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ART: GOLDEN OLDIES

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

THE TROUBLE WITH THE SOLOmon R. Guggenheim Museum’s much awaited show at its main venue in Manhattan, “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline,” is that its subject is far too big. The task that curator Mark Rosenthal has taken on is roughly comparable to doing an anthology of, say, European and American fiction since 1910 in 300 printed pages. However much you might wish it could be done, it can’t. The field is too vast. You end up with a sample here, a masterpiece there, an overschematic story and an infinity of regrets about the omission of things that might or should or could have gone in. How do you tell a story like that of abstraction with microbursts–sometimes five works, sometimes only one–from 49 artists? You get a highly conventionalized narrative of golden oldies that seems both too extensive and not extensive enough.

Abstract art, though it isn’t the only or the greatest contribution the 20th century has made to art history, is certainly its distinctive movement. Nobody before 1900 had thought of painting a picture that didn’t represent something–a face, a body, a landscape, a still life. The idea that art could be unmoored from appearances, that marks on canvas could convey emotions, spiritual states and pleasures quite independently of any reference to the world as we know it, had a long ancestry in theory. Plato, after all, raised the idea that there were certain perfect forms–the square, the circle and so on–that move us in a way free from the itch of desire.

But in practice, it wasn’t tried in any systematic fashion until after 1910, when the three founding fathers of abstract painting–two Russians, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, and a Dutchman, Piet Mondrian–came, more or less simultaneously, to believe that pure form, in opposing what they saw as the deadly materialism of European culture, could open the way to a world of pure spirit. Abstraction would become a language, the key to utopian states of mental and social harmony that had been only dimly implied in art before. Abstract art would be the music of the spheres for the 20th century, manifesting, wrote Malevich, “the spiritual, therefore the divine, the universal.”

This faith in a new world order induced by art collapsed soon enough; today it looks like a fossil from the early Messianic era of modernism. In fact, none of the more exalted claims made for abstract art over the past century have worn well. In the first flush of optimism after the 1917 Revolution, artists like Vladimir Tatlin hoped that abstraction, if made of the common materials used by workers, could lift dialectical materialism to a new plane and so become the basis of a popular art. These dreams ended in indifference and, for some, the Gulag.

Abstract painting lapsed into mannerism in Europe by the late 1930s, and was revived in America by artists who discarded its utopian fantasies and replaced them with ideas related to epic space, primitive ritual, spontaneous gesture and the sublime. But who today still buys the rhetoric that surrounded Abstract Expressionism–all that oracular guff about existential confrontation, tragedy, timelessness and how we’re locking horns with Michelangelo?

At every point in its long life, abstraction laid claim to a myth of progress. It was the necessary next stage in art, which went forward–one learned from critic Clement Greenberg and his disciples in the 1960s–by throwing out everything not intrinsic to its nature (whatever that nature was). Art was heroic reductionism, a long-term contest with History. On that basis, it became a worldwide academy-without-walls. But since practically no one believes anymore that there is such a thing as progress in art, this view has taken a terrible beating. The idea that pure abstraction admits you, as artist or as viewer, to superior domains of experience founders on competitive ideas of purity. First you throw out the bath water, then the baby and then the bath.

Each of these impulses has something radical about it at its moment, but does the sense of radicalism continue to seem invigorating after it’s been enshrined for 20, 30, 50 years? Not everything that art can say or do is contained in a black canvas by Ad Reinhardt or a white one by Robert Ryman. The world keeps staking its claims, even on abstraction, and so much of the most interesting art of the 20th century exists liminally, at the border between what’s abstract and what isn’t. Was Miro an abstract artist? Is it illegitimate, when you’re looking at Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), to find traces of wind, weather and shifting light in the exquisite skeining of its paint and its tremulous, deep-yet-shallow space? What about all the tits and ass in De Kooning?

The instability of abstraction becomes even clearer when you think of the enormous emotional range it has encompassed–from the pale reticence of Agnes Martin’s pencil grids, for instance, to the sculpture of Richard Serra, which is so aggressively and patently part of the world of work and substance, so direct in its claims of bodily immediacy, that it seems about as abstract as a rock face.

Everyone will have gripes about the choices in this show. It buries color-field painting, representing it with one Helen Frankenthaler but no Morris Louis, no Kenneth Noland. Its only reference to abstraction in England is one small Wyndham Lewis. It gives too much prominence to Barnett Newman, the most overrated of the Abstract Expressionists–though the inclusion of Olga Rozanova’s vertical green stripe on a white ground, painted some 30 years before Newman came up with his vertical zip, is a neatly deflating touch. And beyond the details of choice, the show seems somewhat embalmed by its exclusion of younger abstractionists: the youngest artist in it, that excellent sculptor Martin Puryear, is 54.

Still and all, one should not lose sight of the show’s main virtue. Rosenthal has a connoisseur’s eye, and he has put together many first-rate paintings–some familiar from a thousand reproductions, but terrific to see in, as it were, the flesh. Some remind you that among the most beautiful images in the world are those provoked by implausible or even fatuous ideas, like Kandinsky’s spiritualism. A great Kandinsky such as Painting with Black Arch, 1912, with its play of dense red and blue forms within a matrix of vaporous, yet strongly brushed silvery light, may seem to hover on the edge of being a landscape, but what keeps your gaze circulating in the picture space is the confident self-sufficiency it implies. This really does seem like a parallel world, as does Mondrian’s (though in a quite different way)–not an abstraction in the sense of impoverishment, a taking away from reality, but something full. Such a sense of fullness–the plenitude of achieved experience–is what the best art gives us, abstract, figurative or in between, and Rosenthal has assembled enough high moments from the history of abstraction to make the point clear.

One of abstraction’s triumphs, he argues in the catalog, is to have become a tradition–a vehicle through which innovation is continuously possible, as the still life and landscape genres have been. Maybe so, but there isn’t much sign of renewal in today’s abstract painting, most of which seems inescapably the product of a late-period, Alexandrian sensibility. Can abstract art, elitist and demanding by nature, survive as anything but a historical event for an audience force-fed from birth on mass-media images? Come back after the millennium, and ask again.

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