Monday, 25 May 2009

Abstract America, Saatchi Gallery, London - The Independent, London

There are two kinds of art. One has to do with looking at the world outside of us – the human form in all its horror and all its beauty; the terrible turbulence of nature. The second kind closes its eyes and responds to the world non-representationally. We call this second category, very loosely, abstract art, and it has been with us for thousands of years. Abstract art was in at the very beginning of sign-making. Abstract art was a way of expressing reverence for that which was unpicturable – the idea of the eternal, for example. 

To see some fine examples of this second group, open up – very gingerly, lest it fall apart - your dog-eared copy of The Story of Art, a classic text by the late Sir Ernst Gombrich which was first published more than half a century ago, and is still in print to this day, and quite deservedly so. Here are two or three fine examples of abstract art from that book: a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from the seventh century; the carved lintel which once belonged to the house of a Maori chieftain; and Frater Ruffilus’s writing of the letter ‘R’, from an early thirteenth century manuscript. As these various examples make abundantly clear, there are many different kinds of abstraction. Some have their toe in the world – they seem, in part, to be abstracted representations of organic forms such as flowers and leaves; other examples – think of the long history of Islamic art, for example – look like pure patterning of a much more cerebral kind, more akin to mathematics than anything else.

   This week a new show at the Saatchi Gallery in London will throw a spotlight on yet another manifestation of abstract art, and this one will consist of a group show of work – paintings and sculptures - by young artists from America who are responding to a form of abstraction that was invented there in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

   The story goes something like this. After the Second World War, dear old Paris, art capital of the Western world for almost as long as the ideas of taste, luxury and sexy connoisseurship had been in currency, suddenly lost the right to call itself the guardian of the newest of the new in art. Tired in spirit, humiliated by occupation, and with many of the artists and dealers either dead or fled, the torch, by the beginning of, say, the 1950s seemed to have passed to New York, where a group of individuals loosely labeled the Abstract Expressionists were beginning to make very loud claims for themselves. And, even more important, were beginning to have very loud claims made on their behalf. What was everyone shouting about?

   Abstract Expressionism was, in part about spontaneity, lavish painterly gesture, the freeing up of the native American spirit.  In common with the ambitions of Surrealism, it was an attempt to set free the creativity that was locked inside every human mind. The various artists associated with this group included  Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. In fact, they were making two quite different kinds of abstract art. One kind seems more like frenzied calligraphy, often on a giant scale. Pollock was the man whose spirit seemed to embody this first idea of Abstract Expressionism. He laid his canvases on the floor, poured paint directly on to them, and then danced around for as long as it took. It was pure, wild, colourful and undeniably expressive, from first to last. Pollock was America’s first Action Man. The plastic toys came limping after.

   Anyone who wishes to experience what feels like a quite different variety of Abstract Expressionsm should spend a few hours wandering around the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, where some of the best known and most frequently reproduced images by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and others are often on display. This group of painters were making abstract marks in a very particular, if not narrow, way. This is soulful stuff too, but this variety of soulfulness is earnestly inward-looking, spiritually self-searching, myth-making, more inclined towards the quietly contemplative. There’s no whooping and shrieking here. In fact, some of these painters – not all by any means – make us feel as if their souls had been shriven by exposure to some terrible desert over a period well in excess of forty days. Their art is extremely severe and unyielding and unsmiling. We are suffering, it seems to say. Our work is being extruded from us with the utmost pain. We have reached down to the core, it intones gloomily, and it is hard and cold and lonely down here. These artists often work on a giant scale: tremendous, gaunt slashings and shiverings of black against white. Yes, many of them do not do colour – well, barely. They do not do exuberance either. They do not do frivolity or popular entertainment of any kind. They do not do the outside world, not at all. Any resemblance between what you see in their paintings and the living or the dead seems purely accidental. They do not welcome you in to their circle; in fact, that circle seems to be enclosed by an electrified fence. They say to you: life is an extremely severe discipline. Approach it – and us – with a respectful degree of wariness. We are the pitiless masters of an almost overbearing austerity. Embrace us at your peril.

   Yep, an afternoon spent down at the Hirshhorn can leave you feeling rather dry-mouthed, spent, and even chastened.

   And then, from the early 1960s onwards, came a second wave of abstract painters and sculptors, which included Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and Donald Judd. This second group were dubbed Minimalists by various enterprising art commentators, ever ready to neaten up and categorise the daily, pell-mell flux of things. The Minimalists lightened things up a little, but not too much. Here are some of what you might loosely call minimalist ‘doctrines’: be truthful to the materials you are using. Do as little as possible with what you are given. Change it barely at all. Be as anonymous as possible. Pretend to be a maker of something that could just as easily get made on the factory floor. Don’t make loud claims for yourself as that maker. Keep it pure, simple, true. Don’t try to imitate anything else. Matter may be sufficient unto itself. Dress and look like a blue-collar worker.

   Carl Andre has that image to this day: he habitually wears the blue overalls of the honest artisan, this blighted man whose honest-john appearance is marred only by the fact that he may or may not have murdered his wife some years ago (he was finally acquitted). ‘Well, you see I’m a matterist really, not a minimalist. I didn’t invent that word.’ That’s what Carl Andre once said to me when I asked him why he did so little to the materials he used – he just organises them when he gets to a gallery. He has no studio of his own. He’s an itinerant. So if it happens to be bricks, and there’s a floor, that it’s, folks…

   Now it is within the context of this almost surprisingly complicated, and almost self-contradictory, mixture, of self-abnegation and self-celebration within the various strands of post-war American abstraction that we need to view this new generation of young American artists. And, yes, they are doing abstraction all right, just like their artistic forefathers before them, but the spirit and the feel of this work could not be more different from what was happening in New York and elsewhere from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Is it correct then to call these young artists heirs to all those who went before? Well, it’s both true and misleading in just about equal measure. These new ones have been touched by influences unavailable to their predecessors, the most significant of which is cyberspace, whose manifold seductions we can fall a prey to at any time of the day or night, and where we can be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Cyberspace turns life into a non-stop collage of fleeting impressions, and the spirit and the intrusive cacophony of cyberspace spreads like a seeping red stain in a white linen suit through all this work.

   Non-stop. That is a very important idea for these young artists. If you listened in on their conversational buzz, you would probably hear something like this. Well, yes, this is something I’ve made, but it could just as easily be something else, and it may well become so in due course. I call myself a painter now, but the fact is that I’m a multi-media guy/gal of whatever I choose to make, and what I choose to make it out of is what happens to become available to me when I start sniffing around here, there and everywhere…

   This feels like work which is gloriously impure, and polluted by the world that surrounds it. It’s a kind of snatch-it-from-here-there-and-everywhere kind of work. Artists are natural scavengers – they always have been – but these artists are experts at it. This work contains elements of story-telling, something that would have been anathema to the Abstract Impressionists, who wanted to purge art of the superficiality of narrative in order to get to the very essence of stark sign-making. This is an art which has the capacity to laugh at itself and the art world of which it is a part. It feels looser and freer and, well, funnier too. It makes time for casualness and superficiality because life in part consists of those things. It does not feel sufficient unto itself.

   Which brings us to another interesting issue which is seldom talked about by either art critics or artists because it is a very awkward one. It is, however, very pertinent to this show. What are you supposed to be thinking about when you look at an abstract painting? This is somewhat akin to the question: what are you supposed to be thinking about when you are listening to classical music? I once put the first of these two questions to the celebrated American abstract painter Brice Marden when we were staring together at a particularly gorgeous sequence of looping the loops. He laughed, slightly uncomfortably, and told me that he often thought about his daughters. Was he confessing to some kind of act of self-betrayal? But how do you think about patterning which, to some degree, seems to relate only to itself? How long does it take before you start thinking about your daughters?

   The fact is that in this new show over at the Saatchi Gallery you are actively being encouraged to think about the fact that what you are looking at is out in the world because it is so often referring to what happens in the world, whether that be art making, commerce or popular entertainment. Sometimes it is a mixture of all three. A new pact seems to have been established here, whose terms are as follows: we are makers of abstraction in the American manner, but what that means has been changed irreversibly by what has happened in the world outside of us. We are no longer the monks of yesteryear. Nor are we the showmen. Nor do we feel reverential towards the materials that we use. There is no such thing as a material which is either appropriate or inappropriate. Everything is grist to our mill. We, the youthful scavengers of our frenzied world, are proclaiming a new doctrine: our art is constrained by what we choose to do. All ages are present to us. We make of it what we will, when we will, as we will.





Kristin Baker makes works which seems to embody the thrill and the dash of the passing moment. She uses industrial materials, and she often looks as if she is engaged in sign-painting. ‘Excide Batteries Beer a Sphere’ (2003) is a typical piece of work – a rich, onrushing mix of media spectacle executed with a fine painterly flourish.


Matt Johnson

If you thought you knew what to expect from a piece of origami, you had not reckoned on the playfulness of Matt Johnson in a work entitled ‘The Piano’. Johnson has taken a giant piece of tarpaulin, folded it into the form of a pianist sitting, arms raised, at a grand pian, fin menacingly raised, and coloured it an exhilarating, Yves Klein Blue.

Elizabeth Neel

Neel’s work is a refined take on carnality and ferocity. The bloody, torn carcass of an animal falls away from a tree in a shattered, blood-soaked blur, having just been blasted by hunters to eternity. But the palette she uses is so luscious and seductive.

Ryan Johnson’s sculptures are made from a riotous cast of materials: casting tape, glass, plywood, cement, cardbosrd, spray paint. He makes comically grotesque walking or leaning figures, pathetic veterans of life or war – both? - with gouty feet and legs blown off. Political cometnary? You bet.

Chris Martin is the point at which outsider art meets formalism. His paintings consist of blobs, dots, lines joined-together like constellations, and all painted with a kind of gloopy innocence and crudity. It looks a bit like a physics text book which is being read upside down and then used as a child’s colouring-in book.

Mark Grotjahn

Mark Grotjahn paints recessive linear perspectives in colours which remind you of Cubist experimentation from one hundred years ago -  geometric forms, with very thin lines, and closely worked in coloured pencil.

Dan Walsh is a natural heir to the grid-making of the Minimalists, though with a much quirkier touch. In ‘Red Diptych II’, two large-scale paintings hang side by side. One consists of solid blocks, the other of concentric tiles. As you look from one to the other, one seems to recede as the other advances towards you.

Bart Esposito's geometric paintings seem to be a mixture of curvaceous graphic design and pop art. The colours are groovy browns and oranges. The forms twist and twist impossibly, smooth as gum.

Amy Sillman’s work is as close as any of these young artists gets to the contemplative manner of some of the Abstract Expressionists. Rich, colourful, with shapes that seem to be dissolving into other shapes even as we look at them, they feel weightless and fragmentary.

Aaron Young’s work often seems to begin in Pollock-like scribblings –except that the marks on ‘Greeting Card 10a’ have been made by motorbikes roaring back and forth across the canvas. Pollock would surely have approved.




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