Muddying the Circumscribed Myth of Abstraction

Gabriele Eventz' Untitled (2009). (All photos by author for Hyperallergic.)
Gabriele Evertz, “Untitled” (2009) (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

Bounded and unbounded space, continental drift, turbulence, topology, pools of ink and color spilling into and pressing up against one another — these are some of the images in the mix of work on display in Endless, Entire, one of two shows currently on view at FiveMyles in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And the fact that all 59 of the artists included in this surprisingly digestible and well-curated show are members of the American Abstract Artists makes it all the more intriguing to explore.

Founded in 1936 by a group of then relatively young New York City artists, the collective sought to provide exhibition opportunities for its members. But another key objective was to pursue “the advancement of abstract art in the United States,” as historian and curator Susan C. Larsen put in a comprehensive 1974 paper about the group’s early years. Formative members included Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Lee Krasner, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Harry Holtzman, among many others.

Back in the 1930s, most museums and galleries across the city were loath to show abstract work, preferring instead the familiarity of representation. And many art critics were quick to dismiss the often stark and form-focused work of abstractionists. So great was the critical antipathy to the group, in fact, that Ad Reinhardt took it upon himself to publish a number of jeering broadsides and pamphlets, one of which, printed in 1940, was titled “THE ART CRITICS — ! How Do They Serve the Public? What Do They Say? How Much Do They Know? Let’s Look at the Record!” In answer to the titular questions, Reinhardt argues:

The point is that any expression of mere personal opinion and prejudice, either for or against, has no place and right to existence on the pages of art criticism unless substantiated by an authentic conception of form relationships.

It’s hard not to chuckle at his curmudgeonly tone, though us critics are certainly capable of great fits of pique ourselves. But his brow-furrowing assertion that there is such a thing as “objectively reporting creative accomplishment, effort and experiment” and his focus on form get at some of what made Modernism so problematic for many.

Stephen Maine, DR15-0399 (2015)
Stephen Maine, “DR15-0399” (2015)

Insistence on form alone assumes that form arises out of the ether, a priori, without any context or culturally specific symbolic meaning — a theory espoused by the original guy at the back of the philosophy class. In other words, it assumes a universality, a common language across all people, which is not only factually wrong but also ethically and politically problematic, because it asserts that the values of the person making the argument are not only (falsely) universal but superior to other beliefs as well, by virtue of their universality.

There are no universals in form, in meaning, in language, in beauty, in any of the realms that a number of Modernists hoped for. Even the laws of physics lie. There is only multiplicity — messy, chaotic, conflicting, enriching, and life-sustaining. And we need it to be this way. Down to the level of basic reproduction, monocultures weaken crops and destroy surrounding ecosystems; inbreeding produces disease.

And for me, it’s precisely that multiplicity of meanings or evocations that makes abstraction so interesting — its utter lack of objectivity, even as it would seem to present the barest, most basic forms.

Installation view, 'Endless Entire' at FiveMyles (image courtesy FiveMyles)
Installation view, ‘Endless, Entire’ at FiveMyles (image courtesy FiveMyles) (click to enlarge)

So here we are in 2015, with a group of abstract artists in a show that, contrary to those early embattled years of the American Abstract Artists, seems to embrace the messiness, even as the singular form of the circle has been forwarded by curator Rachel Nackman as the organizing principle for the exhibition.

Among the works that struck me the most were two by Jeanne Wilkinson, “Blue Reverbs” and “Yellow Loop” (2000–15). They feel like watercolor studies from another planet, reminding me of the alien Mad Max sculptures of Lee Bontecou but in the colors of vibrant foliage. Deep depressions seem to sink into the layers of color, dimensionality grows out of the bleeding pigments, and pencil lines and figures beyond the washes imply an unfinished observation or a new hypothesis about the underlying structure.

Jeanne Wilkinson, left to right: "Blue Reverbs" (2000–15), "Yellow Loop" (2000–15)
Jeanne Wilkinson, left to right: “Blue Reverbs” (2000–15), “Yellow Loop” (2000–15)

I stopped for awhile in front of Stephen Maine’s “DR15-0399” (2015), a dense topology of indistinct marks that feels earthen and weather-worn, like a charcoal rubbing of rounded stones or the tracings of one of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series works, slowly disappearing with time. The image seems to show shapes and illusive patterns inscribed in a distant past by a previous people, like the tiny chips of flint that archaeologists know were broken into form by humans — abarely intelligible story of a culture lost then found.

The brute simplicity of Kim Uchiyama’s “Shift4” (2014) pulls emotionally. Its complementary blues and oranges and the curves that extend beyond the paper suggest the movement of wind or water, or tectonic plates shifting slowly against one another.

Abstraction is an exercise in observation, isolation, wonder, reimagining, breaking down. It’s no accident that suggestions of scientific or philosophical phenomena are often paired with works like these; curiosity is a natural instinct. Walking through a room of abstract works, particularly at an approachable scale, felt like a chance to let my mind wander, to see what pulled at me and wonder why, to listen to the ways my thoughts went and see how my emotions quietly made associations.

[top] Sharon Brant, 1976 Drawing #3 (1976); [bottom] Sharon Brant,1976 Drawing #5 (1976)
Sharon Brant, top to bottom: “1976 Drawing #3” (1976), “1976 Drawing #5” (1976) (click to enlarge)
Looking at the architectural curves of Sharon Brant’s “1976 Drawing #3” and “1976 Drawing #5” (1976), I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite things to do when I’m near a Richard Serra. I love to get as close as possible, walk along the sloping steel, and if no one is around, raise my arms to see if I can mimic the piece’s shifting dimensions, testing what it feels like to be beside and between, hemmed in or bent, putting the shape into my body. Brant’s smaller works on paper are doing something similar, playing with the tension of enclosure, of encompassing, of including or excluding, the flows of air and light and breath between monumental lines.

Daniel G. Hill’s “Wheatstone Bridge 7” (2015) at first seems to describe a simple layering of one form on the other, but soon you see not only the transparent sheets of vellum but also the thread through the surface that created the shapes. For me this realization came at the end, with the loose ends of the knot tying off the string — the artist’s hand in an otherwise pristine, almost manufactured work. It reminded me of all the times my colleagues at my day job have seemed to believe that the things that appear on the internet or in emails do so automatically, without ever being placed by a human hand, crafted each time down to the character.

Certainly abstraction is not always so contemplative or open-ended. It can be violent, totalitarian, fractious. And tensions do exist in the works around the room. But the paring down, the removal of a prescriptive dogma or interpretation, allows the viewer to explore on their own. It is a highly personal experience, explicitly counter to Ad Reinhardt’s claim. And at a time when haranguing proclamations and categorical insistence seem to be everywhere, stepping however briefly into a space of not knowing, into an acknowledgement of uncertainty or at least curious exploration, feels like a cool drink of water.

Daniel G. Hill, Wheatstone Bridge 7 (2015)
Daniel G. Hill, “Wheatstone Bridge 7” (2015)

Endless, Entire continues at FiveMyles (558 St Johns Place, Crown Heights, Brooklyn) through December 20.

Correction: This review originally listed Mel Bochner as a formative member of American Abstract Artists. That is incorrect, and it has been fixed.

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