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The Resistance of Painting: On Abstraction | The Nation

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The Resistance of Painting: On Abstraction

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PETER BLUM GALLERY, NYCAfter Joy Division (2009), by Rosy Keyser

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Abstract painting is nearing its centenary. Although what exactly abstraction is, who first achieved it, and when and where, are questions open to interpretation, the best art-historical thinking dates its inception to around 1912, when Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Arthur Dove quite separately made their breakthroughs across two continents. While it's not always true of people that young revolutionaries become old conservatives, it seems almost inevitable that in the arts as much as politics, radical ideas and movements whose glory is not preserved by quick defeat turn into shibboleths and establishments.

It would be easy to make the argument that abstraction has long since settled into its comfortable dotage--that it has become an art choking on good taste and mannered reticence. On this view, abstraction was deposed by movements of the 1960s such as Pop Art, with its rehabilitation of vernacular imagery and its immersion in demotic culture; Conceptual Art, with its emphasis on language and critical context; and even Minimalism, which (despite its inheritance from the Constructivist strain within abstraction) laid such great stress on what its foremost detractor decried as mere "objecthood" that a boundary was fatally breached between art and everyday things.

That's not how things look to me, though, and not only because a view of art focused on movements that succeed one another like waves crashing ineffectually against the shore has never answered to my experience of art, which has mostly centered on individual artists and particular works. Abstraction arguably should have even less to do with movements than any other art: a movement of abstractionists would be a contradiction in terms, like a church of atheists. Abstractionists, like atheists, are united only in what they reject. Abstraction is not a specific way of doing art--on what basis can Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana and Daniel Buren be considered part of a single movement? Rather, it is a considered effort not to do what Western artists have made it their job to do for hundreds of years: namely, to construct credible depictions of people, places and things. What if anything else goes?

Perhaps that's why, as Bob Nickas points out in his new book Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (Phaidon Press; $75), "so many contemporary artists who paint nonrepresentational pictures reject the notion that their work is in fact abstract." They realize that the name itself, as handy and unavoidable as it undoubtedly may be, conveys a false sense of unity. Other commonalities, even those that would rightly strike us as quite superficial, can be more important. Consider, for example, two painters who make very small paintings that are introspective and intimate in feeling. Though one of them paints images and the other does not, one might well feel that they have much more in common than either one does with a painter who prefers to work on a grand scale and with reference to important public issues. Yet no one would think of grouping the two artists together as part of a "small-scale art" movement--one called, say, "intimism." Why, then, is abstractionism as an idea any more relevant than intimism as an idea?

In fact, there is a good reason for it: the making of pictures is not merely a historical inheritance for painting but its default mode. The pursuit of abstraction is always to some extent a mode of resistance. There was a brief period when this fact could have been forgotten, and while that period was arguably that of abstract painting's triumph--I am referring, of course, to the fifteen years following the end of World War II--it was also when abstraction threatened to become an orthodoxy, which would have killed its spirit. You might say that all those artists who turned away from abstraction in the 1960s and '70s were honoring it in the breach rather than the observance. Then, once again, abstraction could become an art for aesthetic dissidents.

Raoul De Keyser is one of them. If there were a school of contemporary intimists, critics would be tempted to see his work as part of it, but his paintings would never really allow for it--they're too tough and too phlegmatic. His career illustrates the stealth with which the best abstract painting often proceeds today. (Not long ago Raphael Rubinstein characterized De Keyser's work, among that of other "provisional painters," as "major painting masquerading as minor painting.") De Keyser was born in 1930 in the Flemish town of Deinze, Belgium, where he still lives, and his reputation was almost entirely confined to his home country and the Netherlands until 1990, when he began exhibiting regularly abroad, first in Germany and then throughout Europe and further afield, not only in one-person shows but in big international exhibitions like Documenta 9 (Kassel, 1992) and "The Broken Mirror," an important painting survey in Vienna in 1993. Being championed by Luc Tuymans, a much younger and more famous Flemish painter, could not have hurt.

At David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, De Keyser recently showed several series of drawings and watercolors from 1979 to 1982 alongside paintings finished over the past three years (several were started as long ago as 1998). Some of the works on paper use large, simple blocky forms; in others, fields of small marks create a sort of broken, refracted visual texture that's surprisingly reminiscent of Impressionism. References to landscape are rife. Each of the "Hill Series," from 1981, contains a single large five-sided shape in black ink, its edges nearly parallel with those of the sheet on which it has been drawn, except that one of its upper corners has been replaced by a diagonal line, like the slope of a hill. There is some bare white paper around all the sides of the resulting irregular pentagon, so that despite the reference to nature that the title insists on, it always remains a closed shape, never becoming a view of something larger. The trick--this short-circuiting of reference and abstraction--is simple but effective, so much so that it could easily have been irritating, except that the execution of it is so blunt and unpretentious that the quizzical feeling evoked by this play, not only between abstraction and image but between earnest concentration and triviality, evokes an almost childlike freshness of vision.

One of De Keyser's new paintings shows him looking back at the same idea. It contains a single large red form with a sloping top and with a white surround. It's about the same size as the drawings too. The funny thing is its title, Complex (2009): it's the least complex of the seventeen paintings that were shown. All the rest are simple enough, but in odder, sometimes seemingly arbitrary ways. Mark Rothko once visited a fellow artist's studio and, after studying his works carefully, declared that he couldn't see the point of them because their forms were too numerous: "I can understand that two are man and woman, three are man, woman and child, but five are nothing." De Keyser's are often, in Rothko's sense, paintings of nothing--of very little that is somehow also too much. Often there are no more than two or three colors, but there is no drama of opposition or synthesis. A multiplicity of small, detached, nondescript shapes seems to echo the randomness that snapshots have taught us to see in everyday life, but only rarely in these paintings do everyday things come into focus, as does the red banner in Turkish 1 Mai in Belgium (2009) or the distant mountain peak in Top (2009). More often there is a rough geometry that seems to describe something or other but nothing in particular, as in Company (2008) or the teasingly titled Scene (2008). Remembering that De Keyser had been a sportswriter as a young man, I wondered whether Scene depicts some twisted goal posts, but I couldn't quite see it that way. Still, something is being seen through these paintings, but glancingly, out of the corner of one's eye, even when the shapes are outlined with graphic clarity (though De Keyser is almost as likely to show you a blur). Always, there's something rather blank and awkward about them that carries an inescapable poignancy: what one sees in them seems to be the mere vestiges of something that disappeared in the very act of being grasped. Undemonstrative, these paintings nonetheless bear a distinctive timbre or vibration of feeling. Their sensuality is in their very dryness.

Joanne Greenbaum is a New York-based painter born in 1953--some twenty years after De Keyser. She, too, worked under the radar for a good while; she began showing her work only when she was in her 40s, and her first one-person museum show took place in 2008, in Mönchengladbach, Germany. She is no more representative of her generation than De Keyser is of his, but like him she has been a favorite of fellow painters, most notably, in her case, Mary Heilmann, whose gloss of Greenbaum's early work is worth quoting here, for the sake of its descriptive energy (which matches the nondescriptive energy of the paintings) and the way it highlights how Greenbaum's work has changed: "Joanne seemed to be remembering the atmosphere of a festive female experience of the 60s. She created paintings that floated bright-colored floral arabesques or bordered clear white spaces with curtain-like symmetrical curves. These baroque or carnivalesque motifs reminded me of the magical Edwardian style that was the 60s of Donovan, Nick Drake, flower power, Pappagallo shoes, Marimekko dresses, Courrèges boots, the toodle of renaissance commedia del arte pipes." I don't even know what Pappagallo shoes are, or were, but because I know "pappagallo" means "parrot" in Italian, I imagine they positively squawk with color. Greenbaum's early paintings certainly weren't afraid of bright colors, but these were expressed as lines on a white ground, as if to keep painting as close as possible to the immediacy of drawing--of scribbling, really, perhaps with Magic Markers. There was something light and airy about the paintings, maybe too light, but there was also something Heilmann's description leaves out: a sense of anxious hyperactivity, a constant zigging and zagging that suggested there must have been something irritating or unpleasant that needed to be zigged and zagged away from. This jittery energy belied the paintings' first impression of insouciance and gave them their intrigue, but ultimately looking at them could end up being more exhausting than pleasurable.

That kind of painting was not included in Greenbaum's recent show, "Hollywood Squares," at D'Amelio Terras in New York City, and yet in a less obvious sense it was included--buried under the denser surfaces of her new paintings. Not literally: Greenbaum hadn't taken some old paintings and painted over them, or even worked on the paintings over a long period of time so that her intentions and methods could change in the course of their making. (In fact, the eight paintings were made in just two months.) But still, the paintings feel that way, with marks that have the zip and bounce of those in Greenbaum's earlier work, but now mostly just peeking out from behind more thickly slathered-on passages, often of black or otherwise dark coloring. The paint seems to have been laid on with an almost Germanic vehemence, as if she had begun paying close attention to painters like Georg Baselitz or Markus Lüpertz or Martin Kippenberger. The paintings were made following a stay in Berlin, so perhaps she was.

The eight paintings--all of them, despite the show's title, just slightly off-square (80 inches by 78 inches)--gain a lot from their newfound density and gravity. Greenbaum's work has always been refreshingly idiosyncratic, but idiosyncrasy was always just a step away from mannerism; before, the mannerism often seemed like a way of avoiding something. These muscular new paintings feel like they no longer need to evade anything. It's not that the paintings are saturated with seriousness now. In bringing together evocations of distinct emotional registers, the paintings evince genuine irony. And the playful linear meanders that still work their way in and out of the heavier, more emphatically painted sections seem more fully playful and not so evasive. Paul Klee once spoke of taking "a line out for a walk." Too often it used to seem as if Greenbaum was taking it on a wild goose chase, but these days it's more like she's following it to the heart of a feeling, where you can't always see it anymore.

* * *

Rosy Keyser--born in Baltimore in 1974, now based in Brooklyn and upstate New York--is presumably no relation to Raoul, and no more so is her art related to his, except in the fact of its independence. I had not seen her paintings before walking into her recent exhibition, "The Moon Ate Me," at Peter Blum Gallery in Chelsea, but what I saw made a big impression. Keyser's paintings connect to a tradition that has been pretty unfashionable for a while now, one that values raw but theatrical mark-making and in which paint-as-material (and sometimes material-as-paint) is more important than paint-as-color. She seems to be working less in the vein of New York Abstract Expressionism than of European painters like Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri, but also of another American much influenced by European painting, Julian Schnabel. So, for instance, she doesn't use artist's oils or acrylics, preferring the house painter's enamel and the graffitist's spray paint, along with dye and all sorts of montaged materials such as leather and flattened beer cans.

Keyser's paintings are physically imposing, but she seems just as interested in breaking down their material obduracy as in building it up. For instance, After Joy Division (2009) is a vertical canvas densely covered with a field of mostly blue, black and gray marks. A large vertical rectangle has been cut out of the center of the canvas to reveal, behind it, a loosely woven grid of heavy ropes with tangles of string (painted with the same colors as the canvas) running on and through it, and behind all that the wall itself on which the painting hangs. That central portion is a violation of the canvas but at the same time appears to be a sort of magnified analysis of it. My favorite paintings in the show went even further in this direction. Heaven and Other Poems and The Ray, both from 2009, eschewed the idea of a canvas support altogether, using the wooden stretcher as a framework on which to mount a variety of materials, most notably quantities of fringe fabric, which are in places dyed, painted or caked with sawdust. There's something almost excruciatingly tactile about these works--I found it hard to resist the urge to thrum my fingers across those overlapping layers of fabric trim. At the same time, the superimposed layers of vertical filaments (acting here as stand-ins for the lines of dripped paint that occur in the work of some post-Abstract Expressionists) created a rich optical effect, a genuinely painterly shimmering. Not only do these paintings combine the essentially sculptural manipulations of materials in real space with the pictorial evocation of an uncannily deep virtual space but by using ordinary materials as signs for painterly effects, they also pursue an analytical discourse about painting through the activity of actually painting.

Keyser has also turned her hand to sculpture, and so far the results have been comparatively thin. Echo Chamber (2009), for instance, is a loop of iron chain forming an upright circle about three feet in diameter, with a second half-loop of chain attached to it at an angle, thus describing an implicit sphere. Presumably this is the basic idea: an imaginary object of considerable volume is described by obdurately physical elements of little volume. But here, unlike in Keyser's physical paintings, the idea is more engaging than its realization. There's also the little problem of the flat rectangular iron plate that acts as a base for the sculpture: it fulfills a physical necessity (without it the sculpture would not stand) but no aesthetic or conceptual one. This would be a problem in any case, but from an artist who has managed to put a normally hidden, aesthetically unaccountable part of the painting-object--namely, the stretcher--to significant artistic use, this is especially disappointing.

What these three artists of three different generations have in common may be little but the label "abstraction." In Painting Abstraction, Nickas presents a broad survey of recent efforts in the field, ranging from the work of veterans--some of them underrecognized, like Alan Uglow and Stanley Whitney--to some of the most promising young painters around, such as Kim Fisher and Varda Caivano. He organizes their work into six broad themes that end up seeming completely arbitrary because almost any of the artists he writes about engage significantly with at least half of them. Greenbaum, for instance, is included in the section on "Color and Structure," which seems reasonable enough--until you begin to consider that she could equally well have been featured in the section on "Form, Space, and Scale," or the one on "The Act of Painting." One would be hard put to find a painter, abstract or otherwise, who isn't concerned with these kinds of basic formal issues, though abstractionists certainly put greater stress on them than painters who work with images. Still, I'm not sure they suffice to account for what's most engaging in their work. Nickas writes convincingly of the painters one by one. He says of Greenbaum's paintings, "If they're maps, they offer many directions in which to be lost. As architecture they would most likely be unbuildable; as music they would be unplayable." Having seen the paintings, I nod my head, thinking, Yes, it's something like that. He knows very well, though he never quite says so, that the underlying subjects of his artists are emotional ones that can be spoken about only through metaphor, and for which the painter's means--color, structure, form, scale--are metaphors too, and not ends in themselves. But while his book demonstrates that there is a lot of strong abstract painting being done today--and, it must be said, some tired and facile abstraction as well--it doesn't begin to suggest why. Maybe no one can do that, because abstraction is no longer a single project, if it ever was one at all.

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