Revolution in (Re)Form: More Thoughts on Abstraction Today
“What would you pick? Revolution or reform?” This question resonated into an empty bowl of noodles in the wood paneled basement of a New York ramen joint, years ago. It came from an artist and it was posed at a special time and place as he, an old acquaintance and (at least back then) much under recognized-talent was packing to move out of town. New York’s art world, in his opinion, had given up trying. The place was quiet, muted footsteps and chatter from upstairs, FM radio hits at a miraculously low volume. I struggled with the question then, as always, keeping contrasting thoughts about both revolution and reform to myself, echoing our silence graciously.
Revolution is fun, at least that’s what everyone seems to agree upon before an actual revolution takes place. It’s a process leading to a moment that can be pinned down and reminisced upon. It’s all action, sticking it to the man, fulfilling a higher purpose… the Works! Reform, of course, is as boring as you would imagine. It’s like a TV dinner at a committee meeting. It’s like dad jeans: practical.
Reforms sometimes do work, leading to successful moments in which the (largely bureaucratic) abstraction of reformative struggle also translates into actual change that, in part because of the lack of a climactic moment, is often not even read as such. Revolution’s scenic pathways, on the other hand, converge in valleys of extreme, unsettling disruption and failure that are seldomly perceived as such, but rather as contingent to their own causes, if not as further proof of genuine commitment and radicality.
So now, my artist friend in that ramen joint was not referring to politics, of course, but to art-making; and getting your art to be seen and talked about, maybe selling some and, who knows, ending up with something good on your hands…that kind of thing. The New York art world of three years ago was, to him, screwed. He was adamant about that. It was a failed system. He was out to the west coast and we were idiots to stay because, as the shrinking global elites widened the mote between themselves and “us,” the artistic and creative proletariats couldn’t do much more than logging in at the studio (after regular work hours somewhere else, that is), stare at something blank and make, make, make something out of it. To that artist, as to many others, a redefinition of art’s modes of production and general context required nothing less than revolution, a change he was ready to embody by leaving both his known-knowns and known-unknowns behind. I wasn’t and still am not surprised at his specific disillusionment with studio practice and hands-on work.
There definitely is something going on with this “making” frenzy, and it has been playing an important role in contemporary visual art for a long time now; especially so in New York, a city of nervous, overworked people. In the niche of equally stressed out, often broke, creative types knee-deep in debt (mostly owed to schools that capitalize on their students’ overall feel-good experience and inflated confidence). Making can be therapeutic. An artistic practice costs less than therapy proper, even when the cost of studio shares and materials are factored in; and it’s nicer to make something. New York is still full of micro- and macro- communities ready to listen to you, artist or maker or both, especially when you’re young and up to party, and your life is flexible, fluid, selfless and/or other-less as everyone around you tells you it ought to.
Anyhow, “making art” feels largely different from the earned status implied in “being an artist.” Making art merely makes you a person who happens to produce images, artifacts, actions and ideas, that correspond to general and more often than not, shared, notions of what “art” is. To many, the idea of being as much Artists (capital A intended) as art makers feels like a terrifying, sad and unpleasant reality. Yet, as Hannah Arendt has remarked, “The reification which occurs in writing something down, painting an image, modeling a figure or composing a melody is (…) the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of the human artifice.”1 That workmanship is in fact a universal conduit of creativity, and as much as it might feel dated or even nostalgic, it is very, very much of our time. As Lane Relyea has noted, the misconception that a return to Do It Yourself ethics and handcraft stand in opposition to our contemporary, immaterial technological experiences and live/work modes, and are therefore to be assumed as reactionary, is false. In Relyea’s own words “the handmade, as a conspicuous celebration of freelance performance and practice–that is, of the pragmatics of doing elevated over the semantics of meaning (italics mine,) of the syntagmatic over the paradigmatic–is very much complimentary to the new priorities of a networked paradigm.”2 This networked paradigm is of course contemporary art itself, or better its contemporary “system”, a complex of interconnected (and ideologically structured) art worlds that show little of the apolitical spontaneity associated to organic networks.
Expanded discussions of artistic practice beyond the grand narratives of inspiration and uncompromising, passionate commitment are too often tolerated with suspicion and resentment. We all – critics and writers in primis… – tend to forget the importance of both technical and manual skill, and the existential implications of artistic expression. If we maintain freedom to exercise and materialize creativity at the core of our understanding of what art making is, we might want to radically re-think that great little quote by Ai Weiwei “To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason.”3 Indeed, expression is, and should always remain the primary “reason” of art-making, and who can deny that hands-on making is, if not the one, a valid and accessible form of expression? We are therefore back to the “pragmatics of doing” and contemporary art making. Do such pragmatic approaches conceal a pack of revolutionary wolves hiding under reformist sheepskins? Maybe.
In his seminal book A Grammar of the Multitude Paolo Virno refers to abstraction as “a thought becoming a thing (Italics mine).”4 This appears in the context of his deep and fascinating reflection on virtuosity, “something which is not indistinguishable nor even separable from the act of production itself.”5 Virno casts the virtuoso as a locutor, s/he who speaks, not in the sense of a professionally established/recognized artistic persona, but as a human being expressing pre-cultural faculties that are in fact part of a shared and somewhat scaringly indistinct general intellect.
Abstract art adopting art-historical techniques, styles, formats and ideas with or without irony and, most importantly, with or without acknowledging it (which is 100% fine with your writer here), has emerged as an ideal language of contemporary virtuosity, a prominently spoken lingua franca of the artistic general intellect. It’s often compact (or at least, studio-friendly) format, visual pleasantness and immediacy all contribute to an abundance of self-contained, beautiful things. As the motto on Bushwick art advocate James Panero’s blog goes: “It must be abstract. It must give pleasure” (a quote from poet Wallace Stevens) …a fairly commonly prescribed destiny for all things abstract in art, indeed. Many critics, anyhow, would beg to differ, and so does the vast majority of artists I know… but maybe it’s just us?
Undoubtedly, New York, and Brooklyn in special way, has been a hotbed of this return to abstraction, so much so that, together with co-editor Christopher K. Ho, we came to the decision of collecting and editing a series of essays and notes on the topic, pairing them with lively conversation transcripts featuring emerging artists working with abstraction today. The result of two years of work, Golden Age: Perspectives on Abstract Painting Today was published by NURTUREart in October 2014. This little book has become an object of lively conversation and, although exclusively distributed in hard copy, on sale on our website and in a handful of international bookstores, we already had to reprint it once, and are currently considering a deal for international distribution. Working on the book was mind-opening.
As I have noted before, what we felt was lacking at the time was a real and informed conversation around what abstraction means now, and a debate about the many whys and wherefores of its hyper-prominent return in the specific context of Brooklyn NY, where the book was conceived and created. What was not needed, in our opinion, was another label to stick on the genre, generalizations, lazy analogies, vilifications or sub-categorizations, empty diatribes and generalist, or worse, opportunistic, a-criticality.
The greatest potential of today’s abstraction lies in its its ability to reflect and foreground the material and intellectual conditions of its own making in clear and narratively unencumbered terms, and strategically accepted/acceptable format, which often works as an invite to look and think. I am not sure that many of the artists I respect and admire, especially those working with abstraction, would agree with this statement, or rather be more concerned with making sure that their art does, in fact, reflect a positive image. However I came to believe that it is exactly that openness/reflectiveness that many find so compelling in abstraction today, not to say that the final results don’t matter, but to stress how much more there is beyond first and second looks; beyond casual or meticulously fabricated appearances; beyond subjective pleasures and surface (this might raise hair, but I’ve been past my good art vs. bad art phase for a while now, so please, bear with me if you can).
There are and will always be many conflicting points of view on abstraction, on the relationship between abstraction and painting, and on abstract art’s eternal returns: a kaleidoscope of parallel and intersecting lines connecting the many dots on today’s contemporary map. In Golden Age, we decided to focus on painting to narrow down our field of action a bit. We let the critics (many of them, also practicing artists) tell us what they think, sometimes post-scripting their own essays to refine or update their points and opinions, then shared their words with a group of mostly emerging artists to discuss, dissect and, of course, criticize them back.
Several points really stood out, and some were smartly highlighted in Ho’s postscript to the book. Among other things, the postscript takes Virno’s previously mentioned understanding of virtuosity as locution and, referring to an interview with artists David Xu Borgonjon, Keenan Jay and Lauren Martin, reconsiders the notion as virtuous citizenry or, as in the words of the interviewed artists: modernist self-reflexivity recast as self-fulfillment.6 This fulfillment is not, anyhow, mere indulgence, but a way to translate artistic activity, and in this specific case, abstract painting, into a form of realistic, political representation.
In this sense, abstract painting would be at its best not, as Ho suggests, as coping mechanism (or, as I see it and have partially hinted at before, therapy) but rather as conscientious creation. What’s at stake is nothing less than the definition of new contexts and meanings for artistic practice, the silent and only episodically coordinated act of community-minded, middle ground artists.
The good news: such artistic communities already exist and thrive, above and beyond the unrealistic jetsetting over-achievers vs. glorified outcasts dichotomies so dear to the corporate art world. They are made of people who have embraced their own creative potentials and engaged their imagination (simple steps that are still painfully hard to take, especially for the many who can’t move from a zone of confidence and/or privileged knowledge) but, for a number of reasons, haven’t necessarily adopted the unspoken codes of conduct of the art world proper. In such groups, non-representational art has emerged as both increasingly successful language and momentous strategy. What remains to be seen is how will the often soft spoken, distinctly un-excessive and consistently inclusive practices that we identified as a one of the leading trends in contemporary abstraction carve a space for themselves inside an art world that’s still painfully addicted to scarcity, cyclical makeovers, ethically bankrupt political gesturing and carefully edited personal and historical narratives.
This essay (and its accompanying images) were originally published on the exhibition catalog of New New York, Abstract Painting in the 21st Century, curated by Liam Davis and Debra Drexler. October 4 – December 4, 2015. The Art Gallery at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. The essay references and completes Golden Age: Pespectives on Abstract Painting Today, a book of essays and interviews dedicated to the resurgence of abstraction on the contemporary artistic scene, co-edited by Marco Antonini and Christopher K. Ho (October 2014, NURTUREart Press).
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 169. ↩
- Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World (MIT Press, 2014), Kindle edition, location 72. ↩
- Ai WeiWei, ed. Larry Warsh, Weiwei-isms (Princeton University Press, 2012). ↩
- Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Semiotext(e), 2004), 64. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Marco Antonini and Christopher K. Ho, eds. Golden Age (NURTUREart Press, 2014), 104. ↩
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