It's Academic

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Abstract Art in Spring 2000

At one of Soho's poshest galleries, one woman was lamenting to another. "Why are the English always so academic?"

People like her and me whine with authority, too. As your favorite Web critic, I could hear my own delicate mix of education, pretension, and a New York accent. Besides, she had a point—only exactly what point?

This late in the game, that endless table tennis between Modernism and Postmodernism, I am no longer sure. After all, with Cecily Brown and her latest paintings, a trendy "young British artist," living in New York, in such a posh gallery, almost aspires to abstraction. Have I overlooked any good choices? Rebecca Purdum's Blue Edge (Jack Tilton Gallery, 1999)

Of course, abstract art started struggling with the label academic long before school kids crossed the ocean. And the struggle has not yet ended in a rout. With puzzling abstractions this winter from Brown, James Hyde, and Rebecca Purdum, I could find myself sorting out academicism for a long time to come. Only one danger: I might begin to enjoy it.

Upside-down and backward

Brown lets anyone, at least for a moment or two, feel a part of the right crowd. An international artist safely shocking enough, she gained attention as part of the Britpack and in a show of young New Yorkers out at P.S. 1. Already one has the combination of the British system, which forces pacesetters to have emerged from the right school, with New York, where even an open-minded group show reflects the messy institutional connections between museum empires, their display, and galleries. To confuse me further, the Britpack then became the center of New York's art institutions, as the museums defended themselves from attack.

Brown, now a painter living in America, combines the nude model as subject with a style of left-over Abstract Expressionism. If both beg to be larger than life, Brown's immense canvases have grown larger than fiction, too. They could hardly exist outside Gagosian's downtown space, all but a symbol of the market system as modernist institution. She surely felt more at home in that bare, oversized Soho gallery than in P.S. 1 anyhow. Hey, someone like her merits more than the outer boroughs and a decrepit schoolhouse, right?

At her very best, Brown's spread-legged females take the Creamsicle colors of de Kooning, expressionist brushstrokes after Jackson Pollock, the confrontation with women in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or Picasso's portraits and then some. By facing dead forward and reveling in their private parts, they turn on de Kooning's witty misogyny—or the witless kind in men's magazines and the videos of Matthew Barney. Like Sherrie Levine with old photographs of women, Ghada Amer with threadlike pornography in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, or Cindy Sherman with the culture of sex and the movies, Brown turns the image back on itself. It becomes an assertion of the woman as artist and yet a refusal of any stable, ready-made female identity. It puts its best crotch forward. Only here, too, Brown repeats gestures institutionalized by books and Whitney Biennials a good decade ago.

So there she has it all—the institution of the schools, museums, galleries, Modernism at its imperialist peak, theory, and plenty of irony. And that gets me only as far as the terrific painting in P.S. 1's "Greater New York." Now Brown plows ahead into abstraction. She makes the women so admired in her art a lot harder to spot. Her brushwork becomes increasingly all-over, as one used to say, but less dense. Indeed, her mimicry runs more and more toward de Kooning's own later, less emotionally charged canvases.

Brown turns the Abstract Expressionist notion of scale into a trademark, as she shows off her place in the gallery system. The colors are de Kooning's, mostly reds and lush whites. Now, however, the work's size emphasizes how relatively small, even, and congested the strokes have become. Again she turns an idea of painting into a sign. She gives the casual impression that the older painter's work has gone into a blender.

If one finds room to step back, one notices that some of the images have heads, probably men's faces, upside down in the middle. She turns Modernism upside-down, including the image—and the gender of both artist and subject. Yet her art looks cheerfully backward. It makes me think of another show from the same year, by Christina McPhee, in which vanishing female forms dismantle not only the male gaze, but old and new media alike.

Small mercies

Reviews like to accuse Brown of retreating into Abstract Expressionism. Of course, I doubt that one can slip so easily into greatness, and no one need feel ashamed of discovering time travel. I doubt, too, that she has abandoned the promise of safely ironic distance. Why, she rejoices in it, like pulling the pillows around her to watch late-night TV.

Reviews and Brown agree on something, however. They appreciate modern art as style and institution. It hardly hurts that her upended images refer to George Baselitz, an artist who in his time already earned the prefix "Neo." Call all this Ex-AbEx? I want to deride her mix of oxymorons—the raunchy elegance, feminist ogling, familiar irony, and other formulas. I want to call it comfort food for the appropriation era, but I cannot.

I am seeing too many examples of the Neo-Neo. If appropriation, in Dada, began as an act of revolution, in Postmodernism it became fully self-aware, enough to suggest an unending series. Now comes Act Three. Painterly repetition become comfortable with itself, comfortable enough to call attention to differences. It calls for an examination of what has changed. It enters the museum, like Duchamp's own late self-recreations under glass.

Structuralism argued that meaning emerges by small differences. It takes a variety of image, sound, and sense to make a language, a body of art, or a personal world. Deconstruction even cautioned one against ever hoping to break the chain—the flow of associations and the creation of new ones. Critics hoping to greet some kind of academicism as the new millenium hoped too hard for just that. But do they leave me clinging to small differences, in overhyped galleries with chastened viewers? Should they?

The results can be penetrating, serious, self-conscious, lightweight, or all at once. Brown's latest work no doubt deserves the criticism for academicism. It lacks the interest of her early paintings, and yet I find her less pretentious than her scale and materials. I can laugh, but she has earned well her sixty seconds of fame.

Even more, she shows what painting is up against. Perhaps art can no longer make me laugh or cry all that much these days. It only lets me look for small moments of ardor and irony, beauty, and perception. Small mercies.

Pillow talk

So many abstract artists today struggle to attain those moments—and not just in the quiet confines of a National Academy Annual. In a group show at Snug Harbor or exhibitions by Chris Haub, Alison Raimes, Mark Sheinkman, and others, they keep coming. Is that enough? Three other gallery visits suggest how abstraction's complacency and beauty can leave me feeling both comforted and half-ashamed.

James Hyde in his past work inverts Abstract Expressionism in its own way. He focuses on a point of doctrine, the relationship between surface and support. Compared to the first generation, his self-effacing brushstrokes acquire ever-thicker, slab-like materials beneath. For a past show, the announcement went out on a chunk of Styrofoam, the size of a proper postcard. It echoed the work's lovely mock celebration.

Tired of postmodern elevation of superstructure over base? Now Hyde blows the base up further than ever. In one work, the stuffed canvas resembles a soft sofa from the 1970s. Like Chris Ofili's decorative swirls, tie-dyed color, and tributes to jazz greats, Hyde's version of Neo-Neo seems left over from a dorm party of about 25 years ago.

I have to like Hyde's aspirations. He still wants to revive a love of art's materials in an age of recycling. Most often, though, he attains the worst of both worlds. Instead of painting, one gets a discarded, paint-smeared pillow without the dreams. In place of brittle associations with wreckage, one gets fine art. Robert Rauschenberg would know when to leave garbage on the street rather than beg for its inclusion in the museum or in his combines.

Rebecca Purdum, too, feels quaintly naive for the year 2000. If Brown combines abstract art with feminist appropriations, Hyde with Pop, Purdum invokes Surrealism, like Robert Ryman, whom she admires, as seen in a dream—perhaps on one of Hyde's comfy pillows. Her nine-foot-tall canvases take the subdued, wax-like color of early Brice Marden, along with his horizontal dividing line. In each section, top and bottom, a rectangle out of Mark Rothko emerges as if from a fog. I cannot help remembering yet another assault on Modernism's canon, by Robert Rosenblum. The historian traced abstraction to landscape—and not to Cézanne's doubt, but to Romanticism's northern mist.

Purdum works her canvas endlessly, applying paint with nothing more than her hands. (She wears gloves, though I still would not want to be there when she cleans up.) In the final thin surface and its illusion of depth, one can no longer speak separately of fabric and paint. For all her overbearing air of high art and mysticism, she echoes the beaten, spare texture of old roadside Coca-Cola signs. Like my local Tex-Mex joint, she comes with some annoying nostalgia, but at least the work cooks a little better. Oh, those small, half-shameful mercies.

BACK to John's arts home page

Cecily Brown ran at Gagosian through February 19, 2000, James Hyde at Brent Sikkema through February 12, and Rebecca Purdum at Jack Tilton through April 22. A related review discusses Brown in drawing.


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