In the 1980s, when painting was commonly said to be dead, many group shows were devoted to abstraction. Although some individual artists emerged—Sean Scully was the best—none of these exhibitions had much effect. But even when Dave Hickey and the philosopher Alexander Nehamas proclaimed that beauty was back, abstraction still was marginalized. The interests of the art world had shifted. Bob Nickas’s book takes up this story, without much concern for the longer-range perspective. “Paintings that are clearly made from the point of view that abstraction is always in a sense an assisted readymade” he says at the start, “can be seen to reanimate rather than recapitulate the histories of both abstraction and the readymade” (p. 5). He doesn’t develop that suggestive claim. What concerns him is not the pioneering abstractions of Kandinsky and Malevich, reproduced in black and white in the introduction, but eighty contemporary painters, some senior, but many younger, mostly relatively obscure figures (Robert Mangold, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman are not in the book) who paint abstractly.
“Maybe,” Nickas suggests, “abstract painting has become a form of imaginative fiction” (p. 7). An interesting idea, but what exactly does that mean? After all, Poussin, too, painted imaginative fictions. When he describes Philip Taaffe’s appropriation of Bridget Riley’s Cataract 3 (1967), as “more of a refraction . . . rather than a mirroring of the earlier painting” (p. 10) he doesn’t take analysis very far. His categories, Hybrid Pictures; Rhythm and Opticality; Color and Structure; Found/Eccentric Abstraction; Form, Space, and Scale; and The Act of Painting serve to organize chapters containing elegant commentaries on studio visits. Judging by the accounts of the few figures I know, Ruth Root, Alan Uglow and R. H. Quaytman his analysis is reliable. Nickas is very good at doing a difficult job, summarizing briefly an artist’s career. And the publisher has generously supported him, providing marvelous color plates. But because the commentaries are relatively brief, inevitably the images overwhelm his text.
Once Clement Greenberg’s genealogy of Jackson Pollock leading to Morris Louis collapsed, it seemed that abstraction was merely one genre of art, and perhaps not the most important one. The problem in my opinion is that an account of contemporary abstract painting needs a theoretical framework replacing Greenberg’s. Otherwise it is just a laundry list of artists whose relationship to each other and the history of art is unexplained. What, is “Hybrid Pictures” is the connection between Wayne Gonzales’s paintings, based upon crowd scenes; Elizabeth Neel’s images, which are appropriated from the internet; and Chris Vasell’s paintings with eyes? Going on to “Rhythm and Opticality,” I like Karin Davie’s loops; Xylor Jane’s playful uses of geometry; David Malek’s forceful expanding grids; and James Siena’s elegant plays with “orgiastic abstraction” (p 96). And it’s marvelous to see Philip Taaffe’s recent decorative pictures, which draw on his library images of plants. But Nickas doesn’t explain how these very diverse figures are connected. When he links Ruth Root, whom I admire, to Gordon Matta-Clark, Lee Bontecou, Ellsworth Kely, Le Corbusier, Dorothea Tanning, African-American quilts, Sonia Delaunay and Allan McCollum then it seems obvious that Nickas is imprisoned, as it were, in a slide library. “Her paintings can be seen to have a comic, deadpan personality that is as serious as it is irreverent” (p. 164). How these extremely various influences yield that result is not explained. “As abstract as (Julie) Mehretu’s paintings are,” he writes, “they are meant to represent, or have come to represent . . . individuals and groups caught in violent conflict and upheaval . . . global economies, advertising, markets, and their relation to power and control . . .” (p. 258). Here we find some hint of the dilemmas posed by her much-discussed mural for Goldman, Sachs. But just as Nickas doesn’t offer a developed historical perspective, so he doesn’t deal at all with the old, still relevant question: What are the politics of abstraction? Greenberg’s enemies said that Louis and the other color field painters were merely producing plush decorations. Nickas doesn’t give any reason to think that his abstractionists are doing anything more. He tells the story of Olivier Mossel, who recently made spray paintings in Beijing employing “local car painters, who, to his amusement, saw no real difference between painting a car and a canvas” (p. 266). Were they missing anything? Christopher’s Wool’s paintings, he writes “are about one thing, and one thing alone: they are about painting” (p. 336). One would hardly know that Thomas Crow has written interestingly about Wool’s politics.
Painting Abstraction, a lucid, well-illustrated account, performs one real service. By gathering useful information, it opens the way for a commentator who would discuss the relationship of contemporary abstraction to the grand tradition of Abstract Expressionism. Such a book would need to explain how the great minimalist painters, Mangold and Ryman, and the most significant figures of the next generation wrestled with the pop artists and, in the 1980s how abstraction had to combat the postmodernists. And it would need to discuss sculpture, for you cannot understand abstract painting today without dealing with Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Jessica Stockholder. In 1964 Clement Greenberg curated “Post Painterly Abstraction.” “A new episode in the evolution of tasteis what I have tried to document,” he wrote in the catalogue. The show was a failure, for no one was convinced that Walter Darby Bannard, George Bireline, Jack Bush and the many other painters displayed were Jackson Pollock’s successors. Nickas’s book is “Post Painterly Abstraction” writ large.
Bob Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. London: Phaidon, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7148-4933-1, 352 pages, $75print