Abstract Critical

Lines, stripes, and squares

Written by Alison Hand

Daniel Buren: One Thing to Another, Situated Works, Lisson Gallery, 29 Bell St, until 14 January 2012

Robert Currie: Latest Works, Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies St, until 14 January 2012

Francois Morellet, Annely Juda, 23 Dering St, closed 22 December 2011

Daniel Buren, A perimeter for a Room - work in situ, Lisson Gallery, 2011

Abstraction is everywhere at the moment. It’s all across London, coming over from Brazil, and infiltrating the north. So what is all this abstraction doing, and where’s it heading?

Three artists currently showing in London – Daniel Buren, Francois Morellet, and Robert Currie – at first glance have quite a bit in common. They’re making things that allude to painting but aren’t – wall mounted structures, sculptures, and hangings – and doing interesting things with nylon and neon. They all have an acute ‘critical consciousness of history’, [1]  but in fact utilise it in very different ways, variously manoeuvring historical modes of abstraction into contemporary space; or using abstraction as a tool to reveal physical and metaphorical structures; or as a mirror reflecting back through abstraction’s past.

Downstairs at Gimpel Fils gallery, Robert Currie is showing a series of rather beautiful wall mounted Perspex boxes with taut nylon threads and videotape suspended and stretched across inside. Painted various colours, they do funny things to your eyes, and as you move they appear to shiver and dance like a whirling flick book.

With titles like ‘45,000cm of Black Nylon monofilament 2010’, they acknowledge their history, and the gallery blurb locates them firmly in the exploration of ‘motion, rhythm and volume through the use of line and geometric structure’.[2] Sure – but what kind of rhythms, what sort of motion?

Robert Currie - 31,363cm of Nylon Monofilament and Coloured Acrylics, 2010, Courtesy Gimpel Fils

In these boxes, Currie creates an abstract space that continuously dissolves and rebuilds as you look at it, hitting a point of perfect alignment before frittering off into a zillion lines. Somehow it actually looks like sound, like the white noise of the screen, an ‘exploration of space without depicting mass’. [3]

Though in the main abstract, there are images too. One looks a bit like a Sarah Morris painting, it’s a slice of building that moves in and out of focus, as if we’re whooshing up through corporate space in a glass lift. In another there’s an image of something like a post war pre-fab, or a chalet in Rhyll, or an Ed Ruscha, shuddering about like a flickering silent film.

But it’s not a contest – Currie uses abstraction and image as tools to explore looking, seeing, and moving, treading an intangible line between rhythm, order and chaos. As you look, the depth resolves into surface, and to me it is the motion of the screen, and the new rhythms and spaces of technology, that these works, ultimately, begin to talk about.

Where Currie is obliquely situated within a historical lineage through Gabo and LeWitt, overlaid with a contemporaneous reading of space, over at Annely Juda, Francois Morellet is showing direct re-workings of Malevich’s Suprematist series. There are a few of those historic drawings in the show, along with Black Square – I’m thinking that this little cracked rectangle is such a magnificent full stop, how can anything compete?

On one wall Morellet is showing a series of white canvases with bands of white neon running down them, inset with circle, cross, and square. Like Currie’s work, they’re optically disturbing, the neon humming with brightness. Oddly shaped shiny black canvases hang on the opposite side, with white neon strips running around the outsides. Three white canvases lean against the gallery wall. A little bit Angela de la Cruz, I’m intrigued as to what they’re waiting for.

Francois Morellet, Sous-Prematisme n°3, 2010, acrylic on wood, 29 x 3 white neon tubes ed 1/3, courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

It’s the question of return and re-interpretation that interests me. More than a historical consciousness, Morellet is filtering Malevich’s work through his own (Minimalist) history, re-positioning these forms and ideas, and holding up a crooked mirror back to the originals. Are they meant to be a continuation of Malevich’s project, or really about the history of abstraction itself?

The re-reading of one movement through another seems both an homage, and a question – a kind of what would have happened if? Are these works the if?

Ideas of return and repetition lead me to Daniel Buren’s show at the Lisson Gallery. At first it seems all a bit polite for Buren, with his history of entering art shows uninvited and annoying Donald Judd at the Guggenheim with a massive stripey cloth.

There are flimsy lengths of material that at a glance look like paintings – stripey flags, in colours that shout market stall, with their breezy mid tone greens and oranges. Where Morellet uses the neon of minimalism, Buren uses woven fibre optic, which is visually quite deceptive and illuminates these works from within, like some sort of readymade glowing altar piece. When they’re not ‘on’, they appear as simple white squares – a neat un-striping, a displacement of Buren’s signature, a removal of status. Outside there is a kind of pergola, a simple grid construction with a coloured acrylic roof. In the back room there is a similar canopy running around the perimeter, which again gives the impression that people might be flogging stuff underneath it.

Where Morellet re-presents one movement by way of another, Buren smashes together the monochrome and the readymade, to create a stripey, structural language that interrogates space and what happens in it. It’s a tricky language though. These pieces are not installations but ‘situated works’, not creating new space but drawing attention to existing structures; they refer only to themselves, but are simultaneously a ‘seeing tool’, a device through which to look at something else – the something else being institutional structures and systems.

Isn’t Buren, though, an absorbed and established figure within these very systems? Have the stripes in themselves become institutionalised?

Reading this show through Buren’s history of striping in both sanctioned and unsanctioned spaces, I am sure we’re being drawn to look again at this gallery as a space of consumption. The stripes are slippery and try to avoid exact definition and commodification, and perhaps here what they illuminate is this very tension between unveiling the gallery constraints, whilst being in demand to show within it. It is the very repetition of this abstract device which creates a self-conscious look, an awareness of Buren’s continuous revealing of particular spaces, and our eyes bounce off the works into the place itself.

Daniel Buren, One thing to Another, Situated works, Installation view, Lisson Gallery, London 2011

Looking at these three artists’ work offers up so many possibilities for where abstraction might head next. Whether it’s the abstraction of technological culture; the re-reading of grand movements through other languages; or the idea of abstraction as a tool that reads space physically and metaphorically, it’s obvious that the abstract object doesn’t need to be sealed up or lost in circular arguments.

Yet for all these interesting interplays, critical consciousness of history, and explorations of new models of space, I can’t help wondering if there’s something missing? Is it all a bit cold, lacking in mistakes, splodges, emotional engagement? Maybe there’s also a place for an injection of humanism into the next avenues of abstraction.


1. ‘Critical consciousness of history’; Hal Foster, ‘Who’s afraid of the neo-avant-garde?, Return of the Real, MIT Press.

2. ‘Motion, rhythm and volume through the use of line and geometric structure’; Gimpel Fils 2011

3. ‘Exploration of space without having to depict mass‘; various sources referring to the work of Naum Gabo.

  1. C. Morey de Morand said…

    C. Morey de Morand
    Having seen all 3 shows and being interested in general, I enjoyed Alison Hands straight talking article linking the works, and the after-comments by John Holland and Sam Cornish very much. I especially relished Alison’s to the point referencing Gabo and John’s noting the ‘branding’ exercises. So true. Hirst’s spots and Buren’s commercial stripes would be interchangeable of course but they have to keep to their own trademarks. Actually the photograph of Buren’s A Perimeter for a Room is much more interesting than being inside the work itself, but technically the woven fibre optics are impressive, pointless but impressive nevertheless. In my opinion Morellet is the most exquisitely intellectual although perhaps the least enjoyable to look at of the three. Robert Currie’s nylon threaded boxes may yet come to be another such branding exercise although highly full of excitement and search at the moment.

    These are/were three remarkable, distinguished exhibitions like gifts to the spectator and are a credit to the galleries putting them on.

    Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” in all three exhibitions is key I think to the lack of humanity, coldness, unsustainability of retaining interest found by Alison and Sam. It is part of what makes them interesting as well. Making light and movement out of manufactured insentient materials, also imparts prestige and profundity to the technical know-how.

    Using paint with an equal ambition and on canvas would not be so impressively futuristic but oh how eloquent. Malevich’s little rectangle called Black Square as a painted ‘if ‘anyone?

  2. Hana Horack said…

    Since I have nothing to lose, or gain, by commenting here I must frankly admit that art which only concerns itself with the fluff in the navel of its host, has an absolute need for said host, a symbiotic relationship exists. And then there are the satellites which would crash into each other if they weren’t kept in orbit by the correct level of concurrence, within debate, necessary to maintain their co-existence. Who wants to bite the hand that feeds them? Is there something wrong with being fed? There we enter the waters of morality. Or are we just jealous that it isn’t us? More morality…

    However, what if one does not follow the direction in which most analysis is focussed? I think that most would agree that our interpretation is a reflection of our own assumptions – no matter how well informed or well read. It is all a matter of belief – it is inescapable, everyone believes in something, even saying, “I don’t believe in anything!” is your belief. Drive-thrus and post-structuralism, anthropology and capitalism – where do they lead us?

    I imagine that Donald Judd would have disapproved of me – because I can quite happily see the spirituality of the Creation reflected in his work – which he himself denied (please, correct me if I’m wrong). And the first time I saw Buren’s work was as a jpg on the axisweb site – when it seemed, until I read about it, to be a luminous painting of transcendental qualities! It certainly is a shame to see it reduced to fluff in the navel of a complex critique.

    A return to humanism – humanism is missing throughout our culture as a whole. How important are we? Are we worth more than bullets fired at random into a crowd? Of course we are! Each individual is worth more than a planet-sized diamond! But no matter how high we climb we are all going to fall – is that a plinth I see before me, or a headstone?

    We are creatures of our Universe; we hear that there are billions of tons of water floating around out there and wonder, “Is there life out there?” And imagine that we could test for it somehow – the assumption being that it is somehow ‘alike’, and of course there is no reason for it to be ‘alike’: it could just as well be so different that we wouldn’t recognise it, just as the blind men didn’t recognise the elephant. And there is so much that we don’t recognise already!

    Please note – that this is not meant to offend anyone, it is just my take on the discussion so far, embedded in my experience of the world in general. Peace and Love!

  3. john holland said…

    By the way, I assume Gillick is talking to his lawyer as we speak about Buren’s Perimeter for a Room.

  4. john holland said…

    Hello Sam,

    It’s nice to have such speedy feedback on this site.

    I think the reason shows such as Buren’s at the Lisson depress me is that, while they make cliams to be critiqueing the cultural institutions they inhabit, they rely more than most art on just those institutional tropes they “interrogate” for their authority.

    No-one who was not already au fait with the current art world “discourses”, ie an art-world insider, could possibly come to the readings that Alison talks about on the evidence of the work alone.
    Furthermore, such work relies wholly on its placing within the luxury minimalism of the blue-chip contempory gallery aesthetic to be conceived of as art at all.

    This more or less ubiquitous aesthetic is certainly worth a bit of critical deconstruction, loaded as it is with implicit meanings. And they are often, as Alison suggests, more interesting than the art they show. I always enjoy going to the Saatchi, irrespective of the show, because its achingly expensive corporate minimalism is a pleasure to experience.
    The geneology of this almost ubiquitous, but very particular look is interesting, in terms of the way minimalism bequeathed its air of rarified, tasteful institutional authority to the aesthetically needy conceptualism that challenged it.
    The fact that critically-engaged conceptualism of the Buren/Gillick type bravely subverts these institutions whilst relying on their authority for their percieved seriousness is either interesting or laughable, depending on your point of view.

  5. Sam Cornish said…

    And less flippantly, despite having a lot of time for the aesthetics of well-installed minimalism, I agree with Alison that it clearly does lack some humanity, as well as, and perhaps this is more of a problem for me, the ability to sustain visual interest, beyond the refreshing of its first impact.

  6. Sam Cornish said…

    I suspect that Hirst would be more likely to go for the drive-thru idea as well

  7. Sam Cornish said…

    Hi Alison, John

    I think I remember reading somewhere that the early association of mimimalist aesthetics with a bouncing back onto the environment did in fact stem from critics have such little art to talk about that they were forced to begin describing the gallery that surrounded it. I agree with John that this doesn’t seem to have a lot of legs as an idea for actually involving, purposeful and specific art.

    I’ve always felt (obviously not originally) that rather than effecting some kind of remove of the author which then serves to divert attention from the work to the gallery space / system, Buren’s work is more than anything branding exercise, which has being sustained by its origins in critique.

    The combination of branding with the an ambiguous complicit-critique that Alison uses to explain Buren’s work brings to mind Hirst more than anyone else. Though Buren is a more elegant visual artist than Hirst (and this is where I see his value lying), Hirst’s upcoming extravaganza does have the advantage (if we bring ourselves to call it that) of really pushing complicity-critique to its limits.

  8. john holland said…

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood, but your explication of Buren’s strategy seems to be, essentially, that he makes images so deliberately dull and repetitious that the viewer is left with no option but to seek some kind of visual stimulation by staring at the Lisson Gallery itself.
    As a result of this desperation, the art-lover will find himself pondering complex critiques of institutional and cultural power structures that had never previously occured to him.

    This begs a few questions;

    Will the complex critiques be affected if, say, zig-zags or squares are used, instead of stripes? Would circles invoke a different critique, or would it just take a bit longer?

    Can the viewer have these complex critical thoughts staring at an empty gallery, or are Buren’s “interrogations” (my favourite art-world buzz-word, with its titillating conflation of deconstruction and water-boarding) always necessary?

    And lastly, can the complex critique take any form, or is there an official Buren critique for us to follow?
    I am assuming, because I sometimes flick through Art Monthly, that the viewer’s thoughts should invoke the usual left-ish wing post-structuralist pieties about subverting institutional power structures, but maybe the viewer will decide that the Lisson needs a more rigourous Capitalist agenda, perhaps with a MacDonalds Drive-thru in the main gallery. I’m sure this is not the intended response, but it’s no less legitimated by the actual, specific form of the work than any other.