Abstract painting

Rethinking Abstract Painting as a Meaningful Process – The Brooklyn Rail

The four artists who are included in an exhibition at the Po Kim/Sylvia Wald Foundation on Lafayette Street maintain a lifelong dialogue about painting and frequently show their work together in various parts of Germany. Of the four painters, only two are actually German: Ivo Ringe from Bonn and Rupert Eder from Munich. A third, Jon Groom, is originally from Wales and has lived and worked in Munich for 25 years. The fourth is Joe Barnes, an octogenarian tennis player and New York’s only entertainer. Barnes is also the curator of this exhibition, entitled About painting. One of the arguments I would make in relation to the title is that today painting – like sculpture – can employ just about any type of subject, any formal or anti-formalist idea, and almost any type of format and technical process, and is still called painting. About painting actually relates to abstract painting in which some reference to geometry is usually apparent. Specifically, this exhibition is about abstract painting on a smaller scale, which sets it apart from the Color Field variety, such as Thomas Downing, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and the California Classicists, including John McLaughlin and Karl Benjamin, whom I have cited in an earlier essay, as well as the large-scale geometry seen in the works of Ellsworth Kelly, early Frank Stella, Robert Swain, Sanford Wurmfeld, and British artist Bridget Riley.

In fact, the four painters in this exhibition are less concerned with scale than many of their late modernist predecessors. For example, Joe Groom, probably the most notable of the group, began working on small-scale vertical formats, using an acrylic on linen medium, three decades ago. Groom’s scale was not monumental, although it filled the viewer’s perceptual field. Over the past four years, Groom has intentionally moved away from large linen surfaces to small metal surfaces – almost, but not quite square – ranging from 38 by 35 to 54 by 50 centimeters. He paints on various alloys, stainless steel and pewter. “Herald GIV #15” (2009) is an oil on tin in which a dark vertical rectangle competes from behind with a horizontal metallic rectangle hugging the lower edge. “GV #18” (2010) is a square oil on metal where a beautiful set of green and blue rectangles descend from the top edge to meet a horizontal band just above the bottom and just short of the left side of the quadrilateral. Groom is a very accomplished and rigorous painter, a master of the craft. Listening to his Welsh singing voice explain how light is contained in the color of his paintings exudes a pleasure that is hard to define in our culture, but is definitely within the purview of an aesthetic that emerged from a very high order in balance delicate between the eye and the mind.

Ivo Ringe is a painter who has most completely freed himself from the edges of the bearing frame. That is to say, Ringe will often hang his woven triangle and polygon shape(s) in the frame, if not exactly in the center. For example, “Love” (2011) is a light bluish gray egg with an open structure in a greenish field. In contrast, “The Pink Sea” (2006) features a similar open structure, but in bluish gray on a pink field where all lines hypothetically extend beyond the visible surface. Again, in “Nice” (2008), we get a telephoto view of the wide linear structure in light yellow against light gray. Ivo Ringe’s paintings remind me of physics, but with a freedom of execution that makes our visual entry into his universe completely open and accessible.

Rupert Eder, the youngest of the group, applies a wider range of colors to a single surface. His oil and pigment paintings on linen are again on a small scale. It looks like each color band is placed directly parallel to each of the edges. However, on closer inspection, it appears that beneath the four strokes are earlier applications of color of varying length, as in “Solo rotor #28” (2011), where the descending stroke to the left of the quadrilateral rests on a lighter version of the same shade. In each case, Eder’s paintings form a sort of puzzle that challenges the viewer to decipher the sequence in which the various strokes were made. A series of four paintings, together titled manhattan 4 (each measuring 30 by 30 centimeters), remains particularly ambiguous, but beautiful in its ambiguity, as one attempts to interpret the temporal placement of the strokes that cling to each of the edges of the square and leave the squares glowing in the center of each painting to shine like jewels.

Finally, Joe Barnes is the only monochrome painter in the group. His approach to painting began a few years ago when he started working on blank canvases as a meditative exercise. Gradually over the past 20 years he has moved from working strictly in white to primary and secondary colors on both square and straight surfaces. Barnes presents this exhibition with four 12 by 12 inch black paintings, placed equidistant on the wall, titled “Meditation” (2011). Given his monochromatic approach, the artist pays considerable attention to how and where his work will be placed. Often in Europe he will place a small painting in the center of a large wall or a large panting on a relatively small wall, depending on how he perceives the effect of the color in the space. For Barnes, to paint is to designate a surface of color that will affect the space around it. One could say that the color and scale of these very reduced paintings require a syntactical relationship with the wall for the work to be read and experienced correctly.

I guess the point of this rather unique exhibition for the present moment is to bring back awareness of what abstract painting is at a time when it seems to be disappearing again. In the early periods of Modernism, spanning from Malevich to Reinhardt, or from Duchamp to Conceptual art, the question of the appropriateness of abstract painting was more of an internal philosophical or aesthetic debate. However, in the era of mediation, where populations only see things in motion, the question has become much more serious and more dependent on evolutionary factors. The question we face today is whether adult human beings still have the attention span to see an abstract painting as a visual argument that defines a state of mind – a true state of Being, even of Non-Being. The lack of interest in deciphering this conflicting reality is distressing to say the least. After the formalism of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the ability to see abstract painting, even on an intimate or concentrated scale, is ultimately more than contained within the formalist paradigm. Over the past half-century, another, broader aesthetic has emerged with respect to psychology, epistemology, and semiotics, encompassing questions beyond the boundaries of “what you see.” We are now able to think in relation to what we see, which I propose as a natural course in the evolution of painting. Accordingly, recent examples of abstract painting could be considered to possess a kind of linguistic syntax capable of meaning beyond the purely visual aspects of form. The paintings in this exhibition deal precisely with this process. They give way to perceptions, both mental and emotional, which translate into abstract language that further signifies the terms of what we may decide to call our reality.