The paintings, sculpture, assemblages and combines collected by Reinhard Onnasch and shown in three Hauser & Wirth spaces could be the illustrations for a lecture on American artists of the sixties. There would be too many examples of relatively minor figures, like Edward Kienholz and certainly George Brecht. However, this excess may serve to show how found objects, either joined to other objects or displayed in cases and cabinets, were a dominant feature of the art of that time. Unlike the institutional art theorisation behind the Dada readymade, the found object was linked to the ‘life’ side of the ‘life/art’ division which people worried about back then.
Half a century later, the vita brevis of ordinary things has vanished and Kienholz’s assemblages are now redolent only of death and decay, unmitigated by any formal adventure. In contrast, a formal vitality still surges through Mark di Suvero’s Homage to Brancusi 1962 sited in the same room. It too is an assembly of potential land-fill, but one put together in the grip of a great deal more sculptural ambition, which one can see is still at work in the piece.
The anarchy of the everyday object, migrating from life to art, required a modification of existing systems, giving rise to the development of the famed flatbed picture plane. This seems a particularly American invention, exemplified here in works by Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine. In Claes Oldenburg and George Segal, the object gives up some of its ordinariness, becoming larger or softer or whiter and more brittle, but still retains its legibility. Both of these shifts seem to be advances on Kienholz and Brecht’s practice of just collecting or combining things. But what is revealed in the peculiar circumstances of this show is how the concept of ‘life’, which might be another word for figuration, limits art’s potential. What is also revealed is that what we might call minimalism or literalism, represented by Dan Flavin’s Untitled 1968, and Richard Serra’s Do It, though made much later in 1983, was a successful escape from the figuration of ordinary objects which persistently grounds the efforts of Dine, Oldenburg and others.
You can’t argue with Serra, certainly not in this case: An upright steel plate, placed on a line which bisects the 90 degrees of the gallery corner, on which is balanced another, similar in size, tipped back till its top edge bridges the angle between the two convergent walls. You know it couldn’t be any other way. The downward pressure from the top rectangle of steel fixes the lower in position, its cant being shallow enough so as not to risk it sliding forward and collapsing, but sufficient to press itself securely against the supporting walls. It fully complies with the laws of gravity, yet it gives the impression of freedom rather than necessity. Its materiality is both essential and irrelevant, a paradox that is only sustainable in the context of abstraction, not figuration.
In the third gallery space the critical challenge alters. This seems like a modernist ark with two by Still, two by Louis and two Nolands, plus single works by Stella, Kline, Twombly and Motherwell as well as a sculpture by David Smith. There is also an Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting 1956. Reinhardt demands a different type of non-pictorial scrutiny. After a while, the blue rectangles slowly distinguish themselves from the nearly black. However, we are not being invited to look into the painting but into the abyss that lies beyond. We should be grateful. In terms of the painting community he has become a reductionist martyr, going to the very end on our behalf and saving us the journey.
Opposite the Reinhardt are paintings by Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, where black does most of the work. In Kline’s Zinc Door, 1961, it forms a structure of thick broad strokes over a brushy white ground that lets through occasional glimpses of pink and limey yellow. As with many Klines, there’s something of the air guitar about the gestures, caused maybe because they are pieces of drawing enlarged beyond their capacity to maintain tension. This particular painting may have benefited from reducing the light area at the top so the white shapes formed in the interstices had greater influence on the final result. In contrast the Motherwell, Wall Painting No lll, 1953, feels cramped, with the black shapes stopping at the upper and lower edges sooner than they should have.
For different reasons the Kline and Motherwell look traditional when compared to the two works by Clyfford Still. Instead of the enlarged, fast drawing of Kline, Still reduces the size of his gestures and slows down the painting process, creating surface inflections that add a fidgety shimmer to the pigment hue. But his pale painting, 1953-No 2 (PH-847),1953, is almost identical to a work in the Gulbenkian survey exhibition 1954-64, which I discover from a contemporaneous note made in the catalogue, I didn’t rate very highly. In front of its twin, nearly fifty years later, I’m of the same opinion. The blue painting, PH-13, 1951, is much better, but I think the light in it is too Mediterranean, or Californian. It looks like a holiday, and lacks the serious luminosity of the northern romantic tradition, described many years ago by Robert Rosenblum, which I think is the strength of Still’s best work.
The last room is given over to three artists synonymous with sixties abstraction. For some reason the colour in Frank Stella’s Protractor Variation, 1969, looks a little faded, while the geometry causes a slightly unfortunate illusion of swelling in the middles of the double squares. Compared to the other paintings in the room Stella appears as though he has boxed himself in, and can’t find a way of breaking free of a system that served him well on many other occasions, but not this.
There are two examples of Morris Louis’ empty centre paintings, one of which, Gamma Tau 1960, is especially successful. The enigmatic expanse of taut, un-primed canvas, supported by narrow rivulets of colour on either side, remains one of the best views in modernism, like that of New York from the Empire State or Earth from space: An open field, full of painting’s possibilities, a world away from Reinhardt’s abyss. But the margin of error in such a sparse language is small. Louis’ other work, Gamma Iota, 1960, though impressive, is reminiscent of a Matisse paper cut-out. There are too few separate sloping streamers to the left and right, and they are placed too far apart, to generate the torque needed to create the effect of a central field. The area relaxes and takes on the function of a large gap in a decorative scheme.
In both the Ken Noland paintings the centre is the locus around which the forms coalesce. The narrowness of the green line that intersects the wider vertical red stripe in Wotan, 1961, seems to make something disappear over an artificial horizon. That brings the paired black and yellow L shapes into alignment as though one were a reflection of the other. The lower half of the red stripe then reads as a mirror image of the top half. It makes what is a simple cruciform configuration phenomenologically complicated, though the black frame which edges the canvas does its best to completely ruin the effect.
Noland’s Sunwise, 1960, has to overcome the same problem of being boxed inside a black rectangle. Though it is in the geometric middle of a square, the orange disc releases its energy from an indeterminate position within a spatial field. It doesn’t function like a flat Jasper Johns target. Rather than being heraldic, the concentric rings of colour share the spatial indeterminacy that characterises the disc. The various colours dilate inside the cordons of plain canvas until the point is reached when the outer circle’s debatable edge seeps into the ground.
The collection couldn’t be more diverse, and uneven, and there is a lot of stuff that shows its age. But I think those exhibits unburdened by figuration, untouched by ‘life’, retain their formal vitality and moreover continue to function visually in the present. Those things that reflected the shallower preoccupations of their time now seem to belong in a cabinet of curiosities.
Re-View: Onnasch Collection
Hauser & Wirth London, Piccadilly and Savile Row
20 September – 14 December