The pioneers of abstraction – the Cubists, the Abstract Expressionists, the Minimalists – emerged from strong and identifiable aesthetic roots and developed their own philosophies. In the competitive maelstrom of 20th century art, these philosophies became dogmas, and the dogmas veritable manifestos. In the new century, many abstract painters say goodbye to all that didactic thinking and exude a kind of calculated hesitation. Raphaël Rubinstein, in a 2009 Art in America essay and for a 2011 painting exhibition he curated in London, dubbed this new type of abstraction “provisional painting.” Similarly, artist and critic Stephen Maine focused on the “nascent image” in a March 2011 exhibition he curated at Lesley Heller. And the Brooklyn Progress Report curatorial team (aka Kris Chatterson and Vince Contarino) stylized their study of contemporary abstraction at the Bronx River Art Center The work title. The three labels suggest the centrality of the open proposition in contemporary abstraction.
There is a studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness to much of the most interesting abstract work painters do today. But subversion of the closure is not their only priority. They also harbor a broader preoccupation with multiple forms of imperfection: not just what’s unfinished, but also what’s off, what’s overtly flippant, what’s not quite right. The idea is to set aside the neat but rigid fundamentals learned in art school and embrace anything that seems to lend itself to visual intrigue, including failure. The painters take a meta approach that refers not only to earlier art historical styles, but to the painting process itself. These amused but unserious painters abandoned the rigorously structured proposals and serial strategies of previous generations in favor of playful and unpredictable encounters. The work of artists like Lauren Luloff, Cordy Ryman, Amy Feldman and Joe Bradley is imbued with an edgy casualness that may at first glance recall a sophomore painting class.
If that sounds derogatory, it’s not meant to be. By reassessing basic elements like color, composition, and balance, based on 1920s Bauhaus principles taught in every 2D Basic course, new painters explore uncharted territory. They are looking for unexpected results rather than beautiful results. Shattering our expectations of “good painting”, painters like Martin Bromirski, Patricia Trieb, Patrick Brennan, Jered Sprecher and Keltie Ferris have challenged its validity and thus moved painting in a direction that requires another way of looking. If a painting looks lousy, perhaps with poorly constructed support and amateur paint handling, look again.
Some painters focus on developing a style and spend 20 years refining it. These new abstract painters, on the other hand, are restless, their thrust less intensive and more expansive. Artists like Rochelle Feinstein and Chris Martin (whose first solo museum opens at the Corcoran on June 18) combine non-artistic materials in their paintings just for fun, working on different scales, employing different color combinations and experimenting in unusual ways. to apply paint. With less investment in honing a unique visual language, painters like Kadar Brock, Rebecca Morris, and Jasmine Justice use earlier forms of abstraction in much the same way Rauschenberg used found objects. In the process, there is no room for originality about originality; it is simply assumed that it will result from synthesis and recombination. And if not, well, isn’t that just as interesting?
To the extent that the new abstract painters employ old tropes and methods with a certain reckless abandon, they might be called the new casualists. Yet they are not as iconoclastic as they might seem. In Malevich and American Legacy, a recent exhibition at Gagosian, curator Andrea Crane attempts to position Malevich’s Supremeism as an ancestor of Minimalism. But in my opinion, the small-scale, quirky abstractions of Malevich have more in common with the new casualism than the austere, highly refined minimalism of Judd, Stella, Kelly, etc. Malevich believed that pure feeling was found in non-objective painting and that materialism could lead to “spiritual freedom”. Both Malevich and the new casualists, who approach their work intuitively, are not fazed by ill-defined parameters or truncated lines of thought. Like the philosopher-mathematicians who devised “fuzzy logic,” the new casualists, like the supremacists, seek to adapt to a world in which there is often no obvious truth or falsity. On the whole, they are more intrigued by the questions and contradictions of art than by the definitive answers it might provide.
At Jason McCoy’s, Stephanie Simmons organized 70 years of abstract paintings: excerpts, which includes a good survey of the small-scale work of over 40 artists. The exhibition presents a compelling historical context for the new post-Bauhaus abstraction. Old paintings by Josef Albers, Gene Davis, Jackson Pollock, Al Held, Man Ray, Hedda Sterne, Hans Hofmann, Leon Polk Smith and Friedel Dzubas hang side by side with recent works by Jim Lee, Joe Fyfe, Rob Nadeau, Sharon Horvath, Cora Cohen, Gwenn Thomas and Thomas Nozkowski, among others. For most artists, their experience of everyday life is the filter through which they focus their paintings, entertaining multiple conflicting ideas at once. Although many of the artists included in the exhibition also work on a larger scale, Simmons selected small-scale works so that she could fit into the exhibition as much as possible without marginalizing the smaller pieces. Tellingly, small paintings tend not to be studies for larger works; rather, she told me, “working at different scales is a way to avoid a stereotypical approach.”
If the new casualism resists evaluation by traditional criteria, how should it be judged? Here, perhaps, minimalists are relevant. Ellsworth Kelly once said, “I was never interested in painting…putting marks on a canvas. My work is a different way of seeing and doing something that has a different use. A new casualist might well make the same general statement. But while Kelly wants to eliminate the personal from the equation, the casualist believes that exploring even mundane subjective perceptions can yield extraordinary insights. In many ways, the new approach to abstraction is indebted to female artists of the 1970s like Elizabeth Murray, Mary Kelly and Ree Morton, who, railing against the macho posturing of the minimalists, worked from an intimate vantage point that embraced the messy daily life. detail. The new casualists adapt a similar attitude to an increasingly complex, unknown and multivalent world. If the viewer leaves a sight of their paintings agitated by their abrupt changes, cross-currents, and deliberate lack of formal cohesion, the work has succeeded.