Drawing Back from the Edge

John Haber
in New York City

Has Abstract Art a Future?

Sometimes it pays to draw back from the edge. But is it too late now—even for abstract art?

The burden of good form

Yet abstraction always stood for edges. In modern art, the cutting edge meant the future, and abstraction made it the present. What else could so plainly refuse art's past? In its very title, Suprematism claimed an ultimate, and one does not hit the goal by looking back. In a decade of evolution, the Blue Rider embodied the narrative of a breakthrough. By the 1950s that narrative gave modern art at once moral, visual, and logical significance. Alison A. Raimes's Diffusion 10 (Alison A. Raimes, 2003)

Edges were simply a matter of good form, the hard edge, right through the 1970s. Sure, before his Torqued Ellipses, Richard Serra had tossed off shards of rubber like old carpeting during the renovation of a Soho loft. And sure, Robert Smithson had multiplied raw earth in a hall of mirrors. Yet many a painter, with Artforum as text, aspired to hard-edge geometries as a matter of course. Jackson Pollock still loomed over art, but spattered paint did not have to mean action or entropy. Hard-edged critics saw his drips as drawing on the one hand and surface on the other. With the illusion of line and the reality of a colored object, the space between the edges had been stripped away.

Worse, in another decade the edge had become a burden. Abstract was dead: it had gone over the edge. Edges stood for power, nerve, and violence, and Postmodernism had a nexus to reveal. Abstractions embodied the old creative gesture as an institution, a male preserve, and a myth.

Yes, all that is obvious, so obvious that it has to be wrong. Today talk of "esthetics" in the same breath as "anxiety" and "awe" must seem out of place. In an age of installations, art invites too intimate a contact with the viewer for awe, too wild a carnival for anxiety. Hey, dude, relax.

Can one even find the edge now—and might it look, as for Ethel Lebenkoff, like the edge of a chair instead? A sensible critic does not predict the future. That is why it is called art history. Artists do not predict the future either, although some of them will make it. For that matter, artists and critics have a bad track record of predicting the past. Again and again, newcomers have recovered art, including abstract art, that even postmodern histories have overlooked. An issue of American Abstract Artists, on the theme of the cutting edge, hopes to do exactly that.

Abstraction cannot regain the edge in the old ways, however. In fact, the negative connotations sound almost as quaint as the manifestos. In the end, abstract art refused to die, and it hung on in the hands of women quite as much as men. Then again, from Gabriele Münter, Georgia O'Keeffe, Nell Blaine, and Janet Sobel on, women alone could supply a history of contemporary abstraction. Male artists as well, such as Richard Tsao, use the richness of paint to blur the edges of an image, while others channel past styles more overtly.

Abstracting abstraction

Abstraction survived because it did draw back from the edge—or, with Rafael Bueno, from flatness. For one thing, Postmodernism still needed a target. It dreamed not of murder but of assisted suicide. Postmodernism also sustained the whole modernist idea of unveiling, of living on the edge. With Mark Tansey, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man wrestle on a cliff side, too.

With Postmodernism, the future keeps coming back, but then it has done so throughout abstraction's history. Rather than a single breakthrough, abstract art has had multiple inventions, starting with František Kupka, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinksy, and such followers as Hilla Rebay, they keep coming. As with Abstract Expressionism, it keeps having to find its way out of imagery—and sometimes back again.

The term abstract never made much sense anyway, but even that denial cannot tell the whole story of its shifting meanings. The label suggests an arid process, a slice of life or a moment of vision, reduced to its unchanging essence. It demands an art inseparable from representation after all, even while turning away from the represented world. Plato may have hated art, but he must be smiling to hear of its progress. Where there is a cutting edge, he might have said, there will be "Cutters."

Only a few abstract artists begin that way, however, and even those who do still hold surprises. If Ellsworth Kelly chooses colors like axioms for a new geometry, he knows where to place them because of his eyes. In the galleries this summer and again at the Whitney, much as in Kelly's drawings, he shows himself as endlessly attentive to chance and experience. A shaped canvas, seemingly folded over a corner of another, captures the fall of light upon the wall. As art gives meaning to the everyday, how could it not notice such things?

I liked even better a selection of Paul Klee's abstractions at the Met. In practice, figures and, especially, landscape elements peep out everywhere, just as for a painter he influenced, Joaquín Torres-García. Moreover, he could not have made his leap into color for its own sake had he not already made painting into a kind of hieroglyphics. He had visited Egypt, and he admired as well science, with its rich symbol system. When he first offered a city or a plate of fish as an element in a magic act, he naturally presented the objects as signs.

Not surprisingly, when he then goes abstract, he incorporates drawing into painting. He keeps to the intimate scale of works on paper, even when he turns to canvas. He applies ink and thin lines of black oil. Anticipating Joan Miró, he brushes color lightly, right up to the edge of paper or canvas. As for Mark Rothko, but in simpler, darker tones, oil saturates the ground almost like watercolor. When Pollock fully recast Surrealism as abstraction and drawing as all-over painting, he had little more to do than blow up work like this to human scale.

The edge of optimism

In retrospect, was abstraction too broad a concept to offer much help—or much of an enemy? It is too narrow a label as well. Artists today move casually from formalism to text, from old media to new, and from one traditional medium to another. At one time, photographers like Ernst Haas emulated abstraction as a way of becoming—or appropriating—fine art. Now emerging abstract painters play with projections and simulations as one more medium among others. Consider the photograph above, by Alison A. Raimes.

Even Frank Stella finds that he can sustain painting past his mitered mazes only by giving up paint. A simple title can give abstract art political overtones. No wonder each generation has to go about inventing abstraction.

Is this starting to sound too optimistic? It is. Art could use more anxiety after all. Pluralism masks a paucity of ideas and the power of the marketplace under the mask of pleasure. So consider one hope of escape, one glimmering of the edge.

Abstract art took its cuts because it had become an institution. Postmodernism seemed to have an edge, because it was so determined to represent art institutions. Yet it, too, quickly joined the club, while simultaneously claiming to see those institutions from without.

Is abstraction the future? No more than anything else. Yet abstract art does have an edge, for the same reason it looked suspect. What else has enough institutional history to turn on the past? Andy Grundberg once touted how photographs, so long associated with belief in the visible, can "represent the idea of abstract art." Abstract painters, seen edgewise, do it as a matter of course.

Sometimes it does pay to draw back from the edge. Only be careful which way it lies.

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This essay began in August 2003 as an invited contribution to American Abstract Artists, for "On Edge," the fall 2005 special issue asking how abstraction "maintains its edge" in "times of broad sociopolitical or deep personal crises." Ellsworth Kelly's latest ran at Matthew Marks through June 28, 2003, and his "Red Green Blue" from the late 1950s and early 1960s ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through November 2. "Klee Abstract" ran through December 2 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A related review looks at Ellsworth Kelly plant drawings.


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