At the Beach: Secret Abstraction & the Undeath of Painting, 2016
AT THE BEACH: SECRET ABSTRACTION & THE UNDEATH OF PAINTING, 2016
[Originally published as part of a catalog for the exhibition ‘and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive’ at the Marylhurst Art Gym]
Take a drive out to the coast. And then, looking for the curve of the Earth on the horizon, feel yourself come into contact with the infinite and the abstract nature of our reality. This may all sound very New Age, but within this broader questioning is harbored a very personal experience. We try constantly to connect our singular lives to the communal web, whether for understanding or approval or companionship, but too often get wrapped up in the ideas of others even as our own thoughts are crowded out by the newest and boldest. Abstract painting and our ideas about it have suffered this same fate. An abstraction is something at once universal and personal, having uneasy roots both in the mind of the artist and the world of the viewer. A new generation of painters is synthesizing this precarity not into large, brash compositions, but into an intimate processing of their daily lives.
As a branching discipline with constant growth, abstract painting has an expansive family tree. The seasonal leaves that are Sunday painters and first-time students fall away and are renewed each year in a similar pattern. The roots grasp firmly at the past 150 years (and beyond), unphased by the herbicide of late twentieth-century critics and theorists who foretold the death of painting. But what of the new growth? How do we talk about the future of abstract painting in a time so fraught with overtheorization and an unending supply of new artists? What is it that sets one abstraction (or abstractionist) out from its contemporaries?
The new generation of abstract painters who are focused on their personal inquiry into life through painting are secret abstractionists. This is not “secret” as in “covert” or “privileged,” but as in something not immediately knowable without investigation or the state of being secluded or withdrawn.1 These are artists who straddle the line between deep aesthetic rumination and common social interaction, at home in both. There is no mystery here, only an individual language that traces each artist’s path to understanding both the practice of painting and how best to filter their existence through the medium.
Perhaps now it is the painter’s job to coalesce the surrounding world into a solid canvas (not that this hasn’t been claimed before). Given the inescapable mix of visual and conceptual stimuli we are exposed to on a minute-by-minute basis, abstraction serves more to make sense of and to get a handle on the day to day. Rather than exploring some intricate personal moment about the theoretical, an abstract painting serves as a sounding board for non-verbal coagulations that result from simply living life. Grant Hottle’s canvases echo comics and metal bands, but are neither. They are not a concrete reference, but a musing on influence and the inescapable media culture in which we all flail. In a similar vein, Michael Lazarus and Calvin Ross Carl pull from innocuous language and everyday design to create vaguely confrontational slogans and compositions that are at once familiar and alien. They sit in that subconscious area of our minds before we bring words to our thoughts, before we let an idea take shape fully and linger in a zone of semi-recognition.
It is this mode of simultaneous familiarity and discovery that keeps secret abstraction on the edge of a knife. We think we know something, but upon further questioning and assessment we are reminded that our minds get lazy and fill in the gaps with logical conclusions or popular notions.2 Our memories recall the most prominent ideas and the images we see repeated most often. To this end, the typical reader, when asked what abstract painting looks like, will have an answer that may span from Modernism to “things I don’t get.” The culture at large has decided that abstraction is a style (most often Pollock- or Rothko-esque). It is not. Philip Guston, in conversation with Joseph Ablow in 1966, asserted that style is easily dismissed or debunked by the next generation, and that Abstract Expressionism (and abstraction in general, if we are to broaden the take) is a way of questioning how we can continue to make art.3 One must think of abstraction as a mode or process, and not as a visual end point. It is here that we see the break. There are those who paint a prescribed version of “abstract art,” and there are those who are active abstractionists. The former dives into the rich pool of source material filled by the long tenure of Modernism, while the latter extrapolates or condenses the world around them into varied styles of work. This second type is not (as) concerned with artistic lineage or with painting what they think should logically come next. Instead, they are people submersed in the Internet age, trying desperately to make visual sense of it all.
Being active as an abstractionist today involves parsing a lot of information. Taking in the world and spitting it back out in a way that makes sense, active abstractionists can’t help but evolve in their practice as their surroundings do. This is more true for those artists affected by the digital realm, and I would argue that some of the most successful abstractionists at this moment are those who do not eschew internet culture, but are immersed in it. Instead of separating their (seemingly) traditional practice from the everyday, these artists find form in the digital void and translate that impetuous, fickle stream of information into two things: the artistic equivalent of scratch paper for long division, or a simple couplet from a larger translation. Either the work is all there for us to see (although with no final answer), or we are left questioning the nature of the full text. Critic Raphael Rubinstein says that “provisional painting” looks like it’s on the way to something, like the painter abandoned the work or simply tired midcomposition.4 It is not enough to think about new abstractions simply in terms of a traditional composition. We need to ask what these new artists are trying to work through, not what they want to end up with.
What is at risk here is a cooling-off period. When formalist abstraction was called critically null toward the end of the twentieth century, the long and esteemed journey of painting seemed to be at an end, or at least seeking retirement. But a new generation of painters would not give in.5 Cropping up as the twenty-first century loomed, these abstractionists decided to bring their practice back to earth from its lofty position in the Modernist ether. Invigorated by the language-based investigations of Conceptual art and the conversation with the everyday spreading from Pop Art, Minimalism, and the historical avant-garde, these artists grabbed plates and dung, threw them at the canvas, and beckoned to their forefathers with vigor. But as that initial combustion faltered (or perhaps became too expected), and really as the idea of a college-educated career artist blossomed, there came to be too many new painters doing too much of the same thing. And with the constant fluctuation between the death and return of abstraction, the lull and the rush, the contemporary painters knew there needed to be something that established their practice outside of that of their formalist predecessors.6 And in that desperate search, it seems a smattering of painters have retreated into themselves to question not what abstraction means in general, but what abstraction means to them.
Perhaps what is needed now is not a brand-new explosion. The catalyst was set in motion by those early postmodern painters, and it has worked its way through the husk of the art world to its somewhat nebulous kernel. We can feel the growth and see the slowly multiplying cadre of painters. But instead of loud brashness and expressive exposition, we need to embrace the small, the private, the quiet practice of those abstractionists working toward a more personal understanding of the method. In Rubinstein’s essay “Provisional Painting,” he asks, “What makes painting ‘impossible’? What makes ‘great’ painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece.”7 This generation of painter is one well-versed in the aloof eye-roll and the descriptors “trying too hard” and “a little heavy-handed.” For fear of recycling, or making too much of too little, they retreat into nonchalance so as not to be singled out. And with the instant knowledge of new exhibitions and styles from around the world provided by the online community, the art world becomes ever smaller and more cliquish.
It is this idea of the clique, or the movement/school (because that is the equivalent of an art historical clique, after all), that needs a freshening up. Too often we art historians (and the general public by proxy) lump artists together in a last effort to organize the fading trail of the zeitgeist. But what if there is no orderly mode in which to understand these new offerings? What if, as Michael Fried feared, everything has become admissible?8 Maybe it is this working outside of the expected that is the greatest strength of the rising abstractionists.
There needs to be a greater awareness of strong abstraction that is not easily pigeonholed. More distinction should be given to those works influenced by Internet life and middle age, but not drawing from one-off references or leaning on representational certainty. Anyone can paint an abstracted apple, or a slipshod version of Homer Simpson. Where the real power lies is in those who paint about the daily intricacies that one by one take over our waking lives. How do you express the humdrum of buying too much produce and forgetting to cook at home, only to find out later your food has spoiled? How do you work around the fact that your career focuses on all of the parts of art you find distasteful and repetitive, and that when you get home you just want to read comic books? How do you paint a masterpiece about the dark depths of 401(k) paperwork? These are all ideas that are abstracted even before they hit the canvas. Daily life is no longer about strolling the boulevards and sipping absinthe.9 It is wound tight. It is pervasive. There are no breaks, no cutoff points between living and working.
But where does this end up? Do today’s abstractionists flit into representation to keep themselves sharp? Or do they continue down a more and more pure path that teeters dangerously close to being retrograde? No, rather it is this in-the-middle-ness that is so provocative. Taking that idea of abstraction as the starting point and not the abstract formal language of their predecessors, the secret abstractionists find themselves in conversation with conceptual abstraction. As defined by Joachim Pissarro and Pepe Karmel, “It is painting that exchanges the hermetic Modernist ideal of pure form for a different ideal, or anti-ideal: the real world, with its bodies and buildings, movies and messes, politics and pop culture.”10 They are not melting and crystallizing the faces of Picasso’s demoiselles; instead they are slyly, and quietly, putting their very lives on display in a medium that has at times been mired in the muck of grandiose expression.
Secret abstraction—and its bedfellow, conceptual abstraction—is the very antithesis of the abstract sublime, that powerful link between the drama of the Romantic landscape and the dynamism of the Modernist canvas.11 Where the sublime deals with awe and power, the secret and conceptual take hold of the small, personal aspects of the world and strive to understand rather than overwhelm.
Karmel notes in a 2013 article that “abstraction is how we think about the future.”12 This assertion is a powerful one, and can be relevant no matter where our loyalties lie. In the case of these private, conceptual abstractions, it may be more fruitful to shift from the universal ideal to the personal understanding. Abstraction is still how these painters parse the world, but it has taken on a wholly Humean bent.13 Pulling from each interaction, each conversation, each experience, these new abstractionists are more introspective than ever before. And yet the result is often less obtuse than the Freudian narratives in those macho men of Abstract Expressionism. Perhaps this is because we, the audience, are all dealing with these same things. We all fuss over job-related stresses and wish that we could just relax on the beach. But the real truth of it is that we can never shut off and just give in to a good old-fashioned Sunday painting. We cannot go to that promised shore and simply unplug and disconnect if we ever hope to return and be relevant. Today’s painters are overrun with stimulus. Some show it in the layered strata of repeated and reworked forms, while others only hint at it as a fidget in an otherwise crisp and clean geometry.
Perhaps the heart of all this is something beyond a new way of making and reading paintings. Maybe it has more to do with not shutting out the world in order to focus, but organizing and making sense of what we can. Secret abstractionists exist on a plane that dips below the horizon of historical formalism into a space of daily distractions and a continuous questioning of how we exist in this world. The real trick is to filter these ideas through our overworked, ever-processing minds. Clarity should not come as an empty slate, but as a meditative state in which all is flowing in connecting streams of understanding. We are not standing at the shore in an effort to escape, but instead to simplify our visual stimulus to just sky and sea.
1. Or even something akin to an alter ego.
2. It is here that I think of the Berenstain/Berenstein conundrum. For many people alive in the 1990s, the popular children’s books The Berenstain Bears were an everyday occurrence and definitely part of the popular image unconscious. Yet, asked today about the spelling of the titular ursines’ name, many will remember the incorrect spelling as Berenstein rather than Berenstain. It is this common knowledge in the periphery that is most interesting to me in this instance, although the parallel universe theory does intrigue. Caroline Siede, “How you spell ‘The Berenstain Bears’ could be proof of parallel universes,” The A.V. Club, August 10, 2015, http://www.avclub.com/article/how-you-spell-berenstain-bears-could-be-proof-para-223615.
3. Philip Guston, “Public Forum with Joseph Ablow, 1966,” in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 63–75.
4. “It’s the finished product disguised as a preliminary stage, or a body double standing in for a star/masterpiece whose value would put a stop to artistic risk. To put it another way: provisional painting is major painting masquerading as minor painting.” Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America, May 4, 2009, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/provisional-painting-raphael-rubinstein/.
5. “And something else greatly reduces the chances of the death of painting: too many people—most obviously women—are just beginning to make their mark with the medium and are becoming active in its public dialogue.” Roberta Smith, “It’s Not Dry Yet,” The New York Times, March 26, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/arts/design/28painting.html.
6. Every so often a new critic will re-announce the demise of painting or abstraction, or art all together. And then, soon enough, another will announce its rebirth. For example, see: Barbara A. MacAdam, “The New Abstraction,” ARTnews, April 1, 2007, http://www.artnews.com/2007/04/01/the-new-abstraction/.
7. Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting.”
8. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 12–23.
9. Boulevards have become basements, and absinthe has been superseded by rye whiskey.
10. Holland Cotter, “Conceptual Abstraction,” The New York Times, November 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/arts/design/conceptual-abstraction.html.
11. Pepe Karmel, “The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now,” ARTnews, April 24, 2013, http://www.artnews.com/2013/04/24/contemporary-abstraction/.
12. Karmel, “The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now.”
13. Referenced here is Scottish philosopher David Hume’s bundle theory of the self. In it, an object is taken to be no more than the sum (or bundle) of its parts and properties. This concludes that you cannot think of an object without its properties, nor can you have an object with no properties. Applied here, the painter’s world, seen through abstraction and otherwise, is no more than a bundle of stimuli and properties used for understanding how the world exists. Since each artist’s experience of the world is different, the idea changes from painter to painter.