Abstract Critical

Round the Galleries: Williams, Judd, Andre, Morris

Written by Sam Cornish

Aubrey Williams, Shostakovich 6th Quartet, Opus 101, 1981, oil on canvas, 132.1 x 208.3 cm, Courtesy of Hales Gallery and The Estate of Aubrey Williams. Copyright of The Estate of Aubrey Williams.

Aubrey Williams, Shostakovich 6th Quartet, Opus 101, 1981, oil on canvas, 132.1 x 208.3 cm, Courtesy of Hales Gallery and The Estate of Aubrey Williams. Copyright of The Estate of Aubrey Williams.

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!

Aubrey Williams,  Shostakovich 10th Symphony, Opus 93, 1981 Oil on canvas, 163 x 245 cm. Courtesy of Hales Gallery and The Estate of Aubrey Williams. Copyright of The Estate of Aubrey Williams.

Aubrey Williams, Shostakovich 10th Symphony, Opus 93, 1981 Oil on canvas, 163 x 245 cm. Courtesy of Hales Gallery and The Estate of Aubrey Williams. Copyright of The Estate of Aubrey Williams.

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.

Installation view, Walnut Works, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 04 July – 24 August 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Installation view, Walnut Works, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 04 July – 24 August 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

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.

Installation view, Walnut Works, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 04 July – 24 August 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Installation view, Walnut Works, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 04 July – 24 August 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

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.

Installation view, Donald Judd, David Zwirner, London, 2013. Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo © 2013 Alex Delfanne.

Installation view, Donald Judd, David Zwirner, London, 2013. Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo © 2013 Alex Delfanne.

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.

Installation view, Donald Judd, David Zwirner, London, 2013. Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo © 2013 Alex Delfanne.

Installation view, Donald Judd, David Zwirner, London, 2013. Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo © 2013 Alex Delfanne.

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.

Sarah Morris. 'Bye Bye Brazil', White Cube Bermondsey. 17 July - 29 September 2013 © Sarah Morris. Photo: Ben Westoby  Courtesy White Cube

Sarah Morris. ‘Bye Bye Brazil’, White Cube Bermondsey. 17 July – 29 September 2013 © Sarah Morris. Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

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!?  

Sarah Morris, 'Bye Bye Brazil', White Cube Bermondsey 17 July - 29 September 2013. © Sarah Morris. Photo: Ben Westoby  Courtesy White Cube

Sarah Morris, ‘Bye Bye Brazil’, White Cube Bermondsey 17 July – 29 September 2013. © Sarah Morris. Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

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

 

  1. John Bunker said…

    This piece made me reflect on some of the issues that have come up on AbCrit in relation to notions of formalism. Sam’s insightful thoughts on the ‘formalism’ at play or being played with by Sarah Morris reminded me of Robin’s passionate questioning of Caro’s legacy and in one later comment- Robin’s refutation of the label ‘formalist’ that had been applied to his own writing. I was intrigued by Robin’s use of the term ‘realist’ and the calling up of the great Corbet. I know that the unpacking of such a term would be a delicate operation in relation to abstract sculpture or painting for that matter but I for one would love to be at that table when the scalpel is raised!

    Some ghosts of these ideas come up in a very early piece for this site called ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ (an email conversation between Robin and myself a couple of years back). Robin’s clear and insightful thinking shines through here compared to my rather confused ramblings (no change there then….) It skirts around the issue of the role of formal invention in making work, and how it sits in relation to the way art has gone since the 70s.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    What a delightful old thing original minimal art is. The real thing, I mean: Judd, Morris (Robert, not Sarah), Andre. It’s just so… cute! I mean, look at that cuddly orange thing six photos down. A ‘simple’ shape, but the devil of a thing to make; and how it’s made is completely apparent and all the better for it. It’s painted tin, all the better too for being bashed around a bit since 1964 and having a few corners knocked off. Like I say, cute, like a kiddies plaything; it intrigues for all of… ooh, half a minute.

    In the rest of the Judd show you can allay boredom by trying to work out how the hell things that seem to be so perfect were put together – glue, screws, hidden fixings, magnets? Who knows? This amuses no end. The sheer amount of technical work and planning that goes into producing something like this is out of all proportion to the results, which are so short-lived as to be hardly worth breaking sweat for. I know, because it’s where I started as a sculpture student, trying to emulate this degree of cool. I have the remnants of nostalgia for the (supposed) simplicity of it all. It seemed such a good idea at the time, going for ‘fundamental’ forms.

    Finally, you can go round spotting all the millimetre discrepancies that completely ruin the perfection. To imagine that you could get away with this stuff in the world of the visual, where people pick up on the merest nuance! Those Plexiglas panels are buckling in a rather ugly manner in untitled 1965! There are little dints in that vertical wall-piece!! And what about those dozen bolts holding together the blue, wall-mounted Untitled (Lascaux 89-59); far from being discreet, they just run riot. Havoc, mayhem, anarchy!!!!

    Actually, for design artefacts and architecture, minimalism probably is a good idea (though perhaps architects wouldn’t think so?), but not for sculpture. For sculpture, it’s just too boring. I do actually rate Judd as a very good architect. Maybe architecture can afford to be boring because interesting things happen in it.

  3. Peter Reginato said…

    “but really isn’t that just a cop-out?”….Sam…YES