through January 30, 2006
In 1921, only 10 years after Kandinsky made the first abstract paintings, Russian avant-gardists at the Vkhutemas school in Moscow sounded the death-knell of all other painting genres in an exhibition called The Last Picture has been Painted. Given that kind of childhood, it’s no surprise that abstract painting has always gone hand-in-hand with polemics. It grew up to enjoy a long stretch of monolithic critical dominance in the American art world, claiming historical inevitability in order to secure a conceptual high ground against other art forms. This is certainly not the case now, and abstraction is increasingly viewed as just another stylistic option. But the extent to which abstract painting is still treated with critical caution shows how little anyone wants it to take over the academy again. Like a rehabilitated ex-dictator, abstract painting is allowed to live out its life provided it doesn’t start making any noises about getting back to the good old days.
The Painted World, a highly specific micro-survey of abstract painting from the 1950s to the present, reflects this: it’s a show that eschews the type of argumentation that theorists of abstraction used to love, and that hawkish contemporary spokesmen often resort to in justifying its continued importance. The show’s agreeable, noncommittal title immediately suggests the wish to circumvent any polemical rumblings before they start. Curator Bob Nickas treats abstraction in painting as something more like a subculture than a historical force, and as with any subculture, questions of source, revival, affiliations, codes, and pleasures take the place of teleology.
The show examines a handful of loose alliances that run through the recent history of abstraction. One of its central organizing principles is the enthusiasm for and influence of American painters Myron Stout (1908–1987) and Paul Feeley (1910-1966). These two elder statesman figures shared an oblique relationship to mainstream abstract painting in their respective eras. What has changed is that now there is no mainstream of abstract painting; it’s a category composed of nothing but oblique relationships and idiosyncratic practices. In the context of this show Stout and Feeley seem canonical rather than eccentric.
Myron Stout’s monumentally quiet oeuvre is represented by two small paintings from the fifties, of which “Aegis” (1955-1979) stands out as an emblem for the show as a whole. It’s an ostensibly simple, black-and-white work in which a white center negotiates with a black outer edge. The intensely thought-out irregularity of the central shape, and the notion of Stout having spent 24 years arriving at it, detaches the painting from the subsequent course of American abstraction from Ellsworth Kelly to minimalism. “Aegis” holds fast to the ideal of an abstract easel painting, a picture one can’t fathom in a glance. Paul Feeley’s not-quite color-field work similarly eludes conventions of 60s painting in its overabundance of personality and cryptically figurative structures.
The younger artists in The Painted World seem conscious and accepting of the idea of working in relation to a tradition of abstract painting; in fact, most are engaged in more or less overt games of style and reference. These games can be played with many different attitudes, from antagonism to irony to reverence, and the artists brought together in The Painted World run the emotional gamut.
Steven Parrino’s “Skeletal Implosion #3” (2001), a tondo in which loose folds of un-stretched, black-enameled canvas jut out from the wall, wrings an aesthetic result out of an anti-aesthetic premise. It’s affiliated, in its emphasis on the denatured painted object, with Alan Uglow’s “Standard #25 (Silver)” (2002), a crisp grisaille geometric work on thin stretchers that’s propped against the wall on small wooden blocks. Similarly, Moira Dryer’s “The Wall of Fear” (1990-1991) interrupts a nebulous, brushy pattern of vertical black stripes on a wooden panel with four gold grommets sunk into the panel’s corners. All three artists’ works take signifiers of opposition to painting proper—the un-stretched canvas, the violated surface—and turn them into elegant coded gestures.
Two Los Angeleans, Mark Grotjahn and Mary Heilman, defy the standards of good abstract painting—if there is still such a category—and make things that come off as first amateurish, then deliberately amateurish, then surprisingly sensible. Grotjahn’s thickly-painted dark grey diptych is initially off-putting in its ham-fisted physicality and faux-naïve touches (the artist's initials and date of the painting left in bright pink at the base of each panel), but looks better and better as one gets used to the peculiarities of his manner. At the opposite end of the labor spectrum, Mary Heilman conveys an air of extreme casualness, deploying simple shapes and bright colors as if dissolving any residue of heroic angst that might linger around the idea of painting abstractly. After their first confrontational moment, her paintings open out into surprising, understated riffs on landscape.
Chris Martin is represented by “7×4 (Water)” (2000), which, like Heilman’s work, exudes humility and appears to have been conceived and executed in the blink of an eye. This is a feat given the immense size of the painting. In it, a grid of yellow circles floats over an alternating, diminishing pattern of black and blue curves, suggesting a span of time (four weeks?) and an experience of the ocean. Tilting further towards representation, John Tremblay conjures a crisp, artificial receding space out of repeated silkscreened patterns of squares, and Wayne Gonzales riffs on mechanical reproduction to depict familiar but obfuscated images.
Some artists in the show are involved in a seemingly straightforward investigation of the basic building blocks of abstract painting, attempting to stake out territories in thoroughly mapped genres. The meaning of their work is in part the willfulness or perversity of such an undertaking. But it’s also found in the pleasure taken in the culture of abstract painting, pleasure that’s worth the risk of appearing orthodox or academic. There’s an element of defiance in Lucas Kelly’s decision to brave the historical graveyard of monochrome painting and come out with “Stay Gold, Pony Boy,”a glossy pitch-black painting on a distressed wooden panel. Similarly quiet but effective, Michael Scott’s two untitled enamel-on-aluminum paintings from 2005 induce violent optical reactions using wavering vertical white stripes on a black and a blue ground.
The types of problems people have always had with abstract painting—it’s uneasy relationship to language and information, it’s reliance on context, and the specter of an elitist cult of taste—are certainly not any easier to get around in this show. The way one feels about The Painted World depends a lot on one’s sympathies going in. Enthusiasts of abstract painting will have a lot to look at and skeptics may remain unconverted, but the emphasis of the show is on experience rather than debate.