Tate St Ives 8 October to 3 January
Working with Tate St Ives artistic director Martin Clark and University of Warwick curator Sarah Shalgosky, artist Daniel Sturgis has curated a project 'The Indiscipline of Painting' which draws together 49 painters from Myron Stout to Tauba Auerbach in a reappraisal of the conditions for contemporary abstraction. A day-long St Ives seminar and an excellent catalogue with short pieces on each artist and essays by Sturgis and Terry R Myers have extended the exhibition's impact.
'Indiscipline' is Sturgis's criterion for selecting abstract works that have challenged discipline norms, namely those of US critic Clement Greenberg, whose mid-20th-century writings stipulated that artists address each medium's integrity 'to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence', which in painting's case meant emphasising the flatness of the picture plane. Sturgis also cites geometry and graphic language as key features of the selections, parameters shared by his own studio practice, concerned as it is with flatness, layering and pattern.
Filling all the museum's galleries and hallways, the work is installed according to affinity rather than chronology or resemblance, a system which also determines the layout of the catalogue. You enter alongside a huge new painting by Keith Coventry inventorying lead-based house paints from the 1930s, up a spiral staircase past one of Katharina Grosse's anti-architectural spray-paint murals and into a densely packed gallery of persuasive reductive paintings by Stout, David Diao, Gerhard Richter, Martin Barre, Blinky Palermo and others. It is a struggle to view this number of seminal works, crammed as they are into a small space, while wondering what on earth Greenberg's norms have to do with this richness of facture and idea as the paintings accelerate past such petty proscriptions. This is one flaw underlying Sturgis's perspective and selections. Greenberg's current paper-tiger status has no bearing on new painting and reveals a lesser impact on historic practice than once seemed the case. With the recognition of European, Asian and Latin American 20th-century abstraction unmoved by Greenberg's writing, the acceptance of his impact has declined. Additionally, Greenberg's notions have been most effectively undermined by other kinds of painting and art actions, including film and performance, excluded from this exhibition. Reviewing Stan Brackhage's, Allen Kaprow's and Carolee Schneemann's revisions of Jackson Pollock's procedures, or Yves Klein's impact on later monochrome painters, reveals only some of the forces that, over 50 years ago, started to tear apart the rules for abstract painting.
If realistically the role of Greenberg in Sturgis's curatorial strategy must diminish, then are the selected artists still effective at conveying a narrative of risk and possibility for abstract painting? In an exhibition that probes what Sturgis calls 'the porous borders' of the discipline, it is a surprise that so many of the paintings appear restrained in their inventiveness and expressive means. On the whole, the work seems very disciplined, confined by rigorous linearity and flatness, and reluctant to exert pressure on the boundaries of painting. Where the purpose is to find artists who 're-write and interpret the history of their medium so that they can create a space in which to work', we might expect to find a painting of contaminating and stroppy renunciation. Instead, we have well-behaved professionals who don't rock the boat. …