Everything is Finished Nothing is Dead: An Article About Abstract Painting
There was a time when abstract painting by its very definition was blazing new territory. Malevich trembled with excitement as he wiped the slate clean, confident that his "desert of pure feeling" could usher him directly into the higher reality. And it did. Mondrian understood that through the balancing of vertical and horizontal lines, and the exact placement of primary color areas, he could create a dynamic equilibrium that vibrated with the universal energy of life. And he did. Hilma Af Klint followed the direction of "the guides" and surrendered herself to the new language of abstraction, confident that great theosophical truths could be revealed. And they were.
I remember driving on the New Jersey Turnpike arguing with Phong Bui about who made the first abstract painting. I said that Kandinsky had gradually camouflaged his imagery and made abstractions by 1911. Phong said Kupka made completely abstract paintings in 1909 and that Arthur Dove first showed abstract oil studies to Steiglitz in 1910. I said what about Serusier and his Talisan painting from 1888 and Phong said that was just one painting and it’s still a landscape. I said Victor Hugo made drawings in the 1850s like abstract Redons. We argued about Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter who made their Thought Forms in 1905, and Phong said those weren’t really paintings. I said maybe the first abstract paintings came from Hilma Af Klint in her 1906 Paintings From The Temple series. Just then Alfred Jensen woke up in the back seat and told us we were both fools and asked what about the Mayans and the Tantra painters and the Peruvian carpet makers and the American Indian rock painters and the Aboriginal dream-time bark painters and he told us that we had just missed the exit for the Holland Tunnel right there in 2002.
When the Abstract Artists Association started in New York City in the 1930s there were barely a dozen members, just a lonely band of abstract painters fighting for respect from a hostile and uncomprehending public. I remember I lived on Houston Street. I took methedrine for two days straight and made hundreds and hundreds of drawings only to drop them out the sixth story window and watch them float gently one by one down to the sidewalk below and the next morning only a few remained next to a broken piano in a puddle by the basketball court.
All around us a vast materialistic juggernaut surges across America. We are rushing to buy the images of pleasure that flicker across TV screens and glisten from giant billboards. America is rushing to burn down the Amazon, rushing to steal all the rainwater out of the Sudan, rushing to obliterate mud huts with million dollar missles, rushing to build shiny SUV’s out of coyote bones, rushing towards death... There was a time here in New York City when heroes walked the earth. In 1941 Mark Rothko lived at 29 East 28th Street. Clyfford Still had a studio at 48 Cooper Square. Now history is finished. I climbed to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge and had a sunset vision about the trembling possibilities of abstract painting but came down cold and hungry with just a few dollars for pork buns and tea. I used to open the Ellsworth Kelly book to this 1958 photograph of Kelly, Kenneth Youngerman, Robert Indiana, and Agnes Martin taken on the roof of Coenties Slip. That image had all the romance of the New York art world in it and most of all I loved the way Agnes Martin looked in her white raincoat— monumental and alert. When I approached the delicate pencil lines and shimmering washes of color of an Agnes Martin painting I was suddenly conscious of my own breathing. Agnes Martin says, "We are in the midst of reality, responding with joy. It is an absolutely satisfying experience, but extrememly elusive..." Sometimes a horizon line is a horizon line and sometimes not. Dan Walsh says "We still need a horizon." And I agree.
Abstract painting contains powerful limitations and extraordinary freedom. Great abstract paintings can be the result of a tremendous condensation of information. An abstract painting can be a tight tough form with which to transmit huge content. Peter Acheson calls it "a hard nut containing the whole tree". The painting enters vision fast but continues to flow into consciousness as it releases it’s meaning slowly over time. We live with the image and it lives with us. This is what the soul needs— long periods of slow focused contemplation.
I had this dream: There was a big cocktail party in my parents’ house. A homeless man was lurking behind the sofa. I recognized him vaguely as an old friend and a drunk. Then I realized it was Rothko. We talked. He became strangely threatening. He showed me a matte black old forty-five caliber revolver like the starter pistol my older brother kept in his bureau. I ran upstairs and returned with a shiny new pump action 20-gauge shotgun. We met in the elegant drawing room surrounded by chatting oblivious guests. He reached for his pistol and I blasted him once, twice and again right in the chest. Red blood stained his burnt umber overcoat. I was euphoric. I had killed Rothko!
We are not thinking about art anymore. We are out of our minds. We seek a blunt visual meaning— not just a riff on postmodernism, color field painting, psychedelic kitsch or whatever. We can’t stop talking about Forrest Bess who closed his eyes and painted the images inside his eyelids with utter conviction. We are searching for this state of utter conviction. We digress and we stay up all night talking about abstract painting. We talk about Yayoi Kusama who painted the dots that flowed endlessly out of her own body and she painted them on canvases, on ladders, on couches, on naked bodies, and all over the floor until she couldn’t stop and then she did stop and disappeared into a quiet room in Japan.
Ad Reinhart said this about his five-foot square black on black paintings, "This painting is my painting if I paint it. This painting is your painting if you paint it." He was a great painter and could be very very funny. When I first came to New York in the 1970s a lot of abstract painting had been hijacked by people interested in conceptual purity and some kind of dogma of negation. They had no sense of humor and consequently could never be taken seriously the way
Ad Reinhart was serious. But in 1978 I saw Mary Heilman paintings that had a sense of humor and a sense of the a serious absurdity of things. The colors were as strong as they were in the tube. They seemed inevitable and offhand— like they just happened that way.
"If truth be known, abstract painting seems to have come to a bad end, with, to be sure, underground pockets here and there," John Perreault wrote last year. Mondrian is buried in Queens at Cypress Hills cemetery, one grave in an anonymous row of little headstones next to an old locust grove in Block 51, grave #1191. I dressed up in a suit and a tie and went to see him. A small rabbit darted from behind a nearby headstone. Now there’s a hotel for movie stars in Los Angeles called the Mondrian Hotel. Mondrian is dead and buried alive at the Mondrian Hotel under piles of new laundry, under piles of periodicals and art magazines and scholarly articles and heavy books on Mondrian. Abstract painting is finished: it’s marginalized, it’s minor, it’s dying and no one really cares or notices. Huge Whitney Biennials are filled with miles of glossy photographs and political installations and video installations and sound installations and computer internet installations and moving sculptures with blinking lights and there are exactly three abstract paintings in the whole museum and they look like decor.
And yet... Andrew Masullo is quietly sitting on the floor in the San Francisco night cradling a small painting in his lap carefully painting and repainting the candy colored shapes and the spirit of Florence Stettleheimer reclines on a miniature chaise-lounge perched on his shoulder and his very own Forrest Bess painting is hanging on the wall behind him. Masullo sits quietly in his apartment filled with hundreds of objects, his "little bits of nothing," each one carefully numbered. Masullo’s paintings have an eccentric severity despite their snappy pinks and yellows. They are utterly painstakingly subjective. Underneath a modernist naiveté his paintings contain a quirky ‘rightness’ and an undeniable honesty. Abstract painting is modest plain revolutionary anonymous. Abstract painting does not stand up and say, "Fuck Festivalism! Fuck this parade of international carnival art fairs with endless hours of fun house videos, sound installations and talking sculptures, screaming advertisements and sophomoric political propaganda." Abstract painting is silent. Abstract painting is a humble hand-painted recognition of humanness.
Abstract painting isn’t necessarily abstract. Abstract painting is not abstract but is filled with the forms of the world, is filled with cracks in the sidewalk and light off the water and floor plans and solar systems and an afternoon sunset in Bombay and the lumbering form of the big black bear Brice Marden saw as it disappeared across the lawn of his studio in rural Pennsylvania. If Julian Schnabel writes the words "70th Week" across a huge tarp painted with white forms that are not accidental and not deliberate but wonderfully fucked up, is it an abstract painting? If Peter Halley says that a rectangle is a piece of conduit or a prison cell and not a rectangle and it becomes some kind of neon road sign of sociology and the rectangles disappear and just the savage color is left, reborn as an absolute fact, is it an abstract painting? When we stand in front of a ten foot Ellen Gallagher painting and zero in on the thumbnail sized black faces with staring rows of eyes and we are swimming in a vast pink grid, is it abstract? When Tamara Gonzales pours white enamel over the black lingham form that she has decorated with cake icing flowers, is it a Shiva puja or an abstract painting? When is Carroll Dunham painting fuzzy knobs and when is he painting penis noses? If Andrew Massullo carefully sprinkles the moist dirt he has been saving from the grave of Alban Berg in Vienna onto the small canvas, is it an abstract painting? We are painting with the bones of our ancestors, we are painting the endless forms of the world, and it was Kandinsky who stated "Any form is possible if it arises out inner necessity."
I asked Kathy Bradford whether she was still an abstract artist. When she first came here from Maine she made paintings of logs and old mountains and they got very thick and more abstract and so she began to make abstract paintings and showed them in Soho. Then simple objects and clunky figures started to come back into the work so that a painting would be abstract and later a figure could be painted in it weeks later the figure could be painted out and it would be abstract again and I asked her whether she was an abstract artist or not and she said "I’m a freedom artist". In 1951 de Kooning said "There is no style of painting now. There are as many naturalists among the abstract painters as there are abstract painters among the subject matter school." And fifty years later it’s true more than ever: there are no boundaries. There is slippage and if Sigmar Polke starts moving paint and resin and meteorite dust and silk screens around in search of the alchemy of the moment there could be an image or maybe not. Sometimes Polke’s dots are playboy bunnies and sometimes the dots are dots. For many of the best painters the abstract paintings and the figurative paintings sit in the studio side by side— think of Polke, Schnabel, Sillman, Offilli, Taaffe, Tomaselli. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as abstraction and there is no such thing as painting and there is no such thing as writing about abstract painting. Abstract painting is not old, abstract painting is not new, abstract painting is happening in secret this moment, in abstract painting nobody knows what’s going to happen next. This is not a manifesto. Abstract painting is a state of mind, an openness.
I met Tom Nozkowski years ago setting up his first show in Soho. He was up on a tall ladder holding a small painting. The painting had a detail of a Giotto fresco— the peeling back of the edge of the sky— and I said "Hey that’s a Giotto" and he said "Yeah..." Nozkowski’s paintings are born out of a hand eye dance and his vast memory of other paintings, carpets, sculptures, architectures and drawings and the shapes half glimpsed out the car window and the thousand details of the Lower East Side and Shawangunk landscape that he knows and loves so fiercely. Out of the corner of his eye Nozkowski sees a silver birch or maybe a striped traffic divider and weeks later they enter the painting in the top left corner. Every day his paintings get weirder, more eccentric, more varied, more truthful, more particular, more stubborn, and less predictable. His color is unnamable and specific as if each panel contained its own weather and time of day. The new abstract painting says, "Fuck you we will not stand guard at the tomb of modernism but neither do we feel pressed to deliver the latest titillation..." The new abstract painting is in the same old boat the same leaking old boat the same perpetual crisis of inventing the new language to tell the brand new same old truth. We must grab this dusty skeleton of painting and (as Tom says) "make these bones speak..."
In 1979 I was sitting in the shadows of a Soho loading dock at 2:00 A.M. tripping on peyote and Bill Jensen walked by. I got up and I just started following him. I was too shy to approach him, so I just followed him through Soho down to Magoos Bar and then I went home. I never told him this. Bill Jensen remembers being born on November 26, 1945, in a Minneapolis hospital room with white tiles and green tile border a foot from the ceiling. He remembers his real father in an air force uniform gazing down upon him in the crib and then leaving. He never saw him again. He says he remembers it vividly like a scene from a Tarkovsky movie. Jensen studied painting with Peter Busa at the University of Minnesota and moved to New York in 1971. At that time, he saw five Ryder paintings at the Brooklyn Museum. He abandoned heavily impastoed large spiral paintings as the materials caused severe illness. By 1975 he began his legendary small easel paintings which blazed with inward compressed organic imagery. In 1978 he painted "The Black Madonna." In 1979 he completed the masterpieces "Crown of Thorns" and "Ryder’s Eye." The work deepened and grew strange: "The Tempest" (1981), "Spoons and Straws" (1984), "Denial" (1986), "Sea of Green" (1989-90), "Bright Moments" (1992). In 1994 the paintings began to open to a more gestural empty horizon line in "Colossus" (1993-4), "Stalker," and the great "Winter’s Light" of 1994. The paintings continue to grow simultaneously more open and more concrete as in the recent "Images of a Floating World" (1999-2001). Bill Jensen is a radical artist who harnesses the power of painting to present inner realities. Abstract painting is a search for freedom. This freedom cannot be found in style, or in details, large size, any particular forms, or in computers, new materials, old materials, or in trying to find the end of some daydream railroad track of art history. This freedom is found inside. There is no inside and there is no outside.
We were living on Houston Street in a six floor tenement building with no locks on the front door and a steady stream of drug dealers, transients, crazies and dogs living in the hallways. The tiny apartments were filled with poor hispanic families with up to ten people packed together. The saxophonist Robert Aron had a huge lizard that ate cockroaches and one day when it escaped to the apartment downstairs, the Chinese lady killed it with a broom and complained bitterly "We have roaches, we have mice and rats, and now the big lizards are coming!" Painters lived there: Gary Lang, Bob Kraus, Henry Chotkowski, Peter Acheson, Mark Potter. Jean Michel Basquiat slept on the floor and Glenn O’Brien lived across the hall. He used to knock on my door in the middle of the night to look at art books. The super Joe Terranova had a pompadour hairdo and loved the young artists in the building— we were his "boys". So one night Peter is making abstract paintings on the floor pouring gallons of yellow latex paint everywhere and at midnight the Puerto Ricans downstairs call up the super to say that there is bright yellow pouring down from their ceiling and the walls are turning yellow and Joe screams at them to stop taking drugs and shut up and don’t ever bother him again and next day tells Peter that the crazy Puerto Ricans were on drugs last night and would you believe they were seeing the paint move on the walls.
What does it mean, "abstract" ? Does it mean to abstract from something— to start with an image and transform it into essentials, like Mondrian’s tree series? Maybe it means some kind of freedom from the image so we can get directly to the serious part and not get lost in apples or nipples. Maybe it means the big idea itself— painting as physics or philosophy. Maybe it means to be purified or to be closer to concrete essences. Maybe it’s a formal design strategy with invented rules, a graphing or charting of information. There is no guarantee of freedom in abstraction. In the suburbs of Seattle there are Barnett Newman postcards on the refrigerator. Here in Brooklyn the sidewalks are littered with caribou bones and the taxi drivers are lost. They drive to the airport and sit in the parking lot huddled in circles around the ancient Kashmir firelight and never return home. The painter Max Gimblett says "The impulse moves between the instant and the gradual... In alertness and attention. In silence with the paint. Painting is inherently mysterious, it’s a state of being where there is no recognizable ‘Mind’..."
I was twelve-years-old and all I wanted to do was play touch football. I was dragged to The National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington DC. I remember we were walking around a courtyard among these tall, shiny, red white and blue sculptures when the top of my head lifted off and a sudden sense of euphoria filled my chest. We spent, I guess, twenty minutes clambering around these soaring towers. The sunlight glinting off the new enamel paint filled me with the most intense feelings of love and I KNEW THAT I KNEW and I never told anyone but I never forgot the joy like some secret initiation. Years later I dropped out of college and worked as a guard at the Guggenheim Museum. Browsing through an old catalog of the Paul Feely retrospective I felt a shock of recognition— my initiation came inside his Sculpture Court piece from 1966.
Seeing a group of Paul Feely paintings and watercolors at Lawrence Markey Gallery this November I could not explain their presence. I mean I can see how they are painted— the guiding pencil lines are visible, the paint is stained directly into the cloth, the color is simple, the forms are subtle but not complicated, and yet they radiate an authentic classical joy. Feely’s paintings have a modest and effortless lightness of being. There is an anonymous universal quality to the paintings like the side of a house in Morocco, a painted sign in Brazil, or some tiny corner of the Taj Mahal. James Siena once told me he liked to think of himself as an anonymous craftsman setting tiles one by one in the Taj Mahal. Actually he’s an extremely sophisticated abstract painter who loves baseball and uses very, very small brushes. He focuses his humble laser beam attention on thin aluminum panels that you can hold in your hands. In a tiny room in Chinatown, Siena sets up a simple set of rules or strategies for each piece and follows them to their ultimate absurdly compressed conclusions. The paintings remind me of Celtic illuminations, Peruvian textiles, computer chips, cellular structures, or an LSD patterning flashback.They flicker, they glow, zigzag, vibrate, pulse and shimmer with energy. Yet this Op dizzying vibration is really just the by-product of Siena’s search to understand and bring these structures to life. You follow the direction of a particular line in it’s convoluted path from one place to another and the mind lights up. You can feel your own body watching your mind watching.
Myron Stout is the secret hero of the new abstraction. Stout, the incomparable tortoise, began his mature black and white work at age 47. In twelve years he finished three paintings, left five more almost finished, and a few others restored with the help of an assistant. Stout endlessly caressed and minutely adjusted the sublime edges of the white forms and black grounds, and now they radiate a superhuman light and energy, and resonate in archetypal tragic harmony. For the last fifteen years of his life Stout worked only on tiny drawings an inch in diameter, polishing and polishing. Can we ever finish the paintings? How can we stop? In 1958 Jay De Feo began her big mandala painting The Rose on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. She built up and scraped off layer upon layer of paint. It was reproduced a year later in The Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans catalog as The Death Rose. She continued to work on it, trowling on massive amounts of lead white until it became a veritable bas relief and eight years later when she and Wally Hedrick were evicted from their studios they had to use a crane and moving men to carry the 2,300 pound painting through a hole in the building. In 1976 David Novros began a series of very large abstract paintings on canvas in his loft on Broome street. Twenty five years later he is still working on them. The paint is inches thick but the light is unearthly and magnificent. They are almost finished; they will never be finished.
I’ve worked on individual paintings for twenty years. I have slides of paintings that were finished in the early eighties and then repainted and photographed in the nineties and now once again they’re almost finished. It’s not that it takes twenty years to make the painting— it takes seven minutes to make the painting— but it can take twenty years to find those seven minutes. Jim Harrison was a great artist who worked on some works on paper for thirty years. He told me "You don’t make the painting— the painting makes you..."
We are trying to paint what is real. We are trying to paint what we have never seen before.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.
John Currin with Phong H. Bui
SEPT 2021 | Art
Phong H. Bui speaks with John Currin about his new group of paintings during the last few days of their completion.
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