Art critic and poet Raphael Rubinstein has curated an exhibit, “Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s,” which is up through the end of August at Cheim & Read (547 25th st. NY). In his exhibition catalog essay,* Rubinstein says that he thinks of the show “as a sequel to ‘High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,’ a 2006-2007 traveling exhibition curated by art historian Katy Siegel.” But the exhibition also grows more directly out of Rubinstein’s own work as a critic and occasional curator.
In the catalog essay and in an interview with Joan Waltemath at Brooklyn Rail, Rubinstein notes that the show partakes in his reconsideration of some of the ideas he advanced in his 2009 “Provisional Painting” essay and the 2012 sequel to that essay. Both essays identified what Rubinstein called “provisionality” in painting: “a sense of casualness and unfinished-ness in painting” which “was one way to reconnect with the foundational doubt of modern art that really had been lost in the marketing and professionalizing, in the technical slickness of the booming art market.” In Beckettian parlance, Rubinstein wrote of provisional painting as “an index of the impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting.” But by the second installment of this two-part essay (published three years later) Rubinstein was already expressing concerns about pigeonholing painters into his newly minted classification: “I realize,” he confesses, “that I have committed one of the worst, if most common, critical (and curatorial) sins: recruiting an artist into a compelling critical narrative while missing something fundamental about his or her work.” Demonstrating an intellectual flexibility, Rubinstein uses the opportunity of curating Reinventing Abstraction to explore a different trend in recent painting.
As Rubinstein further explains in his Rail interview: “While there’s been this ongoing, enthusiastic response to my writings on provisionality, I’ve also heard from a lot of painters who I know and respect that there’s nothing provisional about their work, that their work is not about the ‘impossibility’ of painting, it’s not about the concept of the unfinished, or about de-skilling. This spurred me to think through another genealogy of painting, if only to make it clear that I would never want to suggest that modes of painting other than provisionality are somehow of lesser value.” While Rubinstein characterizes his curatorial efforts in Reinventing Abstraction as an attempt to chart a different genealogy of abstract painting than the one traced in the “Provisional Painting” essays, I find that many related themes and aesthetic preoccupations continue to connect these distinct critical and aesthetic exercises. Of these connections, I note an interest in paintings of modest scale (a stated interest which is not consistently reflected by the paintings chosen for Reinventing), in “low-key” or unassuming compositions, and a fixation on the artists’ renewed “curiosity about paint’s material possibilities” (“Provisional”) and their “rediscover[y] [of] the possibilities of painting on stretched canvas, and working with oil paint, figure/ground relationships, [and] applying paint with a brush instead of spraying or folding or pouring or staining” (Reinventing).
Rubinstein notes that the only artist who figures in both the “Provisional Painting” essays and Reinventing Abstraction is Mary Heilmann, but another shared touchstone for the two groups is Philip Guston, whose life intersects with the lives of many of the artists in this show,1 and whose death in 1980 marks the beginning of the decade in question (As Rubinstein quotes Terry Winters: “in a way, the ’80s began with Guston.”) If we observe Elizabeth Murray “taking cues” in her Sentimental Education, 1982, “from the clunky figures and objects in late Guston,” and if we note Whitney’s “deceptively casual paint handling, largely adapted from Guston,” we might also consider Joan Snyder’s Beanfield with Music, 1984, as a work that explores and draws on both the ’50s Guston, who seems already (again) to be flirting with figure, and the later Guston, with his bizarre and darkly humorous landscape compositions. (Note: While the press photo of Snyder’s Beanfield below will likely remind the viewer of Monet before evoking Guston, a detail snapped by a visitor to the gallery reveals a different painting: one with vigorous, loose paint handling, and “bean sprouts” that seem absurdly to grow out of the canvas into three-dimensional space.)
[Above, from left to right, Guston’s paintings from the late ’50s to the ’70s. Guston’s work, though not actually featured in the current show, serves as a touchstone for many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction, as seen with paintings in the show by Whitney, Murray, and Snyder, below.]
While Guston appears threaded through the background of Reinventing Abstraction, he also figures in the “Provisional Painting” essays as a hinge between the Ab Ex generation and later abstractionists. Guston is the “prophetic” painter who raises the critical issue of whether painting is possible any longer and “of whether it’s possible to create in our society at all.” He is a painter who opens the canvas to the “impure abstraction” that was, as Rubinstein writes, the “major source of energy and inspiration” for abstract painting of the 1980s.
If the “Provisional Painting” essays represent one line of thinking Rubinstein hoped to “reinvent” through the current show, there is still another, earlier point of departure to be found in another two-part essay, “Abstraction Out of Bounds,” and “Nine Lives of Painting,” from 1997 and ’98. In contrast to the “Provisional Painting” essays, the overlap between the painters featured in Reinventing Abstraction and those found in the essay pair of the late ’90s is more pronounced. Rubinstein focuses on the work of five painters in “Abstraction out of Bounds” and eight in “Nine Lives of Painting,” two of whom—Reed and Whitney–also have work in Reinventing Abstraction. Relying on name count alone, however, we find that Rubinstein mentions 7 of the 15 painters in the current show in the first essay, and 2 more in the second: Elizabeth Murray, Mary Heilmann, Pat Steir, Stephan Mueller, Bill Jensen, David Reed, Johnathan Lasker, Stanley Whitney, and Terry Winters.
“Abstraction out of Bounds” begins with a response to two exhibitions from the time of its publication: the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and a show curated by Lilly Wei at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, “After the Fall: Aspects of Abstract Painting since 1970.” Rubinstein compares the two shows and the disparate stance each takes towards abstract painting post-1970: the Biennial’s curation (along with that of 1997’s documenta X) is characterized as symptomatic of the “death of painting” attitude, while Wei’s exhibit represents an admirable if imperfect attempt to work through the difficult subject of “what happened to abstract painting following the decline of the modernist certainties on which it was founded.” (Ultimately, an unwieldy selection of artists plus a cramped space and a reticent curatorial stance made Wei’s “stylistic salad” too watery for Rubinstein’s taste.) Rubinstein then frames these two shows against “the discourse of the 1980s” which he sees as shaped (at least symbolically) by Frank Stella’s volume of art writing, Working Space (published in 1986 and adapted from lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1983-84), and Peter Halley’s Collected Essays 1981-87.
In Working Space, Stella calls for a reinvigorated sense of “space” in abstract painting—and this is a rallying cry Rubinstein would support if only it didn’t lead to a “literal” interpretation of space, which, at least in the case of Stella, Rubinstein believes it does. “[F]or all the quasi-Baroque flourishes that have enlivened [Stella’s] work since the ’70s, he still remains wedded to his Minimalist beginnings,” Rubinstein writes; “Slow to relinquish the brute physicality of his medium for more imaginative realms, Stella seems overly willing to respond to a pictorial problem by throwing scraps of metal at it.” If Stella’s call for a new sense of space tends too quickly towards a literal-minded interpretation, the problem with Peter Halley’s Neo-Geo abstraction was that it moved painting into a philosophical, theoretical, and technological / conceptual space which was literal or literalizing in its very own way (e.g., as geometric abstractions came to serve as the pictorial “‘models’ of intellectual concepts”). Rubinstein concludes that “The late 1980s were a difficult time for those who envisioned painting as offering something other than diagrams of sociological concepts and tongue-in-cheek visual commentaries on modernism.” Difficult, but not impossible—and so Rubinstein goes on to discuss the work of a number of painters who were responding, each in his or her own way, to this seeming impasse in abstraction.
At the opening of “Nine Lives of Painting,” (Part II to “Abstraction Out of Bounds”), Rubinstein states that he has “decided to focus upon these particular painters because… they bring certain valuable properties to current abstraction. Perhaps the most important of these is an unabashed commitment to sensuous form, to maximum plastic invention. One of the refreshing things their full engagement with the medium leads to is the revival of an eroticized abstract sensibility… Another is a renewed sense of dialogue with painting’s past, both near and far.” In the catalog essay to Reinventing Abstraction, Rubinstein puts it this way: “Around 1980, a generation of artists who had been involved in the radical strategies of the ’70s rediscovered the possibilities of painting on stretched canvas, and working with oil paint… applying paint with a brush instead of spraying or folding or pouring or staining. They also acknowledged and sought out relationships to art history. In the ’70s there was still this idea that you could make an absolute break with the past and start from degree zero. […] Even though most of the painters in my show are quite well known, they’ve largely been left out of the official histories of the 1980s because they don’t fit into Neo-Expressionism or Appropriation Art or Neo-Geo.” While the phrasing of this later statement has become more particularized, it is clear that Rubinstein tells a similar story in both instances. It’s the story of a lost—ok, maybe not lost, but mislaid—generation of painters who didn’t “fit in” with the art scene of the ’80s (So, it’s a Breakfast Club allegory, you might say…). These were painters who were aroused by paint, and who could “nerd out” on painting, its materials and its history. This is, in brief, the minor history of ’80s abstraction that Rubinstein aims to recount. It may constitute a kind of sequel to High Times Hard Times, but it also appears in sequence with the essays I have just discussed, along with others which can be found in Rubinstein’s Polychrome Profusion, Selected Art Criticism: 1990-2002.
In my zeal for describing contexts, I’ve somewhat neglected a straight description of the show and the works therein. So let me begin by saying that the exhibition is compelling, and that the pieces have been selected with a sense of the visually rhythmic—by which I mean, the paintings dialogue with each other: they carry on an engaging conversation that feels neither repetitive nor disconnected. On the other hand, though the group of painters represented here form a tight-knit “generation” (one constraint of the show is that all the artists were born between 1939 and 1949), and though the selected works originate from the same period and place, the works are aesthetically independent enough to resist any easy categorization according to style or aims. Of the fifteen paintings broken up throughout the four rooms, at least one, at almost any given moment, would strike me as somehow idiosyncratic—as out-of-step with the rest. That said, the fact that the painting that might stick out in such a way was itself a moving target, continually shifting through the group, is probably itself an indicator of the unifying current in this selection of “resolutely out-of-step” (Peter Schjeldahl qtd. by Rubinstein) paintings, and a hallmark of “the individualistic abstraction exemplified by these painters” which resists consolidation into “easily identifiable movements and styles” (Rubinstein).
Rubinstein’s curation in Reinventing Abstraction proposes something—an idea, a possible history—that may connect with others but which is, nevertheless, its own. It’s not simply the sequel to High Times Hard Times, nor the revision of genealogies traced in the “Provisional Painting” essays, nor the direct extension of ideas explored in “Abstraction Out of Bounds”— though it shares something in common with each of these.2 Though it’s not necessary to think of the show in conjunction with anything else at all, it could be interesting to consider it, since I’ve been pursuing comparisons thus far, as a sequel to one of Rubinstein’s poems—for example, his “Some Ways of Looking at ‘Some Trees'”,3 part of which goes:
The artist whose work inspired this experiment
a canvas “Contempt of one’s work as planning for career.”
We have to go on for a little while longer.
We can’t choose which place to stop.
*Cheim & Read publishes free online versions of all their catalogs, which can be found here: http://www.cheimread.com/publications/