a writer complaining about art writing is not lost on me, in fact, it’s intentional, which is why I lead the essay with it. But you’re overstating my arguments. What I am implying is not that these manifestations are fictions “created from whole cloth” but rather that there are so many types of artistic practice in 2014 that anyone can cherry-pick a bunch of painters and then invent a stylistic development to suit it. If I were privileged enough to live in Manhattan or write for Art in America, my cherry-picked list of artists and subsequent essay linking them theoretically would carry a lot more weight than the ramblings of provincial mid-western discontent. That hierarchy which still places New York and New York artists at the center of the critical discourse is a major part of the problem.

      And because it’s easy to make me look like a bad guy for relating a tongue-in-cheek anecdote about some former students, you completely ignore the charge that it’s setting up; which is that we live in an age where the idea of being something is more important than the reality of actually being it. Because visual art is a particularly nebulous human pursuit, it is highly susceptible to this phenomenon. Art which can be made quickly and effortlessly and is immune to criticism fits neatly into the idea of “creative artist as lifestyle choice”.

      As to my unstated bias towards art history, theory, and technique; you’ve reduced my argument to a caricature that foolishly equates hard work and skill with good art, despite my belief to the contrary and the recognition in the essay that there is “no sweat equity in art”, and the numerous comments I made below which reinforce that statement. I would not presume to claim to know what type of art you like and what you think is good or bad, based on a single essay that you wrote. You don’t know what I like either, or why.

      Finally, I am not sure how stating that “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” is an argument for the status quo… and would cede authority back to the Established power structure by default of not allowing for an alternative.” You leave out the part where I specifically call for new paradigms for discussion and creation. The problem, as I see it, is precisely the lack of alternatives, not the abundance of them.

  3. Martin Olsson said…

    If “Provisional Painting” is weak because it is hastily thrown together and an element of informed consideration is missing, surely time will be the ultimate judge of this style’s viability. Speed of creation would perhaps attract more artists to have a go, especially if this style seems to not carry the demands of ponderous premeditation, and this could possibly lead to higher volumes of this particular style to be produced. If abstract output was getting saturated with such work, surely we’d all sooner reach some sort of idea of this particular style’s merits and demerits. If it is too “shallow”, time should judge it so, whether it finds favour in some camps at this moment. Conversely, if it’s here to stay, its viability must be intertwined with its nature and changing attitudes in the art world as well, whether we approve or not. More considered and informed work defends itself by constantly referring to its nature. Could, however, the ascent of Provisional Painting be a completely logical step into the future taken and applauded by them who feel the incessant need to “innovate” in absurdum and could it thus perhaps be one of the clearest indications yet that modernism has reached a cul-de-sac where forwards isn’t necessarily the only way to go?

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Michael, (and Alan P),
    If you are attempting to nudge art toward solving or salving the problematic fragmentation of modern life, as you (Michael) put it (but speak for yourself), then I think you are on a double-loser. First, it won’t have any impact; second, the art just won’t improve from such efforts, because you are addressing issues that are extrinsic. The crux of this matter is – how do we make better abstract art? My life in the studio may be difficult at times, but it is not fragmented or atomised and not a reflection of problems in society or culture. Nor, I imagine is the studio-life of thousands of other abstract artists. Artists can and should make their own culture. Broad cultural definitions from commentators (you or me) on the whole don’t help much, which is where Alan and I previously parted company on his wanting to define what “art” is in order to revert to some better model from the past based on fixed limits. I’d rather let abstract painting and sculpture at their most active and exciting in the present tense define themselves.

    I’d make two very clear points: firstly, real abstract art now is a very different animal from historical “abstraction”, because it is not derived from anything, or seeking to be an image of anything, or represent in any way anything, whether figurative or metaphysical or symbolic. In fact, my experience is that it’s attempting to shed more and more of that stuff. And secondly, real abstract art I don’t see at all as being a result of art’s atomisation, I see it as an inevitable and logical progression out of, and displacement of, figurative art (a continuation and focus on the “abstract-ness”, or what is genuinely “visual” in the best figurative art). Your definition of abstraction as some kind of “extraction” from the world is a very literal (verging on literary) and passive kind of distinction which has little to do with painting or sculpture at the coal-face. The most important thing is to realise that there is a lot further to go with abstract art; it could get more abstract – that is, less literal, less of everything that holds it back from being the great and exciting thing it could be. Wanting to bring back metaphysics or subject matter or figuration won’t help. We need to look and look again at the work we call abstract, and understand better how it works and what it does. Then get back in the studio and try to act on those impulses to improve it. This, of course, (to get back on topic) is the problem with Provisional painting etc. – its complacency about all such issues. But to focus on theory and definitions too much, and not focus on the work itself, on analysing and discussing the activity or “abstract content”, is another kind of complacency. There exists, in fact, a great need for writers on art such as yourself to focus very specifically on what the best abstract art is doing, and what it could do in the future. From where I stand (and ignoring the irrelevances of said Provisionalism etc.), abstract art has not lost its way; it’s just not very far down it. We don’t know the answers to lots of questions about abstract art, but that makes it very exciting.

    • Peter Stott said…

      2D surface = form representation =image of, that’s ALL 2D surfaces, call it what you want, but to deny that state of things is a joke, and it is, Jonathan Lasker doing everything he can to deny that fact, but only artfully, knowingly… incidentally draws
      preparatory studies beforehand (see vimeo) (one of my favourite artists) is this not-provisional painting?

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      I’d just like to point out that my interest in “defining art” is directed towards defining the activities which we might call art-making. I have no historical model for art or artistic quality that I’d like to revert to.

      We live in an age where feeding the homeless or donating blood -all noble efforts- are frequently conflated with artistic practices. They’re not. I seek to define the limitations of artistic practice as an activity rooted in materials transformation because it clarifies the discussion. I have no interest in defining the result, indeed it cannot be defined beforehand.

  5. JB said…

    Rubenstein’s article focused a lot on Miro as a forebearer. I think Matisse is perhaps a more appropriate origin to formally trace back this lineage of painting. “Conceptually” he lacks some of the cynicism and tongue-in-cheek elements that comes with the pretense of historical scope that defines our current artistic time, but some of his works are just as troubling and off putting as these new painters.

  6. John Link said…

    Alan, this is a fine set of comments. #2 appeals to me especially as I once taught art, for something like 40 years. A lot of students approached “abstraction” and “expressionism” like the way you describe, as a function of their youth and disinterest. Yet other students, some, put much more into what they did. That is the typical mix, I found.

    #3 – I can quibble here. Nothing is apriori irrelevant to painting or art. You can’t rule anything out, even when it seems like a no brainer. Maybe the po-mos will finally come up with something. The proof is always in the pudding, and nowhere else.

    So I agree that #1 is where it’s at. The writers might be intelligent, but any writing that attaches to weak art is polluted from the get go.

    Thanks for a good read.

  7. Robin Greenwood said…

    The best criticism of Provisionalism/Casualism/DIY is perhaps the simplest. In abstract art it is impossible to pre-determine or think-up an original idea; that has to come from a process of discovery, a trial and error activity. If you don’t put in the work, your painting will inevitably fall back upon academic banality, which is where this work is mired.

  8. John Pollard said…

    I enjoyed this essay Alan, but I do worry about moving towards some kind of straightforward and even essential ‘truth’ as to what ‘genre’ of abstract painting is somehow better than another. While I enter into this game myself and find it useful at times, I keep finding evidence to the contrary. For example if we can find one very good provisional painting surely there can be others?
    The logic might then suggest that because there aren’t many, very good provisional paintings are just very hard to do?
    People seem to be holding out for something completely new? A brave new world of abstract art? What would that ‘look’ like? In one way every new painting in the whole wide world is new and original (as an object in its own right). Of course it may not be very good or very interesting.
    I like what I consider to be ‘good painting’. This can be of all kinds of style. I’d rather categorise by quality than genre. And I’d rather judge every single individual painting or sculpture on its own merits.
    Alan, as to “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism” being “worn out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” I’d be interested to hear what alternative arguments there might be?

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      John, you’ve brought up some interesting issues, that by and large, I agree with. By virtue of its provocative intent, the essay necessarily paints with a broad brush. By acknowledging art writing as part of the larger issue at the beginning of the essay, my assumption is that the reader is able to tease this out.

      There is no formula for artistic success and I accept that any strategy may yield great art. “Provisional” or “Casual” or “DIY” abstraction (ambiguous terms that describe vast swaths diverse paintings) is the focus of this essay due in-part to what I perceive as the normalization of failure as a destination (rather than a necessary obstacle to struggle through) as part of the discourse that surrounds these practices.

      Some of my other criticisms, particularly regarding the backward-looking nature of contemporary society, can just as easily be leveled at highly-skilled representational artists that want to pretend its still 1850. I don’t exempt them from the charge.

      Ultimately when I speak of “good” and “bad” painting I’m am not referring solely to a simple-minded visual success. I’m speaking of painting that acknowledges the human condition in profound ways. Coming face to face with a work such as Lee Krasner’s “Celebration” is an awesome and uplifting experience. That painting embodies the freedom of the spirit and rebirth through suffering.

      One might argue that as anxious and unresolved objects, works by many of these provisional artists also embody aspects of the human condition. And you’d be right, but these objects often seem content to reflect the way we understand ourselves and the world around us rather than to transform it, and to me that is the fulcrum upon which great art pivots.

      As to those new paradigms, well that’s the problem isn’t it? How do we get out of the forest?

      The first thing would be to acknowledge that the way we think about and discuss art today has not always been the case. Martin Mugar has an excellent post on his site where he discusses Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as being a magical talisman, created to counter the melancholy influence of Saturn. That doesn’t usually come up in your typical Western Survey course, and yet it points to a way of thinking about a painting that isn’t simply a materialist reduction susceptible to the vagaries of semiotic analysis.

      We might want to think about the relativity unproductive role the gallery has played in the past 80 years in contextualizing non-art as art. We might want to think about what constitutes art-making as a specific activity, where are its limitations, or does it have any? We might also want to think about the critical role transformation (of materials, ideas, etc) plays in the creation of art. For example: when does a glob of paint cease being a glob of paint and become something critical to the structure of the new world of the painting? What is that new world?

      I’d point you to the work of Michael Paraskos (full disclosure: he’s a friend) as someone whom I think has really stuck his neck out there and proposed some truly provocative ideas about how we might think about the nature of painting and sculpture. Of course we’re all free to disagree and make up our own minds, and we should. That’s what makes art so compelling to think about.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Are you and Paraskos members of some weird new-age religious cult trying to infiltrate abcrit, with your “magic talisman” and “rebirth through suffering”? Yikes.

        Something tells me you don’t do abstract. Since when was “visual success” simple-minded? And don’t answer “Provisional”, because they don’t do success.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Regarding image analysis, what aspect of the human condition do you think can be extrapolated from the painting by the viewer? What knowledge has been garnered from art to ascertain the difference between a human brushstroke and that of a monkey or elephant?

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        I don’t want to get roped into yet another protracted and fruitless debate with you, Robin. But I do find it odd that many so-called proponents of abstraction are quick to forget its roots in late 19th and early 20th century spiritualism and psychoanalysis. I suppose you must think that Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, Pollock, Graham and the rest were all members of some weird new-age cult as well?

        As to “simple-minded visual success” look no further than abstract art-light for sale at the local Target, Ikea, or Marks and Spencer, which was part of the topic of our last debate. Those works surely look “good”, and as decorative items are completely devoid of substance.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d be happy to disassociate abstract art from any and all of that magical mystery turn-of-the-century spiritualist theosophist stuff. We don’t need it, and I’m not convinced they did. Actually, Kandinsky and Malevich were both much better painters before they went “abstract” and got too immersed in all that guff. As Jonathan Meades said on telly the other night, art which seeks to illustrate the sublime is rarely sublime in itself (or something like that).

      • Michael Paraskos said…

        Blimey! I turn on the TV (okay the PC) to discover I’m West Norwood’s answer to Sun Myung Moon!

        I have raised the issue with you before, Robin, at least in print when you started Abstract Critical I think, over whether the division between abstraction and non-abstraction is useful any more.

        http://epoch-archive.com/a1/en/uk/nnn/2011/02-Feb/23/011_Art.pdf

        What Alan has made me wonder with his article and the responses to it is whether that is more than a question as to whether figurative art has abstract elements in it (of course it does) or whether abstract art could be read as figurative (again of course there is something landscapy about Kandsinsky, Frost, Heron etc which suggests that).

        Isn’t it really a question whether one is interested in reiterating the existing nature of reality or one is creating a new reality?

        In creating a new reality I would suggest one is always making something ‘abstract’ in that one is not dealing with the everyday world any more, one is dealing with something outside of it. That something might look a bit like our world, but it is not our world so is not in that sense figurative.

        Similarly if one is just reiterating existing reality, including the reiteration of the material property of paint, colour, form, à la Greenberg, then one is always ‘figurative’.

        If so then the terms figurative and abstraction are not used to delineate whether one can see what it is, they are used to denote something obsessed with existing reality (figuration) or something that attempts, perhaps futilely, to move outside existing reality, to create a reality (abstraction).

        Most art, I suspect, moves between these two positions, but that seems to be a simple and useful polarity, and one that doesn’t need to lead us to worry about transcendental meditation!

      • John Pollard said…

        Thanks for your reply Alan. You say:

        “Ultimately when I speak of “good” and “bad” painting I’m not referring solely to a simple-minded visual success. I’m speaking of painting that acknowledges the human condition in profound ways.”

        Perhaps the profundity of a work of art may be due to both the artist’s ability to create something visually special out of their materials and the viewers capacity to appreciate it. Perhaps that is a profound part of being human? Perhaps artist and viewer are co-creating something special?

        I’m not sure one can separate the visual quality of the work and its profundity regarding the human condition in a very clear way.

        I don’t have a problem with interpretations of a work, such as embodying “the freedom of the spirit and rebirth through suffering” that you mention, although a problem can arise when this takes over from the visual quality, a problem we see in much painting as well as more conceptual work.

        One has to be careful as the painting can get left behind; you can actually be talking not about the work of art any longer but about how you feel now, what you believe, etc. The question remains, where is the work in all this profundity? A very successful ‘visual success’ can move someone, or act as a catalyst to an experience. Perhaps Krasner’s painting is such a big ‘visual’ success for you that you have your profound reaction. But where lies the profundity and what exactly has brought it about?

        I don’t have an easy answer to all this because it is essentially a complex philosophical problem that remains a bit of a mystery.

        Although we can aim for some more clarity on the mystery.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Michael,
        Now we know where you live, we can mobilise the abcrit Ghostbusters apparatus. Serves you right for working for these strange Chinese publications…

        As for your definitions of abstract and figurative, they appear as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot. I’ll give you 10/10 for originality though. Presumably your mate and fellow “New Aestheticist” Clive Head, who makes mucked-about-with-photo-realist paintings, is an arch abstractionist working at the cutting edge of what we are all trying to do, futile exercise though it is.

        Mmm… I rather think you and Alan both just don’t “do” abstract. Never mind, I’m sure.

      • Sam said…

        Robin, I’m not sure it makes sense for you to be quite so dismissive of Michael. Your own stress on the “new”, and distinction between “abstract” and “abstractness” doesn’t seem hugely remote from what he is saying.

      • Sam said…

        John P – that is very sensible

      • Peter Stott said…

        There is nothing abstract in the universe, whatever it is one is painting, it’s not abstract, one can’t paint ‘nothing’. Can’t rule out ‘religion’ ‘God’ ‘mysticism’ ‘spirituality’, cos one doesn’t even know what it is one is doing, if one is creating this type of imagery known as abstract’.

      • Michael Paraskos said…

        Robin, I think my point is that Alan (if I can presume to speak on his behalf a moment) and myself do do abstraction, we just don’t see it as being synonymous with abstract painting and that is what makes it in a sense a (and I do stress the indefinite article) logical development of twentieth-century abstraction.

        Isn’t there a case to be made that abstraction, and other modernist phenomena, represented an atomisation of art into its constituent parts. That was, as someone else sensibly mentioned in this discussion, an inevitable response to the fragmentation of modern life, but the question then is whether we should remain atomised, or attempt a Herbert Read-ian style reintegration.

        If so, then the issue is what do we mean by the word abstract, and related to that, what Alan has discussed here, what do we mean by abstract painting?

        Do we really, or only, mean forms that are non-figurative insofar as they do not look like things in the world, or do we mean something more fundamental to do with a wider range of art, as something that is abstracted outwith the world. I admit “extraction” might be a more accurate term for what I am describing, but that sounds too much like a visit to the dentist to catch on, so I am sticking to my guns and sticking with abstraction.

        Don’t forget the strange dissident Chinese newspaper booted me out for not writing on figurative art enough, or rather I was given an ultimatum to only cover figurative art (in the sense I think you mean the word) and avoid anything too contemporary. I chose to get out, so I am a dissident from the dissidents!

        As for Ghostbusters, be careful, there’s a huge cemetery in West Norwood – you don’t know what you might raise from its murky depths!

      • Noela said…

        Just thinking about Michael and Peter wondering what abstraction is. As far as painting goes, I rather like Pete Hoida’s remark ( in his video ) talking about ‘incidents in paint’. Think of it as one incident after another, with a bit of scrutiny in between.

  9. Naomi Schlinke said…

    Instead of looking to the young poseurs for the next wave of abstraction, why not do the culturally unthinkable and look at what artists over 50 are doing with it? Our youth was spent absorbing the direct experience of artists like Motherwell, De Kooning, Diebenkorn, and many others. We hold within our selves the (so called) out of date notion of craft and existential honesty that is apparently lacking in the current crop of abstract stylists.

  10. Craig S. Stockwell said…

    Apologize for the (near) repeat. I thought the first post didn’t go through…

  11. Craig S. Stockwell said…

    This very teetering on the edge of there being not much there is where the fascination lies (and reflects our culture). When provisional painting succeeds it is this maddening moment wherein so little has been apparently done and labored over and yet there are paintings that hold the room with a light (im)perfection. This is not done without great risk. Katherine Bernhardt’s show at Canada does it. Patricia Treib did it.

    • Martin Mugar said…

      Hi Craig,
      Glad to hear your voice in this debate.
      Maybe we should abandon this use of Provisional.It makes Matisse sound provisional when he isn’t and probably ignores all the hard work that went into something that looks provisional. In 1999 my friend Addison Parks curated a show at Crieger Dane in Boston that I was included in ,called “Severed Ear” which basically made the point that abstraction is a language that can be used to describe the soul,events,states of mind etc.It was pretty much ignored by the Boston critics but I wrote a recollection of it a few years ago for Berkshire Fine Arts.http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/07-08-2010_rethinking-the-severed-ear.htm

      It included Joan Snyder,Bill Jensen,Richard Tuttle,Forrest Bess and Milton Resnick among other Boston Painters like Tim Nichols.

  12. Craig S. Stockwell said…

    One possibility not discussed is actually the hard work that a very good provisional painter does to rise out of the mess. Because it tends to look like nothing, when it does become something, a painting that holds the room, it is all the more astonishing. It is this very teetering on the edge of there being not much there that creates the excitement. Katherine Bernhardt’s current show is an example.

    • Peter Stott said…

      So, in a good provisional painting there is ‘something there that works’, otherwise it wouldn’t hit the spot with its groove. In a bad provisional painting ‘there really was nothing there of any merit’. There was a differentiation, some qualitative thing was going on.

  13. Martin Mugar said…

    I think putting this art in the context of nihilism helps make sense out of this art.It is our modern condition.Vattimo’s notion of weak thought is also helpful.Read my blog.I agree the rubric Provisional confuses the issues.
    http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-nihilist-condition-and-provisional.html

    • John Bunker said…

      Hi Martin,
      Many thanks for your thoughts on nihilism. Your blog entry instantly reminded me
      of the spat between TJ Clark and Michael Fried during the 80s. Fried was arguing that Modernist art was an essentially positive development from one aesthetic discovery to another, a process of refinement and clarification negotiated between a succession of ‘great artists’. Clark argued that the ‘great’ art of Modernism was fuelled by a nihilistic vulgarity, peculiar to the alienation and violence wrought upon individuals and societies by Capitalism. Modernism anarchically smashed its way through one aesthetic cul de sac and social taboo after another.

      So could it be argued, that nihilism, far from being a inherently post modern pose, has always been part of Modernist art’s “cultural force”? How might abstraction generally be part of that? Are Provisional strategies evolving from this particular strand of Modernist DNA?

      “Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards.”

      Brian Dupont’s full text is here. http://briandupont.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/a-provisional-explanation/

      I’m taking these words by Brian Dupont out of context but they ring true to my experience. Is it still possible or desirable to re-imagine an idea of abstraction as a ‘cultural force’ that connects with and possibly redefines some idea of resistance to the onslaught of ‘Spectacular’ culture?

      • Martin Mugar said…

        Thanks for reading the blog.Thanks for pointing out the earlier discussions and Duponts article. When I stumbled across the Provisional Painting talk,it struck me as sharing much that is already part of modernist painting. However,I made a distinction between Matisse, who has a positivist trope of the scientist’s search for truth so that any provisional looking gesture is a step on the way toward that truth and the contemporary provisional painters who make everything ironic.Try my other blog on Colen.I think it addresses something that I think may be a way out of this impasse:the ability to address time in painting.http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2013/12/zombie-artthe-lingering-life-of.html

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Thank you both for bringing up some very interesting issues here.

        John, I’d describe the idea of “cultural force” as anything that works within and upon culture, changing it and reshaping it, sometimes radically, in the process. It can be an idea, an image, an event, or a mode of production. One might even wield it.

        As to nihilism’s role in all of this, I think there’s a great deal to be said for that, Martin. Recently, I was discussing a particular “culture-war issue” here in the United States and a poll was cited as an example of “American’s increasing acceptance” of this said issue.

        But the fact is, the poll was only evidence of increasing nihilism. American’s simply no longer care, nor believe enough in anything to resist cultural change for good or ill.

        Secular-Humanism is a vastly more profitable enterprise than sincerely-held belief systems that place something other than the self at the center of the universe. Since capitalism cannot abide barriers to profit whether they be physical or psychic, it uses nihilism as a kind of cultural steam-roller.

        Clearly this is a long way out from my essay, but I think there is a relationship between widespread nihilism as cultural force and an acceptance of very raw, visually impoverished art, as good.

        Finally, and this is the crux of a 4th Hypothesis that I cut from the original draft, I think what we are witnessing is in-part a result of art in the age of electronic reproduction. I can scan through 100,000 years of human image making in about 5 minutes, often at a resolution impossible to experience in real life. It’s only a matter of time before artists and art enthusiasts become desensitized to the impact conventional standards beauty, finish, and visual success have upon the viewer and so seek new experiences in novel configurations of its antithesis: the ugly.

        How we get out of the forest is another matter altogether. I’ll be the first to admit its much easier to criticize what’s wrong than offer a positive vision to make it right. But with art its particularly challenging in that new ideas that stand in opposition to the dominant paradigm will likely be dismissed out of hand.

        Some artists like being in the forest, some refuse to concede that there is anything but the forest, and others will question the authority of the individual who suggests we get out of the forest in the first palce. But I think there are enough of us willing to try that its worth doing.

      • George Rodart said…

        It’s unlikely. I view Modernism as an expression of the Industrial Age, It added “abstraction” to the language of painting and through reductionism purged it to a cul de sac. We enter the Information Age and Modernism is dead. Painting must reabsorb “abstraction” into its body as a tool for expression through a pictorial poetic. What it may or may not become in the ‘Spectacular’ culture will depend on the culture itself and what choices painters give it.

  14. John Bunker said…

    Hi Alan,

    Many thanks for a really entertaining and thought provoking piece of writing.

    “The heyday of abstract painting as a cultural force is well and truly over.”

    I’m interested in this term “cultural force”. Could you or anyone care to unpack it a little?

    Many thanks
    John

  15. John Sousa said…

    I tend to see the merit in hypothesis two (perhaps that shows my age). I personally think hypothesis two is the result of a generation that no longer believes in Art history’s (and Modernism’s) notion of “progression. And, if that’s the case, then all we have left is fashion, with no underlying purpose. In a way, it reduces all art to outsider art.

  16. Joseph T said…

    The second of the hypotheses seems a bit off, in certain ways. As a (current) student of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I think your observations regarding certain students’ studio practice is slightly obtuse. Although you are, in many ways, succinctly describing a great majority of student work habits within the school, I think your problem arises when you align what they are doing within the context of “provisional.” Sure, the work may be self-cancelling, sabotaging, and hovering on the edge of passive-aggressive incompleteness. However, it seems a bit peripheral to compare a tiny Midwestern institution to a predominantly New York school practice. To boil it down, these students you’ve written of may embody a certain attitude but I don’t think that this attitude, in any way, informs the reasons behind the phenomenon of “provisional painting.”

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      Thanks Joseph, and though I think this goes without saying, that anecdote is intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. As I said, AAC is great place and my experience was that maybe a small minority displayed that kind of behavior.

      You’re correct in that there is no way you can draw a straight line from “lazy student attitudes” to “professional art practices”. But the gulf that separates the two might not be as wide as you think it is either. Is one a professional the day after you graduate from college or university, but not the day before?

      The thrust of “Hypothesis 2″ is that low ambition, low expectations and “failure is the new success” have become institutionalized attitudes within certain intellectual spheres and highly-publicized practices, and those attitudes are not much different than the art-school slacker stereotype of which that anecdote parodies.

  17. paul goodwin said…

    I read your 3 hypotheses with great pleasure and applaud them, and your voice.
    I was irritated by Rubenstein’s piece at the outset, even more when younger friend-painters (who I esteem for their seriousness and indeed technical excellence and intelligence) bombarded me with enthusiastic forwarded links to it.
    One in particular (a great quoter of Rubenstein) suggested to me a two person show, with an emphasis on works “a quattro mani” (four handed paintings made together… I live in Italy). I had done precisely this with him in a “work-event-exhibition” in the nineties in Milan, involving also poets reciting Schwitters, and entitled “a painters’ duel”. It was interesting, fun, a challenge….. as a one-off. I said I would be happy to show with him again, but if he wanted a sort of re-run of the duel (he did) I wanted only a selection of, or even specifically painted pieces, all individual (only 2 hands!) ones, and with a sole criterion: the best paintings to date that I have done. He said no, and very honestly I think, that he would be too horribly frightened to even think in those terms.
    Said which, I don’t mean to blow off undoubted painting capacity and fine intelligence, indeed willingness to share art-making on the factory floor (if that still works as a metaphor)…. but yes, I think you are absolutely right in your analysis of this current fluff terminology….. just that it’s a shame that certain, I think, very good painters and sincere human beings genuinely get their knickers in a twist with it…. they are not poseurs. A pity some writers (as you say) set up the stage for them, or their weaker moments.
    paul goodwin.

    • Is said…

      Excerpt:
      “…casualist pieces seem quickly made, self-amused and untethered to the rigorously structured propositions and serial strategies favoured by artists of previous eras. This is not to say that the new approach is unserious or heedless of art’s history and evolution. But it embraces and memorialises unpredictable encounters in the studio in ways that their predecessors did not, and may regard the traditional avenue of creating a brand and working it for 40 years as unadventurous.”

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Just because one doesn’t want to “create a brand” and milk it for 40 years doesn’t mean either that you absolutely have to disengage your brain completely and become a Casualist. Memorialising trivia is rather unadventurous too.

    • Tania said…

      Sam, thanks for this link to Sharon Butler’s summary which was useful to read alongside Pocaro’s essay and the general feedback. Last year I (sort of accidentally) got to see Paul Doran’s new work at the Red on Green Gallery in Dublin. Initially I too was slightly surprised by the casualness of the work, and it took a while to appreciate, but it was worth it. There is something idiosyncratic and charming about his painting-collages. It can be criticised as (apparently) dashed off, lacking ambition etc. yet there was something else…. something refreshing. It also marks something of a departure for the artist from more commercially successful work so quite brave. Here are a couple of reviews of the show:-

      http://www.billionjournal.com/time/58.html

      http://www.billionjournal.com/time/62.html

  18. Stephen Moonie said…

    A very sharp piece. Your remark about ‘poseur-art’ reminds me of Dave Hickey’s provocative comment about curating, which he describes as mostly jumped-up social climbing. Seen in this light, the ‘provisional painting’ tendency would be part of the same phenomenon, where being in the artworld is more important than actually being an artist.

  19. Alan said…

    It’s all too easy…but evident enough just looking at it from a point of having really tried to do something in paint that requires you go further, why not suffer a bit it’s good for you… I think if those who write really gave it (new cashualism) some critical attention they would soon come to a conclusion…it really does suck! ;)

  20. Roberta said…

    Finally someone puts in words what I have been thinking for some time. I also think part of the problem now is too easy access to everyone else’s work. Everyone is copying everyone. It all looks the same because it is all the same! Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, etc. all contributing factors. We used to paint in the isolation of our studios. That is no longer the case and it is telling.

  21. Is said…

    I can see how you came to all three hypotheses. I think a lot of those things do apply to contemporary painting (as well as other areas)–wildly imaginative writers; “poseurs” who don’t understand the history and just want to get rich quick; and the power and marketability of nostalgia (reboots of old movies, turn-of-the-century furniture, 80s-sounding synthy songs, old video games, fashion etc.)

    But I think another hypothesis does apply. That is, when done in earnest, some people really just love “jamming out” and making weird, uninhibited paintings. An intimate vocabulary develops. Sometimes these paintings are esoteric, less accessible, considered ugly and the artist experimenting with materials is seen as being shitty, cheap and lazy. The notion is anti-art market and more personal, but of course, the bloated beast that is the art market will eat it anyway. But that’s not the painter’s problem.

    People will continue to paint as they continue to puppeteer or play jazz. An idea occurs to you and you find a way to express it based on what comes natural to you. But the idea is informed by experience. So I can paint an abstract painting today as Pollock did then, but we are informed by different experiences. For better or worse, Jackson Pollock didn’t experience the internet, 8-bit video games, a black president, post-1956 scientific discoveries, the 60s, digital media, eeeettttcccc.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      Very well said. I couldn’t agree more.

      • paul goodwin said…

        … and from me too well said. With a particular emphasis on the “we are informed by different experiences”. I mentioned above a very good painter who is extremely “well formed” intellectually and in terms of tradition…. eternal /contemporary as you will. He produces always interesting and visually engaging work, but almost always with a “handle”. Two other friends, equally esteemed, work one with photography, one with paint, but if not completely, then in a large part, outside of “tradition”, inasmuch as in different ways they arrive at something that I might risk describing as a Pollock parallel dimension (not look-like), from totally different paths….. and if their are handles, they make me see that the handle is in MY head.
        Ah well…

  22. eva speer said…

    It’s worth considering that the context for making abstract paintings has changed, as you are suggesting. Today’s engaged artists are not involved with fashioning individual stylistic visions in resistance to cultural norms (modernism), and are moving beyond simple critique of those institutions (post-modernism). Abstraction today cannot merely be compared to painting of the past century or even only to other contemporaneous examples: it needs to be read against developments in science, in thinking, in other artistic media, and in other expressions of contemporary human needs and desires. Its future is associative, contingent and completely necessary.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      Eva, I think you’re really on to something here. To me, part of the problem stems for artists’ willingness to look at their work within the context of art’s past, but not within the context of the world around them.

      Look at the Large Hadron Collider, science has created a device that makes miniature black holes, and they’re working on a massive fusion reactor in France! Compared to those kinds of achievements, contemporary art that embraces a lack of ambition is just mind-boggling.

      Why can’t art contribute something equally sensational to how we understand the nature of reality? It’s done it before.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Alan, I’ve been asking similar questions myself, regarding what seems like the enviable status of the science community to come together and collectively research some big questions, the big question for art, I think, is: ‘Is there Transcendental Order’? I point out this discrepancy between art & science in a series of Q& A on transcendental imaging (www.pstotto.blogspot.co.uk). I think this is a critical aspect of abstract art, which I think is an intuitive esoteric strategy to try and find ways of perceiving higher levels of reality.

      • paul goodwin said…

        …because it’s not so easy, staying with that ( one) and (two) art is that stuff you/we maybe ably criticise but let ourselves get coaxed into boxes with.
        the other aim might be to leave all that behind, no? As you say, I think.
        I like your word voice, but not so much your paintings, as i see them on the net (your site)… pull some plugs maybe? And I give myself the same admonition.
        Eva Speer, hello… gosh, you’re younger than my daughter, and I’m an old goat. Something, you are touching, nice (or nasty). I like your words, and some levels of some paintings.
        Me?, time to close down and paint.

  23. Robert Melzmuf said…

    So abstract painting is worthwhile, right?
    All theories aside, what do you see? Is there something to think about or something to look at?
    Maybe the answer is within each viewer to decide, ok, fair enough. I’ll look at abstract paintings from Bill Jensen, Don Voisine, James Walsh, etc. and looking moves me. Can’t explain it.
    I just don’t benefit from theories about abstraction.

    • Is said…

      I can see how you came to all three hypotheses. I think a lot of those things do apply to contemporary painting (as well as other areas)–wildly imaginative writers; “poseurs” who don’t understand the history and just want to get rich quick; and the power and marketability of nostalgia (reboots of old movies, turn-of-the-century furniture, 80s-sounding synthy songs, old video games, fashion etc.)

      But I think another hypothesis does apply. That is, when done in earnest, some people really just love “jamming out” and making weird, uninhibited paintings. An intimate vocabulary develops. Sometimes these paintings are esoteric, less accessible, considered ugly and the artist experimenting with materials is seen as being shitty, cheap and lazy. The notion is anti-art market and more personal, but of course, the bloated beast that is the art market will eat it anyway. But that’s not the painter’s problem.

      People will continue to paint as they continue to puppeteer or play jazz. An idea occurs to you and you find a way to express it based on what comes natural to you. But the idea is informed by experience. So I can paint an abstract painting today as Pollock did then, but we are informed by different experiences. For better or worse, Jackson Pollock didn’t experience the internet, 8-bit video games, a black president, post-1956 scientific discoveries, the 60s, digital media, eeeettttcccc.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      You’re absolutely right Robert, it is for each and everyone of us to decide for ourselves. I can only speak for myself, and only claim to. Not everyone is, nor should they be, seeking the same kind of experience from painting that I am. I just happened to be frustrated by the fact that the work I’m seeking appears to be in such short supply. But it is out there none the less.

  24. Peter Stott said…

    Oh so easy and yet so satisfying. Go down to the nearest empty shop, where somebod,y a non-art person (I assume) has just ‘whited-out’ the window so ‘you can’t see in’, usually the best abstract art one can see around, fantastic resolutions, usually, always pictorially interesting, never a dull moment. That cosmic ubiquity, whatever it is, is bound to pop up everywhere because that IS IT…:-)

  25. Peter Stott said…

    I made a comment earlier this month on Twitter that all the abstract art coming onto my feed LOOKED THE SAME, almost all of it bad, enough for one to give up art altogether just so as not to be associated with it. It’s one of the reasons why I no longer call my art abstract.
    With regard to point 2, I think part of this reason may be a rise in smoking pot, where intoxicants suddenly see completeness in the incomplete, perfect resolution in vagueness, order in chaos, logic where before there was nothing, happiness and creative fulfilment in one breath, easy art for the easy generation.

  26. Evan Steenson said…

    Bravo Alan…succinct, bracing, and thoughtful.

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