Earlier this year I posed a question to 12 admired painters: “What is the current state of abstraction?”
An abstract exchange….
“I, I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at here. What the fuck is that supposed to be? It just looks like some unresolved blob!”
“Yeah, well, I like that it’s AMBIGUOUS, you know? I mean, that’s what I’m after. I don’t like it when something is too identifiable. I think its more interesting if YOU decide what it is … right? Why can’t it just be, like, whatever … I don’t know. (angrily) I let the painting tell me what to do, you know?”
“You know who you are…..”
“One must earn the right to be vague.”
“I have no idea about the state of abstraction now, but I can tell you this…”
“Picabia’s late stuff is cool.”
“Apparently Amy Sillman was asked this very question recently on a panel in LA. Really. She took a deep breath … and said nothing. No small feat for Amy, believe me.”
“Lucio Fontana is cool.”
“Abstraction always seems like the place you can go when you have no idea what to do. The state where things have either hopelessly dried up or have incredible potential. Post and Proto.”
“Or just nothing.”
“That’s one of the best things about the abstraction approach, it can render nothing(ness).”
“Is it supposed to turn into something … or was it something? Or is it some thing? (Pollock.)”
“Uggh. what’s the point?”
“Oh yeah, what about avoidance? When do we do the abstract thing when we can face what’s REALLY supposed to get painted? HUH?”
“Wols is cool.”
Abstraction’s current status seems roughly equivalent to that of “floral” or “western” or “Thomas Kinkade.” They each have their own bin of prints at framing stores in malls, and when thought of in that grim context it is hard to even find an incentive to make a distinction. Which is to say that abstraction has no privileged status as the ultimate ideal on a trajectory. One is not galloping towards the top of a utopian mountain on a mythic stallion with a drunk Guston at their side, penis growing larger and society more classless with every bold lurch forward. Though that might be fun.
It seems clear that a general consensus still exists surrounding the term, for critics and viewers if not amongst artists themselves. As with obscene material, you “know it when you see it.” “Abstraction” describes a vast array of strategies, some of which are processes that become content in their own right, while others are simply neat images that don’t look like stuff. One could indeed do fairly well constructing categories based upon attitude, process, external references, and find a home for any painter within them. Today’s younger artists have not known a time when paintings reflected different ideological camps battling it out—not even close. And to seem overly emotionally invested in your particular way of doing things, beyond a simple visceral or intellectual preference for that process, is seen as highly suspect and not-so-cool.
I find myself working abstractly for both its practical ease and theoretical impossibility. It just seems the most natural and potentially problematic way to bring a painting into the world, and I’m hopelessly attached to a lot of the romantic mythological bullshit. Direct, gestural abstraction continues to reflect an inherently idealistic attitude towards making, where a painting can be an imaginative world outside the bounds of language, one that is best arrived at in a circuitous manner, and often requires the suspension, reshuffling, and inversion of our “best” knowledge and habits. Certainly a good deal of contemporary abstraction denies these possibilities. However this mode of working can remain in a fresh state of dialogue with anything and everything—from a perch of knowing indifference.
Steve DiBenedetto is showing work at Gering & López Gallery as part of the group exhibition Just What is It That Makes Today’s Painting So Different, So Appealing? through December 23rd, and Eric Wendel is showing work at 365 Flatbush Ave Extension in the group exhibition Too Big To Fail.
Next: Jason Fox and Eva Lundsager
Jason Fox: [...]I enjoy the way Parrino approached that work with a punk sensibility. That still seems like a useful way to keep [abstraction's] heart beating … to be free to take politics, history, the Ramones, Beuys, Jerry Garcia, Roland Barthes, Richard Prince, Susan Sontag, Balzac, Return of the Living Dead and melt them down to one—maybe two—colors and make a painting.
Eva Lundsager: There is a sense of possibility in abstract painting—in all painting—possibility and freedom. The distinction between what’s abstract and what isn’t doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Taking a language that had its gift of representation removed and then using it to make a picture, using the language of abstraction to make a picture: there is a sense of limitless space in those two dimensions. Attempting invention.