The thing I liked most on a brief trip round the galleries last week was Aubrey Williams’ Shostakovich Suite at Hales Gallery. The six largish paintings were never less than interesting, though some seemed a little disjointed. I felt the two reproduced here were the best. Last day Saturday!
Partly following Dan Coombs’ thoughts on Merlin James, Williams’s works are perhaps more tellingly described as pictures rather than paintings. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism many paintings staged the stuff of paint. Paint’s materiality was imbued with the illusion of space without ever losing sight of the fact that it was first and foremost material, that what you were looking at was a painting, more than it was an image. In a sense the claims to abstraction made by much post-Abstract Expressionist paintings rested on this staging, as much as they did on the related assertions of flatness. Williams’ resonant pictures work very differently. They appear as fantastical scenes or visions that have been imagined and then pictured and that could have perhaps been rendered in another medium. A lack of subservience to paint as a material allowed Williams a lot of freedom. In this they reminded me of Kandinsky’s abstract pictures – though in almost all other respects, notably scale, they are very different. Overall Williams keeps figuration just at bay, or slightly submerged, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of a jarring is-it-or-isn’t-it oscillation.
At one of abstraction’s other extremes, two shows of classic minimalism, Donald Judd at David Zwirner and Carl Andre at Sadie Coles. What with Robert Morris recently at Sprueth Magers, Andre at Turner Contemporary and Zwirner’s Sandback show earlier in the year there has been quite a glut of this recently. A perfect storm of longstanding critical seriousness, museum validation and market desire? I’m attracted to much minimalist sculpture but I don’t think it is as important as either its supporters or its detractors have made out. Looking past the polemics of the sixties, and minimalism’s subsequent positioning as a stepping-stone to the expanded-field, I think it is clear that Judd and Andre should be considered as formalists working a narrow seam within late modernism.
The Judd show is a beautifully arranged mini-retrospective and well worth seeing. The Andre involves a single related group of works and is markedly less exciting. Admittedly the differences between the gallery spaces works in Judd’s favour, but even taking this into account it is apparent how much Andre stands or falls on the intrinsic attractions of his material. From past experience I like the zinc plates and the rough-hewn wood best – the planks used here reminded me of those floating shelves you can buy from IKEA, and the arrangements, either banal or clunky, didn’t help very much.
Of the Judd’s the 1989 plywood works were for me most interesting – I’m not sure I could quite say exciting. Clearly and certainly stated, and handsomely made, they both used illusion, drawing on the slanted lines of perspective. The wall-mounted one in particular encourages you to understand it from different angles. As you position your body and line of sight in relation to one box the internal divisions of the other boxes line up accordingly. I found comparing one position to another an involving experience – everyone has to get their kicks somehow! The difference between the floor-based plywood piece and Naum Gabo’s Two Cubes (Demonstrating the Stereometric Method) of 1930, currently on show at the Tate, says a lot about the development of abstract sculpture through the twentieth century.
Within Judd’s parameters, the plywood pieces were very different to the one-shot drama of Untitled, 1964, the earliest piece in the show, and my next favourite. What could be more high-modernist that one-shot drama! Conversely I found it difficult to relate to many of the wall-mounted pieces, with the exception of the Brancusi-channelling Untitled (Bernstein 89-1), 1989. What else can you do apart from admire how well-made they are? This problem especially applies to the blue and white of Untitled (Lascaux 89-59), 1989. The red of Untitled, 1964 is clearly part of its drama, but Judd does not seem to have been able to use colour in concert. To my eyes his colours never interact with each other, simply just sit there inert.
Judd and Andre would probably have both objected to being called formalists, even though in their cases I use it more or less in a spirit of approbation. In fact as this site has demonstrated on a number of occasions, many abstract artists object to being called formalists. I can see the objection – the general implication is that forms or shapes are manipulated for their own sake, without meaning (whatever ‘meaning’ means) or without being channelled for a higher/deeper purpose: formalism is dry, stale, pointless. But it does not have to be this way. Without bringing in conspicuous or semi-conspicuous content or reference (which I by no means necessarily object to) could we say formalism finds its purpose through the extent to which it displays visual intelligence, or visual feeling? Not intelligence as knowing reference, or feeling expressed through the trace of artist’s hand, but both as the visual result of conscious decision making. Of course perhaps all I am saying is that some formalism is successful and some isn’t, and the logic is circular. If so could we go the whole hog and say that formalism succeeds as formalism by going beyond formalism!?
I’ve half-liked Sarah Morris’s paintings previously, particularly in group shows where they have been surrounded by less immaculately finished productions. Her show just up at White Cube however left me more than somewhat cold. The film playing in the next room, the partial half-familiar shapes half-buried in her abstractions (is that an Apple logo?; is that a cityscape?), the painted over film posters (including Hitchcock’s F for Fake) all signal loud and clear that what we are dealing here is not formalism. This stuff is full of reference, context, meaning! I only watched fragments of the film and lost the press-release later in the day but from the title of the show I’m guessing it had something to do with Brazil – perhaps a smart move given current Brazilian appetite for contemporary art. But as far as abstract painting is concerned I think the whole affair is a case of protesting too much. The paintings themselves are formalist in the bad sense of the term, each a variation off the grid, without any sense that this particular arrangement matters more than the one next to it. In the end their perfect finish cannot mask the feeling that there is not a guiding intelligence at work, one which could draw you into a more involved relation with the paintings individually or en masse, and so all we get are shapes looping pointlessly. Of course I’m sure they could be defended in terms an overall ironic programme, but really isn’t that just a cop-out?
Aubrey Williams: Shostakovich Symphonies and Quartets, Hales Gallery until the 27th of July
Donald Judd, David Zwirner Grafton Street until the 3rd of August
Carl Andre: Walnut Works, Sadie Coles HQ until the 2th of August
Sarah Morris, Bye Bye Brazil, White Cube Bermondsey until the 29th of September