CAA Panel: Abstract Painting at 100
Feb. 10, 2011
Shirley Kaneda

One of the questions that Carrie Moyer presented to the panelists was why abstract painting despite its apparent resurgence lately, seems to be presented in a critical void which prompts us to ask ourselves; what value does abstraction hold for us today? How do we assess its significance? Why does it seem to go on despite a lack of criticality surrounding it? What is at stake with abstraction or does it even matter?

Abstract painting is a hundred years old. At its inception, the ideas such as progress and change were embedded in its conception, and seemingly aligned forever with high modernism and its tenets. Abstract painting’s strength and weakness, is the ability to carry ideas that are not mimetic. It can refer to things in the world, but not faithfully represent it. Conventional craft becomes secondary in this situation.  But many feel the ideas that can be contained in abstraction are suspect, particularly since the association with the spiritual in abstraction or Greenbergian formalism seemed too lofty for many younger painters.

Fast forward to 2011.  After two world wars, the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, counter culture of the 60’s, the women’s movement, the Reagan years of the 80’s, excess of the early 2000 and the now almost forgotten financial disaster of 2008 and most recently, the revolution in Egypt are just some of the highlights of the “changes” that the world has gone through since abstraction came into being.

We can, up to a point see clear markers as to how abstract art evolved and developed alongside these changes, but the continuous sense of history, i.e one movement being discovered after another is gone. Without knowing what you are working against or for, we end up with the old masquerading as the new.

One of the reasons I believe abstraction exists in a critical void is, because it is too closely aligned with Modernism and in particular, Greenbergian formalism in most peoples minds. Post Modernism never knew how to deal with this except to denigrate it and claim its obsolescence.  On the other hand, what passes for self-criticality in Post Modernist art has produced little more than a culture of rhetoric.  Ironically, the critique used by Post Modernism to denigrate abstract painting is itself rooted in the positivist vision of Modernism, because it doesn’t have to acknowledge its own mechanical critique. This way, abstract painting can conveniently stand for everything that Post Modernism does not embrace.
What kind of visual culture has been produced by such an attitude? I would say one that is without direction, one that seems to have a knee jerk reaction to all cultural products or what I call the “Top Ten” approach to examining things.  In this kind of atmosphere, abstract painting with its past association to lofty goals and ideals seem not to have any place.  But what we seem to be seeing is that more and more younger artists are turning to abstract painting precisely, because they feel something is lacking in what they largely experience as art and is looking for ways to make their practices more meaningful.  It’s not an easy position in this world of instant gratification, reduced attention span and multi-tasking, because abstraction requires prolonged and intense looking which can lead to ideas that were not previously available to the viewer.

For the generation that came after the 2nd WW, the painterly “gesture” as an authentic extension of one’s self and the idea of constructing the individual in the wake of massive destruction of both western and eastern cultures was a necessary and a meaningful endeavor and one that made perfect sense in the framework of Modernism. But recently, an art historian said to me, the idea of constructing the self is over—it has been achieved and so therefore, aesthetics tied to art that expresses this view is no longer valid. What is valid in his view is “relational aesthetics.” What is relational aesthetics? Nicolas Bourriaud, the French art critic is well known for coining this term in the 90’s in which he has said that it is:

"…a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space…

The artwork creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity. Bourriaud claims "the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.
In Relational Art, the audience is envisaged as a community. Rather than the artwork being an encounter between a viewer and an object, relational art produces intersubjective encounters. Through these encounters, meaning is elaborated collectively, rather than in the space of individual consumption.”*

Under this description of art today which can be embodied by the works of Rirkrit Tiravania, Douglas Gordon or Pierre Huyghe to name a few, abstract painting seems hopelessly mired in the modernist goal of locating the individual, be it the maker or the viewer and yes, in the “space of individual consumption” and make no mistake, works by the artists that I just mentioned are certainly participating in.

What I disagree with this point of view though is that the notion of constructing one’s self vis-à-vis the culture and the world at large is not over and that it can never be over as long as we continue to attempt to understand our changing place and places in the world.  But the notion of authenticity and the gesture as an extension of the authentic self as a means to express the construction of the individual is too general and indeed too singular an idea. That does not mean that authenticity as a premise is invalid, but rather how do we define it now if we are to believe in it?  How do we recognize or address what It means to acknowledge our genuineness in this complex and multi-cultural world we live in today?

Painting is a means of translating the 3 dimensional into 2 dimensional space which used illusionism as a means of achieving this initially. The abstract artists wanted to achieve this without illusionism. In other words, they wanted to give representation to what could not be seen, but existed. I don’t think this goal is useless, in fact what we need to do is to re-evaluate how and what we want to give presence to today, that can’t be seen in other mediums.

For example, I don’t disagree with the power of relational aesthetics although I question what the difference between the “art” of relational aesthetics to Facebook for example is. One can simply see the enormous role Facebook has played in mobilizing the uprising of the Egyptian people that is taking place precisely at this moment.  Surely Facebook can be considered part of art if we are to disengage traditional aesthetics from art and all those Egyptians who participated and collectively created the revolution through Facebook can be considered artists. What is ironic though is that what the revolution is fighting for is precisely for the goals and ideals of modernism: individual human rights and non-censured expression, freedom from oppressive tactics of a totalitarian regime and dictator. Better living conditions and freedom from poverty. 

Of course I am being a bit cheeky with this analogy, but my point is that I don’t see much difference between a lot of what is called art today and what I see on the internet, movies or television. Perhaps this is why younger painters are turning to abstraction as way to make something that is not available in their everyday lives. It is ironic that art that sought to blur the line between art and real life might have blurred it too much that now we are seeing younger artists rebelling from that!

To paint isn’t an act that denies or rejects change, but acknowledges that choice is still possible and not all experiences have to be standardized or mediated. The dilemma which abstract painting is faced with is how it can make up for past claims made in its name, at the same time still affirm its presentness? What are painters doing today that confirms its relationship to the present? In this, I mean how is our experiences expressed through abstraction? I think this requires that abstract painters remain more acutely involved in its histories, unlike other propositions of art making.

In this context I just presented, Modernism has not expired, but we’re trying to divest ourselves of it. One of the things we have to divest is generalities that we draw from actual paintings that when universalized, result in the disintegration of the object’s specific nature. For example, when we attempt to look at a Kenneth Noland Target painting, through the strictures of Greenberg, we fail to see how much it shares not only with Minimalist art, but also with Pop art. As a result, Noland’s post-painterly abstraction may be thought of not only as an extension of Abex, but also a rejection of it, not dissimilar to that of Johns or Stella. It was his critical supporters who disassociated him from this for both ideological as well as commercial reasons. This way of divesting ourselves from the histories of abstract painting has to be done in order that we can revise, recuperate and energize abstract painting so that we can think of abstract painting as unfamiliar and unstable as it can be about resolution and clarity.  I think this is a good situation because although painting appears to be well defined, in my mind, it is a more interesting challenge to address this uncertainty than always attempting or feigning to find the new solution that requires claims of having created a new situation, rather than conceiving new situations by re-ordering old knowledges.

Although paint is not a universal medium, i.e. not all subjects, experiences and concepts can be represented through it, it still gives representation to a substantial body of new information. Unlike photographs and videos, it’s not always already a reproduction or a mediated experience. For me, it’s this aspect of painting which supplies me with the means to give expression to concepts such as multiplicity, diversity, and the non-hierarchical, not only on the pictorial or visual level, but also on the experiential level.

What I’m interested in my work is how by re-arranging and misusing the conventions of formalist painting, I could actualize rather than illustrate those concepts which seem to both stem from and reorder our lives at this time.
I'm not interested in it as a doctrine, but I'm interested in addressing its rules and prohibitions, finding what I can use that had previously been rejected such as the decorative.

Lately, fluidity seems to be the subject of my work. I am interested in how paint which is fluid can make itself look as if it was a representation of itself. Without resorting to cartoon imagery of fluidity, I am interested in how fluidity can be represented in an abstract form without the ‘expressionistic.’  In other words, I do now want to use the material to look as if it was poured, splashed and moved around the canvas to freeze the ‘process’ of paint handling. I am more interested in the fluidity being ‘rendered’ by the hand as form of representation.

The notion of fluidity also ties in with my interest in mirroring our digital age. The computer is fluid in its ability to move from one program to another where there are no strict limits in which programs can be overlapped, windows can be seen in multiples, etc.. I feel that in this way, abstract painting can revitalize itself and communicate a fresh content.
In contrast to traditional media, the digital allows me to experiment with different forms, colors, composition, spatial effects, etc. in a much faster, more complex and to some degree, novel ways than traditional media can offer.  It has also allowed me to realize spatial complexities without giving up the fluidity of a continuous space.  Prior to using the digital, I was trying to achieve similar ends, but was limited in realizing these multiple spaces in a more compartmentalized manner such as dividing the picture plane into rigid sections, etc.

I think of the digital as a tool—cubism is not considered a medium, but a useful way of analyzing space and spatial relationships once they understood the principles of it.  I think of the digital similarly.  I still use oil paint, the most traditional of mediums and paint in a classical, no-nonsense manner.  There is nothing tricky about the way I paint—the effects are painted in a manner that hopefully communicates my faith and fondness of the medium. 

I think digital media is dissolving some differences between photography, painting and sculpture, but each of these disciplines still retain their identities through the specificity of their medium.  What is dissolving perhaps is the notion that these mediums base their specificity in their particular histories.  In other words, it may not be important any more to think of one’s work as being part of the trajectory of that medium.  I can have photographic effects in my paintings, but not necessarily in a mechanical way, in the manner that some of the color field painters had.  Nor does photography has to be limited to a certain scale so it can now have the monumentality or the heroicism of painting such as we see in the work of Andreas Gursky.  I don’t think the digital has eroded the particular concerns of painting although we have some painters who make “paintings” only using the digital without any paint whatsoever. The issue is more about what painting is today—there are many objects today that can call itself painting and it has nothing to do with the advent of the digital and more about painting’s own needs to expand and rethink the limitations of painting and its frame which started at least 70 years ago with artists such as Fontana, etc.


All copyright held by Shirley Kaneda

*”Relational Aesthetics,” Wikipedia