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The following is an essay from the catalogue accompanying Wit, an exhibition curated by Joanne Freeman that was on display at The Painting Center from January 29-February 23, 2013.
Wit, huh? It seems an unlikely peg on which to organize an exhibition of abstract paintings and sculptures. We’ve been taught, after all, that abstract art is serious business. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, the holy trinity of modernist abstraction, scuttled representation in the cause of philosophical and sociological ideals–as a means of changing the world. The New York School, having seen how resolutely the world crushed their aspirations, redefined abstraction as a conduit for interiority–as a forum for primordial longings, universal symbols, that sort of thing. They did so to impressive effect—until, that is, the world went pop!
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Here in the wobbly days of the early twenty-first century, abstraction is no longer viewed as a driving historical force or the necessary culmination of twenty thousand years of creative endeavor. Though you might hear otherwise from isolated outposts—variations on “my kid could paint that” being the most predominant—abstraction is pretty much a non-issue, and not a moment too soon. Shouldering the burden of tradition can occasion significant art, but it can also stifle artistic independence and skew perception, public and otherwise. Be grateful that abstraction with a capital “A” is over and done with. Painters and sculptors dedicated to the cause can now work with astonishing freedom. The King is dead. Now let’s see where we can go with this thing.
Stephen Westfall, Forest (For Franz Marc) (2010), 59″ x 59″, oil and alkyd on canvas; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.
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Eschewing the purity that was once abstraction’s sine qua non, the artists featured in Wit opt for an almost promiscuous inclusivity. No inspiration is suspect. High-flown ambitions–sure, we got ‘em; historical cognizance, too. But these artists are also characterized by a willingness to embrace a veritable laundry list of references: nature, narrative, comics, design, technology, science, representation and, not least, humor. Not that humor has been entirely absent from the history of abstract art: Malevich pranked Mona Lisa five years before Duchamp and Mondrian paid winning homage, in oil and canvas, to his beloved boogie-woogie music. Still, abstraction nowadays is more and more a repository of quirks, tics and pictorial double entendres, having as much in common with Buster Keaton, say, as Neo-Plasticism.
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Just don’t hold your breath expecting Marina Adams, Polly Apfelbaum, Joanne Freeman, Joe Fyfe, Barbara Gallucci, Phillis Ideal, Jonathan Lasker, Sarah Lutz, Doreen McCarthy, Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Pagk, Ruth Root, Fran Shalom, Stephen Westfall and myself to sign a manifesto of purpose. Making art is hard work and individual visions aren’t easily won; few of us like (or want) to be pegged. But the work here is unified and engaging in ways that are somewhat sneaky, maybe contrarian and decidedly offbeat. Watch as these artists juggle forms, tweak relationships, disassemble materials, cajole surfaces and elicit a staggering amount of allusions. It’s enough to make you think that abstraction, as a historical and artistic phenomenon, is barely off the ground. At the very least, we should be grateful that it’s being carried on with clarity, sophistication and, yes, wit.
© 2013 Mario Naves