Abstract Critical

The Minimal Gesture

Written by Andrea Medjesi-Jones

The Minimal Gesture, Timothy Taylor Gallery

(Markus Amm, Hans Hartung, Jonathan Lasker, Agnes Martin, Peter Peri, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Rudlof Stingel, Terry Winters, Christopher Wool)

An intriguing title or perhaps a timely dialectic that has come to adorn the walls of Timothy Taylor Gallery, with three generations of painters coming to discuss or argue the case in point – is the choice between minimalism and abstract expressionism as taxonomies of painterly activities/politics still viable or, as is suggested here , there ought to be a truce to consolidate these historical differences and open it out to new transitions and extensions within painterly practice?

In many ways such divisiveness  has become the making of painting’s history – a stubborn scab we return to pick at when negotiating critical avenues within painting’s potential. Such separations help mythologize painting even more – allowing  for clear delineation of generational activities of thought that make painterly specificity an excuse rather then a choice  but also the enemy of all other expressions that negotiates its way through history with limited resources, namely its formalism and phenomenology.

I mean to say that we still find gesture difficult. It is defined as something that is perhaps a little dirty, certainly not cool, but also tied into a specific promise of humanist rhetoric that  rides on the wave of transcendentalism and a belief in spiritual propensity so eagerly denied by the minimalist attitudes in the art of the 60s and the 70s.

As it is strictly tied to body and its performance, it is inevitably proclaimed unsound through its lack of logical or systematic control. As the body and its performance are descending deeper and deeper into the chaos of expressionistic hallucination, gesture’s credibility is pulled into a camp of abstracted subjectivity only reserved for those that still uphold a sense of meaning in the wake of irony in the post-war anesthetized Europe and America.

Robert Ryman, Series No. 21 (White) (2004), Oil on canvas, 40.6cm x 40.6cm

With a sharp precision of its historical references and a timely contemporary painterly discourse, the show confirms this complex divisiveness with a quasi-postmodernist tongue-in-cheek and a flair for irony, suggesting that the reverse strategies are at play at all times and that the elusiveness of meaning that shifts from one canvas (or aluminum panel as the case may be with Christopher Wool) is always just catching up with the act of our seeing it. It is in the mix of artists that such strategy fails to materialize, leaving plenty of room to question just how a decision was made to display some and not the other artists that could have carried the show’s intentions much more poignantly.

Understanding gesture as a defining subject without a relation to its processes and the potentials is just as futile as defining its conceptual stronghold refined through economy of painterly actions. The material suggestiveness used to maximum effect to emphasize a shift between painterly potential towards its actualization is not in direct reciprocity to how we end up looking at the work and evaluating its success. I suggest there is much more at stake than a simple measuring device that separates gesture into minimal or indeed excessive stipulation of painters presence.

What we are confronted with is a presupposed terminology that defines meaning of painterly procedure in relationship to its object instead its processes, a path of subjectivation that still assumes the power of the painter to impose personality and spirit as  a defining role of his or hers practice, be that theatrical as a label attached to abstract expressionism or wryly arrogant in its minimalist cloak.  Perhaps there never was a defining role of action panting the majority of work in this exhibition takes its reference from but a mere suggestiveness of readings that allows us to recognize and subscribe stylistic merits to otherwise complex issues of movement, subjectivity and painterly performance.

What is somehow striking is the nature of categorization to create the camps of interests that very easily fold into descriptiveness of language – a self-fulfilling prophecy that is politically charged, deterministic and powerful in its legacy. Minimizing gesture into a system or a pattern of material processes  is not outside its problems, providing a fairly limiting vocabulary and a visual winter land whose capacity to engage with a viewer is deceptively unremarkable, like a one-liner we forget to remember. If gesture is anything to go by, it should be let loose to wonder in the absence of its image as an anchor, something Peter Peri begins to explore but never quit gets to the bottom of.

A devision between action and making ( praxis and poiesis) is still firmly used to identify painterly production, in spite of painterly practices  (Pollock and De Kooning for example) that clearly worked to overcome such limitations, naming the process as the primary gesture not restricted by bodily performances or discontinued motional effects but left ungrounded and immanent to paintings procedures. Framed in such a way, we cannot fail to recognize political undertones gesture as a defining tool of values and productions still imposes on the expectation we seek in painting. Reducing gesture to its minimal is therefore untenable as the minimal is only a category of identification rather then a communicational tool that allows mediation between action and making. It is deceptive, however, that the economy and rigor of painterly gestures as framed by conceptual art is not minimal but aesthetically limiting and that is not meant as a derogative criticism but a conclusion that follows from its dialectical processes of thought. The same holds for visually exuberant or “gestural” painting which is not intellectually less valid just because of the way it is derived at, namely its use of body and hand that should be validated as  tools of communication instead of egoistic sensationalism.

In the “Notes on Gesture” Giorgio Agamben makes an intelligent attempt to frame this rhetoric by saying:

“ Nothing is more misleading for an understanding of gesture, therefore, than  representing, on the one hand, a sphere of means as addressing a goal (for example, marching seen as as a means of moving the body from point A to point B) and, on the other hand, a separate and superior sphere of gesture as movement that has its end in itself (for example, dance seen as an aesthetic dimension). Finality without means is just as alienating as mediality that has meaning only with respect to an end. If dance is gesture, it is so, rather, because it is nothing more than the endurance and the exhibition of the media character of corporal movement.” ( “Means without End – Notes on Gesture” )

Hans Hartung, T1980-K5 (1980), Acrylic on canvas,118cm x 300cm

This show flirts successful with a notion of over- bridging the historical context under which  categorizations formed by different art movements (abstract expressionism versus minimalism) still had their say. By providing examples of mediated and hard-lined gestures, as exemplified by Christopher Wool and Rudolf Stingel, it manages very poignantly to show the raison d’être behind such practices but also to link it to the more materially minded gestures by Markus Amm, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin. There is an appreciation to be had from suspending one’s thought and developing it fully whilst  moving from one painting to the next . Not only formally but critically too, the relationship between these paintings in not linear, allowing for little surprises and details to announce themselves when recognized.

By juxtaposing more contemporary painters ( Markus Amm, Peter Peri, Rudolf Stingel) it manages to put in perspective some of the older practices (Christopher Wool ) and even the forgotten jewels of Art Informel such as Hans Hartung or wonderful example of late work by Robert Ryman, displaying the level of importance and interest gesture has and still generates in the realm of painting. There are also less successful attempts (Jonathan Lasker for instance) to make such critique relevant and testing of its time.

To conclude, I am delighted  The Minimal Gesture opens a debate that is questioning of the tribal attitudes in painting. More attempt could have been made to expand on it by providing more complex choices of paintings that will tackle this subject widely (Albert Oehlen for example). For instance, very few artists are UK born or based (exception of Peter Peri), making this almost exclusively a German-American debate that, again, adheres to the history of reading and curating of this type of abstraction and expressionism does not add new knowledge to the painterly practices today.

However, it shows signs of health in painting by beginning to grapple with the ghosts of its past – namely the gesture and its history. Can we have it back and how is the question that remains difficult and that in itself is not a bad place to begin to re-contexualise it and think of it anew.

The Minimal Gesture, Installation View, Timothy Taylor Gallery






  1. GB said…

    Andreas’ response to the Minimal Gesture has a rather baroque post modernist dualism as narrative analysis. Although interesting the analysis seems to forget about the destruction of the painterly ambition through the subversion of photographic medias, need to dominate the narrative on discussions of surface and gesture.

    Paintings deferrence to this post modernist message is at the core of its problems. It needs to let its articulated intelligent evolution embrace all its historical development. It is after all the parent in the ralationship unlike the childlike Post modernist narrative, which has a fundamental need to reference, bind, and indoctrinate the process of the painter. The painter can then only create pastiche rather than painting that evolves intelligently and independently.