Driven to Abstraction

John Haber
in New York City

After the Fall: Abstract Painting Since 1970

Put me out of my misery! Postmodernism is starting to sound dangerously like modern medicine, only without hope of assisted suicide. Painting is dead; Soho is dead; abstraction is dead; American art is dead. Or they will be, any minute now—right?

For decade after decade, the death announcements keep on coming. With Robert Hughes, they have even made it to prime-time TV. And still the painful case of modern art drags on. Stephen Westfall's A Twisted Insterstice (Lennon, Weinberg, 1999)An underrated show of contemporary abstraction demonstrates why: in painting at its best, nothing is ever resolved.

For anyone hoping to nail down the meaning of it all, it does not take coffin nails. Just get on New York's Staten Island ferry, at the very foot of Manhattan Island. Sail past the Statue of Liberty, as if reversing the historic move of Modernism to America. Sounds all too much like the art world? Better get off, then, when the ferry docks, well before running into Joseph Beuys and the Venice Biennale.

At most ten minutes further, by the number 40 bus, lies the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and a huge, contemplative exhibition. There the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art displays seventy-nine abstract painters, most with two works apiece.

From the moment I entered, I could not be sure myself if abstract art were alive. Could I be thinking of abstraction as old friends or just departed one? For all I knew, I could instead have stepped fifteen years back in time. I might have been standing once more in a Soho gallery without the hoopla and with little more than natural light. Past or present, I was studying way too hard the dark canvases by Frances Barth and David Diao, determined to find painting's future.

That very minute up at the Guggenheim, where "Abstraction in the 20th Century" indeed had relegated painting to dead "masterpieces," the lines snaked around the block. The 1997 Whitney Biennial continued its carnival. I had traveled far, and I had an entire museum to myself, with the same delight as in that half-remembered Soho gallery. A sign in the stairwell, limiting top-floor occupancy to 74, sounded like very bad graffiti.

Classicism and chaos

Behind a heavy classical facade set in a park, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center looks like any number of run-down nonprofit spaces, parks, and schools. Leftover stained-glass windows and paint-blotched walls almost blend in with the art, and Rackstraw Downes has explored its public spaces and heating ducts alike. Lilly Wei, the curator, assigns the maze of rooms only by decade—the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. That means the date of the painting, not the generation of artist. In practice, works from 1970 hang just down the hall from others painted up to 25 years later. Two by a single artist can lie distant rooms apart.

Wei fully intends the chaos. She stakes her claim of abstraction's vitality not on nostalgia for the handmade, but on painting's diversity. "Abstraction," she writes, "is often thought of as monolithic, but it is not." Her handout lists the artists in six categories—conceptual, gestural, or geometric, say—but the divisions never seem to fit. I bet she is pleased.

She obviously wants the show to allow discovery and rediscovery, and so it did for me. It had slipped my mind how Ron Janovich and Pat Steir grew to paint big. I had not recognized the light that Dorothea Rockburne can bring to shaped canvas. I took for granted the straightforward care of Frank Stella.

Most of all, I had forgotten how beautifully artists overflow their own geometry. Moira Dryer, Stephen Ellis, Christian Haub, and Denyse Thomasos all state the grid, then let color rush forward, as if from behind it. For Marjorie Welish, a grid tumbles over boisterously as one reads from left to right. For Merrill Wagner, geometry emerges only gently from shining grays. They make yet other artists on display in galleries today, such as Stephen Westfall, richer in memories.

For each of them, I enjoyed reading the wall labels, with quotes from the artists. Wei has clearly solicited most of the statements just for Snug Harbor.

Artists clearly had choices, of works as well as words, again with surprises. I love the colorful paintings of David Reed, with sweeping gestures that look genuine and yet also as cool as an overblown color negative. I now could see his transition from color-field painting, in a black-and-white work dating from the 1970s. I admire Robert Mangold for his chalky arcs of paint that unsettle apparent right angles in the larger shapes. Here the arc and background color, both pitch black, announce a more sensual approach.

Half full and all mine

The unfettered variety also hides the exhibition's other, even heroic aims. Wei is up to something. I could see it in the artist statements. Overwhelmingly, they plead for abstract art as a personal matter. They ask only for a chance to explore gesture, light, color, and self-expression. I had to like Al Held's self-effacing optimism: "Abstraction is the glass that is always half full."

Oh, Thomas Nozkowski talks about "rigorous self-criticism," and Peter Halley repeats his demanding analogy of painterly geometry to prison cells. When Jennifer Bartlett catalogued the elements of abstraction, she ended up with a house and garden. Philip Taaffe could have been speaking for almost anyone else: "We don't need formal painting." Abstraction may or may not be alive, but critics such as Clement Greenberg or Michel Foucault definitely are dead, and these artists hardly miss them.

Like the artists, the paintings are not about to reflect too self-consciously on art's history. These abstractions make no ironic statements about postmodern culture. Images, words, and illusion are few and far between. No wonder hanging seems left to chance: installation is a dirty word here.

They also shun unusual, lush, or high-tech media. Gone are not just the inheritors of Andy Warhol and Yves Klein, but also most followers of Brice Marden or Robert Ryman.

Old and new dreams

The confusing layout sends a comforting message, but it also gets in the way. Yes, paintings get plenty of breathing space, with as few as three in a room. Yet the meaningless hanging and near-random juxtapositions deaden the impact. I took away most the strangeness of the building itself, not the strangeness of abstraction.

I felt as if I were breaking into an affair for insiders. Artists have to come, to see which of their friends make it and which do not. (The game is very tempting.) Others can easily shrug off the exhibition—and painting itself. The exhibition may well defeat its own purposes.

I left loving much of the art, but I could never resolve its place. Was I stranded in the past or lost in a dream of the future? On the ferry home, a spring rain had stopped, and Manhattan at last emerged hauntingly out of clouds and mists. It reminded me of those quiet effects I had seen—and what they too hid.

I thought again about those two museums uptown. The Biennial notoriously excluded the kind of art I had now seen. At the Guggenheim exactly a year earlier, a survey treated abstraction as a period piece. That show stopped precisely when Snug Harbor's begins. One would never know or understand from museums uptown the crucial interplay between postmodern art and the past. (No wonder a later show at Snug Harbor would focus on art as visions of childhood!)

I offered a hint, right at the start. Modernism depended on being a permanent revolution. Postmodernism is like a premature death notice as the patient slips into the unconscious. That interplay still makes art interesting. It is history's unconscious, but also as personal as one's very own.

In a different way, Snug Harbor loses the place of abstraction, too. The death of painting may not be such a bad thing, especially with so many good living abstract painters. Still, I had to question just how their reduced expectations measure up to the past and the future. The show's loss of connections may reflect shifts in the very meaning of abstraction over time. Or it could reflect the difficulty of forging any personal meaning these days.

I had to think of the implied split between abstraction and the art world, painted edges and the cutting edge. Museums have demanded that abstraction, to be relevant, get noisy and ironic, like Eric Magnuson's color as text. Otherwise, they relegate painting to diffuse notions of self-expression, just like the artist statements at Snug Harbor. Surely there used to be something in-between? Surely other shows will follow to make me just as happy and just as half-ashamed.

The best I can plead is for others to see this show. Step out of the art scene and into a room all to oneself. In its survey last year, the Guggenheim presented itself as the high temple of abstraction, not a bad place for a ritual. If painting is dead, however, this is the kind of funeral I want.

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"After the Fall: Abstract Painting Since 1970" ran through June 29, 1997, at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.


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