Abstraction's Moment

Article excerpt

Abstract art has been around for about a hundred years, long enough, you would think, for it to have ceased to be an issue. Yet despite its century-old tradition, abstraction still causes consternation. Unsophisticated audiences continue to be disconcerted by the way that abstract paintings and sculptures look like nothing but themselves. What's more surprising, some of the hippest gallery-and museum-goers are often just as disconcerted, albeit for different reasons. Abstraction's resistance to explication disturbs many sophisticated viewers, given the present-day art world's cherished conviction that works of art must be fully bolstered by statements of intent and elaborate iterations of generating concepts, if they are to be taken seriously. Works that at first viewing apparently refuse to be about anything but themselves and their own history are dismissed as empty, corporate, "merely" decorative, or, in some circles, patriarchal and imperialist, no matter how multivalent the associations they provoke. (Abstract artists who claim deep spiritual, theoretical, or philosophical bases for their work are usually exempt from these charges.) Adding to abstract art's ability to discomfit is the lingering resentment provoked by the name "Clement Greenberg," the most articulate and perceptive champion of American post-war abstraction.

The more recent the abstract art, the more problematic it seems to be. No one doubts the importance of Vassily Kandinsky or Piet Mondrian. Russian Constructivism ranks high, although that may be for political reasons. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko are admired, probably as much for their own insistence that they were deep thinkers whose art embodied Big Ideas, as for the potency of the work itself. Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann seem to have transcended Greenberg's enthusiasm for them. But come closer to our own day and anything relating to abstraction becomes more contentious--except when you're dealing with Minimalism, which seems to have a special dispensation from the usual criticisms leveled against abstract art.

Curators, critics, and artists wrangle about the continuing significance of abstraction, while exhibitions proliferate celebrating contemporary manifestations of the most overrated of High Academic art's achievements--excruciating fidelity to appearances and meticulous finish--usually used as ends in themselves. Yet, as I write this, a magnificent survey of Sean Scully's severe, opulent geometric paintings and works on paper is splendidly installed at the Metropolitan Museum, a retrospective of Morris Louis's ethereal, elusive paintings has just opened at the High Museum of Atlanta, and a large, comprehensive overview of Brice Marden's work is at the Museum of Modern Art. (It's possible that Marden's Minimalist roots count heavily in his favor, but that doesn't entirely explain the critical enthusiasm for his recent "cool Baroque" work.) In addition, highly respected galleries in Chelsea, Fifty-seventh Street, and the Upper East Side are showing Pat Lipsky's cool, geometric abstract canvases; Willard Boepple's eloquent, self-contained abstract sculptures; Helen Frankenthaler's improvisational abstract constructions in steel; and Frank Stella's raucous, exuberant abstract collages and reliefs. Not long ago, a spectacular new Chelsea space was inaugurated by an exhibition of Joseph Marioni's austere, seductive, monochrome abstract paintings. Kirk Varnedoe's 2003 Mellon Lectures, "Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock," have just been published by Princeton University Press. And full disclosure: I'm working on a major traveling exhibition of abstract art, "Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975," for the American Federation of Arts. Is there new interest in art that looks like nothing but itself?

When I was a rookie curator, in the 1970S, figurative artists felt themselves to be embattled--or, at least, "traditional" figurative artists did, given the ascendancy of Pop Art, with its easily recognizable mass culture imagery. …