The most recent “rebirth” of painting, has been defined, in large part, by various modes of abstract painting. These modes are not homogenous, but are linked by a common enthusiasm and a shared belief in abstract painting as a realm of renewed possibility. This feeling of possibility no longer derives from abstraction’s “newness”, but rather from a century of proof that abstract painting is capable of an ever widening range of expression. Artists, curators, and critics are all re-examining the history of abstraction with the contemporary benefit of instant information, and they are finding it richer and more diverse than they once imagined.
There were over 600 posts about abstract painting featured on Painters’ Table in 2013. Rather than distill these into a general “Top 10” list, I have chosen to highlight fifteen posts that are representative of ways abstraction is being re-examined. These include the re-evaluation of the origins and canon of modernism, fresh investigations of the expressive potential of color, technique, and materials, a questioning of the boundaries of painting, and reflections on the capability of abstraction to carry meaning.
It is a pleasure to have this list published on abstract critical, a platform dedicated to in-depth discussion and debate about abstraction year-round.
Re-examining the Origins and Canon of Abstraction
Viewing the exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Viktor Witkowski found that the show captured the common excitement about the possibilities of abstraction shared by artists in the early 20th century, a excitement that might energize contemporary artists. He concluded that early abstraction was “not about arriving at a final state or drawing a conclusion. Abstraction was never meant to be finished or concluded. Abstraction (hopefully) resonates with a part of us that welcomes all suspension of ideologies and beliefs. Abstraction is a long-term project, acutely relevant and still nourishing today’s paintings.”
Reviewing the same show, Jed Perl also saw an energy and openness in the work but found the curatorial definition of abstraction too narrow, giving the impression that abstraction is “a prescription rather than a permission.” Banished from the exhibition, Perl noted were “Paul Klee and Joan Miró, two seminal figures whose profoundly abstract visions did not exclude ‘recognizable subject matter.’” He argues that “abstraction in fact released painters to approach experience in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.”
Another artist omitted from Inventing Abstraction was Hilma Af Klint, a painter who developed her own abstract painting language independent of the early 20th century avant-garde. Af Klint’s reemergence as an abstract pioneer has generated much excitement, yet Matthew Collings, in the guise of a clever “faux interview” asserted that Af Klint’s current popularity as an outsider and a pioneering female artist overshadows a rigorous consideration of her significant visual achievements as a painter.
James Panero wrote about another show, To Be a Lady, curated by Jason Andrew, that focused on the significant, yet overlooked contributions of female artists to the story of abstraction. “With its concentration of abstract artists,” Panero wrote, the show “suggests, in particular, why women’s voices have been essential to the evolution of modernism.”
The show of the summer in New York was Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s at Cheim & Read, curated by Raphael Rubinstein. In a conversation with the Brooklyn Rail’s Joan Waltemath, Rubinstein described how he was inspired by painter “David Reed’s notion that there’s a ‘street history’ of painting that painters share with each other, a set of references and concerns, and a sense of where they’ve come from and where they’re going. This street history almost never gets into official versions… Even though most of the painters in my show are quite well known, they’ve largely been left out of the official histories of the 1980s because they don’t fit into Neo-Expressionism or Appropriation Art or Neo-Geo.”
Embracing Color, Technique, and Materials
Hyperallergic’s John Yau writes frequently about artists who have been excluded from the mainstream of art history, but in this post he described with delight a cluster of shows defined by an unabashed immersion in color. “For a few days it seemed as if New York was awash with color,” he wrote, “and that both the scientific and improvisational sides of the conversation were ably represented, perhaps for the first time in many years… For these artists, color is a palpable thing and an abstract event… each of them offers us a different pleasure, a different kind of looking, and a different, optically rich space in which to reflect upon that act.”
In Artcritical, Franklin Einspruch reviewed the two-venue exhibition Pour at Asya Geisberg Gallery and Lesley Heller Workspace. For Einspruch, the works on view “established that the desire for good abstract form, achievable by way of liquid paint, is a perennial concern.”
Robert Linsley explored the idea of improvisation in relation to abstract painting. He wrote: “Improvisation does not mean pulling art out of thin air. It is a congerie of techniques that enable the possibility that the new will appear, the foremost of which is repetition—at least that’s what we can learn from Jazz. The Jazz musician/composer aims to create a music, and it is built gradually, over time, by constantly working through a set of motifs, repertoires, devices, mannerisms, techniques, so that the relation between the elements is incrementally changed until the whole edifice, a life’s work, stands apart—a unique construction…. It turns out that skills are best learned in the act of creation.”
“Provisional” and “casual” painting (an approach and an aesthetic) was a highly visible and influential mode of abstraction in 2013, particularly in New York. Painter Brian Dupont penned an impassioned explanation of the “provisional” noting that “artists today 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, 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.”
The Boundaries of Abstraction
An interview with painter Julie Alexander, curator of the show The Edge and a Little Beyond at SOIL Gallery, Seattle. In her curatorial statement, she noted that the exhibition “brings together six abstract artists whose work pushes out the edge of the painting, playing with the basic structure of wood supports and stretched canvas… The work, verging on sculpture, clearly comes from a painter’s mind. These six artists, through abstraction, both work within and challenge the perimeter of the painting, pushing beyond the boundary and entering the viewer’s space. They do it with a personal mark-making that values joy and uncertainty.”
Reviewing the exhibition Paint Things: Beyond The Stretcher at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Robert Moeller wrote that the “increasingly heated oscillation between the two mediums of painting and sculpture grapples less with answers but rather more with questions… the assemblage of work is a smartly executed foray into the blurred and frenzied and ever-shifting world of contemporary practices. Looking backward in time, too, the exhibition pays homage, directly and indirectly, to the work of a host of artists whose presence is keenly felt, making the balance struck seem remarkably current.”
In his review of Painting in the 2.5th Dimension at the Zabludowicz Collection, John Bunker wrote that “the extra 0.5 of a dimension we get in this show is not so much about the protrusions of the paintings from their surfaces or the wall. Instead it’s an historical dimension and concerned with how other media (mostly photography and the impact of context and site) rebounds on the painting process here in the 21st century. I guess the question has always been this: Are these direct references to the past of the medium and importation of other media into its facture a crutch or new point of departure for abstract painting?”
Re-examination of Meaning
In e-flux, Boris Groys re-examined the political significance of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Groys writes that “the suspicion arises that Malevich’s famous Black Square is unrelated to any political and social revolution—that it is an artistic gesture that ultimately has relevance only inside artistic space. However, I would argue that if Malevich’s Black Square was not an active revolutionary gesture in the sense that it criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution, it was revolutionary in a much deeper sense. … Malevich shows us what it means to be a revolutionary artist. It means joining the universal material flow that destroys all temporary political and aesthetic orders. Here, the goal is not change—understood as change from an existing, ‘bad’ order to a new, ‘good’ order. Rather, revolutionary art abandons all goals—and enters the non-teleological, potentially infinite process which the artist cannot and does not want to bring to an end.”
At Henri Art Magazine, Mark Stone offered another reading of the same body of work by Malevich. Stone wrote that “Malevich wanted a kind of direct optical language that would cut through the blur of lived experience and bring one straight to a meaningful encounter with purity… In these ‘Supreme’ paintings there is no visual time, no sequence or event, no viewpoint, no figure ground relationship, no dimension. One would simply encounter, all at once, always already, the immaculate.” He concludes “For me this kind of massively reductive visual nihilism directed at the history of painting leaves out so much… But still I’m drawn to the inevitable presence of this Square black thing and the direct confrontation it evokes in the face of an elusive, evocative idea.”
In his article which won the 2013 abstract critical Writer’s Prize, James Hassall argued that “the role of abstraction, in its infinite plasticity, is as relevant as ever. We just need to keep making new analogies that reveal both the minutiae and the majesty of our present… abstract art can be an important means of understanding the implications and machinations of our present: the role of the subject amidst complex hyper-connectivity, the massiveness of data networks, the ideological stranglehold of capitalism, the absurdity of the Internet. Abstraction can operate in that space where the sensible exceeds the conceivable.”