Abstract Critical

The Show is Over at Gagosian

Written by Dan Coombs

Jeff Elrod, Echo Painting, 2013. Copyright Jeff Elrod. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Jeff Elrod, Echo Painting, 2013. Copyright Jeff Elrod. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

In reproduction, Willem de Kooning’s painting “Untitled” (1984) appears to be an act of pure spontaneity, a magically composed arrangement of effervescent looping strokes. In the flesh, it becomes clear that the curving lines have been formed out of the negative gaps formed by interceding areas of white paint, painted over, corrected, scratched out, painted back in; it is impossible to separate the lines themselves from the ground that has given rise to them. The drawing, buried within the painting, creates the composition – it has been worked on to achieve a maximised lightness, a floating quality,  a sense that the boundaries of form are giving way to open space, an effect that creates an exhilarating effect of freedom, like nakedness  in nature. De Kooning’s paintings are grounded in immediate sensual effects, but it is a sensuality that in these late paintings becomes elusive, out of reach, ungraspable, on the brink of disappearance. In front of a late de Kooning, the viewer is made to feel like Apollo in Bernini’s sculpture “Apollo and Daphne”(1625) - everything that is most desired proves to be most elusive.

De Kooning’s painting is an anomaly within this exhibition, in the way he extends what appear to be the basic conditions of illusion in Western painting. Illusionism in painting has always depended upon the presentation of something apparently graspable which turns out to be actually absent; representation in this sense, always prefigures a loss. In trying to grasp the ungraspable, de Kooning’s paintings fold back in on themselves – figure turns back into ground and then ground, suddenly circumnavigated, turns back into figure. This continual exchange between a body and the negative space that defines it, which oscillate in a kind of perpetual ambiguity, makes de Kooning’s paintings both spatially deep and immediate. We simply cannot untangle the order of the layers, we cannot tell what preceded what, or extract any of the forms from the ground that precedes them. Rather than presenting itself, de Kooning’s painting reveals itself gradually in a way that feels directly analogous to the way we feel reality. De Kooning manages to convince us that the painting is more than what it actually is – not just a material thing , but a bounded space into which the body can move, touch and feel.

Andy Warhol, Unititled (Shadows), 1978. Private collection. Image courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Andy Warhol, Unititled (Shadows), 1978. Private collection. Image courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Ambiguity, elusiveness, the psychic transference of mind into matter, deep space; I went looking for these  qualities in other works in the show. Cy Twombly’s “Untitled (New York City)” (1968) contains a spiraling extended figure of eight scrawled in crayon that appears to sit on the surface of the grey ground. On closer inspection the whiplash line is entwined over and under the grey drips that  immerse it within the painting’s  field.  Twombly’s line has a dancing elegance that moves through the paint  like the ecstatic  Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” More straightforwardly, Gerhard Richter’s “Grau (Grey)”  (1970) is a work from a period when Richter spent two years painting monochromes only using the colour grey. Up close there is a ray of hope. Despite the work existing in a kind of aesthetic vacuum, the brushstrokes keep moving, folding over and under each other, like a mind that, despite being denied everything, cannot stop whirring.

Kim Gordon, Untitled (Blue), 2013. Copyright Kim Gordon, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Kim Gordon, Untitled (Blue), 2013. Copyright Kim Gordon, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

In the main this show represents a particular history of American painting, alongside the work of certain European fellow travellers. Apart from a work by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the exhibition is made up entirely of the work of male artists and presumably the collectors of this work are largely male too. In some ways it would be interesting to interrogate the exhibition from the point of view of the picture it throws up of contemporary masculinity. Based on the evidence of this show, men are a bit literal – and worried about mortality. Self-doubt, mystery and illusion are out. Hard money, big wall-space and spectacular visual shimmer are in.

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1960. Copyright Christopher Wool, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1960. Copyright Christopher Wool, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

Its been a familiar trope in American post-war art to squeeze illusionistic space out of painting. This literalisation of the painting into a material object, where paint simply remains as paint, “what you see is what you get” (to quote Frank Stella), or the transmutation of painting into wall-based sculpture (as with Donald Judd) are some  examples of this tendency. The literal becomes a kind of self evident truth; the paintings become as present as the immediate environment or a plank leaning against the wall. Minimalism squeezes out the ego however and operates with total objectivity. Stella’s later work in fact could be read as an increasingly neurotic attempt to reinsert his own ego back into the objectifying material conditions of his work. The problem is that once the artist has been painted out of the picture,  the picture may no longer have any depth.

Christopher Wool’s painting “Untitled” (2005) is on the opposite wall to the de Kooning. Wool’s arbitrary sprayed lines, erasures and smears, seem at first  to be attempting  to carve out deep space, but in fact the layers of the painting are simply stacked on top of each other, one thing after another. Rather than interacting with a ground and making it come forward, his gestures seem to sit in stasis with one another. Whilst appearing lively, they in fact turn out to be inert and mechanical. His text paintings are also produced mechanically and contain impersonal phrases that point to crisis, despair, breakdown and even apocalypse. The works are impossible to inhabit – they seem to exclude the viewer, acting more to block meaning rather than create it. Is this the interior upholstery of one-dimensional man ? Wool wants a frisson from the futility of his gestures but somehow these paintings are as easy to ignore as the sound of lawn-sprinklers.

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2011. Copyright Richard Prince, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2011. Copyright Richard Prince, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Wool’s are clean paintings made to look dirty, whereas the work of the younger generation of neo-conceptual artists  Dan Colen, Adam McEwan and Nate Lowman, make dirty paintings that look clean. Involving materials such as chewing gum, tar and feathers, the spatterings of a drunken party, for these artists painting is an arena in which hang-out, chill-out, get high and throw confetti. McEwan almost gets some form and colour out of his  chewing-gum trodden into a matt black ground. The composition happens accidentally but is arranged, and its funny to compare the struggle of an  expressionist gesture with these masticated remnants, inarticulate messages that proliferate across  the canvas like baby-talk. Similarly droll are Richard Prince’s small works which at first resemble the earnest calculated abstractions of an mid-century constructivist. On closer inspection the lines are made from stretched elastic bands, insecurely attached with multiple staples, evidence of many attempts to create a straight line from the elastic that  constantly springs back. The paintings become arenas of frustration and slapstick comedy. 

Having only picked up on his work via the media, I assumed that Wade Guyton’s paintings were just big Xs with lots of 0s after them. To my surprise, in the flesh , the painting “Untitled” (2009) was amazingly tactile. The patterned ridges, that seem to be raised from the surface shadows underneath had a hardened, sensuous tactility. Yet on closer inspection, the surface of the painting was as smooth as silk, a mirage. Even more enticingly, his other painting in the show, “Untitled” (2011) seems to pictorially declare “I am hot for U” in dark stripes, beautifully cinematic flames, and a gigantic red U placed elegantly to one side at the bottom of the canvas. I couldn’t help concluding that perhaps Guyton’s success could be because of his work’s seductive power and that perhaps powers of seduction are also granted to the collectors of his work. What is beguiling about Guyton’s work is the way he is able to sensualise photography and graphic design in a way that exceeds even the powers of advertising. It is gorgeous to experience the bleeds at the edge of the red U and also  dramatic, like seeping blood lit up in Hitchcockian technicolour.  Again, up close the paintings have a silken non-surface. Made with a large computer printer the artists exploits the  striations, overlaps, bleeds and misalignments that occur when the canvas is jerked and stopped and dragged backwards through the rollers of the printer. Guyton’s ability is  to make the viewer want to touch the paintings, like the desire to feel the seam of a fantastically glamorous designer dress; and then his deliberate frustration of that desire as there is actually nothing there. It’s very alluring, but I’m also aware there’s an invisible velvet rope between me and the painting, the hand of the bouncer pushing me away. Guyton’s paintings evoke a world that is “VIP only”. Next to it, an early dark collage by Rauschenberg evokes the world of the hobo, the tramp. 

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2011. Copyright Wade Guyton

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2011. Copyright Wade Guyton

Some of the more punk-inflected practitioners in the show such as Albert Oehlen or the late Mike Kelley build into their work a kind of spirited awkwardness and use images that are gleaned from obscure backwaters of mainstream image culture, if only to transcend them through considerable formal chops. Equally poised is Richard Serra’s horizontal black bar of oil- sticked canvas, stapled directly to the wall in a side gallery off the lobby. I remember seeing a show of these at the Serpentine when I was a student, and I remember somebody remarking how unprofessional Serra’s presentational skills were; the canvas sagged and buckled, sometimes they weren’t even straight. Here, locked against the vertical of the neighbouring wall, Serra’s form is all wobbly edge. The shredded and wonky edge it creates makes the whole bar vibrate against the neutral perfection of Gagosian’s architecture. It felt warm, like a human voice, perhaps the most authentically down-to-earth work in the show.

Ed Ruscha, End, 1933. Copyright Ed Rusche, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photography Paul Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, End, 1933. Copyright Ed Rusche, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photography Paul Ruscha

American post war art culture has bestowed on each of its movements the necessary weight of historical inevitability. “The death of painting” is an idea that emphasises a medium’s historical transience, and perhaps lends a spurious gothic glamour to those practitioners that continue to perpetuate the medium with a kind of built in knowledge of it own futility and transience. As a notion, it trounces romantic internalisation as hopelessly naive, and, in perpetuating a lost cause against the odds, lends a heroic weight to work that might easily be dismissed as high end decor. On the other hand, the positivistic idea that painting is developing towards an historic terminus gives formal developments an authority and rigour. The effect is to put the squeeze on painting, to reduce its options, in the way Ad Reinhardt tried to reduce painting to its essence through a series of negations. This show demonstrates that paintings exist as material objects. Yet it may be that the productive logic of post war abstraction, “the art of the real”, an art that apparently eliminates the distinction between subject and object, is no longer against the grain of mainstream culture but perfectly in keeping with its production of spectacle and commodity. There is a sense though, with some of the artists here, that American art is looking to find new internal contradictions, new ways to renew itself. What is interesting  and surprising about some of the work in this show, such as Guyton’s unobtainable objects of desire, is how striking the illusions are.

The Show is Over is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 30th of November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. John Link said…

    I don’t know the date for END, but Ed Ruscha was not alive in 1933.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    Dan,
    Despite appearing to be another supporter of the ambiguity army (you go looking for it!), what you have eloquently written here on the de Kooning made it sound so significant that you persuaded me to traipse over to Gargantuan for a look.

    “…de Kooning’s paintings fold back in on themselves – figure turns back into ground and then ground, suddenly circumnavigated, turns back into figure. This continual exchange between a body and the negative space that defines it, which oscillate in a kind of perpetual ambiguity, makes de Kooning’s paintings both spatially deep and immediate.”

    That could be really good, if it were true. It might even prove the case for a “good” kind of ambiguity. But despite the pentimenti I had no trouble at all in reading it as rather banal drawing on a white background, and pretty poor drawing at that, not really signifying any remarkable activity or spatial articulation; it’s vague, indeterminate, ambiguously figurative, which is the only way you can “read” space into it – decidedly not good. I think you are (like Paul Corio) over-romanticising late de Kooning; if you are seeing lots of spatial stuff happening here, you are seeing “pictures in the fire”, because De Kooning is certainly not building it in. But then, if you’re out looking for “psychic” stuff, you’re gonna see all sorts.

    As for the rest of the exhibition – oh dear, what a sad and sorry lot. The de Kooning aside, there is hardly a single painting worth the name. If this show “…represents a particular history of American painting…” it’s one we should forget about as quickly as possible. It is 100% very bad conceptual stuff masquerading as painting to make it seem like art. Once I’d done the de Kooning, I couldn’t wait to get out. I went straight back across town to the Onnasch Collection, which by comparison looked great – for half a minute or so. Sorry Patrick, but it really doesn’t stand up to longer scrutiny. I had to dash off again to find something I could look at for, ooh, all of five minutes together without getting bored or putting my fist through something…

    I found little Boudin and Ruisdael paintings over at Richard Green Gallery. Both brilliant! How can you claim “Illusionism in painting has always depended upon the presentation of something apparently graspable which turns out to be actually absent; representation in this sense, always prefigures a loss”? Not so; no sense of loss here, only something new made real and truly gained.

    • Pete Hoida said…

      Couldn’t agree more………
      You could add the Berthe Morisot at Richard Green, that makes three. To get some measure of the achievements of the artists at Onnasch you might compare those with what was going on in the UK at that time, Davie, Hilton, Heron, Frost and others too. Despite that there is a good Louis at Sprueth Magers, the large one best of the two filling the huge canvas with a nice quality to the texture and colour. I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the Paul Klee, beautiful little pictures that have a large impact. And he nearly always gets it right…..

    • Dan Coombs said…

      “I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat.”

      Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    You’re a very clever guy, Robert, of that there is no doubt; but “naivety is the sign of great art” is one of the most stupid comments yet made on this site. Are you playing a joke on us? Perhaps you share in Terry’s quest for perversity, ambiguity, subversion and contradiction? No doubt, though, you are equal to devising your own “strategy” of even greater inanity.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      You have to understand what naivety is, a bigger topic. I acquired boldness in the use of the term after reading Adorno on that subject, but fear to expound it in a comment – off the cuff remarks might be too superficial.

      We all have a strategy, however distasteful it may be, both to have one and to admit it, because no matter how intense and complete one’s involvement in art the result will always appear from the outside as a strategy. Just a preface to saying that my “strategy” is not inane.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      let’s start by saying that a naive person is one who blurts out what’s in his or her mind without calculating the consequences – I find it an endearing trait, many don’t, but you would certainly qualify, and it’s a pre-requisite for genuine art. To act spontaneously without calculating the reaction of others. A great artist is quite capable of calculating those reactions, and might even think they are doing so, but their naivety breaks though anyway with unexpected results.

      I hate always referring to my blog, but I made a post about this recently, and note that Schoenberg, as an exemplary naive artist, is also supremely conscious of what he is doing.
      http://newabstraction.net/2013/10/14/artist-of-the-naive-type/

    • Elizabeth said…

      What’s wrong with ambiguity and contradiction?

      I believe the best artists do possess a childlike innocence and spontaneity (naivety) that plays an integral part in their work.

      Enjoy Abstract Critical immensely. Thank you.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Indeed, what is wrong with contradiction? I think the ability to sustain a contradiction without trying to resolve it is another trait of the artist.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        “…another trait of the artist”?!? Would that be the “great” artist or the childlike innocent one? One of the great “naives” perhaps, like Titian, Goya, Poussin, Constable, Cezanne etc. The fools…

  4. Dan Coombs said…

    That’s great Robert I agree with that

  5. Robert Linsley said…

    what you say about Stella is interesting, but not sure how neurotic it is. In the light of your last paragraph it seems as heroic as anything.

    By their taste you will know them, and the inability to recognize the achievement of Stella’s last thirty years is a massive failure, in which it seems that many share.

    • Sam said…

      I think Stella of almost any period would liven up this exhibition. I really can’t share Dan’s interest in the surface of Guyton’s paintings. I had assumed he surface would fix his images in a more definition way, that they would be more interesting than they looked but in reality they looked as boring as the reproduction suggested. I am in total agreement on the Wool, but can’t find Richard Prince funny. For me the most engaging works were the early Robert Rymans on the semi-reflective grounds. Perhaps in a different context I wouldn’t have liked them as much, but they seemed to provide something I could hang onto, perhaps some of the ‘humanity’ Dan found in Serra?

    • Dan Coombs said…

      Robert, I love Stella. “Neurotic” is an attempt to describe his work in a psychological way .

      • Robert Linsley said…

        fair enough, perhaps I jumped to conclusions about your position.
        But you see something that Sam doesn’t, namely that artists like Prince take that neurosis for granted and objectify it. To continue a great tradition by emptying it out is the strategy. My problem with that is it’s too conventional today. To be conscious of one’s own neurosis enough to put it to good use is not neurotic anymore, just well-adjusted. Stella is out of step because he believes that a concrete achievement is still possible. In other words naive. But naivety is the sign of great art.

  6. Robert Linsley said…

    Interesting comments. The incommensurability of individual desire and social capacities.