The Long View of a Monolith

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going, Spring 2001

Abstraction still means something, or does it? Few claims about art hang on as hard.

Long after Pop, long even after the new image painters of the 1970s and 1980s, abstract art still has a way of standing for painting. Painters aspire to its sublimity. Postmodernists quote it, parody it, and examine it to death as much as ever. Somewhere, Clement Greenberg should be smiling.

Sometimes I smile, too, but rather at art's refusal of meaning. I do not mean yet another claim associated with abstraction, an art beyond speech. No, I can still talk about it. In fact, one must. Languages of art, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Goodman, persist. Rather, I mean that they change when one least expects it. At its best, art can fail to suggest exactly what I thought it did when I walked in the door. Anne Truitt's Envoi (Danese Gallery, 2001)

Moreover, one can gain insight into particular works by talking about the changes themselves. Abstraction, like anything else in art, speaks of different aspirations in different generations. These days, I am afraid, it has to struggle to mean anything at all, because pluralism favors the collision of genres—or nothing terribly important at all. Still, every so often, it cannot help speaking to me.

So hit the fast-forward button a few times, even, paradoxically, within one single month's gallery tour. Take some painters from different eras, painters I might not otherwise even consider interesting enough to bring me to a stop. From Nell Blaine and Milton Resnick, move on to Anne Truitt, Sean Scully, and, after some further reflection, Simon Lee and a group postscript. Time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream. Suppose I pick up the pace and see if I wake up. One can take the long view of any monolith, even Stonehenge.

Heavy grounds and heavier seas

Nell Blaine gave up on abstract art long before it was fashionable to try something else—indeed, before abstraction in America itself became the rage. In the 1940s, however, she tried to work her way through high Modernism, and it meant playing around with European painting. Perhaps New York demanded it. Urban excitement brought out gamesmanship and free play even in so reserved and calculated a visionary as Piet Mondrian.

Like Arshile Gorky in paintings and drawings from those same years, Blaine piles on arbitrary shapes out of Picasso, Léger, or Matisse. Here they float, as if lost at sea. There they anchor all too rigidly against flat tones and a chalky ground.

The devil made her do it—or just too much schooling. Hans Hoffman would have lined up the European models for her, just as he put Lee Krasner through the same studious reassembly line. American influences, such as Stuart Davis and Stuart Davis drawings, go into the thick whites. Like Krasner leaving a woman's art school for a man's world, Blaine never shows less than talent. She never shows less than shows seriousness of purpose either, even when playing with blocks.

Best of all, Blaine takes real comfort in the open spaces and immediacy of improvisation. Yet like so many around her, she came up against the same awkward rearrangements and a plain old struggle for purpose.

Now speed up the pace, skipping lightly around Jackson Pollock's explosion and Mark Rothko's perilous rigor and steady progress, dancing around the long career of Krasner or Willem de Kooning between abstraction and Women and the brief one of Janet Sobel, to a survivor from Greenberg's harshest imaginings. Milton Resnick works every canvas over and over, to thick crusts of sea green. An spot of intense color peers out from below, but not like light on the water. It lies without glinting, speaking less of itself than of the serious cover of oil above. It reminds one how much a humble enough viewer, like the surface, leaves behind.

Resnick makes the determination of Piet Mondrian or Ad Reinhardt and their asceticism look like child's play. He has worked each canvas hard, until it has no sense left of color or form, much as Josef Albers worked over spatial relationships until they stopped moving or Cy Twombly worked the trace of his hand until trace itself becomes something out of a myth. Resnick keeps everything about a generation except a world beyond ideas.

Formalism without flatness

Now skirt around what used to be called second-generation Abstract Expressionism. The lightness of an era has seen, even been touched by Minimalism, but without losing its faith. The paintings by Anne Truitt span three decades, through the 1980s, and yet they may never quite ring a bell, but they are still part of abstraction now. Sure, I know, Truitt created sculpture—columns, like Barnett Newman's zips that one can walk around to get to know. But what else?

Newman himself offers up in cold steel the triumphal arch of zips, Broken Obelisk. One communes with it gratefully, but only by immersing oneself in its profundity. When the Modern's third Y2K survey placed it at the head of the escalator, allowing one to close in on it only gradually, it glowed with a fresh intimacy. Truitt's sculpture knows the contentment of never having to glow at all.

Her paintings, too at first evoke Newman, like his spare fields turned sideways. Only his fields go for a feat: they learn from the edge how never to stop. Truitt's proportions refuse to lead or perform. They call attention to their limits, like a shaped canvas that just happens to come to a rectangle. Like their spare tones, so deceptively near to monochrome, they draw one in without taking one over, like what Betty Kaufman has called "the story of red." They ask only for intimacy, and one receives it just as gratefully.

A tall blue column has a short, almost invisible framing stripe at the top. An open field has a little fillip of brown, dashed off with the tip of a brush, breaking its center near the bottom. At once delicate and casual, they claim to extend a familiar world. Sure I had found a pattern, I searched the room for more horizontal zips and framing elements. I focused on saturated tones related to the main field. As my eyes slowly adjusted, I started to see other soft changes in color as well.

The shift in tone divides one canvas about halfway across, along a vertical, almost like two squares side by side. In another, the squares run slightly askew, like a TV set seen from an angle. I thought of that moment facing a Reinhardt where one suddenly sees the cross as color—or at all. Only for Truitt, shapes may recede into space rather than hover across its face. The first time I caught Reinhardt's black cross, I jumped as if I had seen a ghost, and indeed perhaps I had. Here I had a sensation more like sinking in.

Reinhardt or even Robert Ryman is trying to squeeze out every last illusion of space, to make the painted surface speak for itself. Greenberg is seeking a displacement of politics that allows culture to continue. Newman is creating a stand-in for the human figure and a path to the sublime. Blaine, Krasner, or even Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler later on are insisting on a woman's right to innovate. Truitt's soft, off-center elements feel content to happen, without an explosion, without demanding, escaping, or negating. Whatever happens, they seem to say, is a release. By catching one off-guard, they permit the small, ordinary space of feeling.

Gravity and decay

Now try a survivor, an abstract painter persisting after the turn away of the 1980s, a believer in an esthetic who cannot permit others to take it on trust. Sean Scully calls his latest work "Light and Gravity," and he says he is trying to convert light into something solid. It sounds preposterous, or else he succeeds all too well. Scully, after all, seems capable of seeing and feeling only the solid, like the gallery's memorably imposing double doors. Or so I felt, but had I felt enough?

His photographs, too, I thought, bear the weight of eternity. Boarded-up storefronts and long-forgotten houses bask in intense sunlight that will never penetrate them. One recognizes the sun and the color it brings out, but one sees only a stifling network of abandonment. The boards, padlocks, and peeling remainders of paint all belong to that irregular but firm grid. In their traces, they speak of the passage of time and decay. Yet they carry so much weight that no human hand could ever disturb them.

His paintings, big and small, know how to sit still, too. Rectangles fit evenly together, in a mix of horizontals and verticals that disrupts any illusion of windows or depth. The thin spaces between them allow rough edges of color to show through. The somber layers beneath make the top, even darker layers look all the heavier. They wrestle the light down, like the heavy colors in Marsden Hartley, which reflect Hartley's fascination with male demons. Scully's demons insist not on sex but on art, and they get it, too.

In each of the bigger paintings, several separate canvases nestle together snugly. Frank Stella might once have demanded one canvas for each rectangle. Scully refuses even the escape of an idea, like deductive logic. He sticks to facture and the limits of perception. The canvases follow the edges of rectangles, however, reinforcing the sense that bands of brushwork stand for bricks and mortar. If anything here allows light to shine, much less to penetrate, I had always missed it.

In fact, I had missed a lot. I had taken for granted more than I thought, even the simple association of two-dimensional surfaces with solidity. Just how dogmatic is Scully after all? A generation before him would have dismissed even that association as illusion. Dan Flavin began as a painter, and he brought a vision of light and color to a space between material objects and immaterial space. Scully's apparent turn from sculpture holds as much ambiguity.

I looked again, and I found my opening into light where I least expected it—where color itself came to an end. In some of Scully's best, color gives way to shades of gray. The variations really do suggest gradations, and I could at last see his brickwork as capturing light and making it solid, like real brick baking in the sun. No, Scully will never quite win me over, but I came away with new respect. He may stare obsessively at decaying masses, but he prefers to stand outdoors in sunlight.

I mean it

Abstraction has to mean something. For one thing, everything does, in an age of cultural signs. Conversely, perhaps, too little else does any longer. Most of all, though, past and present cling to each other for survival. Museums need a cultural heritage to sustain. Postmodernists and the neo-cons alike need a culture war to define themselves.

The strategy works, too. Neither Modernism nor Postmodernism is losing its staleness or its challenge, thanks to the other. But the strategy comes at a cost, too—a dangerous familiarity. The Guggenheim surveyed abstraction as something left for dead in 1960. At the same moment, living abstract artists gathered in an alternative space as if clinging for their lives. In the beauty of their work, they spoke of a confusing, often confused struggle with past and present.

Okay, I oversimplify, yet again. I know. Abstraction has a specificity of meaning in the hands of a single artist. In barely over a year, retrospectives have shown that for Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, two artists as close as man and wife.

Still, amid art-world trends, one can easily forget something critical. Abstract art never meant anything, apart from individuals and their times. Abstract Expressionism emerged after decades of European abstraction, and textbooks still speak of a new beginning. But do traditions or new beginnings remain inevitable today—or even possible?

Take some artists a bit less official than Krasner or Pollock, as if to let a space in history around them speak. The little guys may seem to go with the flow, but they also often change the flow in perplexing ways.

Sure, abstraction means something. Yet, like any signifier, its meanings are arbitrary and part of the speech of others. In a fresh mouth, they can shift again and again with place and with time. Perhaps what they say has become more personal and less outspoken. If they say overtly, "I mean it," they also know how to lie. Still, I sometimes listen. Fast forward one last time, closer to the present.

Plastic tongue in cheek

At last abstract artists admitted to mere meaning, but at the expense of no longer admitting to abstraction. More time has passed, quotation has come and gone and suffered quotation. Neo Geo has given way to Neo Neo. Difference can again create meaning from signifiers, amid loss of faith in the politics of meaning.

My Web site has been fortunate to touch on painters who continue simply painting, such as Chris Haub or Alison Raimes, and those who do not, such as Bridget Riley or Peter Halley. But what about someone who makes abstraction without even trying? I might call that typical now, like pleading for small mercies. In one case, though, I could also call it fun.

Dumbo—alias Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—has promised an artist's district for ages now. A comfortable walk from Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge, or across Cadman Plaza from Brooklyn's wealthiest real estate, it seems to have everything. In practice, it has city crackdowns in zoning, lousy subway service, soaring citywide real estate values, and construction blocking use of the park by the old ferry landing. Instead of full-neighborhood open-studio days each year or a gallery boom, artists are still there, only more quietly. They and viewers just have to take their chances.

Doing just that, I walked into a huge, high-ceilinged gallery to see swirling shapes on the far wall. Were they two or three dimensional, color or monochrome, substance or shadow? They looked like a cross between undersea research, New Age video, and remakes of The Blob. I was already reveling in the all-over composition even while laughing.

In practice, the show continues on a balcony overlooking the room, where can lift Simon Lee's imagined curtain and see the workings of the machinery. Lee rigs a dozen or so projectors to pass through a maze of fish tanks. Each holds plastic toys and other objects. Neither clearly debris nor clearly salvaged, clearly child's play nor clearly serious, they remind me of the name Dumbo. They have plastic tongues firmly in cheek.

As with digitally manipulated canvas, I felt tricked and part of the trickery. As with more than enough conceptual painting, too, I felt ashamed of both my amusement and sense of wonder. Is this the end of signifying, after all those decades from Truitt on? At least in my laughter and wide-eyed stared, I could cling happily to small mercies.

Solitary in a crowd: a postscript

Truitt called one of her most beautiful paintings Envoi. As an envoi for me, too, how about a more typical result of today's eclecticism? The group show's title, "Solitary Pursuits," sums it up, already hinting at small, if honest pleasures and no discernible identity.

An abstract painter, Marjorie Welish, was the exception in more ways than one—or was she? And that is exactly the puzzle. Amid a show in all media, stressing artists from Bulgaria, Welish seemed to say that even nationalism, or (oh, dear) globalization, no longer stands for enough by itself. Even the show's location, over in a worthy nonprofit closer to the Port Authority than to Chelsea, reminded me of the puzzle of communities in this rapacious art world. As if to add to the ironies of the global community, the garment district holds an impressive LA-style Mexican diner down the street.

Yet the curator, Iskra I. Fidantcheva, did well not only by her selections, but simply by provoking these questions. My favorite contributions, from an American after all, barely flirt with old abstraction or a new realism, too. Lauren Gohara sticks to oil on small panels, working a field atmospherically but with no single point of view. Within these, a small mark represents something. Perhaps taken from an outdoor market, the object, in turn, suggests an indefinite, quasi-public yet almost solitary space. Think of Neil Jenny but without the brilliance and with a still, small hope in place of a once-thrilling irony.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Nell Blaine ran at Tibor de Nagy through April 21, 2001, Milton Resnick at Robert Miller through March 17, Anne Truitt at Danese through March 17, Sean Scully at Knoedler through April 28, Simon Lee at Smack Mellon Studios through May 31, "Solitary Pleasures" at the EFA Center for Contemporary Art through April 26.

 

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