Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Abstraction Goes Underground: The Painting Factory at LA MoCA

The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

April 29 to August 20, 2012
152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-6222

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with, center, Andy Warhol, Camouflage, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silk screen on canvas, 118 by 420 inches. Courtesy of The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT.
Installation shot of the exhibition under review with, center, Andy Warhol, Camouflage, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silk screen on canvas, 118 by 420 inches. Courtesy of The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT.

In reaction against Abstract Expressionism, Andy Warhol (and his fellow post-modernists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) inserted content into painting.

No wonder Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were so personally hostile towards him: they believed that he had killed abstraction. More exactly, since a silkscreen may have either a figurative or an abstract subject, Warhol undercut the distinction between figuration and abstraction. That said, some of his subjects – of which the shadows, Rorschachs, and camouflages in this exhibition are examples – look abstract. But as the title of the show indicates, it’s not Warhol’s subjects but his industrial-style techniques of art production which have been taken up by the abstract painters in this show. Hence Rudolf Stingel’s impersonally finished oils and enamels on canvas; Christopher Wool’s blotches—anti-forms made by photographing and printing his earlier paintings on an inflated scale; and Glenn Ligon’s surfaces composed of acrylic, silk screen and coal dust on canvas.  And Urs Fischer’s presentation of gesso, arcylics, silicone and screws on aluminum panels and Mark Bradford’s mixed media collages, influenced by graffiti, on canvas. Julie Mehretu presents monumental abstracted images of urban experience; Tauba Auerbach creates images of folds with acrylic on canvas; Wade Guyton prints inkjet images on linen; Kelley Walker does explosive-looking digital prints on canvas; Sterling Ruby sprays paint on canvas; and Das Institute (Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder) creates oil on paper constructions: then they extend this style of abstraction.

Most of the eleven American or US-based artists in this show don’t use brushes. They employ silk screens, electric sanders and industrial sprayers. And they mostly do non-gestural painting. (Seth Price and Josh Smith are the exception to that rule. I like their art but they don’t really belong here.)  It is Warhol’s loss of direct contact with the subject, rather than his occasional use of abstract subjects that makes him a potential source for abstract art. Such factory made abstraction has some affinities with Robert Ryman’s minimalism, but little connection with Brice Marden’s recent gestural painting, Ellsworth Kelly’s clean design or Sean Scully’s romanticism.

Christopher Wool, details to follow
Christopher Wool, details to follow

The essays in the usefully lavish catalogue are all over the map. There are proposals to link these artists to feminism or queer theory or accounts of race. But since just by looking it is hard to know that the paintings of Auerbach and Das Institute are by women, for instance, or that Ligon, Bradford and Mehrutu are of African origin makes this seem an unpromising approach. There are attempts to read these figures as political artists. When Goya, Manet and even Picasso painted political subjects, then surely their art was political. So was Warhol’s when he painted Jackie Kennedy and Electric Chairs. But contemporary abstraction resists politics. The desperate urge to make these paintings politically critical expresses the guilty conscience of art writers, who want to believe that praising art they, like me admire, is not merely to write at the service of the art market. But that hope is foredoomed, for it surely must occur to everyone that this is the ultimate capitalist art, arcane in its appeal, and so large that only grand collectors can afford to house it. The catalogue has many photographs of the artists’ enormous studios, which do look factory like.

Recently Jeffrey Deitch, LA MOCA director, has been under fire. Judging just by this brilliantly challenging show, which is highly adventuresome, those complaints are unjustified. MOCA has always puzzled me. In a city with intense natural sunlight, how perverse that this prominent museum is completely underground and so totally dependent upon artificial lighting. But it turned out to be the perfect venue for this exhibition of industrial scale art. Deitch and the curators have done something original and important. They have identified a challenging novel style of abstract painting and provided a genealogy linking it to Warhol’s art. What remains to be done, in my opinion, is to provide some account of the aesthetic pleasures of this art. Perhaps we should consider the ways in which the seemingly neutral or rebarbative structures of these pictures reconcile us to everyday post-modern industrial environments. How revealing that the most immediately accessible work is Rudolf Stingel’s wall to wall white carpets, which allow visitors to create an all-over work of art as they mark it while walking around viewing the paintings.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 1987. Oil and enamel on canvas, 78 by 186 inches. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery
click to enlarge