Channeling Abstraction

John Haber
in New York City

Jules Olitski, Neil Welliver, and Makoto Fujimura

Joseph Stashkevetch, Ronnie Landfield, and Duston Spear

Derivative: it sounds ever so mean, I know. Suppose instead I call it channeling. This fall I could almost feel the spirits moving. But sometimes they and the art move me, too. Talk about new media.

Sometimes a dealer is guiding the ouija board, calling up artists old enough to have experienced the great days of American abstraction at first hand. That includes exhibitions of Jules Olitski and Neil Welliver. Each thrived on a new American Modernism and contributed to its growth, with rather grudging acknowledgment at best from some of its most fervent supporters. Duston Spear's Study for Tags: Scared (Sara Tecchia, 2005)

Younger artists, too, are feeling the potential of all-over painting, including Makoto Fujimura and Joseph Stashkevetch. With Ronnie Landfield and especially Duston Spear, I might almost have heard Helen Frankenthaler and Cy Twombly whispering—perhaps to remind the medium that they have not died. And at P.S. 1 "The Painted Word" fooled me into thinking that it all dates from 1970. These promising exhibitions attest to the difficulty of calling abstraction dead or derivative, especially when almost so many since Postmodernism rely on appropriation.

Action painting after the action

Janet Sobel, perhaps the original drip painter, herself received a fine exhibition this fall, while Larry Poons and Richard Pousette-Dart also exhibited, Poons in his most gestural style to date. Yet Jules Olitski and Neil Welliver have stood at the fringes of Abstract Expressionism in their own ways. They represent two quite distinct impulses in formalism—toward awareness of the painted object and of its purely visual structure. Younger artists still play with the contrast between geometry and goo. However, without these guys, one might never know that those impulses do not necessarily coincide. No doubt both felt fully assured of their place, even when others thought they missed the whole point.

Olitski was still in his twenties when Sobel started dripping, and he won praise from Clement Greenberg himself. Yet he never quite entered the pantheon of Modernism in America, and many of us who once worshiped there long hated his work. When Hilton Kramer calls Olitski's latest his best work, I cannot help thinking that Kramer never embraced late modern art. Greenberg would have found Welliver of no interest, and the painter had no aspirations to join the party, but he took what he wished from it anyway. While Welliver, who died this spring, receives a memorial exhibition of little more than a room, it has an intelligent presentation, including online essays.

One could describe Olitski as the formalist with utter disregard for form. He simply likes paint too much. Olitski's color seems to have spread and brightened on its own. One well-known work amounts to a slightly misshapen yellow field, like Clifford Still without the sublime caverns that fix the axes of his surfaces and create the illusion of depth. Less familiar early work focuses on the materiality of paint—as the exhibition title puts it, "Matter Embraced." Mixed with spackle, it grows like a thick mold on the canvas, near the center but without any great concern for where it might land.

Knoedler also exhibits quite a few recent paintings, with a greater shift to the visual, but again with little defining paint's role as object or image. Colors heighten still further, shapes become more discrete, and the underlying fields darken. They look less like the Romantic sublime than Photoshop enhancements of snapshots from a campfire. I think of how Milton Resnick, too, once pushed Abstract Expressionism toward the tactile but then incorporated puzzling images. If I distrust Olitski more than ever and in a whole new way, I can at least see the same impulse toward squeezing paint out of the tube and getting it on the wall. He comes off very much part of his time after all.

Welliver dismays formalists for a different reason: he earns his place among them while sticking to representation. He does it beautifully, too, with crisp, northeastern landscapes that Winslow Homer might have recognized. Admirers of academic tradition and the American scene loved what they saw, too, but Welliver does not play by the pre-Impressionist rules. Much of his work took place in the studio. His whites tend to represent white objects—snow, the bark on a tree, or rocks—more often than highlights, while the richest colors in his relatively even palette belong to shadow. Nature's blank expanses offer few clues to depth, whether in linear or atmospheric perspective.

Welliver borrowed plenty from Abstract Expressionism, including the huge scale of his best paintings, a rational execution from end or corner of the canvas to the other, and a strongly centered or all-over composition. A small work might place a tree trunk at the center, while the networks of tree limbs, rocks, streaks of light, or ripples of water in his large paintings have much in common with the weave of a drip painting or of the canvas itself. The web seems to exist solely to trap sunlight. When he draws back equally from the mainstream art of his own time and from tradition, he could well be refusing greatness for the same reason as Olitski, because he cares too much about what he sees. I hate to admit it, but I do, too.

Glad all-over

If the ghosts of Abstract Expressionism float through shows of Olitski and Neil Welliver, they manage to haunt younger artists as well. Makoto Fujimura makes me think of Olitski in his fiery canvases. Joseph Stashkevetch comes closer to Welliver, accruing near abstraction out of objects in nature. Rather like their predecessors, too, they share a grand scale and an obsessive technique. Look again and an apparent excess splatter or blandness becomes instead the coarse texture and truth of rocks and trash, and each artist's craft alone approaches that of a magician.

Not that past art goes unnoticed anyway, not these days when anything goes and any style seems ripe for renewal. Then, too, a wave of students will always want to make a splash with something appropriately familiar and expressive. Even a dealer as trendy as Leo Koenig is letting abstraction sneak in among his typically snarky images. Christian Schumann plays a kind of Pop Minimalist, creating horizontal stripes, in just slightly jarring color, out of tiny elements. Besides, the Pomo critique of dead white males lives on in Philip Taaffe or Sue Williams. She actually ups the irony this fall, returning from broad swirls to flowery cartoon doodles, as if to move from de Kooning's late period directly to his women.

Neither Fujimura nor Stashkevetch need care much for irony—or even ego. Fujimura's Water Flames series approaches monochrome, the painted traces rising against fields of identical color as if under their own power. He really does mean to play with fire and water, and paradoxically the red canvases look most watery. The black ones, in turn, recall how Lee Bontecou and Ed Ruscha have drawn in actual soot and gunpowder. One first merely marvels at how he does it, and a video (in the back room, so as not to disturb the temple of mystery) supplies the answer. He does not so much use brushwork, drips, or poured paint as mop the paint on, with a long brush, somehow maintaining control. One admires, too, the range of allusion, not just to modern art but to Asian landscapes and to the literary father of fire, Dante.

Fujimura says that painting fire provided his impetus for the entire show, and one often feels the fire within it as well. I had my doubts, sure. Would the monochrome look a little too nice in a public space? Mark Rothko painted a dark series for the Seagram's Building after all, and Fujimura's technique, too, like that of Pierre Soulages works best in his black paintings, where the surfaces indeed feel scarred. The fire there has burned deep. Work just a few months later, using something as difficult to control and deep in its history as gold leaf, reminds me that his technical skill still has a magic all its own.

Stashkevetch, too, calls attention to technique, but of a more meticulous sort. Like Welliver, he uses outdoor light and all-over compositions to cast a cool eye simultaneously on abstraction and realism. In place of rocks and trees, he has tires and other junk, but with an equal care for pushing three-dimensional objects against two-dimensional surfaces. Perhaps whoever steals trash can also steal a few purses. In place of Welliver's whites, yellows, and blues, he has Conté crayon on huge sheets of thick paper, sometimes sanded down to convert the white and texture of rag paper into the blur of atmospheric perspective, the spark of sunlight in a clearing, or the reflection off mountains in the snow. Unlike Welliver, too, he heightens the contrast between lights and darks a bit, but that just makes the work eerier still.

Actually, Stashkevetch offers two versions of nature. A smaller room has black-and-white seas and other quiet scenes, while the front room has the high- and low-tech garbage. He means them as visions of heaven and hell, and, as so often in art, hell is far more fun. I have my doubts at yet another aspirant to Dante's grandeur, but the artist keeps coming back after all to nature. If the back room can look a bit too much like copies after Vija Celmins, the rough, hard texture of pebbles, rocks, and branches has a naturalism all its own. Stashkevetch has chosen a demanding medium, and he pursues it right up to a work's arbitrary edges.

Changing channels

High-tech junk sounds ripe for recycling, but to channel the past properly takes commitment. With Ronnie Landfield, a range of blue, red, yellow, and orange out of Helen Frankenthaler spreads across the entire canvas. One sees the same underlying horizontal structure, determinedly abstract and close to random, but with echoes of landscape. By working this time on a somewhat smaller scale than before, hanging the work fairly low on the wall, and insisting on the horizon, Landfield may well heighten the older artist's instinct for intimacy, if perhaps at the expense of formal ambition.

The work on the floor has its charming whispers, too. Peter Reginato translates Woman with her Throat Cut for a Neo-Pop generation. As with Alberto Giacometti, a work's metal pieces lie spread out on the floor, with enough sharp edges and upward turns to offer a trap. Reginato paints them in bright colors, as if to reassure one that the ghosts of Surrealism surely mean no harm. I can see why Heidi Cho's gallery pairs the painting and sculpture. Their warm colors reach toward each other, as if sensing friendly spirits.

For Duston Spear, paint seems to gather from its own gravitational attraction, leaving a furious mix of free-form drawing, thicker clumps, and wide-open spaces. If this recalls Cy Twombly or perhaps Terry Winters in his "Invented Worlds," the addition of words pulls it decidedly toward the former. So does the overall tonality, close to that of Twombly's precious Italy. In fact, Spear found inspiration in Rome—not in classical poetry, but in actual graffiti. She uses a bulbous style to match rather than Twombly's scrawls. She also keeps her sense of humor, as in naming one painting after the cloakroom of the Museum of Modern Art.

She is after much more, though, than old-world charm and redeeming social value. Spear reports on the real world of city streets or backpacks in the cloakroom, and she makes one work to decipher them. Her words turn out to quote Stephen Crane's war poems, another bow to both American tradition and present-day realities. Perhaps Crane's grim reports on patriotism and bloodshed do not easily relate to the rest of the painting, and perhaps graffiti can comes off as something of an exotic find, but they do add to the sense of the canvas as battlefield. More recent work since this show drops some of the references, allowing hints of past and present to converse all the more easily. This is work worth waiting to see.

Ironically enough, derivative, a tired way of writing something off as nostalgia, itself sounds dated. It suggests that one needs to do something different, unique, and personal, long after criticism of the avant-garde. Perhaps appropriation, then? That includes almost anything these days, and irony is dead, too, right? Besides, Modernism long cherished its copycat side, too, growing from movements and from work in series, and one can think of formalism's deductive logic as the ultimate in shareware or open-source coding. If work so appreciative and so skillful can seem too reverential of the past, I can handle that.

Oddly enough, still barely among the living lies the most placid show in memory. "The Painted Word" takes one back to the 1970s, when artists influenced by Paul Feeley and Myron Stout were aiming for a rigorous abstraction based on neither geometry nor gesture. The curator, Bob Nickas, is trying to broaden that approach just enough to keep it alive, but one may still blink twice on seeing the dates of some recent work. I cannot swear how it all fits together, especially when Wayne Gonzales applies his stippling to evoke photographs, and Yayoi Kusama veers toward her typical overkill. I may not want to recapture the past, and I can name some better abstract painters, but Moira Dryer and Mary Heilmann look wonderful. Maybe the Museum of Modern Art should include a few more women artists, too—preferably in the original medium.

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Jules Olitski ran at Knoedler through November 5, Neil Welliver at Alexandre through October 22, 2005, Christian Schumann at Leo Koenig through November 9, Sue Williams at 303 through October 29, Makoto Fujimura at Sara Tecchia through October 22, Joseph Stashkevetch at Von Lintel through November 12, Ronnie Landfield and Peter Reginato at Heidi Cho through November 15, and Duston Spear at Sara Tecchia through November 27. "The Painted Word" ran at P.S. 1 through January 31, 2006. I also draw on the lessons of Stashkevetch's return to the same gallery with a still greater naturalism through February 23, 2013.


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