On some timely occasions, we get the true pleasure to be reminded of T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense” (from his famous 1919 essay Tradition and Individual Talent). This historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past but of its very presence, which simply implies a co-function of simultaneous existence and simultaneous order before reaching the synthesis of time being timeless and temporal all at once.
New YorkLisson Gallery
June 27 – August 9, 2019
This exhibit Painters Reply: Experimental Painting in the 1970s and Now, curated by Alex Glauber and Alex Logsdail, offers such occasion. Being the oldest media, dating from cave painting of the Paleolithic age (although some have argued, due to the irregular and unbounded cave walls which were felt at first as potential three-dimensional forms as to be resembled the bison’s bodies in profile action, hence sculpture was conceived before painting), painting culture, as we know today, has survived and endured endless claims of “the death of painting,” especially during the decade of the 1960s and 1970s when, in addition to the conservative rules and restrictions were the established in accordance to Greenbergian formalism, Happening, performance art, minimalism, conceptual and pop art were the prevailing trends. All of which had a significant pressure on how painting needed to revive its relevance and legitimacy.
This testament of endurance was evidenced in the 2007 landmark exhibit High Times, Hard Times: New York Paintings 1967 – 1975 (curated by Katy Siegel with David Reed as an advisor), which featured over significant 40 works by 37 artists. Several, for example, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Yayoi Kusama, Elizabeth Murray, Mary Heilmann, Blinky Palermo, Louis Fishman, Pat Steir, Joan Snyder, and Dorothea Rockburne have enjoyed critical recognition in their mature phases, and remained visible throughout their evolution, while others, including Jack Whitten, Mary Corse, Ron Gorchov, Roy Colmer, Carolee Schneemann, Alan Shields, Harmony Hammond, and Ralph Humphrey, for example, had their ups and downs, and only in the last few decades that their works obtained full appreciation again. A handful artists such as Joe Overstreet, Jane Kaufman, Al Loving, Manny Farber, Kenneth Showell, and César Paternosto whose works have yet to be explored and discovered. For those of us who had seen the High Times, Hard Times exhibit, came to realize whatever propelled this group of artists to be opened and be receptive to all sorts of experimentation, it was also their collective yet highly personal responses to what were happening at the time: leading to the height and the end of the Vietnam war, there was the counterculture that stood in opposition to mainstream culture, which included the struggles among African Americans, women, gays, lesbians, immigrants, workers, all types of social outcasts, and political dissidents, while giving them the impetus to adopt their own means of non-conformism and personal mediation. Painting was pushed to its experimental extremity, from painting on the edges of canvas, punching holes through the painting’s surface, painting hanging off the wall to expose the behind support to how canvas can leap off the wall onto the floor, or simply painting stretched on a structure that can stand on the floor, or either hung in space, and combined with other media like video or performance, and so on.
The question is what we’re getting through at this moment remotely relate to what had happened between 1967 and 1975 in New York in particular? Does Trump, the scrappy and impetuous outsider, remind us of Richard Nixon, the proficient insider, knowing they do share similar belief that whatever it takes to win a national election, it simply equate political power, and they will surely do anything to see it through—Nixon with Watergate and Trump with Russian interference? (I should also mention both Nixon and Trump, in Marshall McLuhan’s words, are in fact “hot” or “heated” personalities for a “cool” medium of TV.) One thing we now can all agree on is the pervasive rise of our anxiety is high and real. This brings us to Alex Glauber’s last curatorial effort The Anxiety of Influence (borrowed from Harold Bloom’s classic 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry) at Chapter NY in 2017 with similar theme, which proved there was continuity in his interest and pursuit.
What has transpired in this two-parts exhibit is collaboration with Alex Logsdail that brought greater clarity and intention from which anxiety is seen as a given condition artists must overcome as they did for thousands of years. This, however, doesn’t exclude the criteria of pleasure by any mean. On the 24th Street location, it’s hard not to notice the ecstatic joy in Joe Overstreet’s Untitled (1972) extending its spatial wings and arms from the wall onto the floor, for example. We can see the will and play at work in Dorothea Rockburne’s Narcissus (1984) unlocking her obsession with the Golden geometry by planar rotations in various sizes and temperatures of color, while in Sean Scully, tackling the minimal grid with full-on tactile impulse by weaving colored fabric around the wooden structure in his Wrapped Piece (Harvard) (1972) was a delightful surprise of the exhibit. So was Stanley Whitney’s Untitled (1972) in its gestural eloquence and expansiveness of scale, while Guy Goodwin’s early piece Ice House (1979) and the recent Honky Tonk Grotto (2017) reaffirming the artist’s consistent interest in blurring the two and three-dimensional relationship in his form with a discernible shift in mood from darker to brighter palette, accentuating with occasional use of fluorescent colors. Elsewhere, the visual correspondences intensify in subtle and not subtle ways. Whatever Steven Parrino’s “misshaped” monochrome Thirteen, Thirteen (1993) intends to disrupt Greenbergian uniformed flatness with his contortion of the canvas’s front surface, it not only resists any readable image but also in congruence with natural gravity akin to Pollock’s drip painting. Our attention is hence directed to the floor ordinance by Lynda Benglis’s UNTITLED (1969) and Polly Apfelbaum’s Blue Joni (2016). Meanwhile, on the same wall, both Roy Colmer and Matt Connors propose how time, be it static or transitory, can be captured through color either as a technological construct or a mental image of a non-specific space. Likewise, Sadie Benning’s economic use of abstraction on absolute flatness calls forth Ralph Humphrey’s commitment to generate an atmospheric yet tactile surface as one quasi-continuous space; the dense surfaces of Mary Corse’s and Howardena Pindell’s paintings, they, too, attest to dark (black) and light (white) as accumulations of paint layers in respect to a premeditated act in the former and last-minute spontaneity in the former, though both surfaces rather absorb light rather than emanating light from it. Lucy Dodd’s sinuous stream of subconscious, anticipating unexpected associations with various images and forms, could have been installed right next to Stanley Whitney as a polar opposite. As for Ted Stamm and Jacqueline Humphries, they share a conceptual underpinning in their idiosyncratic responses to immediate and remote surrounding environment as potential abstraction—one extracting shapes from a street in SoHo of his time, the other probing aspects of the sublime generating from technological and digital culture of her time.
On the 10th Avenue location, Ron Gorchov’s Lock (1977) leads the way as the painter who has invented one of the most unequivocal painting, that functions on both at once concave and convex surface, which is stretched over an elaborated three-dimensional structure. This in turn creates a tremendous tension that prompts a detectable emotional intensity to the painted image of more than often two dissimilar shapes on either side, punctuating the space in between and all around the visual field. The same can be said of Dona Nelson’s Bells (2017) except for in her deployment of overall gestures by means of process-driven and materiality, the painting is seen from front and back, supported by a freestanding steel structure on the floor. In between, Eric N. Mack’s Pelle Pelle (2017) activates his three actions: stitching, folding, and pulling that engenders the three forms, made by three types of fabrics in space. I should admit while the juxtaposition between Al Loving’s Space, Time, Light #1 (1977), Duane Zaloudek’s One (1973), and Israel Lund’s Untitled (2018) is exemplary in presenting the three different treatments of frontal image in abstraction, I wonder how effectual if Joan Snyder’s Red Square (1973) were to correlate with Sean Scully’s, while Ruth Root’s Untitled (2018) is next to Dorothea Rockburne’s.
This exhibit is otherwise the most invigorating inquiry of the “historical sense” without nostalgia and futility in imitation. Young painters today should take the following De Kooning’s remark to heart, “the desire to create a style beforehand is a mere apology of one’s own anxiety.” Painting culture is very much alive as this uplifting curatorial collaboration demonstrates.