Magazine article The New Yorker

ABSTRACTION PROBLEM; the Art World

Magazine article The New Yorker

ABSTRACTION PROBLEM; the Art World

Article excerpt

Remember abstract painting? It used to be the living end of modernity in art. Now it's just one variety of produce in the supermarket of visual culture. Two shows stir thoughts on the subject: new work by the paladin of white paintings, Robert Ryman, at PaceWildenstein, and "Comic Abstraction," representing thirteen contemporary artists inspired by comics, cartoons, and other mediums of demotic fun, at the Museum of Modern Art. Ryman, seventy-six years old, is a Tennessean who came to New York in 1952 to be a jazz musician, and encountered the art world while working, for seven years, as a guard at MOMA. He matured as an artist in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, between the decline of Abstract Expressionism and the dawn of minimalism. He conjoined and, ever since, has stayed true to features of both movements: expressively pure painterliness and blunt matter-of-factness. His works are as much mute essays in aesthetic philosophy as objects of pleasure. They delight, if you let them, by clarifying the material givens of any painting: shape, scale, paint texture, underlying surface, and attachment to a wall.

Most of the works in "Comic Abstraction," by younger artists, derive inspiration--albeit remote and attenuated, and, at this late date, perhaps unconscious--from the same era that formed Ryman, when abstraction was still a reigning imperative and self-consciousness in and about aesthetic experience became an iron law. But they yoke those ideals to pursuits of frisky entertainment or earnest politics. Has abstraction, since the sixties, fallen from grace, or been liberated from preciousness? Both may be true.

There are four works in the Ryman show, all of them called "No Title Required" (2006)--finessing a title, "Untitled," so common in the heyday of minimalism as to become something of a joke. (When not using it himself, Ryman has favored astringently poetic titles, on the order of "Regis," "Consort," and "Journal.") The main attraction is an ensemble of ten paintings in smooth white enamel on wood, each a different size in a narrow range from fifty to fifty-five inches square. Each incorporates a wood frame (in oak, cherry, or maple), mounted flush. Paint bleeds across the abutments between surface and frame, establishing the paint skin as the work's forward plane. This being Ryman, every aspect of what you see counts. The units hang close together along most of one wall and part of another. The walls are a matte, muted white, in contrast to the work's glossy, bright enamel. Ghostly reflections of yourself provide vestiges of pictureness. Illumination is indirect, from banks of lights that shine on a wall across the room. The carpentry of the frames is imperfect; slight separations at their corner joins--as well as occasional cracks in the paint between frame and panel--register as chance elements of drawing. The grains, knots, and natural colors of the frames become practically rococo in their visual appeal, amid the prevailing blankness. The units' shifting sizes defeat a reading of them as a unified whole. The suite's length is given as six hundred and eighty-eight inches, which works out to fifty-seven and one-third feet. Intentional or not, that gawky one-third (an infinity of threes, when expressed in decimals) seems Rymanesque, consistent with a thoroughgoing aim to pique and discombobulate comprehension.

The three other works in the show are paintings on linen stapled over frames, each more than seven feet square. (Again, painting fronts frame, this time with the added thickness of the linen.) White oil paint is applied in brushy flurries over a very slightly darker ground. Surface qualities vary almost--but never quite--enough to suggest pictures of something: clouds, perhaps, or foliage. The effect is a stammer in the visual cortex, as your brain doggedly tries and incessantly fails to make conscious sense of the sensory input. This isn't an unusual phenomenon in abstract art, or even in figurative art. …

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