Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obscure abstract

One roughly breaks the universe of art into people you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. You trust that this sorting represents a measure of relative importance. The names of the major painters of each era are easily accessible. When you run across an unfamiliar name, my first reaction is not “how did I miss this” but some assurance that the figure occupies a more esoteric place in art history. I don’t think I was familiar with Georges Lacombe before I ran across a distinctly Gauguin-esque painting at the Norton Simon Museum, African-mask like figures gathering chestnuts in a strange forest dominated by bright reds. I’m sure Lacombe’s name rolls readily off the tongue of a connoisseur of the Nabis, but I’m complacent enough to assume my ignorance doesn’t represent a serious gap—in fact, these little gaps allow me the pleasure of discovery even at my advanced age.

This certainty breaks down as you move closer to the present in history.  For contemporary artists, the prominence of artists in my consciousness, if you did one of those word maps that weight the frequency of terms in a document or other source, is to some extent and within certain bounds, a random process. While it may be impossible to avoid John Currin, I track on Jiha Moon, who is quite interesting, but there are undoubtedly a hundred others of comparable importance of whom I’m utterly ignorant.

On one hand the sorting process of historical significance has not started. 40 years from now maybe people will discuss Bob Durham rather than Currin. I can imagine a case where a “provincial” painter (not residing in New York, LA, Europe, or China) like Bob gets rediscovered, like someone from a small Dutch town in the 17th century.

We also will have to see if the end of a unifying art historical narrative means that artists from our day will always remain part of an undifferentiated blob of 1,000s of names.

I thought I had a reasonably good grasp on the post-war years, so I would know what to expect from Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties. a show at the Norton Simon Museum. Instead, it made me feel quite stupid. The first room was dominated by names I did not recognize at all: Frank Lobdell, Harvey Quaytman, Takeshi Kawashima, Ray Parker, Thomas Downing, Ralph Humphrey, and Stephen Greene.  These guys  were all in the first of the two rooms. There were also names more familiar to me: Agnes Martin, Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Stella, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin. But I only reached them after a series of unfamiliar names that made me wonder if this was completely an alternative history of art in the 60s.

My parents are great about recognizing names like these.  They know more about art than I do by leaps and bounds. But I’m sure I’ll occasionally be able to pull the same trick 40 years from now. “Oh yes, Tara Donovan, she piled up mounds of uniform, mass-produced common objects—plastic cups, pencils—to create not so miniature worlds.”
Thomas Downing was DC-based, so I’ve probably heard his name. A grid of large circles in various shades of reds. They look machine made, but they were hand painted free-hand. The variety and sequence of colors has a pleasing rhythm, with a distinct but not over-bearing pulse. The painting goes well with Ralph Humphrey’s painting, which also deals with gradations of tonality, in this case a surface covered with green, mostly olive, but loose variations in hue and paint thickness that give this painting a complex texture.

One of the points of this exhibit is that even after Abstract Expressionism, as Pop was taking center stage, some people kept on in abstraction. It’s not a very interesting idea. Yes, people kept painting. Rackstraw Downs’ little book of remembrances describes his experience of art in New York consisting of a very different set of painters. 

The paintings in this show are very fine. The Downing and Humphreys paintings are satisfying.  The work by Ray Parker consists of two large patches of dark green hovering in an abstract ground. Again, they are painted loosely, the shapes not precisely the same or neatly trimmed off. The color of the two differs subtly, and some sections have been built up and worked over more.  Frank Lobdell’s work is a sea of vivid orange-red with chains of marks crossing it on diagonals, like some sort of track or a distorted rendering of some sort of figure.  The primary chain has thick dark outlines filled with yellows and oranges. The crossing chain consists mostly of faint outlines that look overpainted, partially eradicated. The colors, between the background and the yellows and others in the chain remind me of a stone I had as part of small rock collection I had as a kid, which had the most vivid oranges and yellows occurring together. I don’t remember what the mineral was. I don’t think it was anything precious, just pretty.

As I would expect, California and Western artists are well-represented—Lobdell was in California most of his career, as were Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, and I associate Martin with New Mexico. Of course, it seems true more often than not that shows about this period make an effort to acknowledge the West Coast scene. Several of them have the same story—grew up in the Midwest, served in the war moved to California. The exhibit includes a black and white photo from the period of each artist. These are pictures from that time before the 60s counter-culture started, the men with clean white shirts and short hair, serious and optimistic.

Many of the paintings in this show do connect in my mind with minimalism. There is the most subtle Agnes Martin I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. A grid of rectangles in an overlapping brick-wall pattern done in pencil. The lines are all light, but their thickness varies distinctly.  The piece by Robert Irwin is mostly a monochrome field of a subdued red.  The only features are two horizontal lines that run nearly but not quite border to border. One is in a contrasting slate blue color. The other echoes this line above, in the same color as the ground but distinguished by extra layers of paint, making it present through texture.

The paintings in this show are uniformly pretty large, which gives them the heft to stand alone and makes a show of about 20 or so objects sufficient. Each is sort of big gulp. The assessment might be unfair, but I left feeling these were as I said very fine paintings, paintings you can enjoy, but I don’t know if they are important.  The fact of these paintings and painters, and of Rackstraw Downes’ account of his New York, can lead you to question whether there really is a narrative for art history, or whether the confusion we experience today is all there really is.

Maybe that narrative isn’t really about art at all, but about cultural impact, and that’s something else.  What we end up writing about is not what’s good, but what makes and impression and has an impact, even a transitory impact. So what artists today have an impact? And on whom? Other artists? Or a broader society, though maybe limited to those engaged with elite culture. So who? Matthew Barney or Jeff Koons? Some subset of the Chinese. Ai Weiwei if things keep going the way they are.


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