Gillian Wearing, “Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper”.
This isn’t really a review of Art Rethought; the Social Practices of Art, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a book by a philosopher about art, with no illustrations. To do that properly I would have to summarise its central arguments and insights, offering comments and analysis, pointing out its limits or achievements. I think I could write a review, because it isn’t that obscure, but I don’t want to. Yet I’ve read it, and did want to say something based on that reading, relating it to the problems of criticism in the area of abstraction that this site supports.
I want to start with a question the book does not raise; ‘Why make abstract paintings?’ This is a different question from, ‘Why make abstract paintings now?’ Pictorial abstraction is a genre with a long history and painters have had their reasons for choosing to work within its constraints. To justify this choice some have offered explanations as to what their work ‘means’, which varied from the theosophical, to the political, psychological, mythological, Kantian, etc. Abstract Expressionist paintings produced the heaviest concentration of meaning claims focussing on highly abstract concepts like the sublime or existentialism that seemed to fit with the ‘abstract’ pictorial structures and methodologies they devised. Then Frank Stella came along. He more or less said his painting didn’t mean anything. So escaping from meaning appears to be Stella’s reason for making abstract paintings. This might have seemed understandable in the period when Abstract Expressionism had lost its lustre, but it might also be a good reason for making abstract paintings now.
The central exhibit of a new show at the National Portrait Gallery is by Gillian Wearing and called Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper. It consists of a set of large photographs arranged in a grid containing images of the artist, who is in her fifties, digitally manipulated to depict her in various stages of ageing. No doubting what it ‘means’. Of course it’s about ‘exploring issues which affect us all…around ageing, memento mori, the transience of life,’ and ‘themes around gender, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self.’ But what if these sociological ‘meanings’ were deleted? With the images gone something that looked like a high modernist painting would remain, a large multi coloured grid, in which a certain amount of chromatic interplay was happening. We would still age, life would still be transient; we would still ponder the idea of the self. We knew about all that before we got to the gallery. What would be missing is the ‘aboutery’.
Robert Rauschenberg, “Collection”, 1954-55, SFMOMA
The genre of the painting-relief/construction has been around for some time. Recently, however, this hybrid category has become more prominent, almost suggesting that, at a time when ‘pure’ painting struggles for relevance, the medium’s best chance of survival could depend on forming a coalition with the object.
There’s nothing very new about work in this category. Major exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both at the Whitechapel in 1964, made an impressive case for merging the characteristics of two separate disciplines.[i] But the terms of the partnership favoured painting. Both artists developed their careers in the era of Abstract Expressionism and their gestural painting style derived its authority and confidence from that movement, even though they deployed it in a semi-satirical manner. Partial irony didn’t reduce the power of the painterly force that overwhelmed and absorbed the heterogeneous elements that their works contained.
The results were cluttered and palpable enough to be classed as ‘objects’, but they weren’t covered by the critique of literalism that the slightly later work of the minimalists received. Frank Stella’s paintings also manifested object-like tendencies but were exempt from this same criticism. Michael Fried argued that the pictorial activity of the ‘depicted’ shape, established their credentials as paintings by ‘defeating objecthood’.
“Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga”, 1788.
At 70, I guess I typify the grisaille demographic that dominated the visitor numbers at the National Gallery’s show of Goya portraits. Goya’s an ‘old master’, safely beyond the reach of the contemporary agenda you might think, and in no need of approving or disapproving evaluation. With critical judgement suspended, the paintings should have offered an escape into the comparative certainties of the past, which is perhaps the main appeal of such exhibitions, especially for senior citizens. But while we might enjoy heritage excursions back into art history, the work itself has travelled in the other direction, into a future Goya never could have envisaged. The portraits arrive in our present, entering into our early 21st century culture, where, rather than being admired as a pleasurable anachronism, they present an unexpected challenge that tells us more about our times than a show of contemporary art would necessarily reveal.
I think what the Goya portraits tell the modern audience has to do with ‘experience’. Two connected definitions of experience are in play: Evidence for the first lies in the treatment of the faces, and for the second, in the clothes.
Jackson Pollock, “Out of the Web”, 1949
Palaces, Pollock and Pixar
Inside Out, the recent Pixar movie, contains a scene I found overwhelmingly, hysterically funny. The action is set mainly inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl, which is occupied by five figures personifying her emotions – ‘Joy’, ‘Anger’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Disgust’ and ‘Fear’. In the scene, two characters, Joy and Riley’s ‘Imaginary Friend’, take a short cut through a region called ‘Abstract Thought’, despite clear warnings that they are entering a dangerous zone. As they travel through it, the processes of visual abstraction transform them. First their anatomy is fragmented and re-organised in a non-naturalistic formation, they lose volume and depth, their outline is simplified, they become flatter and flatter. Just at the point of extinction they reach the exit and their figurative integrity is restored.
The scene is a highly edited and compressed account of pictorial abstraction’s evolution, familiar from university art history modules on the subject. What’s interesting is the panic that overtakes the two characters as they approach pure abstraction, and the relief they feel when they return to their familiar pixel-based environment. Even as an abstract painter, I felt it difficult not to share this sense of relief.
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.