PETER BLUM GALLERY, NYC
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?