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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.