Frank Stella, “Die Fahne hoche”, 1959
As someone who admires and was influenced by Frank Stella’s early paintings I get irritated by those who minimise his achievement and then congratulate themselves on their lack of interest in his work. If we lose sight of Stella, and his contribution to the history of abstraction, we may be doomed to a future consisting of a combination of Hans Hofmann and Pierre Soulages, a Druidical impasto fest, accompanied by necromantic invocations of Pissarro and Tintoretto, which goes on forever. There has got to be an alternative.
This is not an attempt to make anyone like Stella. Aesthetic judgements aren’t enforceable. But it is an attempt to throw a spanner into the machinery of rejection by following up on the challenge posed in Stella’s well-known remark ‘What you see is what you see’. So it concerns not aesthetics but phenomenology, what you see in Stella.
Stella’s technical originality shows up clearest in contrast to Barnett Newman. But they also have a lot in common. They were both making big paintings in New York at a time when American painting was a major cultural force. A progressive concept of history was also in play. The idea that painting could ‘advance’ in response to the best i.e. ‘most advanced’ work of the immediate past, made sense. Going ‘beyond’ Newman, therefore, was a reasonable motivation. What helped was that Stella wasn’t an Abstract Expressionist. He was free of the elaborate belief structure that surrounded the artists within that movement and found himself at the start of a new sensibility that eventually led to full-blown minimalism.
Ian McKeever, ‘Portrait of a Woman 5’, 2015, oil and acrylic on linen
Faith and Doubt in Painting; or, Confessions of a (lapsed) McKeever Believer
Ian McKeever’s show of paintings at Galeri Susanne Ottesen, ‘Portrait of a Woman’, which I managed to catch during a recent 24-hour stopover in Copenhagen, gave me a great deal to think about. None of it, sadly, to do with finding all that much to celebrate in the works themselves – more about them in a moment – but rather, with the realisation that my views on abstract painting in general, and McKeever’s paintings in particular, have undergone a radical transformation in the last couple of years; to the point where I’m left feeling a little embarrassed at having spent so much time allowing myself to be carried along by the approving critical consensus, and overlooking what I now consider to be fundamental problems with the work. I wanted to like the new paintings, I really did; however, since any honest assessment I could make of them would be little better than a hatchet job (fun to write, but, I suspect, a lot less fun to read) I have opted to go further, and use McKeever’s work as a hook on which to hang various thoughts I’ve been having, about both abstraction, and abstractcritical/Abcrit.
Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman in Profile”, 1958, Oil on canvas, 68” X 59”. Image, with artist’s signature, from Dunn International catalogue, 1963.
Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series seems to have been initiated as a response to two paintings by Henri Matisse; View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure. Both date from 1914 but had never been exhibited before being included in a Matisse retrospective in 1966, organised by the University of California and shown in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, but not New York.[i] I want to argue that Diebenkorn recognised something important about these paintings. He saw that they introduced and valorised a particular pictorial economy, characterised by simple means and finite quantities.
Despite the difference in age, the works were similar to a kind of painting then being made in America. The same year Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons and Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series were also shown. Anyone who saw the three exhibitions would have faced an interesting triangulation; the Matisses, like the light from a new star arriving fifty years after the event, an ambitious late career statement from a major Abstract Expressionist and a set of unconventionally configured canvases from a 30 year old star of the New York art scene.
These coinciding exhibitions arguably constitute an important cultural moment, and one can imagine the impact on a sample viewer of the combined experience. It would be clear that the terms of a new pictorial economy had been constructed, validated and even historically provisioned, by obviously successful, high net worth examples. It would also have offered evidence for the possibilities of abstraction made under the auspices of this economy. What I want to suggest is that it is impossible to fully understand abstraction’s contemporary potential, and past achievements, without recovering this moment and absorbing an appreciation of the associated pictorial economy into our critical apparatus: So there.