LACMA’s exhibit of 29 newish paintings, sculptures and media works, Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting, failed to jar in the slightest my conviction that modernist abstraction is a dying form of art.
Of course there is fantastic work in an abstract mode being produced today, by sculptors from Richard Serra to Richard Tuttle to Roni Horn, and painters like Mary Heilmann. Two of them, Howardena Pindell and Amy Sillman, were the bright spots of this exhibit. But all these artists are 50 and older. Younger abstractionists like Tomma Abts strike me as revivalists, making, at best, agreeable historical pastiches.
Of the 50ish-and-younger artists I care about, only Jessica Stockholder could be called an abstractionist, and her vein of abstraction is willfully allusive and impure. Everybody else works with images that are either photographic (Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing), or handmade (Chris Ware, Elizabeth Peyton, Kehinde Wiley), or media-derived (Maruizio Cattelan, Walid Raad).
I hope I’m wrong; I hope there are masses of fantastic abstract pictures being painted by kids right now. But I’m preparing myself for abstraction to turn out to be an historical episode that lasted a century and a half. It required a focus that’s probably hard to sustain today. A few weeks ago I was at a gallery that was showing some carefully selected abstract paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s. They filled the space with warmth, light and silence. A tour group entered, and paused to listen to a smart, concise account of the work. I heard someone ask why artists didn’t paint this way today, and the guide responded, “I think that reflects the different way we all live now. Artists nowadays don’t have the leisure to spend all day reflecting in the studio.”
[Image: Ad Reinhard, from How to Look at Modern Art, 1946]