Born Again Abstraction: Jonathan Lasker at Greene Naftali
Jonathan Lasker, Born Yesterday: Drawing into Painting, 1987–2020 at Greene Naftali
September 10 to October 23, 2021
508 West 26th Street, Ground Floor, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, greenenaftaligallery.com
Abstract painting is having an awkward, teenager moment. Most recent major reviews have been dedicated to exciting figurative painters addressing incredibly topical issues. By contrast, abstraction appears as either a conservative appeal to art history or as a decorative alternative for those with high taste. Neither is true. Jonathan Lasker’s recent survey, Born Yesterday: Drawing into Painting, 1987-2020, at Greene Naftali, couldn’t therefore come at a better time. On view are some 16 paintings using a strict painting language to revisit the semiotics of abstraction. He does so with a kind of leery-eyed skepticism. The artist has famously claimed that he’s after subject matter, not abstraction. He casts a wide net in that department. Audiences will perceive Lasker’s interest in comics, Ghana rugs, flags, and heads, which all feature heavily. In these works, all manner of content gets folded into a strict pictorial framework of gesture, line and impasto. There are no accidents in Lasker paintings. He begins with a sketch in a 4-by-6-inch notebook, then makes a small oil study on cardstock, and eventually scales up for the finished painting. Artists famously make rules for themselves. Often the rules can produce diminishing returns. Not so in Lasker’s 40 years project which resonates as exploratory and challenging.
I would position him between the high modernist optimism of Robert Ryman and the dystopian postmodernism of Peter Halley. Using a consistent pictorial language, he avoids a singular motif, which is something he shares with Thomas Nozkowski. Background, middle ground, and foreground are interchangeable planes. By standardizing geometry, line and gesture he creates a taxonomy, a painting alphabet, fossilizing abstraction.
The Vagaries of Existence, (2002) is composed of a blue and red checkered pattern at bottom left against a white ground. Each rectangle is drawn in the artist’s signature looping scribble.. The checkerboard reads as convex and concave. Above sits a large black rectangle that hovers as it overlaps the checker pattern, while on the right, heavy, pink impasto reads as overlapping letters and numbers. Below sit four diamond forms, painted in the same fashion as the checker pattern. All of these read as floating icons that repeat, overlap and mirror one another. The painting is a master class in visual dichotomies: tactile/smooth, flat/concave, light/dark. It buzzes with a contained energy.
As the survey progresses, we see Lasker empty out his process, funneling his practice into something increasingly symbolic and graphic. White backgrounds feature heavily in the recent paintings to startling, graphic effect. In early works like Spiritual Etiquette, (1991) and Expressive Abstinence, (1989) the artist builds up the composition from pastel-coloredbackground . American Obscurity, (1987) is one of the more peculiar works in the show. Measuring 24 by 30 inches, it is a modest, yet crude version of what the artist eventually hones. Small, red rectangular forms repeat from left to right, top and bottom, forming successive lines and rows. Each form is then crossed out. Two impasto, yellow star forms mirror one another in the center of the painting. It is impossible not to read this as a provisional American flag missing its blue and stars. It is the closest thing we get to social commentary in Lasker.
In 1991, Sidney Janis Gallery in New York mounted “Conceptual Abstraction.” This landmark exhibition, curated by gallery artist Valerie Jaudon, helped revive abstract painting after a decadent period of expressive figuration, the so-called New Image Painting. The group was divorced from the ideals of high modernism, and instead infused abstraction with a heady, cerebral dimension. The exhibition lineup was impressive: Besides Lasker and Jaudon it included Ross Bleckner, David Diao, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Stephen Ellis, Halley, Mary Heilmann, Richard Kalina, Shirley Kaneda, Bill Komoski, Sherrie Levine, Nozkowski, David Reed, David Row, Peter Schuyff, Philip Taaffe, Stephen Westfall and John Zinsser. 30 years later, Greene Naftali’s survey of Lasker indicates the subsequent effect he has had on a younger generation. His influence can be traced in the paintings of Patrick Alston, Trudy Benson, Amy Feldman, Keltie Ferris, Egan Frantz and Laura Owens. A strong group. If influence counts as anything, it can be seen as the measure of one’s reach. Other attempts to situate Lasker’s work have proven less fruitful. Post-Analog Painting (2015) at The Hole, which also included the artist, was a facile attempt to reconstitute abstraction. The show largely saw the painterly hand as a deficit, with an awkward lineage of painters, culminating in facetious work by a younger generation now easily forgettable.
Many artists today seem to consider abstraction less as a discourse about what the boundaries of abstraction can be, and more as a stylistic mode to be chosen from among many. Born Yesterday reveals how one abstract painter continued to expand abstraction’s boundaries toward content and not to merely traffic in aesthetics for aesthetics sake. In theory, Lasker’s improvisation might have dead-ended in a staid-formalism, but instead it has the opposite effect. Everything feels entirely possible, a kind of Born Again abstraction.