Hoyland, Caro, Noland at Pace Gallery, London.
In the mid-20th Century shared unreality that was ‘Caroland’ it was somehow viable, with intentions that were quite probably on the right side of honest, to make a sculpture – in this case, Stainless Piece C, 1974/5 – that sat flat on the floor and rose up no more than a couple of inches, so you looked down upon it like a relief laid horizontally (I made a few like this myself); and to make it out of a few scattered (or were they artfully composed?) pieces of stainless steel plate and other bits and pieces (David Smith’s steel?) that had been scoured with an angle-grinder to give an optical illusion of depth to its surface when it had none at all to its structure (again, like Smith?). In the Pace Gallery, London, this work is shown on a plinth that is a good three inches taller than the sculpture itself (didn’t Caro do away with plinths? Did the gallery decide the work’s lack of status required one?), making a combined height, sculpture and plinth, of oh… all of eight inches or so. And because it’s by Caro, and because he’s now dead (R.I.P.), and because it’s a piece of art history merchandising already, and because it’s the prestigious Pace Gallery; because of all this and more, and for no reason due to its inherent value, since it transparently has none, unless you view it through a thick haze of sentimental regret for simpler and more certain times in abstract art; this pathetic little piece of twaddle has become a luxury commodity, imbued with all the myths of modernism, reflecting back at us our own ‘good-housekeeping-modern-but-weren’t-we-ever-so-radical-back-in-the-sixties’ taste.
All the Caros in this show are poor; I would happily concede that he made quite a number of much better works than the ones here, thank goodness. Some of those better works were very positively and excitingly spatial, albeit perhaps in a rather architectural kind of way. However, pace (!) Kandutsch and Fried, here all the space and excitement has gone and we are left with the characteristics of a rather dull category of objecthood. Caro is riffing on tables, coffee and boardroom, and not very much else is occurring. Talk about ‘affective formalism’! Well, any little thing can affect a degree of something-or-other in the observer, can’t it? A thing that looks a bit like a table, because it’s a flat sheet laid out horizontally, a couple of feet off the floor, can generate feelings of, well… ‘tableness’, good heavens, and off we go. Think of all the associations with tables… and if that table-thing has what look like chairs-backs round it, and a sort of drawer, and is called Survey…; or if that table-thing has some curvy edges, and it’s called Bare…; well, the feelings just keep on coming, don’t they…? And then there is the feeling of how ‘right’ it all feels… if you own the taste! It gets to the point where you wonder what the purpose of all this ‘feeling’ in abstract art is for. I’m sure Caro wasn’t trying to con us, he was never that kind of bloke, and he really believed in the economy of these works as a step forward in modernism; but he shouldn’t have listened so attentively to his painter-friends, if, as seems likely, it was they who encouraged him to abandon what little remained by the seventies of his slender hold on three-dimensionality.
One of those painter-friends was Noland, and though it takes some doing to pull it off, the Nolands in this show are worse than the Caros. Of the three artists, Hoyland comes off by far the best. I don’t mean that his works here are, any of them, great paintings; but some of them are fair to middling good, at least for the period, if we are willing to go down that road of contextualising, albeit ever such a little way, with just a tad of that sentimental regret for those goddamn simpler and more certain times in abstract art. I’m certainly not willing or able to go too far down that way. Hoyland shows deftness and sensitivity to his materials and colours, and an ability to wring out from very simple means a little more than the sum of his parts; he has a bit of zip and aplomb. That still doesn’t add up to very much, even when it’s fifteen foot long, but at least it’s clever, and has some ambition, and makes Noland (on this showing) look a right klutz. Wow, are these Nolands boring – mechanically painted, dumb colour, pointless shapes; they have a sterility of surface that seems more akin to Pop than anything else. Nothing abstract happening here! Noland and Caro have both made much better works, but somehow the context at Pace means that’s not the point any more. From start to finish, artist to gallery, the whole thing is something of a conceit, based upon very little of substance.
I recall walking to the opening at Pace questioning why I was going there at all; why was I supporting an occasion all but consanguineous with the excesses of super-class consumerist wealth and taste displayed in the ignoble designer-palaces that line Bond Street? And the reason, of course, is that despite shortcomings in the work, I persist in believing in a glimmer of something real and adventurous in painting and sculpture from this supposedly seminal period of abstract art, something that even now I feel linked to, tenuously. Am I perhaps deluded? The thing is, despite all I have said, I still think the Hoylands are far better than most contemporary painting. That’s no great achievement, so I’m not even going to bother discussing more recent stuff that, rather than attempt to go somewhere new and more challenging, just bastardises these simplistic forms from fifty years ago.
I think at the heart of this is a paradox. At its most basic, abstract art (as opposed to ‘abstraction’) is about getting together some materials and working with them inventively until something emerges that makes some kind of visual sense. After that, it’s all about vision and ambition – how far are you going to go? So, on the one hand, the simplistic ‘going round in circles’ of a standard formalist approach leads to less and less being done with the material: yet at the same time, the processes to which the material becomes subjected to are brought more to the fore. As an example, we might easily imagine (if it’s not been done already) a modernist painter partially priming his/her canvas, only to decide that the ‘white-on-white’ was already looking good and was ‘enough’. So goes the stupidity (as I see it) of the Caro floor-based piece I originally described, where virtually nothing is done to the material other than to casually arrange it. There is nothing wrong with casually arranging things, but it’s just first base (if that). Such an abbreviation of methodology was intentional on the part of the artist, and was seen by commentators at the time (but perhaps no longer) as a radical and authentic visual statement which responded to the quiddity of making abstract steel sculpture; just as the hypothetical half-primed canvas too might be seen as a truth about painting.
Not so hypothetical, perhaps: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/arts/design/in-robert-ryman-one-color-with-the-power-of-many.html?_r=0 ).
Is this the democratisation of culture often referred to, such that everybody and anybody can get it, or even DIY-it? Or is it the exact opposite, the instant writing of art history in shallow gestures and big dollars, without the need to check on intrinsic value? Either way, are we anywhere near the endgame yet, please. I improbably found myself agreeing with director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon when, on the occasion of justifying the Turner Prize being given to worthy community architects Assemble, he was quoted as criticising the vulgarities of the contemporary art market thus: ‘The exponential increase in the financial importance of works of art has not been accompanied by a similar increase in their cultural significance. These are no longer cultural objects but fragments of a luxury-production.’ Quite so, Chris, quite so; and do you think perhaps that Tate Modern and the Turner Prize itself have done just a teensy-weensy little bit to further that particular financial model?
We hopefully no longer labour under the misconception (though some still do) that the kind of ‘less’ on show here at Pace is any kind of ‘more’, or have the conviction that that tired old maxim gives us leave as modern artists to do pretty much bugger-all with our materials before quitting on them, in the belief that they have gained some transcendent significance by our token interventions – à la Caro. But, if we have got past that blindness, we haven’t yet gone quite so far as to discover or invent sufficiently robust abstract content such that it will again and again absolutely compel us to take things a lot further. The means to gain such ends as we can now envision for abstract painting and sculpture will be simultaneously more exacting, and yet less to-the-fore, and at the service of the content of the work – if not indivisible from it. And please, let’s not hear it that spontaneity and impulsive expression (which are meaninglessly present in almost all of the work in this show, cool though it appears) are any kind of substitute for a discovered abstract content of substance – which, indeed, may or may not include both, alongside conscious intentionality and much else.
In other words, the hackneyed processes evident in the Pace Gallery work – all of it, from the laying-out horizontally of plates of unmanipulated steel, to the painting of stripes and rectangles in thin stains – need to be strongly interrogated by anyone who wants to move abstract art forward. The beguiling simplicity of this work does not bear scrutiny, and quickly turns on itself, becoming a presentational act of banality. This becomes particularly apparent when one considers works singly and separately from the context of the exhibition or series, when the incompleteness of the content of the individual works is exposed. This exhibition suggests that a wholeness based upon aesthetics, especially minimalist aesthetics, is unlikely to provide a fulfilling wholeness of content. The excitement of those initial breakthrough moments – of taking sculpture across the floor or staining colour into raw canvas – so very quickly become restrictive mannerisms, which in the end were the undoing of all three artists, who all got worse as their careers progressed. Who could find continuing interest in this work beyond a couple of minutes of looking (or a sustaining career, beyond a couple of years of making), other than someone who wants repeated confirmation of their own good taste? Those are, needless to say, just the people (the ones with money, anyhow) that Pace Gallery is targeting.
The paradox plays itself out as a truism: we know that all great art has lucidity. It seems spontaneous, effortless and direct, and therefore the way to make great abstract art must also be spontaneous, effortless and direct. Alas, that confuses the outcome with the process; combining an overarching simplicity with a depth of character in the content turns out to involve complexity, and entails far more than is offered by either a minimalist conceptual rigor mortis or an expressionist heart-on-sleeve outpouring. It involves engagement across a whole range of human capabilities; it probably involves making a mess of things from time to time too, when the complexity goes askew and refuses to be resolved. So what! – that risk is now a requirement. Placing plates horizontally, parallel to, or on the floor, like a table or a pavement, is not inherently risky or radical at all; painting parallel stripes or grids is not inherently risky or radical at all; these are sure-fire hits on low-level minimalist taste. That sort of thing is overrated, over-analysed, over-subscribed and… just over. We have passed beyond the cultural context that gave these token actions and forms any surprise or purchase. Yet much of the art world clings to this minimalist aesthetic in various guises, from bicycle chandeliers to cuboid standing figures to white on white squares – or it’s obverse, the equally visually ignorant brocante installation – as if without them modernism has no meaning. Well, it probably hasn’t; farewell to that idea, then.
Perhaps we (I mean “I”, of course) should just stop being so damnably, self-consciously clever about art. Maybe we (I) should stop thinking about lucidity and simplicity and wholeness and all those kinds of vaguely clever things that we think we know all about; and forget about trying to predict how the work will impact upon or affect the observer; and admit we cannot control what sort of context the work will be viewed in. Maybe instead we should just try to work out and focus on what is truly within our compass – what our ambition is for the content of our work. Maybe we should start to believe more in abstract content in the first place, that it is a thing of substance, real enough to think that it will be as meaningful as the best of figurative content, if we put our minds to it, and stop altogether thinking of it as being defined by a pathetic vocabulary of rectangles and flatness. How about some extravagant (but not excessive!) abstract content, and why not?
I’ve been looking at Flemish art recently, mainly from the 15th/16th centuries and mainly in collections in northern Belgium; painters such as Rogier van der Weyden, Quentin Massys, Gerard David, Hans Memling and others. These guys were focussed, fanatical, and fabulous, eager to move painting forward by investing it with more and yet more particular and specific content – stronger colour, more detail, more variety, more real space, more expressive humanity, more emotional display; more everything! But especially, more ‘real’. They maybe didn’t exactly know (like us) what that meant – did it mean painting every hair on the head of the Madonna, or did it mean making the space in a room around her ‘truer’ to life in some measure; or did it mean both? (It meant both!)
They really wanted to fully explore this new stronger reality that was opening up for painting, a much more three-dimensional and plastic spatiality than previously achieved, a much more expanded, varied, integrated space. But they didn’t have all the answers to hand, they had to try things out as they went. They found they could accommodate intense, ‘realistic’ detail into these invented spaces; they could change scale, going from the close-up still-life of an internal scene, out through a window to a road winding up a distant landscape, and keep it all within their grasp (well, they could if they were Rogier van der Weyden). They could reconcile huge great new amounts of complex three-dimensionality within two dimensions. To help them achieve this they stuck at the content and didn’t get too carried away with the artiness.
I’ve looked a lot at German renaissance art over the past few years too. One of my favourite paintings is Durer’s Paumgartner Altarpiece, c.1503 (boy, was painting happening around 1500!), in which the ostensible subject matter of the work is subsumed to the invention of a very particular and plasticised spatiality, which at the time was something radical, and still looks it. I don’t mean to imply that the Nativity itself, or indeed the portraits of the donor’s family, were unimportant to Durer; but the real content of the work as a painting is a direct result of Durer’s intense commitment to inventing and organising the specific space(s) within. There is a marked emphasis on the particular eccentricities of the space – on the architectural ins-and-outs, on the bizarre centrally-placed wooden roof-support dividing the picture, on the angled alcoves and roof appendages – rather than on a frontal display of the characters (how different from the beautiful frieze-like procession in Bellini’s Feast of the Gods – predicting Poussin – as cited in the recent Gouk essay). However, the figures are still crucial to the resultant spatiality – important, for example, in their emphatic orientation and the sight-lines thus created between them, such as the steep receeding diagonal between Joseph and Mary. Indeed, the clinching feature of this work is the two shepherds stepping up and into the space from out of the back-end of the picture. One of them gestures invitingly, the other strides up and in; brilliant. They, and the stanchion, are between Mary and Joseph in our sight, central to the painting. They, in relation to the stanchion, manipulate the back of the painting’s space, which is detailed with a landscape, but which is really articulated, spatially and psychologically, by these two characters. They usher us in as they themselves enter the space, which is both complex and plastic, a physical and inter-dependent entity in itself. So, is this a ’whole’ painting, is it a thing of beauty, is it a lucid and clear artistic statement? Don’t know, don’t care; it’s been made to be about something real, at all points of the compass.
When it comes to the depiction of three-dimensional space in painting, I could, of course, go back another hundred years to Giotto, but that would not really be where my interest lies at the moment. The innovations of perspective, though linked to painting’s ability to operate spatially, are only contributory factors in its plastic spatiality. The real business begins for me in northern Europe, where the focus is on the psychology and meaning of invented, constructed, complex spaces, like in the Durer, or the Gerard David above, which in the flesh is as sumptuously integrated a picture-space as you might wish for. In Italy (Tintoretto aside – he’s a very special case when it comes to spatiality), they were perhaps inclined a little more to thinking about composition, drawing, line, colour, and the sophisticated analysis of the processes of two-dimensionality. You know, all those things that abstract painters think far, far too much about…
So… I’ll leave you to make your own minds up about these three:
Hoyland, Caro, Noland is at Pace Gallery, London, Nov 20th 2015 – Jan 16th 2016.
Flemish art is in Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and elsewhere, now – forever.