Grids, Daubs, and Burns

John Haber
in New York City

Jacob Kassay and Organic Geometries

Abstract painting seems to have found a new life, simply in struggling to make sense of itself. Amid a fashion for appropriation, it, too, is struggling to decide when to quote and when to reinvent art's recent past. Some of the best recent abstract art has come from older artists, still keeping up their discipline—or lack thereof. (An accompanying article takes you to Nancy Haynes and Mary Heilmann.) For some younger artists, though, abstraction may look more like an argument with modern art.

It might be playing against the grid, like Cordy Ryman, Karina Wisniewska, and the artists in "Organic Geometries." It might be going back with Jacob Kassay to the prefabricated materials of Minimalism and the design of color-field painting. These artists insist that one can no longer "make it new," but they still feel obliged to find novel ways to insist on it. The result is a lively but baffling set of exhibitions. Start with a rundown of some other recent strategies. Jacob Kassay's installation view (Eleven Rivington, 2009)

Abstract presences

Today art is filled with presences, in the scraps of abstraction, of analog and digital, and of photography as object. In fact, it is abuzz in optical activity. Garth Weiser and Xylor Jane spin the logical systems of Bauhaus and Alfred Jensen into Op Art. Christopher Lowry Johnson lays out his grid of dots against gray backgrounds with much the same ambivalence about their regularity. He also displays them alongside landscape painting, as if nature itself brought them into line. If both his realism and his abstractions pretty much lie dead, that may have to supply the connection.

Jonathan Callan and Jason Tomme share the same slippage between style and substance. Callan's wall-sized grid of works on paper looks abstract, like leftover motifs from Joan Miró. However, the splotches of color are actual leftovers—all that remains from their source in food magazines. Tomme recycles stage props as rocks on wheels. His blurry, somewhat genteel abstractions supposedly began as reproductions of old painting.

All this emphasis on erasure sounds like a lecture in deconstruction and semiotics. And all these tricks share the Postmodern paradox: they are basically Modernism remade, but with a simultaneous determination to tear it apart. Tomme has tried many things by now, as if struggling for his own signature. Still, for anyone who has absorbed the lecture, that struggle is the whole point.

For Rafael Bueno and Jennifer Reeves, the struggle focuses on another imperative of formalism—painting as flatness and as object. In each case, the struggle has lightened up. Bueno even thinks of his paintings as vaporous and mystic, but it is the palpability of his oil paint that makes them interesting. He paints thick daubs of oil in bright colors. Then he transfers them to painted canvas in more neutral shades of blue, green, brown, and gray. The results appear not so much composed as refusing to fall apart.

The daubs can run two or three inches long and arc outward from the surface. One keeps looking for something like wire or resin to hold them together, but paint here looks out for itself. Modernism wanted paint to look as good as when squeezed out of the tube. Bueno's paintings do not look that good, but they are freshly squeezed anyway. Only on a second look does one notice that the primary surface has varying colors and thickness, too. Flatness definitely takes a beating.

Reeves makes paint tangible in three dimensions, too. In her case, its traces move across the two dimensions like actors in a play. She uses photographs as well as paintings for backgrounds, like stage sets. The plot of the play is not entirely clear, but it seems to involve small-town homes and flocks of birds, from her childhood in suburban Michigan. It makes sense that the background remains blurry, like memories. The paint, in turn, enters the space of the gallery and the present.

Holding the line

Neither Bueno nor Reeves cares much for formalism, despite their echoes of its vocabulary. So consider again some art that starts with the grid. For years the grid was supposed to keep painting in line and to hold it up. In a few recent shows, painting instead weighs the grid down.

Paint is just returning the favor. For Clement Greenberg, the grid obliged one to perceive the work of art as an object, and objects have weight. It obliged Minimalism to abandon paint, in favor of a grid that could take up space and rest on solid ground. It obliged the grid to slip entirely away, as Lynda Benglis let painting spill onto the floor. Abstraction and the grid have had to justify themselves ever since. The grid still looks a little shaky, as if sagging under its own existence.

In his latest solo show, Cordy Ryman lets the grid come thoroughly down to earth. Often its elements mimic building blocks, but for a very domestic architecture. In one work, blocks the size of bricks—or, as the title has it, 193 Stairs—nestle loosely together as they spread out into a ten-foot triangle above the gallery desk. Checker's drabber squares, spattered brightly with acrylic, resemble heavily weathered shingles. Up front, vertical slats ripple outward in waves, like a badly behaved backyard fence, and indeed Ryman fenced in the backyard at his former gallery a few months ago and will take over Tower 49 in 2018. Has the grid burst out, or does it have to rely on wall for support?

In some smaller and, for me, less successful works, Ryman straddles painting and assemblage. On one wall of "Organic Geometries," small colored dabs of paint and wood break ever so slightly out of their squares. Alex Hubbard's debris in the same show comes closer in strategy to Benglis, while Marilyn Lerner, Stephen Mueller, or Andrzej Zielinski has a more elusive geometry still. With R. H. Quaytman's solo show, a tightly packed grid slides down visually as well as literally, in a kind of Op Art in miniature. The rest of her Chapter 12 series continues the theme of visual dissolution with blurred images of artificial lights and reflections off soap bubbles. While her title refers to stages in her work, it seems only timely that painting has gone through Chapter 11.

Like Quaytman, Karina Wisniewska has a grid in only half her work. Its thin lines bow gently, like netting. They disrupt the monochrome acrylic only in weight and texture, for she forms them of sand, letting it adhere and then scraping it away. In the remainder, the image more explicitly evokes the drip. It weaves back and forth across a curve running down the canvas, like Chinese writing. The black image on a white ground itself suggests ink on paper.

This series really is a kind of calligraphy. Wisniewska brushes on the adhesive, which the sand then makes visible. She began as a pianist, and she still thinks of the traces as contrapuntal, like two of her favorite composers—Bach and (less obviously) John Cage. I think of the two series as united by the notion of weight, just as a dancer is always falling and Cage is so close to falling silent. Even black sand, has associations with unyielding geologic processes and the force of a volcano. She calls the show "The Sand, the Line, and the Consequences," and for now the grid has accepted the consequences.

A silver anniversary

Now that shock art has lost its shock, it is harder still to recover shocks of the past. Along with the weekend crowd in Soho, I wound my way between the very latest in monitors and assorted debris from Jon Kessler's Circus. Did he go through all that trouble to revive the cute complacency of Calder's Circus? As for the shock of Minimalism so much longer ago, can one even imagine it? With Jacob Kassay, one can almost relive it. In the process, he makes all the more evident what one cannot recover.

Once Michael Fried wrote off Minimalism as theater. He could easily have written it off instead as a hardware store. It was very much the same bulb, thread, or box, right off the shelf. My stepfather, who went to school with Carl Andre, still considers Andre an egotist and a fraud. Now, wholesale dislike of contemporary art has gone past skepticism or explication, to become ideology—what a critic calls Generation Blank. Still, at least it is true to the past.

Art after the end of art did not turn out as supporters or skeptics imagined. Remarkably, art of the 1960s still looked like art, filling the gallery with air and light. Later, galleries offered not the epistemological uncertainty of Arthur C. Danto, but entertainment centers. Bring on the circus. So what should I make of Kassay's silvery blankness? His canvases do not come off the shelf, but they share their reflective surface with ordinary electroplating.

An alluring surface it is, too, filled with depths. Silver marks the art as an indulgence, just as for Jacqueline Humphries, and one wants to bask in its presence until the electrodes plant somewhere deeper and riskier. The process leaves thread-like deposits here and there, like viruses in an electron micrograph. It also chars the surface, leaving a dark burn along the edge not unlike an abstraction by Nancy Haynes. The black and silver extend to the sides of the canvas, too, as yet another intimation of depth. The reflective surface extends the third dimension to the blur of the surrounding room and anyone within it.

Kassay takes painting back to a time when shocks mattered. Like Minimalism, he makes one aware of the art object, its surroundings, and the plainness of its making. Like color-field painting and art's "Geometric Days," he insists on two dimensions and given geometries. Like both, he associates these choices with impersonality and self-reflection. As for those who think it is all a hoax, they lost that battle a long time ago. They might be staring into Kassay's mirrored surface and seeing only themselves.

Still, something feels funny, enough that I failed to write about the show until after it closed. Abstract art has changed in fifty years, starting with the combination of Minimalism and a painterly surface. Dan Flavin did not watch every tiny variation in frequency from bulb to bulb, as if it meant something. His industrial hardware, too, soon took on the oppressive weight of a rule book for art, but never as dogmatic as the imperative of appropriation today. Kassay wants to claim both impersonality and presence. Is it a cheat or his best trick of all?

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Garth Weiser ran at Casey Kaplan through March 21, 2009, Xylor Jane at Canada through March 29, Christopher Lowry Johnson at Winkleman through March 28, Jonathan Callan and Jason Tomme at Nicole Klagsbrun through February 28, Rafael Bueno at the Hogar Collection through April 13, Jennifer Reeves at Ramis Barquet through April 25, Cordy Ryman at DCKT Contemporary through February 14, "Organic Geometries" at Nicole Klagsbrun through January 17, R. H. Quaytman at Miguel Abreu through February 1, Karina Wisniewska at Sara Tecchia through January 31, Jon Kessler at Deitch Projects through April 4, and Jacob Kassay at Eleven Rivington through March 29.


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