Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Sentimental Education: Abstract Painting in the 1980s

Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s at Cheim & Read

June 27 to August 30, 2013
547 West 25th Street
New York City, (212) 242-7727

Mary Heilmann, Rio Nido, 1987, acrylic and oil on canvas, 39 x 58 inches. © Mary Heilmann. Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery.
Mary Heilmann, Rio Nido, 1987, acrylic and oil on canvas, 39 x 58 inches. © Mary Heilmann. Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery.

Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s, a ruggedly alive exhibition organized by poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, presents fifteen artists who were in their prime during that decade. By focusing on the physical reality of the artworks, and the social reality of this specific group of artists, the exhibition escapes the trap of misty-eyed nostalgia or explicit revisionism. In his catalog essay, Rubinstein discusses the show as a way to disengage the story of abstract painting from the bottom-line narratives that are seen as the “official account” of the decade, in particular the advent of celebrity-styled painters, and the dominance of Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Geo, two labels that had more to do with marketing than with painted content. Instead, he offers the phrase “impure abstraction,” a hybrid mode of working between abstraction and figuration, to flesh out a portrait of a painting culture that was not as beholden to the one-critic model of analysis that effected the previous generation in the wake of Abstract Expressionism.

Reinventing Abstraction is more concerned with the transition of painting cultures and the accruing of historical knowledge than it is with the particulars of the decadent decade itself. The back-story to the 1980s begins with the social radicalism of the 1960s, when the majority of the exhibition’s included artists were in school, and continues through the 1970s when they were fully experimenting with their practice in an art world that had largely turned away from painting in favor of the dematerialization of the art object. The off-the-stretcher abstraction being made in the ‘60s and ‘70s had its own moment in the sun with High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, an exhibition organized by Katie Siegel and David Reed, which Rubinstein acknowledges as a guiding spirit for his own show.

A feeling of disengagement from the immediate past manifests itself visually in many of the works on view. It is as if an invisible pane of glass were mounted on top of the canvas to emotionally cool off the fast and loose painted gesture. Jonathan Lasker’s Double Play (1987), a painting in elegant quotation marks, has all its ingredients diagrammed to perfection: a rich brown backdrop, radiating pink bars, and an area of gooey cross-hatched “painting” splashed up against the surface. David Reed’s No. 230 (For Beccafumi) (1985-6) is a vertical monument to the paint stroke, showing off a translucent-matte finish that is as sharp and slick as a silkscreen. In both works these artists are making visible the idea of painting as a compositional force sans the hot-headedness of late night studio labor. Similarly, Mary Heilmann’s exuberant Rio Nido (1987) is a play between foreground and background, between the painting as whole and the painting as parts. Blue, magenta, red, green, and yellow marks set against black are read as shot holes dripping paint, a remnant of an action, and the painting exists as the evidence.

Gary Stephan, Untitled (#45418), 1985-88, acrylic on canvas, 40 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches. Courtesy The Maslow Collection.
Gary Stephan, Untitled (#45418), 1985-88, acrylic on canvas, 40 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches. Courtesy The Maslow Collection.

Carroll Dunham’s Horizontal Bands (1982-83), is a Surrealism-inflected painting on pine board composed of alternating stripes of graphically rendered root vegetables, allowing one to see his trademark phalluses just over the horizon. The tentative nature of this early painting reads more as a private sketch than as a full-blown work, a proposition of fresh beginnings that charges many of the paintings on view. Bill Jensen’s The Tempest (1980-81), a dimensional portrait of a star-like figure, is thickly celestial, like a corner blow-up of a Van Gogh. Gary Stephan’s unromantically titled Untitled (#45418) (1988) is the most overtly mysterious work in the gallery, an image of a dusk-lit landscape divided in half by a biomorphic form that eclipses day into night.

What’s striking about several of the paintings in Reinventing Abstraction is their wall-dominating size. It’s a scale that brings to mind 18th-century history painting as easily as Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), and speaks of financial resources and passion to burn. The lavish variety of surface textures and oil paint mixed with other media makes today’s abstract paintings seem especially anemic when it comes to materials and scale. Even the smallest work in the show, Thomas Nozkowski’s Untitled (630) (1988), radiates a deeply felt engagement with the largess of history and psychic space.

In comparison to the work on view in High Times Hard Times, the majority of artists in Reinventing Abstraction make their radical choices within the framed space of the traditional rectangle, putting an exquisite pressure on the pictorial possibilities of abstraction. A notable exception is Elizabeth Murray’s Sentimental Education (1982), a painting of conjoined parts whose scale and rapturous energy speak to the colossal task of painting as both action and object. For all its obvious labor of construction, the work epitomizes the fun aspects of high Modernism.  Her oil on canvas appears as malleable as a Play-Doh construction of cobalt colors and finely drawn zig-zags. In this painting, and indeed her entire body of work, Murray epitomizes the transcendent grace of the art student as grand master.

The paintings in Reinventing Abstractions are all un-mistakenly the work of grown-up artists coming to terms with inherited values while finding new rhythms with which to move abstraction forward. In this sense, the art could be seen as a visual complement to Paul Simon’s album Graceland (1986), a portrait of the decade in which commercial entertainment culture solidified its hold on American society, while also letting in the dreamy, fluent potential of Postmodernism as a way to break free from Modernism’s flight of progress. As a citizen of a tightly sealed, pluralist art world it can be easy to long for this not too distant past. It is important to fight this backward glance, and instead to ask, what does remain? I can think of a few things: the factuality of paint, the presence of art history and mentors, and the still shocking ability of a new abstract painting to dismantle the fiction of linear time, if only for a minute or two.

Elizabeth Murray, Sentimental Education,1982, oil on canvas, 127 x 96 inches. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
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Jonathan Lasker, Double Play, 1987, oil on linen, 76 x 100 inches. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
click to enlarge