Signs of the Times

John Haber
in New York City

Art of Another Kind: Postwar Abstraction

Signs & Symbols: 2012 Summer Painting

More than fifteen years ago, the Guggenheim gave over the rotunda to its collection—and to abstraction. It was a plea for both. The twentieth century had a few more years to run, but for many the American century was over, and painting itself was dead. "Abstraction in the 20th Century" looked back, with a textbook history of mostly American art, all but ending in the 1960s. Yet it spoke in the present tense, about what matters and what does not. In its subtitle, "Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," it also had a moral for the future.

Now the living dead is wildly popular, and so is abstraction. The Guggenheim returns to it, but on an international stage, with "Art of Another Kind." The Whitney revisits its collection from the 1950s, too, as "Signs & Symbols." Painting is doing quite well, thank you, as in more than one summer group show in the galleries. It art is of another kind than before nonetheless. With its history and its symbols, it is a sign of the times. Sarah Cain's Balls to the Wall (Galerie Lelong, 2012)

Another kind of 1950s

Times sure have changed. Back then, the irony of the 1980s was wearing thin, while the worst bluster of collectors, art stars, and installations was still taking hold. Painters were working in the spirit of geometric abstraction, but in venues like Snug Harbor on Staten Island—and as exploration and experiment. I kept making fun of "painting is dead," and I thought of myself as an advocate of abstraction and theory. Still, I took on a review of "Abstraction in the 20th Century" the URL abstract.htm, as if I might never need the word again. I had entered another century.

Like this arts Web site, abstract painters have plenty of company now, and it gets hard to tell when they are painting and when they are abstract. Postmodernism may have set out to dismiss them but in practice made them simply harder to pin down. Revisionism as criticism has given way to revisionism as open-ended redefinition. And "Art of Another Kind" announces that change in its very title—after a 1952 book by a French critic, Michel Tapié. It also responds to an international scene, familiar today from its endless art fairs. In this sprawling market, who cares about taking risk, finding freedom, or needing discipline?

The Guggenheim again boasts of its role as collector. A sculpture by Alexander Calder hands down from the rotunda, like a presiding deity. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning appear, too, but now as one episode among many. The show presents a catalog of Western art movements that you may have forgotten how to tell apart, names like Tachisme, Art Brut, Cobra, and Arte Povera along with Action Painting. As the names suggest, they share an emphasis on gesture, materialism, accumulation, and destruction. They project a sedate elegance as well.

The avoidance of a formalist story line allows Lucio Fontana or Alberto Burri literally to tear into canvas without leaving a mess. It lets Antoni Tàpies choose coarse burlap and sand. Yet it lends even brutalism a mannered artiness. Where in 1996 the story ended with Eva Hesse, here it includes Robert Rauschenberg—but with a surface of rough red and gold. Other American art includes Herbert Ferber's or Theodore Roszak's crusty welding and James Brooks's dark, layered color. Jackson Pollock could be giving the entire show a name with Ocean Grayness.

Somehow, abstraction has scaled back its ambitions. It moves smoothly out of the wing for Wassily Kandinsky, for continuity with modern art's past. It leaves the tower galleries to a photographer—and another world traveler at that, Rineke Dijkstra. Grace Hartigan fits with the house style, but sixteen years has not led to more women—and there were only two back then. Fontana and Piero Manzoni do not explicitly lead to the scene-conscious turn of Alighiero Boetti, but neither do they allow his or American art's flirtation with politics. The center has merely shifted a bit, from Abstract Expressionist New York and the American century to Europe, but without an elegy to the Spanish Republic.

The 1996 show made an awkward statement, for all its marvels. Abstraction as a theme was both too broad and too cautious. So it seems again. If anything, the break from the 1960s is stronger than ever, although an early work by Ellsworth Kelly comes as a surprise. By definition, art of another kind never loses its otherness. And, alas, that means other than the present.

The mark of American painting

"Before a painting is anything else . . . it is, first and foremost, a blank surface covered with colours in varying patterns." It is, in other words, a set of marks—but marks of what? With "Inventing Abstraction" coming up at MoMA, the Whitney offers its own revisionist view of abstraction and its collection, as "Signs & Symbols." Adolph Gottlieb even gave a name to the space between image and writing, pictographs. That ambivalence helps explain why, in the end, Abstract Expressionism could not settle for them. It also helps explain why they are so hard to read.

The quote, attributed to J. A. M. Whistler (and surprisingly hard to confirm), has come to typify "art for art's sake," but it allows a certain ambiguity, too. Whistler kept insisting that, when he called a work an "arrangement" or "nocturne," he meant exactly that and no more. Still, his definition could point to painting as decoration, as formalism, as optical experiment, as the artist's gesture and mood, as a break with the given, as a refusal of verbal meaning, or as sign. All those ideals took on new life in the 1940s, as American art found its way from Cubism and Surrealism to a space of its own. David Smith gave them a name as well, as "drawing in space."

Gottlieb greets one on the way in, with the signs at their most representational. They look like eyes, birds, masks, and maybe a young artist's sly grins. He seems to want something more universal and transcendent than a picture from life, and he has a fondness for titles with an air of existential crisis, like that Vigil from 1948. At the same time, he wants something flat, plain, concrete, and in real time. It is no accident that Europe's appeal to "the primitive" finds a new form in America. A lesser-known painter, Steve Wheeler, makes the connection to Amerind writing and culture explicit.

The Whitney has embarked on six theme shows from the collection, as in "Real/Surreal" and "Sinister Pop." Each time, it is shaking things up. Here art of the 1950s comes filtered through Joan Miró, but also through students of language today for whom everything is text. It makes the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois or Louise Nevelson more a part of their time, and it adds other women, such as Dorothy Denner and Alice Trumbell Mason. It revisits the more tormented visions of Forest Bess, as in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. It finds a young Robert Smithson hiding behind a mask.

It connects Abstract Expressionism to earlier expressionism—with George Grosz, who paints himself chained at the neck to his brush while punching holes in canvas after canvas. It subsumes urban life, in Aaron Siskind's photographs of peeling and shadow or Helen Levitt's of graffiti. It shows the roots of a Barnett Newman vertical "zip" in the human form. It makes the two sides of Ad Reinhardt, as painter and cartoonist, less at odds. It ends the story with a white target by Jasper Johns. This makes no sense, for Johns refuses abstraction or symbolism, but maybe that is why it ends the story.

Still, it is none too convincing—and, for a display of the collection, sadly spare. Pollock, who began with the human form, turns up only in a few sketches and Willem de Kooning not at all. The show has its textbook names, including Bradley Walker Tomlin and Mark Tobey. It has rich colors and caked marks from Alfred Jensen and Richard Pousette-Dart. Still, their narrow construction of signs and symbols has something to do with the limits of their art. A painting is not a mark before anything else, because to see it as a mark is a choice of how to see it as a painting. Then again, Whistler taught the next century how to see.

Abstraction on holiday

If art is the imagination on holiday, what are summer group shows? Predictable, no doubt, like most guilty pleasures. They can try out a theme, for future use. They can do some good, like a fund raiser for Bard College at Luhring Augustine, which also allows artists to encroach on one another's space. Mark Handforth's Blue Hanger, the wire kind but aluminum and gigantic, frames the narrow orange "carpet" that Rachel Harrison has made access to her creative throne. If her painted concrete and Styrofoam, in turn, perches unsteadily atop a trash can, all the better.

They can eye the state of the art—like galleries last year, many of which tried to explain the vitality of abstraction, or this year, when several asked about Minimalism, trash, and the everyday. With enough luck, they can capture a trend. They can bring out the gallery's stable, with a nice fillip that asks how its artists got started. For Jill Moser or Mary Lucier, I still remember them that way. In all these ways, summer is a time to look back. You can read fall previews later, at the beach.

Summer shows rarely make much of a statement, since collectors and critics may not be listening. Yet every so often they say something beautiful. Two galleries share the space of abstraction, seen as definitely 3D. They confuse media, like photographs and paintings or photography and trompe l'oeil, and genres, like abstraction and representation. Up to a point, they can hardly help it. Mostly, though, they treat paintings as objects to be cut up and reassembled. Formalism is back, only the form has gotten way, way out of hand.

"Image Object," at Foxy Production, got an early start with just four artists. Amy Longacre-White does use photography, grainy at that, while Kate Steciw starts with found images. Artie Vierkant displays gloves and color swaths along with his airbrushing, while Travess Smalley makes sculpture the old-fashioned way, with modeling clay. Both Longacre-White and Smalley then put the results through a scanner. Yet they achieve their optical activity less from printing than from collage—which for Steciw can simulate wire sculpture. Vierkant's chair back looks like nothing so much as shaped canvas by Ellsworth Kelly.

"Stretching Painting," at Galerie Lelong, sticks more closely to painting. When it does not, as with ceramics by James Hyde or crushed, fluid reliefs by Hilary Harnischfeger, one is dealing with experienced painters, and it shows. These artists have indulged in stretchers, and even their collage draws on painted fabric. Gabriel Pionkowski paints individual threads, and the resulting weave may sag like a cage by Sean Scully vulnerable to gravity. Patrick Brennan and Lauren Luloff work big and messy, the latter on bedding—with a painted pillow. Donald Moffett's pipes hold textured squares off the wall, like painting in one's face.

Kate Shepherd mounts her silvery stained wood on a shelf, like tiles. Alex Kwartier applies paint to plaster as it dries, for larger panels, again leaning against the wall. Their color, uniformity, and scale owe something to Claude Monet at Giverny. Sarah Cain with her cut circles clips away from the picture plane. And her smaller rectangle, its diagonals mounted at the upper left of a larger one, displaces the stars and stripes. It could be an early look back at Jasper Johns, the Fourth of July, and summer.

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"Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction, 1949–1960" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 12, 2012, "Signs & Symbols" at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 28. Summer group shows cited ran at Luhring Augustine and Lennon, Weinberg through August 17, 2012, at Foxy Production through July 20, and at Galerie Lelong through August 3. I return to summer group shows in several years including their baggy themes in 2013 and more concise ones in 2017 summer group shows.


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