On ViewDavid Richard Gallery
Vespers and Auroras
September 9 – October 4, 2020
This exhibition by Isaac Aden includes 16 abstract paintings, nine measuring 60 by 48 inches, four at 60 by 96 inches, and three additional verticals each 96 by 60 inches. These are Color Field works, made quickly after painstaking preparation of the grounds, using spray paints. Describing them as Claudian Color Field paintings, Aden says that they allude to “those rare moments as the sun ignites a new day or gently fades into the evening. In the aggregate, the paintings capture singular moments within a day or much longer period of time.” A striking comparison image in the catalogue with one of Claude Lorrain’s landscapes illustrates this claim. And, closer to the present, these paintings have obvious affinities with Jules Olitski’s 1960s acrylic spray paintings.
It’s hard to imagine any two painters further from the present art world than Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) and Jules Olitski (1922–2007). British art historian Anthony Blunt noted that Claude’s “normal tendency is towards the more typical effects, a cool early-morning light, the hot noon-day, or the warm glow of evening.… Claude aims … at serenity, and therefore avoids contrasts … he minimizes the contrasts of value in order to preserve the calm unity of the whole.” That’s exactly the effect achieved by many of these Adens, which have intense Claudian colors but without the figurative motifs of his predecessor.
The once famously influential high-pitched theorizing of Michael Fried, the most illustrious champion of Olitski, no longer inspires conviction. Duchampian ready-mades and the myriad of banal artifacts inspired by him truly need interpretation if they are to be elevated to a place within the art world. Without some theorizing, a snow shovel exhibited in a gallery would just be a snow shovel. What’s then more surprising, however, is the need for critical propping up of color field works, which hardly resemble any things outside of the art world.
Thanks, however, to Pepe Karmel’s brilliantly innovative new Abstract Art: A Global History (2020) we have a plausible way of interpreting these paintings. Karmel constructs a social history employing five categories for abstraction: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, and signs and patterns. Abstract painting, he argues, “is a form of representation” because it always makes some allusion, perhaps slight, to one of these figurative subjects. Aden doesn’t show scenes in the Roman countryside, like Claude, but his intense diffuse color mimics the light in the Arcadian landscapes of his predecessor. In place of the older formalist theories, which offered an historical theory of how abstraction developed, Karmel presents the possible structures of abstraction, all potentially applicable today and of which Aden’s abstract landscapes are one important option.
So far as I can see, these paintings could have been made 50 years ago, though of course Karmel’s supportive theorizing, and the online site that has made them remotely accessible to me, are very new developments. In the old days, when historicist theorizing was in vogue, it was believed that good new art needed to extend tradition, in the way that Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning extended Cubism. In his 1967 essay on Olitski, for example, Fried sets his spray paintings in relation to early Manet, late Cézanne, Cubism, Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis. Here we find an annotated version of an erudite slide lecture. Olitski absorbs this modernist tradition and takes it a step further. Now, however, this historical analysis in which one thing leads to another has come, according to critical consensus, to be inherently problematic. And once we give up this basically historicist view of art’s history, there’s no reason that a contemporary young artist cannot revive Color Field painting.
Certainly historical analysis takes us away from what matters in Aden’s paintings: the visual pleasure that contrasting and comparing them can provide. Consider, for example, the faint sky blue at the top of Tonal Painting 26 with Tonal Painting 29, another 48 by 60 vertical where the intense orange runs all the way up. (All these works were made in 2020). Or compare the two vertically-oriented panels of Vesper, shimmering pale blue towards the top. Then look at Vesper II, much darker throughout, as if the sun had set on this abstract landscape. And see how Aurora IV works your eye through a horizontally sited field. If, as I think, aesthetic experience involves making fine distinctions, then Aden is a masterful artist. The more you look at these works, the more that there is to see. I understand that these paintings are abstract auroras, but are they also to be seen as evening prayers, vespers? Perhaps! Certainly the attitude that they encourage towards visual experience is prayerful.
- Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France 1500 to 1700 (Harmondsworth, 1973), 299.
Michael Fried, “Jules Olitski,” reprinted in his Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago, 1998).
Pepe Karmel, Abstract Art: A Global History (London: 2020), 29.