The Future of Abstract Art. (Letters)

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To the Editors:

In "Does abstract art have a future?" (December 2002), Hilton Kramer speculates that it may not. He could be right. I am an abstract painter, however, and I would rather that he isn't.

Kramer points out that abstract painting has an "inevitably symbiotic relation to representational art" and that the larger question is "the fate of painting itself." He goes on to give examples of the complete absence of abstract painting in current high-level survey exhibitions.

His observations and conclusions are accurate. I maintain, however, that abstract and representational art are more than "symbiotically related"; at this point in art history, they are continuous. That is, we now understand that nothing is completely realistic and nothing is completely abstract, and the sharp distinction that was such a hot topic fifty years ago is now of little consequence. To a viewer of any sophistication it is no more important than red paint or green paint. The real division is not between realistic and abstract but between the traditional use of art as a vehicle for aesthetic apprehension and pleasure, and the current use of art for just about anything else. It is not a matter of medium or method but of attitude, not a matter of realistic painting or abstract painting or anything physical, but of what we ask art to do for us. It is not just abstract painting that is in trouble, but art itself.

The difference between abstract and representational art becomes explicit now only because mainstream academic postmodernism insists on overt meaning and message in all art, and, simultaneously, derides and discourages intuitively derived aesthetic pleasure. This singles out abstract art for rejection not because it is nonrepresentational, but because it declares by its character that it must be seen for aesthetic comprehension only. Realist painting can adapt. It can carry a postmodernist message. That's why we see more realist painting than abstract painting now. That's why the Museum of Modern Art, with exaggerated enthusiasm and more than just a suggestion that it is, after all, in favor of painting, puts on a major exhibit for Gerhard Richter, whose paintings are as chilling and lifeless and as heartlessly academic as any postmodernist pile of detritus anywhere.

The first panel discussion I ever took part in, entitled "Is Painting Dead?," was at NYU in 1966. It was chaired by Barbara Rose and included Donald Judd, Larry Poons, and Robert Rauschenberg. (Poons and I, of course, said "no," Judd, of course, said "yes," and Rauschenberg, typically, didn't really care and was funny). That was thirty-seven years ago. Painting hasn't died, and it won't die. It has borne great art for so long, and it retains so many methods and conventions useful for just that purpose, that it certainly cannot be said to be internally exhausted. Externally, it suffers in the cultural marketplace by its relative inability to accomodate the current regressive trend. But very good painting, and, yes, very good abstract painting, is being made and appreciated all over the place. …