The Mess He Made

John Haber
in New York City

Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.
      — Georgia O'Keeffe

Laurel Farrin, Cyrilla Mozenter, and Ethel Lebenkoff

For Georgia O'Keeffe, God was not in the details. When not take the next logical step, then: why not eliminate everything? For a formalist, abstract art gets at the real meaning of things because it eliminates everything but the painting. Instead of selecting what in reality to emphasize, it selects something just as real, the emphasis. Laurel Farrin's Composition with Double Line (Lesley Heller, 2005)

Abstraction keeps coming back, but in a way truer to O'Keeffe: as often as not, it begs for contamination from the real world. Laurel Farrin, for one, imitates Mondrian, but as a container for the scraps of her life. For Cyrilla Mozenter, canvas gives way to scraps of another kind, of fabric, covered by geometric forms and cryptic signs. Ethel Lebenkoff pushes painting still closer to stripped-down images from life on the hand and abstract painting on the other. Imagine Philip Guston, but with a sense of humor less tainted by anxiety and a titanic ego.

They are hardly alone. More often than not these days, painting functions as a comfort zone, a respite from new media and installations. It can afford to incorporate imagery into abstraction, as what Postmodernism would call two complementary sign systems. In the process, it continues Modernism's strategy of appropriation, starting at least with Cubism and continuing through such "new image" painters as Susan Rothenberg and Jonathan Borofsky. It finds both irony and pleasure in the impurity of sensation.

But can the signs still signify much of anything? As two group shows suggest, the search for a comfort zone parallels opportunities and crises elsewhere in contemporary art as well. An accompanying review surveys some artists who pursue Neo-Geo into photography and video. Another tries to pin down the alternatives.

La bella Piet

Like Georgia O'Keeffe, Piet Mondrian held to an austere sense of beauty, but his paintings have their uses. That need not include nostalgia for the handmade and the ghosts of abstraction past. For Laurel Farrin, in fact, they help manage her life.

Her art confesses to an austere lifestyle anyhow. In her hands, Mondrian's asymmetric geometries of red, yellow, blue, and black suffer only the most low-budget interruptions. As her postmodern still life, Farrin appears to have added a crossword in progress, the logo from a pizza carton, a coat-room ticket, a photograph of Henry David Thoreau, and a casual sketch. Are these her diversions, her inspirations, or her necessities? Where Jason Rhoades or David Ellis recreates his studio as the scene of an all-night binge, this seems truer to life. In a career, as in art, the scraps of the everyday are hard to keep together.

On inspection, even the abstraction dissolves into a found object. The white or off-white ground looks found and rumpled, as if poorly stretched. The slim stripes look like elastic bands holding the collage in place. Is this what Mondrian meant by Neoplasticism—a new plastic art (or maybe latex)? Yet this, too, proves an illusion. Farrin has painted everything in oil and acrylic.

As her tour de force suggests, Farrin is not above boasting. Hey, she does her crossword in ink. She is also claiming some distinctly American ancestors, only starting with Thoreau. Her trompe l'oeil, like the straps of an old-fashioned letter rack, owes a debt to such nineteenth-century models as J. F. Peto. More recent painting abandons Mondrian's stripes entirely, much as he would have disdained her illusion. She retains, however, her fictional collage.

The passage of Modernism to America meant a collision of worlds. With Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Mondrian celebrated New York as the antithesis to European high culture. New York, in turn, helped push his late work in series to greater extremes of spareness and activity. At the same time, though, New York was rebelling against the School of Paris for quite the opposite reasons—in response to what critics would call "mere" illustration or decoration. Older models like Peto became newly relevant to Abstract Expressionism's immersion in the picture plane. Thoreau's peers and the Hudson River School supplied precedents for an American sublime.

Perhaps Mondrian has the last word after all. The Transcendentalists shared his ideals of spiritual harmony. A confusion of artistic purity and function also accords with De Stijl's wish to encompass architecture and design. Farrin's logo, La Bella Pizza, could easily echo—or parody—Mondrian's ideal of the beautiful. He even let loose at the end, with Broadway Boogie-Woogie. But would he have ordered in pizza?


Like last-night's takeout, the art of Cyrilla Mozenter looks awfully familiar. That sense of comfort could be a dieter's—or an artist's—kiss of death. Yet the paintings grow even more familiar over time, as one catches on to what that sense of comfort missed in painting's "Geometric Days." Mozenter places silhouettes in shades of gray against equally uniform, mostly colorless fields of gray and black. I could place it even on a quick glance, and I was wrong.

She structures a painting around monochrome curves and rectangles, in layers of gray on gray. They recall gradations of surface in Robert Ryman or early Brice Marden, before Marden's calligraphy added borders. The occasional pencil outlines or paired images underscore her minimal vocabulary. A frayed edge or loose flap here and there should get formalists talking even louder about painting as object. Forays into three dimensions, in slim curved or straight blocks, rest comfortably on the floor like Minimalist sculpture.

Mozenter's take on geometric abstraction may looks charmingly idiosyncratic but tired—until one notices something: one is looking at the outline of a pair of ice skates. The background fabric, too, gives way to familiar creature comforts. It looks like canvas, but she works with silk threads and industrial wool. Like Mondrian in America, she is watching worlds collide. And the comedy of everyday life has a lot to do with its inscrutability.

Does that lumpy outline represent a bear, a boot, or a household iron? Does the pink stripe make the felt slab into a gift box? Here, too, she tempts one to pigeonhole her art, much like Jennifer Bartlett and New Image painting before her. Pop Art dealt with cartoons and commercial imagery long ago, while Claes Oldenburg had no end of puns on sculptural conventions. And that is before artists turned on geometry more aggressively, with Neo-Geo. I had seen this before, right?

In the 1980s, parodies and allegories came to stand for Postmodernism, including parodies and allegories of geometry, and much of Chelsea still cannot give them up. Rather than irony, however, Mozenter deals in things. The warmth of fabric speaks about art as caring. So, paradoxically, does the unraveling of traditional craft. Hal Foster has described the return of the real. Amid the unreality of the art market, here it comes again, only this time at home with old lessons about defamiliarization.

Mozenter shares space with David Storey, and they make a strong contrast. He works with ordinary oil on canvas, he works large, and he has to crowd it all in. The wiggly black curves run every which way, with no particular formal discipline. Her boots have slipped across the room to become his feet. Her gray rectangles have become his living color (and, no, he is not the British playwright). Her reserved humor has become his open smile.

A mighty wind

Together, they could stand for how limited the labels realism and abstraction have become. Without the labels, one cannot understand the debates that long drove modern art. Many budding artists still worry about whether to be true to nature or true to themselves, like Elliott Green between abstraction and landscape or Ellen Berkenblit with horses and women. One hears it especially in old-fashioned art schools outside New York. Maybe they should consider what Storey and Mozenter have in common—not expression or anatomy, but strange geometries and the cartoon feet.

Those, too, should sound awfully familiar. Philip Guston, for one, long relied on both. In fact, he gave up first social realism and then Guston's airy abstraction for them. In the process, he left behind a mess very much like contemporary art. Eugene J. Martin can even speak of his bridge between genres as "satirical abstraction."

Ethel Lebenkoff, too, navigates between realism and abstraction, and she, too, does it by finding a space between geometry and comedy. An oddly rounded rectangle morphs into a hand dryer or an easy chair. A household table fan faces down a stack of colored rectangles that Donald Judd might have executed in three dimensions. The space behind them remains schematic or bare, except when a smear or arc intrudes. Clement Greenberg might prefer to call it flat, but the black line has the dryness of a charcoal sketch. The New Yorker might see a cartoon, but it skirts politics, lifestyles, or personal confessions.

Ethel Lebenkoff's Double Take (courtesy of the artist, 2003)It certainly skirts Guston's simple themes and titanic ego. Lebenkoff keeps a sense of humor and a feeling for the ordinary. Make that ordinary disasters. That hand dryer, the scourge of public rest rooms, comes paired with umbrellas turned inside-out.

Implicitly, though, the ordinary disaster at issue is painting, the kind that Mary Heilmann takes to the surf or that Jacob Kassay and other young abstract artists subject to a slow burn. The fans, driers, and umbrellas in series refer to wind, like the divine wind that breathes unreliably through autumn beings and art. Their substantial scale, simplicity, and asymmetric pairings, too, take up the question of painting. They look back to painting when such things mattered, and they reserve judgment on how far these things can carry painting now. That very reserve helps make them contemporary.

Another series depicts nurses—although not, as with Richard Prince, subject to a proud macho lechery. Like the fans and umbrellas, the nurses trip and stumble about rather than offer protection and care. One can see the work as paintings that quote graphics, graphics that quote painting, or both. A quoted painting may or may not be a painting, and a quoted cartoon may or may not be a cartoon. Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns came with lessons like that, right?

Selection or elimination?

Those wondering what has happened to abstraction's purity or cutting edge could have done worse than to seek out "Standard Sizes" the summer before. João Ribas curated group shows elsewhere the two summers before, on the themes of formalism and irony. This time he seemed determined to let them live happily ever after. And oddly enough they do, even when they include Martin Creed's or Blinky Palermo's disdain for workmanship and tradition alongside a send-up by Rachel Harrison or Allan McCollum, a casual tribute from Camilla Low or Liz Deschenes, and the dutiful appropriations of Richard Pettibon or Sturtevant.

So where shall I place the slapdash washes of Josh Smith or Imi Knoebel? Have I even categorized all the artists halfway reasonably? Rightly or wrongly, the gray geometries of the anti-esthetic have come to look warm and dignified. Over it all, Marcel Duchamp presides with his Standard Stoppages, as a reminder that Modernism started the argument long ago. But has the argument ended, now that no one cares to claim victory?

To an extent, markets just do not welcome serious argument. Four of Lebenkoff's paintings had an extended stay at a restaurant in the World Financial Center. They are her only four that I have ever seen in person, and I have no idea whether New Yorkers will ever see them again. The art market has become sadly unforgiving of artists who do not attain early stardom. In turn, it has become sadly forgiving of artists like Elizabeth Peyton who cater to stardom.

That makes it difficult to nurture a career or, for that matter, to nurture contemporary art. Too many artists over thirty-five end up in a kind of permanent exile, while the New Museum boasts of artists "Younger than Jesus." Still, it is nice to remember how many artists keep going despite it all, like Lebenkoff or Sylvia Mendel—who, as it happened, I also first saw in a restaurant. It is nice to know, too, that some keep navigating the poles of art that long excluded them. Are they trapped between concept and object, realism and abstraction, purity and humor? Probably, but to them the space between has brought relief.

It can also bring trouble. Now that people no longer declare painting dead, keeping it alive has lost some of its urgency. Some of the very artists who stuck to abstraction through its lean years have abandoned it for photography and new media, with results worth celebrating. Others have come back to painting, for the ease of working without boundaries. Another recent group show, "Organic Geometry," has included painted constructions by Cordy Ryman (including a square of wood spiraling in, as if the frame had taken on a life of its own) alongside Keith Sonnier's fluorescent sculpture, Marilyn Lerner's wild patterns, and Stephen Mueller tie-dyed imagery.

Still, all of contemporary art faces the same loss of urgency amid the same abundance of opportunities, and it is adding up for now to a revival of abstraction. Sometimes worlds still collide, and sometimes signs simply lose their meaning and energy. Amalgams like these can deliver extraordinary visual pleasures—or produce all the creature comforts of modern art, but neither formal nor conceptual challenges. It is up to you to find out which. Guston himself might have enjoyed wading into the mess he made.

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Cyrilla Mozenter and David Storey ran at Lesley Heller through December 6, 2008, Laurel Farrin there through July 3, "Standard Sizes" at Andrew Kreps through July 12, and "Organic Geometries: at Nicole Klagsbrun through January 10, 2009. Ethel Lebenkoff's paintings hung in the Grill Room at the World Financial Center through much of 2008.


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