An exhibition of contemporary abstraction at the Standpoint Gallery sponsored by abstract critical. 2/3 – 31/3. Contains work Andrew Bick, Biggs & Collings, Katrina Blannin, Hazel Chalk, Ben Cove, Stewart Geddes, Dan Hays, Vanessa Jackson, Roger Kelly, Caroline List, Gina Medcalf, Alex Gene Morrison, Carol Robertson, James Ryan, Francesca Simon, Daniel Sturgis, Trevor Sutton.
“Ha Ha What Does This Represent?” is a group exhibition featuring the work of eighteen contemporary British painters, and takes its title from a satirical cartoon by Ad Reinhardt made in the 1940s. A common theme present in the exhibited work, in the broadest sense, is commitment to abstract or non-representational work in some form or another. The fact that painting today, as a practice, feels as vibrant an activity as it does – despite the increasingly spectacular nature of contemporary art with its sensational, inclusive and participatory agendas- is remarkable enough. But add the lure that abstraction continues to hold for so many contemporary painters, and we can discover its sustaining fecundity as a set of mutating traditions, discursive sites and historical syntheses.
In the present context, most of the work included is marked by an engagement with geometric structures, subdued gestures, colour, and a deep-rooted concern with the processes of making or constructing. Such a list may well be as banal as describing the conditions for a piece of music, say, an E Flat major scale, a quartet of stringed instruments, a schema of tonal modulations etc., without mentioning the composition itself (or for that matter what a Beethoven, Schubert or Debussy might do with this same shared material). However, it does highlight the neutral or neutralizing elements that can inscribe working towards abstraction. This is perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of any approach to abstraction: its relationship with a form of labour in order to particularize its forms. In this sense abstract painting does not refer to an immediate style or a given type of image (anyone can illustrate an abstract painting…), but more a work upon, or with, these neutral elements to create something both singular and articulate in some form. Nor does this demarcate some differentiation between a sense of ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ painting. There are many routes towards abstraction within this daily labour upon its forms – from the highly indeterminate to pre-meditated, pre-fabricated or even appropriational directions. This is another reason why the processes and methods of making are closely and semantically tied within abstract painting. Often the work may grow purely out of these working processes, from ‘nothing’ in particular, or breaking a received image down by means of deconstruction and in doing so allowing the means to take precedence over the reception of the image’s original source.
Interestingly, it is with the rise of abstraction in the early years of the last century that, albeit highly symbolically, the artist became ‘divorced’ from nature, or was seen to internalize its means. This is the viewpoint put forward by Wilhelm Worringer in his doctoral thesis written over 100 years ago, ushering in an alternative to ‘empathy theory’, which had dominated aesthetics and theories of beauty toward the end of the 19th century. Abstraction, for Worringer, had marked each of those cultures for which empathy theory proved all but useless: the Byzantine icons, the entire Islamic tradition, and the artefacts of Africa. These artifacts represented the opposite pole of the creation of any naturalistic unity of space (as in classical Greek decorative landscape painting, which created, according to this argument, a situation of empathy with the organic reality of nature within the viewer), but on the contrary realized, “The possibility of taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of eternalising it by approximation to abstract forms, and in this manner, of finding a point of tranquility and a refuge from appearances.” i
In pictorial terms this means a suppression of representational space, and an invocation of the self-referentiality and ‘absoluteness’ of geometrical forms. Worringer’s essay, published in 1908, was in many ways a defence of expressionism (synonymous then with most earlier modernist forms) – it predates abstract painting in fact. And yet, it is not such a great leap to Mondrian’s theories and procedures. As it stands Worringer could be said to have laid the groundwork for a modernist theory of non-representational work and also its means – geometric form and flatness. But more than this: he articulates the germination of long-standing arguments around content, universalism, or the place of the ornamental, the decorative, etc., and also highlights the fact that abstraction is not just a modernist idea, but an interwoven discourse that cuts across both temporal and geographic limits. As Hubert Damisch points out;
Even from a strictly historical point of view, no matter whether the historical perspective turns into narrative as such, we would have to agree that the problematic of abstraction, considered as an operative mode or as a thought process, totally surpasses the restricted area allowed to abstract art in the program of modernity, to say nothing of the temporal as well as the conceptual limits, thus relegating it to the status of a “genre.” Abstraction, in the broader sense, is something that goes upstream far beyond the medieval period and the so-called dispute of “universals,” up to what is conventionally regarded as the Greek origins of Western thought, which by the way coincide with the origin Geometry.ii
Abstraction, as Damisch rightly distinguishes, is a mode of operation that lies outside of any notion of ‘abstract art.’ It has touched almost all disciplines and human activities, “from the most elementary forms of measurement and calculation to the most ethereal mathematics and from logic and philosophy to the natural sciences.”iii Why then, it must be asked, was abstraction in the visual arts seen as such a disruption, ‘a quarrel’ as Damisch puts it? Partly because it was seen as ‘unnatural’, as a turning away from nature, outwardly at least (this is strong in early theorists such as Worringer or Herman Bahr), which for so long had been the touchstone for art and notions of beauty. It still does not explain the vehemence with which abstract art was met, again, as Damisch comments;
How are we to understand the fact that painterly abstraction was made the object of such fervor among its practitioners and in response, awakened such strong resistances, sustaining so much hatred? To the point if being denounced by the Nazis as ‘Jewish’ and assuming a central place in the catalog of the art vilified as ‘degenerate’; or, in the United States characterized as ‘un-American’ with some rashly speaking of at as Ellis Island Art? Iv
Reinhardt’s cartoon that prefaces this exhibition reflects these drawn battle lines. Dating from around 1945 it impatiently deals with the depicted beholder’s mocking bewilderment of expecting a painting to be ‘of something’. Ridicule was common for the reception of abstract art for this very reason, suggesting either incompetence or evasion. The painting in the image, which springs to life mirroring the accusatory gesture of the mocking viewer, is not unlike one of Reinhardt’s own from this period, with a freely calligraphic and yet constructive turn to its design. This viewer is a typical New York petit bourgeois, a company employee maybe, ‘The man in the street’ – or Wilhelm Reich’s ‘little man’: too quick to mock that which steps outside his ideas of ‘normality.’v Most of Reinhardt’s cartoons were published for PM, a left- wing newspaper with contributions from him up until 1947, including most famously the “How to Look” series; many of these cartoons, including “Ha Ha What Does This Represent?”, act as a foil for Reinhardt’s other writings and lectures. At the time, he was formulating a distinction between a picture, which, “has some subject matter, tells some story,” contrasting this with a painting, which, for him, was synonymous with ‘pure’ or abstract painting;
Because it is universal, unhistorical, and independent of everyday existence doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any meaning. […] It is more difficult to write or talk about abstract painting than about any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story, but in the actual painting activity. Consequently, anyone not actively involved in line, colour, and space structures will find abstract painting difficult to understand, naturally .vi
Reinhardt was acute to the split, as he saw it, between ‘picture-purpose’ and ‘painting reason’ and saw these as essentially mutually exclusive: “I will do one or the other for completely different aims”vii And in this sense his cartoons act as means of proselytizing, albeit humorously, for modernism, and in particular abstraction. Unlike many of the other playfully didactic cartoons, “Ha Ha What Does This Represent?” addresses a further split between what we might call ‘picture expectation’ and ‘painterly embodiment’. For Reinhardt, like Worringer, the post-cubist abstract painting not only creates and controls ‘a world’ in itself, but also frees the artist, “completely, from a brutal, barbaric existence.” viii It is this schism that is parodied in his cartoon, and implies Reinhardt’s argument that a deeper level of representation is at work within abstraction that will be missed by a cursory, or ineffectual engagement, as his later so-called ‘black paintings’ clearly exemplified.
Unlike later abstractions emanating from New York, Reinhardt’s paintings, while formulating a down the line materialist position, never completely jettisoned the idealism that marked an earlier generation of abstractionists. Such idealism, though, is realized through an increasingly analytical and yet ritualized ‘painting reason’ – what Reinhardt referred to as ‘art-as-art dogma’ – refining painting’s purity and its ‘otherness’. While this has been caricatured as mechanically reductive, if his entire output is scrutinized more closely, it can be seen as surprisingly expansive, albeit compartmentalized. That is, if we see his writings, his paintings, and his photographs documenting world artefacts, not to mention his ‘needling’ witty postcards and cartoons, as forming parts of a whole, then it is possible to sense a complex dialogue around abstraction: a sequence of negative dialectics at work. Theodor Adorno once pointed out that the bourgeois ideal of a regulated ascetic working life which is contrasted with a hedonistic ‘richness’ garnered from art was, in fact, the wrong way around: life should be rich and art ascetic. Reinhardt in his own way exemplifies this in his strict compartmentalization of his practice and life, while adopting something of a position as a moral conscience of modernism, with his hatred of business, careerism, and even ‘success’ (much to the bemusement of those watching his own career rise shortly before his death in the mid 60s).
Being an abstract painter from the beginning (he was elected to membership of the American Abstract Artists group when he was twenty-three in 1937) Reinhardt’s productive output from the 1930s reflects a slow absorption and assimilation of various abstract trends from the neoplastic, collage, painterly calligraphic tendencies, through to the narrowing corridor of his blackpaintings, with their strict canon of prohibitions. Perhaps more than any other painter of his generation he encapsulates, in Damisch’s more general terms, the fact that abstraction is, “The weft of the story of Modern Art, or more exactly: of being its disgrace, insofar as its determining concept coincides with the closure of this story.”ix So often Reinhardt’s work has been seen as this vanishing point, a full stop, both in terms of modernism itself, as well as painting’s ‘flagship’ embroilment with it. With his oft-quoted remark, “I’m merely making the last painting which anyone can make”x the artist himself would seem to further emphasize that full stop. Hence the relevance of his work for the emergent minimalist and conceptual scenes, but also for the‘end of painting’ argument that certainly doesn’t need repeating here. But it does lead to certain questions for the present context of this exhibition: for example in prefacing this show does Reinhardt’s cartoon’s have any relevance today apart from the historical?
In the 1940s abstract art as a practice had been around for only 30 or so years. What was met, then, with incomprehension, irritation, mockery or outrage (even from quarters of the art establishment), would be more liable now to meet with indifference. Abstraction is no longer a sign for all that is at the forefront of the outrageously modern as it once was; its role, in that sense, long overtaken by other modes and forms of practice. This is part and parcel of Damisch’s allusion to its seeming ‘disgrace’: its lost utopianism giving way to the closure of its historical moment. So, if Reinhardt’s cartoon embodied the social and aesthetic split abstract painting necessitated in its ascendancy as a mode, then what now? Certainly, abstraction requires a new context and only through examining current practice in exhibitions like this can new critical frameworks arise. But Reinhardt’s cartoon still hits an important point: namely, the questions around representation and abstraction which remain a thorny issue on many levels, too complex to rehearse in detail here; this points to the difficulty of how we access meaning from a visual work, which carry through from Reinhardt to the present. The expectation of the work ‘to be about…’ is one that persists perhaps more than ever. This probity is not the kind of philistinism that Reinhardt thought he was fighting, but perhaps more the legacy of both post-conceptual art and the highly discursive sites of contemporary theory and curatorship each requiring determined representational frameworks. The landscapes of these discourses often carry with them (at least as an unspoken given) the narratives of abstract painting’s supposed ‘disgrace’ and, of course, its closure.
Numerous critics from Hal Foster to Boris Groys have bemoaned the pluralist reality of contemporary art (where nothing is ‘at stake’); and yet it seems that the only alternative they propose is a lurch constantly towards the demystification of art and its contexts. Groys has even suggested the adoption of an ‘art-atheism’, the practice of which, “would be to understand artworks not as incarnations, but as mere documents, illustrations or significations.”xi While this points to what Jean-Francois Lyotard, years ago, referred to as the ‘cultural’ as opposed to art per se (always indeterminate, according to Lyotard, in its relation to the cultural), Groys, on the other hand, believes that in reducing the art work to a discursive ‘prop’, it would lead to a more secular triggering of both imagination and engagement amongst spectators. In this way objects and images are required to articulate a new form of ‘picture-purpose’ to reuse Reinhardt’s phrase. Lurking in such a position is the old argument (which I broadly agree with up to a point) of art being both materialist and linguistic. But abstraction, seen from this perspective, and perhaps because of its particular roots, is all too often viewed with suspicion: ‘eternal forms’, muteness, spirituality, elitism, its extraction from reality, or autonomous differentiation, and its supposed ideological fog – these are the clichés projected onto its practices, and each questionable in the present context.
Painting, in particular abstract painting, will always come off badly in any neo-Benjaminian critique. Looked at baldly in this light it is hard not to agree with Gerhard Richter’s idea of painting as ‘pure idiocy’xii – which he suggests as a paradox. Adorno, one of the few philosophers to be really critically engaged in the actual making of aesthetic production, puts it another way:
Aura is not only – as Benjamin claimed – the here and now of the artwork, it is whatever goes beyond its factual givenness, its content; one cannot abolish it and still want art. Even demystified artworks are more than what is literally the case. The ‘exhibition value’ that supplants ‘cult value’ is an imago of the exchange process. Art that devotes itself to its exhibition value is ruled by the exchange process […]xiii
This “more than what is literally the case” has always been a bone of contention to those sniffing out the ideological apparatus of art; also, no doubt, those partaking in ‘art-atheism.’ This does not mean that the ‘excessive’, fundamentally illusionistic and fictional spaces of painting (and in fact all art practice as Adorno would have it) are about blind belief; rather, in the latter, it is about engaging with the paradoxical nature of making. This is why Reinhardt was never totally claimed by those seeking him for either minimalism or conceptualism. He remained a painter, engaged in its paradoxical nature (for example, the writings revolve around, remain adjacent to, but never completely address nor close down, the paintings); Reinhardt’s paintings are infinitely more than his textual notations for them, despite the ‘negative’ operational strategy of denying composition, colour, parts, space that underpin his writing – on an experiential level, as Reinhardt was well aware, these are actually accentuated, albeit in the half light of the darkened corridor of his later production.
While Reinhardt’s inherent search for purity of form and the experience of an absolutist autonomy may well seem alien to the current landscape of abstract painting, his practice essentially shares with those dedicated to exploring abstract form the basic reality of the painterly processes: the negotiation of material, method and controlled repetition. Elements of play, subtle connections with the world at large (a ‘relative autonomy’), and renegotiation of geometric procedures mark out the work in the present exhibition. These forms no longer point to any neo-Platonic essentialist sign of the geometrical as the unchanging or eternal, but rather ‘graphs’ or ‘topologies’xiv – forms which can endlessly be refigured, reminding us that painting itself is the work of transformation, where its meaning can still be found “in the actual painting activity” itself, just as much as the narratives which are currently encircling and defining contemporary art practices.
i See Worringer, Wilhelm, Abstraction and Empathy,1963, Routledge Kegan and Paul, London, pp.3-25
ii Damisch, Hubert, ‘Remarks on Abstraction’, trans. Rosalind Krauss, October 127 Winter 2009, p. 136
iii Ibid., p. 140
iv Ibid. This last statement refers to the site of New York’s old immigration station at Ellis Island. P. 134
v Reich’s Listen Little Man was published in 1948. Reich, an ex-communist and psychoanalyst, wrote this text in exasperation at aggressive, and often misunderstood, denunciations and resistances to his admittedly eccentric experiments and ideas. Hounded in his later years, he was incarcerated at Ellis Island in 1941, dying in an American prison later in 1957.
vi Reinhardt, Ad, ‘Abstraction vs Illustration’, 1943, in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Rose,B.Documents of 20th Art, 1975, New York, Viking, p.49
vii Ibid., p.49
viii Ibid., p.48
ix Damisch, 2009 p.135
x Reinhardt, Ad. ‘An interview with Ad Reinhardt’, 1965 in Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, p.13
xi Groys, Boris, Art Power, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008, p.48
xii This quote from Richter was used by Douglas Crimp in his famous ‘The End of Painting’ essay. See October 16, Spring 1981,pp. 69-86
xiii Adorno,T.W., Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota: Continuum, 1997, p. 56
xiv Damisch makes this point strongly in ‘Remarks on Abstraction’ by looking at the notion of the graph rather than sign: “The graph doesn’t lead to any signified; in its very linearity, it is the vector of an operation”, p.149