Comments on: Is Richter for Real? Abstract Critical is a not-for profit company aiming to establish a new critical context for all generations of artists involved with ambitious abstract art. Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:23:33 +0000 hourly 1 By: ahab Wed, 16 Nov 2011 22:08:39 +0000 I guess Robert’s correct — being called an opinionated polemicist doesn’t particularly hurt my feelings. Heh.

As a short addendum to the individually-judged, case-by-case art-modernism I was proposing, I’d like to fold in an earlier comment about essentials, universality, and abstraction.

In my studio, at least, the search for aesthetic experience is a sort of rummaging about for pleasing instances of synchronicity between micro-information and macro-knowledge — where the specific italicizes the general. With blinking realization, it now seems to me that the abstract lay just where nanobits are metaphorically linked to megabytes.

Perhaps we should say of art that specificities and generalities are “abstractically linked” (were it acceptable usage). As though abstraction were a sort of structure unto itself, and the very point of relationship between any appreciable whole and its apprehendable parts.

I’ve offered this disclaimer before: speaking aloud is a good way to test what I think. Typing pedantically may be even more so.

By: Robert Linsley Tue, 15 Nov 2011 04:33:27 +0000 I’ve come to enjoy this site because it’s full of opinionated polemicists who are not shy about telling it as they see it. What a relief from art criticism. But the best part is that they can take it as well as dish it out; I haven’t seen any defensive name calling. Here opinions are strong because it seems to be mostly a conversation between artists, who all naturally believe that their position is the right one, but who also listen.

I like ahab’s insistence on talking about artworks rather than artists, and, in that spirit, his singling out of Robin’s singling out of three good Richters. Maybe this is the last comment we need to make on Richter. I agree that there’s no point in generalities about modernism, or about any other general topic, but there may be a point in talking about artists. But even that’s too general a topic to bother to work out theoretically.

But then I notice that everyone on this thread, including ahab, has, at moments, a curmudgeonly attitude toward the contemporary art world. But then that’s also a general attitude, a kind of abstract theorizing. Let’s take it that the thing we know the least about, by definition, is the new, so we tend to have the strongest convictions about what we know least about. Maybe there’s even an inverse relation – the less we know the more convinced we are. So let me also propose a general theory, to wit, the default mode in contemporary art is conceptualism, meaning works that present an idea, a pre-existing, pre-formulated idea. Neither invention nor perception is much found in current art, instead, the norm is presentation of an idea that precedes the work. So am I guilty of abstract theorizing myself? Not really, because I’ve come up with an objective measure that can be applied to any art, including my own. Artworks are better to the extent that they offer concrete experiences and not abstract ideas, so some are better than others, and some of the better ones are better still. Likewise, even conceptualist work may have bits of experience in it, so can be measured as well. As an abstract artist I am self critical of any tendency to fall back on ideas, even if they are expressed formally. Ideas about what modern art is supposed to be like, ready-made structures such as grids etc. That’s why I pick up on Richter’s generalizations, and I ask if they are conceptual or if they have a necessity. Sometimes the latter is the case. When the former is the case why bother even thinking about it?

By: ahab Sun, 13 Nov 2011 20:23:48 +0000 I’ve been wanting to comment for a while on this foraying thread, but no direct access to Richters’ body of work has kept me from claiming this or that about it. Where I can’t hold back, though, is at the point that the strawman of modernism is puppeted. Plus, someone mentioned sculpture…

Need it be said? Modernism did not commence with painting, nor with abstraction in painting; it is a beast whose form varies dramatically within the human activities and production of the last 100-and-however-many years (social, cultural, commercial, etc.). But making modernist practice out to be a fallen warhorse that artists are even now pinned beneath is akin to saddling Greenberg with ‘terms of flatness’. Both are quite seriously mistaken, if I may be so bald.

Modernism, relative to art, is merely an attitude, an approach that presumes to disallow any rule about what should be experienced in any given thing, except to experience it and to hope it tastes at least as good as is known to be possible. Modernism allows, in that moment of appreciation, that I’ve my sense of the thing and you yours. Simple enough, really… at least until our tastes diverge and we distractedly set them up in a dialectical opposition of their own.

Other modernist endeavours demand that one opinion prevail, and while we’re still contemporary, thank you very much. If two water particles can occupy different states simultaneously and in proximity to one another, then I’m not very bothered that someone might have a different take on a Richter-effect than I. Inside of a modernist approach, which expects only to authentically experience it each time anew, one of us will eventually come around.

But truly, a modernism of visual art (a collective thirst for the best eye-experiences) hasn’t thrived for decades — bare traces of it exist in only the most provincial of global outposts. Such a thing as ‘making good art’ has lost its credibility (not to mention fashionability) as a progessive mode, and those few modernist enclaves still in operation around the world don’t generally bet successful studio careers on its viability. Even just describing our sensory experiences is a fraught business, but the modernist attitude insists we try then try again for better expressions rather than subscribe to definitive dictates.

Perhaps we’d best throw out ‘modernism’ altogether and simply thrill in this casting about for new and less-clichéd expressions. Besides, the term and its proponents have been co-opted, seconded to service as art-historical touchstones, or set up as cautionary tales and trompe l’oeil museum displays of “how it used to be done”. Art academicians and administrators the world over have generally, tacitly, and with enthusiastic euthanasy, agreed upon modernism’s anachronicity.

Anyhow, whew… all leading up to say that Greenberg’s ‘flatness’ is of that same sort of disinformation. He did not drive painting into the cul-de-sac of flat, as is commonly held. He only ever described what he could see in a piece, never what he thought he should see. (I know this from speaking with artists whose studios he visited in the day.)

Who looks up ‘flat’ in the dictionary? I just did and was shocked to find that lists fifty-one (51!) definitions for it. Surely we can do better than to rely on such a traitorous word as more than four-letter expletive.

Never mind that only theoretically, abstractly, can a plane — Tucker’s “idea of the plane” — be understood to be two-dimensional. Anything that can be said to be planar must be, by our mobile relation to it, a three-dimensional and material thing. The illusory planes of Cezanne and subsequent cubisms do not unmake our relationship to the object, but instances of flatness can be either in-keeping or out-of-synch with the overall thing — whether painting or sculpture. Even those exhibitors working with light as their medium rely upon our species’ ultra-fine sensory appreciation of the facet-cues that imply/inform spatiality.

Which is not to say that articulation in three dimensions is, needs be, a sculptural articulation. At what microscopic point must we stop measuring the depth of a thing that has appreciable height and width before agreeing to call it flat?

I hold sculpture to be a special category of object that has less to do with its dimensionality than with its variably-perceivable-variability (if you can parse that). Profiles and contours, volumes and masses of a material make themselves and their medium known, but not in a primarily graphical or pictorial manner; new visual information is only gained by moving oneself around the thing that I call a sculpture.

And there’s no dilemma in sculpture proper about extreme bas relief turning a sculpture into a picture. It’s simply understood. Let the semantics lay, I say, and allow paint to come as far off the canvas as you dare (James Walsh, e.g.) without burying painting as its own special but dead category of object.

Which is all the very (very!) longest way around to saying that I can appreciate that ‘abstraction’ is a great way into protracted discussions about art. Yet, I think, the most poignant comments in this thread, and others, are those that have been honed to describe whether a given artwork (and not its artist, note) hits the commentor’s ulterior, pleasure-seeking ‘good-button’. And how.

By: Robert Linsley Sat, 12 Nov 2011 19:58:56 +0000 I’m with you on a lot of this, especially striking out for freedom. Rothko is weak, Mitchell and Pollock are strong. Mitchell gets better all the time in my view. Also share your frustration with “the dominant two-dimensional mode.” But I think there’s some moments between painting and sculpture that are worth pondering, and may also be the place from which to start on a new sculptural adventure.
Been puzzling about this particular question for a while now, and thinking of Gego, Morellet, Gedi Sibony, Lygia Pape, Sandback, Accardi, Marisa Merz and lots of other people. Also Caro is pretty interesting still.

By: Robin Greenwood Sat, 12 Nov 2011 18:58:21 +0000 It’s been an interesting few weeks since I saw Richter’s show and these exchanges commenced. Complex… I feel a little chastened. If anything, my anxiety about modernism has increased slightly; but so perhaps has my ability to be relaxed working within that anxiety, to feel it as a natural condition for an artist now. How could it be any different? Perhaps this is Richter’s insight. I have enjoyed thinking about his show.
I still can’t get into any sort of relationship with photo-painting. What’s the point? If there is any interest in the subject-matter, I would rather look at the photo itself, in its original form and context (with the accompanying news article). Copying it in paint adds nothing that I can see, even if you smudge it. This is, in part, my answer to John Holland’s last question – why the faith in the future of abstract painting? – because all avenues of figurative painting are unprogressive, if not closed altogether. I agree with the other kinds of dead-ends John mentions too. But I realise none of this really answers for why the faith in the future of abstract…
My interest in Richter still centres around the three big abstract paintings in the middle of the show; ‘Hedge’, 1982; ‘June’, 1983; and ‘Yellow-Green’, 1982, any of which I would rather have hanging on my wall than many another abstract painting. I return to asking what else we directly compare these works with. Surely their unpredictability counts for something. I think I backtrack on what I said previously about the faux-innocent excitement of them being ‘easy’. It is perhaps easier still to fall in with the aesthetics of the later squeegee works (Cage series etc); maybe the harder thing was for Richter to leave this more conventional path alone for a spell in the eighties, and chuck in a lot of unresolved stuff. What does unresolved mean anyway? There has got to be good ‘unresolved’ and bad ‘unresolved’, and good and bad ‘unity’ or ‘synthesis’. See Minimalism. Read Pissarro. So I find (at the moment) I like these three Richter paintings better than: Newman, Rothko, Olitski, Noland – sacrilege! Not as good as Hofmann, Pollock, Mitchell, maybe. I’m really sticking my neck out here. Maybe I’m just bored with Newman and Rothko (though was not the Late Rothko Tate show such an absolute, abominable bore? No, really!) Because these three Richter’s (along with a few others maybe from this batch of work, to judge from reproduction) are somehow a little liberated from mainstream aesthetic expectation. Painting, like anything else, is in part political, and these works strike out a little for freedom.
I don’t think abstraction and modernism are so totally synonymous (John) and you make the link sound somewhat contrived, but I nevertheless take your point, and would agree that the decoupling of abstract art and modernism is a really exciting prospect. If you remove the parts of modernism that are dogmatic about painting, say – and let’s agree that modernism spans a huge territory, from anarchism to high order – you might end up in a position similar to the one Richter adopted, for whatever ulterior motives, in the eighties.
With reference to Sam’s mention of Manet, I find it ever so hard to see Manet in Greenberg’s terms of flatness, but the flatness/picture plane thing is undoubtedly so engrained in the methodology and critique of modernist painting that at times we can seem to talk of nothing else, even when we don’t actually mention it outright (talking about colour relations in isolation from form, for example, in painting, assumes being addressed by a set of planes conjoined to the picture-plane). That is one reason (and I’m really going off-piste now) why the case for looking for a new abstract sculpture (thanks, Robert, for bringing that up) is so compelling. To quote Bill Tucker, from the ‘Condition of Sculpture’ catalogue, 1975, ‘Modernism, born and nurtured in painting, generates its deepest energy from the idea of the plane. From such a view, the free-standing of sculpture is an intolerable anomaly.’
A bit violent, perhaps, but we get the point. Thinking three-dimensionally immediately starts to banish the plane: if you banish the plane, you begin to unravel the beautiful simplistic aesthetics that has dominated modernist visual art (painting mostly, but abstract sculpture has been in thrall to painting anyway, thanks in no small part to Greenberg) and is such a deeply seductive, self-reflecting shallowness. Such a dismantling of the dominant two-dimensional mode, or should we say the positive invention of a more imaginative three-dimensional view, the re-imagination of a fully three-dimensional world of abstract form (what nightmare might that be! You can sense the surreal monsters ready to ambush already, no?) may be a way onward; and does not Richter, at moments, in his eighties paintings, make a small contribution to that? Though, one must say immediately, most defiantly, not in his stupid, stupid glass sculptures and mirrors.

By: John Holland Thu, 10 Nov 2011 20:37:09 +0000 Is the problem the synonimity of abstraction and Modernism?
It was evolved to serve a set of ideals, a specific project that now feels very distant. Universality was a part of the project, and a reduction to essences. It’s a very difficult task to disentangle abstraction from these historically specific tasks.

Structural complexity in abstract painting usually manifests as either complicatedness, in the sense of an essentially chaotic lack of form, or as an abstraction from figuration- figuration seen through a squint. Both of these options are a dead-end, I think.

I am interested, Robin, given all you have said about the shortcomings of abstraction to date, at least in comparison to the impossible richness of the last 800 years of non-abstract art, in the reasons for your faith, or hope, in it now. I make abstract work myself, so I guess I share your hope; though maybe this is outside the scope of this thread.

By: Sam Cornish Thu, 10 Nov 2011 17:25:46 +0000 I agree with Robert in that I think perhaps we are going to get too far off the subject of Richter if we go down the effect / form; ambiguity / particularity track in general terms. I’ve just read back through my own last couple of posts (relating to Motherwell / Rothko & Newman) and certainly feel that they are insufficient. The ease with which I dismissed Richter for not conforming to certain standards (of Newman / Rothko) really hides how increasingly unsettling I find the paintings. Even if I wanted an art that had more as Robin puts it ‘human content’ (and I do), dismissing Richter because he seems to deliberately block this is what is really not good enough. The pictures are strong enough (or at least some of them are) to dismiss (or at least delay or complicate) the call for a tempering with humanity or a snatching of (structural) meaning out of meaninglessness.

I think I am coming back round to what Robert has said about generality of the abstract, though I am not quite sure how this makes an appearance in Richter’s work. I would however really like to avoid thinking about this in terms of a over-arching poetic or stratergy, a kind of conceptual tying up which runs above the pictures. Not that Richter does not attempt this: the sculptures for example clearly do and are nearly as glib as the similar works Pistoletto recently showed at the Serpentine. Instead it seems much more productive to think about the individual images themselves; as it is their actual qualities rather than their position in a strategy that is unsettling.

Have I got much to add beyond what has already been said about photographic atmospheres, speeding trains and various kinds of screen? Not really except to note a relation between Richter and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Both in the abstractions and in the portraits (particularly of his wife descending the stairs). In the sense of a trapped vividness, a glossly flatness, melancholy. Of course Manet is also a master at providing us with specific spatial relations, structure. It is interesting that Greenberg put Manet’s flatness at the beginning of a lineage that revealed a particular approach to the picture plane. Richter could be seen to subvert / parody / impersonate this tradition, but perhaps he is more profitably seen as finding another route away from the source this lineage sprung from?

By: Robert Linsley Thu, 10 Nov 2011 16:49:21 +0000 Robin, my caution would be not to talk about abstract art in general, because there may be work of the complexity you desire that you haven’t heard about, or things you think you know well that are more complex than you realize. But having said that I agree that flatness/shallow space, a too severe limitation of content/subject matter (although I know this is not exactly what you are saying), too much reliance on a priori concepts and structures, grids and so on, and a tendency to arrive at general effects at the expense of the expressive detail, are besetting weaknesses of abstract painting. Not necessarily of abstract sculpture. I might also add brushwork, because even though in principle a paint brush is as good a tool as any, I find that it’s easy to get stuck in a morass of repetitions and cliches. Someone else might do much better at it than I. In any case, I naturally want to make work that avoids these faults, and it can be done.
Don’t have much more to say about Richter right now. Clark as always has brilliant insights, and as always arrives at the same conclusion. Criticism as lament.

By: Robin Greenwood Thu, 10 Nov 2011 12:22:28 +0000 My thoughts about ambiguity/particularity in abstract art turn mostly around the notion that abstract artists to date have either been uninventive in the forms they use (an over-reliance on geometries, formats and/or processes – as per Richter’s colour charts and squeegee work) or, when they have been formally inventive, have too easily given up on trying to resolve the structural issues that arise from using complex form (which I think is where Richter’s 80′s work gets to, an state of inventive irresolution).
This is from an essay ‘High Abstract’, published a year ago:
‘Abstract art … has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into ‘human content’. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality.’
You can read the rest at:

By: Robin Greenwood Wed, 09 Nov 2011 22:37:49 +0000 I don’t think we are quite finished with this yet, but I wanted to say thanks to all for several very good contributions. It would be nice to hear from Seamus again too, if you are still out there. I will have a little more to say on the subject of the ‘specific’ in abstract art, but meantime how about this great review of Richter by T. J. Clark?