In early 2009 I posed a question to 12 admired painters: “What is the current state of abstraction?”
The renewed interest in abstract painting right now in New York surfaced during the full swing of the Bush administration, when a lot of people where re-thinking traditional questions and assumptions about the relationship between politics and aesthetics in art. Abstraction was a blind spot in the worn-out rhetoric of postmodernism. It had been rendered as quintessentially apolitical. The opening up of the conversation to how one could think about abstraction differently, in terms of questions of meaning, authority, language, including understanding it as operating as a form of representation, became itself a kind of political engagement. It was about seeing these new spaces of cognition and agency that had been unexplored or written off altogether. So many of the political and philosophical questions around globalization and capitalism, had to do—and still do—with the space between possibility and impossibility, and about how we are programmed to perceive those delimitations. In the case of abstraction, seeing how something could be different when it had been deemed immutable had a lot of traction.
Concurrently, feminism, relational aesthetics, context art, and other critical frameworks took to task a lot of the stagnant discourse around abstraction. By default, abstraction proposed itself as a kind of corrective to art. Through a quasi-language of negation, abstraction was perceived as the response, if not antidote, to too much populist pleasure, too much spectacle, and a false logic of representation, which it sought to make visible. A good deal of abstraction is drawing specifically on critical historical idioms and models like Support Surface or Arte Povera. Interestingly, this is complicated by the fact that a number of these critical procedures have already become tropes (either unconsciously or employed as such), or are being folded into a new kind of formalism or aesthetic. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. That working in abstraction might not “signify” anything at this moment, that its broad and contradictory spaces aren’t bound up in any meaningful situation is critically important, and, actually, political.
Right now, abstraction appears to be in a really slippery space. It’s not the corrective for anything, but that’s not at all a cynical proposition. A lot of abstraction seems to be about exploring its supposed impossibilities as a way to find cracks in the ice. While terms like “sincerity” or “irony” are far less binary than they had been or even seem wholly outdated, a good deal of abstraction seems to be operating between some variance of those poles. But the point doesn’t seem to be about fortifying either one. The most interesting abstraction being made right now asks the viewer to contend with it on it’s own terms, perceptually, materially, and contextually. Dis-aligned from the codifications that it might appear to be operating within, this space of instability, while not necessarily directly tied to abstraction, seems, at the moment, to court it pretty well.
I’m inspired when Warhol says that if you want to find out about him, look no deeper than the surface of his paintings—it’s all there. To me, this is a good place to begin talking about abstraction.
I abandoned my attempts to translate performance videos I was making into figurative paintings around the birth of my first son in 1999. I needed to look outside the world of my studio to get out of the feedback loop I was stuck in. Reading Rem Koolhaas’s 2002 essay “Junkspace,” I recognized not just the “what” but also the “how” in going about making an image with paint. I was not sure why that mattered to me, only that it did, desperately.
” … additive, layered and lightweight, not articulated in different parts but subdivided, quartered the way a carcass is torn apart—individual chunks severed from a universal condition. There are no walls, only partitions, shimmering membranes frequently covered in mirror or gold.”
His descriptions of “a banalized, utilitarian cubism which pretends to unite but actually splinters, where blandness is amplified, and the aimless and the purposeful are one,” were descriptions of the world I walked in every day. But more than that, they seem like a contemporary philosophy of things and doings “waiting to be undone, unscrewed, a temporary embrace with a high probability of separation.”
In his “transient coupling(s)” I saw ways to imagine pictures that lend themselves to these particular modes of relating and knowing.
The World Trade Center attacks also happened around this time.
Shortly thereafter, some friends went around the city photographing a catalog of images they called “Broken New York.” Their focus was the small things—the cracked pane in the corner of a plate-glass window in midtown, a bent sign, a disconnected standpipe—things that would never get fixed and it didn’t matter. A little duct tape, perhaps, would take care of it. While the whole country was focused on the enormous tragedy Downtown, these other images of New York ruins were interesting to dwell on. They didn’t cry out for answers. They didn’t hold out for meaning that would never come. They were just part of the surface of things.
When I was very young I remember thinking that abstraction was something you had to grow into, you had to earn. You couldn’t just do it: that would be somehow fake or false. Maybe that is because I associated it with wisdom or truth.
Now, I just do it because I think it is how to paint the world and be in it.
Marc Handelman has work in the group show Do They Love Their Children Too? up at Miliken Gallery in Stockholm, Sweeden, through 1/9. Cheryl Donnegan has work in the group show Besides, With, Against, And Yet at The Kitchen through 1/16.
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