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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.

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