Full disclosure: I loved this show – but there are a few asterisks I should add before proceeding: I moved to New York City in the middle ‘80′s, fresh-faced and ready to take on the world, and much of this work constituted my introduction to Soho (These were the pre-Chelsea days). There’s a nostalgia aspect that can’t be ignored, not just about the paintings, but about my youth.
That said, this is a show that I’ve been waiting for someone to hang, and not just because I want to feel young again. The canonical histories of art in the 1980’s have precious little to say about abstraction, even though there was quite a bit of it in the galleries. Much ink has been spilled about the glamorous painters of that era and their scene: Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel, Salle, Scharf. At the same time, there was a particular strain of ‘80’s Post-Modernism, expressed via appropriation, feminism, and the burgeoning practice of institutional critique, the latter reaching full flower in the ‘90’s and becoming the coin of the realm in the graduate programs. But I remember a good deal of compelling abstract painting that seems to have largely been pushed to the historical margins. Poet and curator Raphael Rubinstein remembers as well, and Reinventing Abstraction is his attempt to highlight and reexamine some of those currents.
The title of the show is a riff on MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction exhibition from earlier this year, which featured work After Cezanne and Before Greenberg – a critical juncture in which the whole thing was up for grabs; there were no rules. Greenberg’s take on Modernism was the clear victor through the war years and its aftermath, only to be toppled by Post-Modernism in the middle ‘60’s. The painting-is-dead sentiment was hammered upon in the decade or so after that, but painters kept painting in earnest nonetheless – and this is the crucible in which the work in Reinventing Abstraction was forged.
The spiritual forebear of Reinventing Abstraction was 2007’s High Times, Hard Times at the National Academy Museum, curated by Katy Siegel with an assist by David Reed; in the Reinventing Abstraction catalog essay, Rubinstein acknowledges that his exhibition is a kind of sequel to Siegel’s show. High Times, Hard Times featured NYC abstraction from the late ‘60’s to the middle ‘70’s, pictures made at painting’s supposed lowest ebb in an era that, according to the official histories, is dominated by the so-called “Pictures Generation.” Not surprisingly, there is a broad overlap between the National Academy show and Rubinstein’s – David Reed has an exquisite picture in Reinventing Abstraction, and Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, Mary Heilmann, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, and Pat Steir all appear in both shows.
The key similarity to these three exhibitions is the absence of Modernist dogma. In the MoMA exhibition, the rules weren’t codified yet; in Rubinstein’s and Siegel’s shows, the artists chose not to play by those rules. This isn’t to say that the latter two exhibitions were Post-Modern in character. There is no irony or overt critique, and certainly no rejection of painting as a viable mode – quite the opposite, there is a clear love of abstraction and particularly of materiality, which is a persistent theme in Reinventing Abstraction.
In terms of creating non-Modernist (but not Post-Modernist) abstractions, David Reed is a giant in my book. His manner of handling gesture and color, staples of mid-century Modernist painting, exists wholly apart from Abstract Expressionism, but he doesn’t mock or critique that style. He takes a different approach to pictorial space that embraces the photograph and the screen, with its attendant light, transparency, and frontality – but his frontality is not Cubist and his gestures are not autographs or proxies for sub-conscious states. Reed’s 9’ tall No. 230 (for Beccafumi) from 1985-86 is aggressively abstract, but isn’t non-referential or flat. It evokes sound waves, liquid, movies, TV, candy, and stained-glass windows, but never gets pinned to any reference long enough to give a stable accounting of image or more importantly, of scale – it could be a close-up of something small, or a far-away shot of some vast natural phenomena, or something else altogether. It’s an exhilarating, pulsing picture that I could stand in front of for a long, long time.
In his catalog essay, Rubinstein identifies Philip Guston as a key figure in the development of many of the artists in Reinventing Abstraction. I must say this took me by surprise at first, but when I thought about it for a moment it made perfect sense – Guston began feeling trapped by the emerging orthodoxy of abstraction very early on, particularly the rhetoric of purity, and shocked many friends and allies by switching to cartoony Klansmen. His transition (and success) showed that there could be life after Modernism.
When I went back and looked again after digesting the Guston connection, I saw subtle shades of him all over the place: The influence of his paint application was evident in Terry Winter’s Point (1985), Jonathan Lasker’s Double Play (1987), and Joan Snyder’s 12’ long Beanfield with Music from 1984 – that picture hearkened back to Guston’s pre-Klansmen abstractions, and also had unmistakable shades of Monet. Guston’s approach to cartoon-esque figuration showed in Bill Jensen’s The Tempest (1980-81), Louise Fishman’s Navigation (1981), Elizabeth Murray’s Sentimental Education (1982), and particularly strongly in Carroll Dunham’s Horizontal Bands (1982-83) and Thomas Nozkowski’s Untitled (6-30) from 1988, a small-scale jewel of a picture which was made as a kind of homage at the time of Guston’s death.
Of all the pictures in the show that showed some material or spiritual kinship to Philip Guston, Stanley Whitney’s Sixteen Songs from 1984 was by far my favorite. I’ve been a big fan of Whitney’s for many years, but was unfamiliar with any of the work prior to his loosely painted grids. Like several other artists in Reinventing Abstraction, Whitney had the opportunity to study with Guston, and Sixteen Songs is reminiscent of Guston’s Ab Ex pictures. But it’s frankly much better than any of those – Whitney is a far more sophisticated colorist. The slowly swirling puffs of red, blue, and yellow are rhythmic but not regular, alternately expanding and contracting back into the atmospheric space. The larger black and darker blue shapes and smaller dark touches serve as anchors, keeping the picture from floating away or becoming an overly pretty exercise in close-value abstraction.
I generally enjoy the work of Stephen Mueller, Gary Stephan, and Pat Steir (especially Pat Steir), but I must confess that their entries, Delphic Hymn from 1989, Untitled (#45418) from 1988, and Last Wave Painting, Wave Becoming a Waterfall from 1987-88, respectively, were not among my favourites in the show. Stephan’s painting felt heavy and I couldn’t help but see Steir’s as a preparatory stage for the really great work that would come just a little later. Mueller’s picture felt a little random, although here it’s worth pointing out that Raphael Rubinstein was the person who first advanced the idea of Provisional Painting – painting which deliberately and self-consciously lacks in technical virtuosity and compositional resolution. Both the Stephan and the Mueller paintings also show that Surrealism was still considered a viable starting point in the 1980’s, something that would be utterly unpalatable for anyone under the spell of Modernism.
Jack Whitten’s eccentric Red, Black and Green from 1979-80 gave me the sense that I was looking at a process-driven abstraction through the scope of a rifle. Whitten was an early exponent of painting with devices, and by all accounts was smearing paint prior to Richter (who got really rich with it). The combed (?) ground is simultaneously tactile and optical; the impasto dissolving into a kind of tv-screen static. I thought this intriguing picture was a particularly good entry for a show of this kind, because Whitten is an accomplished painter who evinces almost no interest in Modernist restrictions – he presents a strong example for younger painters working through these issues today.
Mary Heilmann’s beautiful, thinly painted Rio Nido from 1987 was almost purely optical, and really stood out from the other pictures in the show by virtue of that – it brought to mind Rothko and Matisse. This last point brings me to what I considered to be a small hole in Reinventing Abstraction: As I sift through my memories of the era and the abstract painting that was being shown but somehow got lost in the art historical shuffle, I can think of quite a bit of painting that was more optical than tactile: Doug Ohlson and Peter Schuyff come to mind, and Ross Bleckner’s ethereal tributes to AIDS victims also fit the bill. Rubinstein’s intent was to give a cross section of the abstract painting of that particular moment, but his obvious passion for tactility and materiality probably clouds his memory just a bit.
Still, I’m not complaining. It was a strong show curated with great sensitivity – even love.
Paul Corio, New York City, 2nd July 2013
Reinventing Abstraction, curated by Raphael Rubinstein is at Cheim & Read, NY, until the 30th of August. All images courtesy of Cheim & Read.