Earlier this year I posed a question to 12 admired painters: “What is the current state of abstraction?”
“The state of abstraction” is so general, and vague, but I guess there should be something to say about it. We have had “abstraction” with us long enough that there is probably a consensus about what it is, although any definition would get very fuzzy at the edges. In the contemporary context, there appears to be a divergence between “sincere” abstraction and “ironic” or even “bitchy” abstraction, although frequently, and paradoxically, the latter feels emotionally deep and on target, and the former seems full of shit. This split is related to the question of whether there can still be “progress” or “discoveries,” and there have been particular and different approaches to exploring this issue, notably in Germany and America. It keeps coming back to definitions, and to the relationship between the personal and the public.
Abstraction presupposes itself to be either a private language or a shared one, with the first approach leading to works of “self-expression” and the second to embodiments of the manipulation of codes. These different categories share a self-referentiality which may be peculiar to abstraction; except in the extremely rare case (today) of a spiritually grounded investigation, abstract art relies on other art to provide its reference frame. While it is ultimately true that abstraction isn’t abstract and representation isn’t representational, it’s much easier to become confused about that with representational art. Subject matter and even chains of appropriation appear to offer levels of reading other than the formal/structural. Although one of the confusing things about the state we’re in (implicit in all of the above) is the extent to which abstraction has become a representation of itself.
A big question now is the sincerity/irony problem in abstract painting. In my own paintings, I think a lot about the structure of jokes to attempt to articulate some sort of intelligent middle ground that encompasses sincerity and “bitchiness” as Carroll Dunham aptly calls it. Jokes have to be true to be funny; they allow you to laugh at something sad or wrong. To ring true, they must come from an honest place, not simply from bitterness. Like a good joke, a great abstract painting has to come from a sincere place and be aware of the absurdity and complexity of that place as well as this world in order to avoid naiveté. Now we require of the artist some sort of distance from his/her work in order to see a bigger picture, but I would argue that it should still be from an honest internal spot.
In a larger sense, in an attempt to answer the question, “What is the state of abstraction today?” I compiled a list of various directions I see happening now, particularly among younger painters:
- Abstraction built on arcane folk references (numerology, psychedelia, your grandfather’s drawings): Interesting ideas with strange looks that have yet to be incorporated into the language of serious painting. Perhaps this art is the most personal but unambitious painting possible. It can thus be original and free, but sometimes it’s just small-minded.
- Abstraction built on phenomenology and perception: There’s very little of this right now in painting; rather it is more present in the type of sculpture in the New Museum’s Unmonumental show from 2007. I think the work of Gedi Sibony, for example, offers exciting possibilities to painters, where attention to texture and stillness speak volumes. Though very few painters are interested in this right now; off-hand I can only think of Mark Barrow.
- Abstraction as action: There are very few of us under 40 who are doing this. Some get included in this tiny camp but are actually part of the next two categories.
- Abstraction as action for the non-believers: By this I mean, Christopher Wool and his descendants. Or maybe Albert Oehlen did it first. Here there is a lot of distancing techniques from mark-making with a brush (spray paint, silk screening, Xeroxing, and other printmaking techniques). Sometimes it feels this simple: brushes and palette knives are for the believers; layers of prints and spray guns are for the critics. Of course it isn’t; Rauschenberg started with that sort of critique, but of course didn’t end there.
- Abstraction as messiness: This work is discussed in relationship to AbEx history, but is actually messy figurative painting, messy text painting, or messy landscape painting. Nonetheless, it is interpreted as abstraction, just because de Kooning still looms that large in New York. If it’s expressionist enough, mark-making can overpower any image, so that the picture is read mostly abstractly, especially by New York artists and audiences. Nothing confuses the discourse more than when AbEx is reduced to messy painting in press releases, blogs, and reviews.
- Abstraction as a follower of the Germans: black and silver, sometimes mimicking photographic processes, somewhat understated and self-hating. A lot of pointedly small abstract painting clings to this in hopes of not seeming macho or confident, God forbid.
Keltie Ferris has a solo show, Man Eaters, at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art through February 5.
Next Post: Marc Handelman & Cheryl Donegan
Marc Handelman: 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.
Cheryl Donegan: 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.
Jackie Saccoccio is a painter living and working in CT and NY.