BEYOND “WHAT YOU SEE”: Rethinking Abstract Painting as a Signifying Process

The four artists who are included in an exhibition at the Po Kim / Sylvia Wald Foundation on Lafayette Street maintain a perpetual dialogue about painting and frequently show their work together in various parts of Germany. Of the four painters, only two are, in fact, German—Ivo Ringe from Bonn and Rupert Eder from Munich. A third, Jon Groom, hails from Wales, and has lived and worked in Munich for the past 25 years. The fourth is Joe Barnes, a tennis-playing octogenarian and the only artist from New York. Barnes is also the curator for this exhibition, titled About Painting. One of the arguments I would make in relation to the title is that nowadays, painting—like sculpture—may employ just about any kind of subject matter, any formal or anti-formalist idea, and almost any kind of format and technical process, and still be called painting. About Painting is, in fact, about abstract painting in which some reference to geometry is generally apparent. More specifically, this exhibition is about smaller scale abstract painting, which sets it apart from the Color Field variety, such as Thomas Downing, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and the California Classicists, including John McLaughlin and Karl Benjamin, whom I cited in an earlier essay, as well as the large-scale geometry seen in works by Ellsworth Kelly, early Frank Stella, Robert Swain, Sanford Wurmfeld, and the British artist Bridget Riley.

Rupert Eder. "Solo rotor #31," 2011. 30cm x 30cm. Oil and pigment on linen.
Joe Barnes. “Meditation,” 2011. 36 × 35 3/4 inches. Acrylic on canvas.

In fact, the four painters in this exhibition are less involved with scale than many of their late Modernist antecedents. For example, Joe Groom—probably the most notable of the group—began working on modestly large-scaled vertical formats, using an acrylic medium on linen, three decades ago. Groom’s scale was not monumental, though it did fill the viewer’s perceptual field. For the past four years, Groom has intentionally moved away from large linen surfaces toward small metal ones—almost, but not quite square—ranging in sizes from 38 by 35 to 54 by 50 centimeters. He paints on various alloys, stainless steel and tin. “Herald GIV #15” (2009) is an oil on tin in which a vertical, dark rectangle competes from behind with a horizontal, metallic rectangle clutching the bottom edge. “GV #18” (2010) is a square oil on metal where a magnificent set of green and blue rectangles descend from the upper edge to meet a horizontal band just up from the bottom and just shy of the left side of the quadrilateral. Groom is a highly accomplished and rigorous painter, a master of the trade. To listen to his lilting Welsh voice explain how the light is contained within the color of his paintings emits a pleasure difficult to define in our culture, yet is definitely within the purview of an aesthetic that has emerged from a very high order in the delicate balance between eye and mind.

Ivo Ringe is a painter who has liberated himself most thoroughly from the edges of the supporting frame. This is to say that Ringe will often suspend his woven triangular and polygonal shape(s) within the frame, if never exactly in the center. For example, “Love” (2011) is an openly structured, light bluish gray ovum within a greenish field. In contrast, “The Pink Sea” (2006) features a similar open structure, but in bluish gray over a pink field where all the lines extend hypothetically beyond the visible surface. Again, in “Nice”(2008), we get a telephoto view of the wide linear structure in light yellow against a light gray. Ivo Ringe’s paintings remind me of physics, yet with a freedom of execution that makes our visual entry into its universe completely open and accessible.

Rupert Eder, the youngest of the group, applies a wider range of color on a single surface. His oil and pigment on linen paintings are again small in scale. It appears as if each swath of color is placed directly parallel to each of the edges. However, as one looks closer, it is apparent that beneath the four strokes there are earlier applications of color of varying length, as in “Solo rotor #28” (2011), where the descending stroke on the left of the quadrilateral lies over a lighter version of the same hue. In each case Eder’s paintings constitute a kind of puzzle that challenges the viewer to decipher the sequence in which the various strokes were made. A series of four paintings, together titled Manhattan 4 (each measuring 30 by 30 centimeters), remains particularly ambiguous, yet beautiful within its ambiguity, as one attempts to construe the temporal placement of the strokes that cling to each of the edges of the square and leave the bright squares in the center of each painting to shine like jewels.

Finally, Joe Barnes is the only monochrome painter of the group. His approach to painting began some years ago when he began working on white canvases as a meditative exercise. Gradually over the past 20 years, he has evolved from working strictly in white to the primary and secondary colors on both square and rectilinear surfaces. Barnes introduces this exhibition with four black, 12 by 12-inch paintings, equidistantly placed on the wall, titled “Meditation” (2011). Given his monochromatic approach, the artist pays considerable attention to how and where his work will be placed. Often in Europe, he will site a small painting in the center of a large wall or a large panting on a relatively small wall, depending on how he perceives the affect of the color within the space. For Barnes, painting is about designating a surface of color that will affect the space around it. One might say that the color and scale of these highly reduced paintings requires a syntactical relationship with the wall in order for the work to be read and experienced correctly.

I suppose the point that this rather unique exhibition holds for the present moment is to restore an awareness of what abstract painting is at a time when it appears again to be disappearing. In the earlier periods of Modernism, ranging from Malevich to Reinhardt, or from Duchamp to Conceptual art, the question of the relevance of abstract painting was more an internal philosophical or aesthetic debate. Now, in the era of mediation, when populations see only things in motion, the question has become far more serious and more dependent on devolutionary factors. The question we are facing today is whether adult human beings still have the attention span to see an abstract painting as a visual argument that defines a state of mind—a veritable state of Being, or even Non-Being. The lack of interest in deciphering this conflicted reality is distressing, to say the least. After the formalism of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the ability to view abstract painting, even on an intimate or concentrated scale, is finally about more than what is contained within the formalist paradigm. Over the past half-century, another more expanded aesthetic has fallen into place with regard to psychology, epistemology, and semiotics, which encompasses questions that exceed the limits of “what you see.” We are now in a position to think in relation to what we see, which I propose as a natural course in painting’s evolution. As a result, we might consider recent examples of abstract painting to possess a kind of linguistic syntax capable of signifying beyond the purely visual aspects of form. The paintings in this exhibition are precisely about this process. They give way to perceptions, both mental and emotional, which translate into an abstract language that further signifies the terms of whatever we may decide to call our reality.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.