It was once a common notion that abstract painting was analogous to music. Why you don’t hear the comparison anymore is partly due to the many popularized theories available to any and all visual genres, including abstract painting, that do not encourage the idea that the time a viewer spends before a canvas ought to relate in some way to the time the painter expended while painting it. The lingering intrusion of semiotics, and, more recently, provisional and post-studio theories have elbowed to one side abstract painting as a sensually based visual experience.
Abstraction’s current revival cannot be easily disassociated from the theoretical ground from which it has sprung. Faced with the recently exhibited work of Sharon Butler and Jonathan Lasker, for instance, I found myself struggling with each picture’s single, static note. I had the feeling that the color had been placed on the canvas by a lab assistant. The shapes in these artists’ paintings assert themselves exactly as intended. Like specimens on a tray, the forms remain cold and separate, and merely exist together on the canvas.
In spending time with the late work of John Opper (1908–1994), a New York School painter, in a current exhibition at David Findlay Jr, it became apparent to me that when abstract painting was more open to theme and variation and less concerned with stark novelty, it inspired a viewer to share in the complex string of decisions that gave rise to the final image. Standing among the 20 paintings and studies on view, several indicators of abstraction’s forgotten potential are revived. One is the size of Opper’s canvases: They feel large, yet most do not exceed five feet in any direction. Like de Kooning, Opper preferred to work within his arm’s reach. Another is how a viewer’s retreat to a comfortable distance from each canvas requires no more than a few steps. Thus a certain intimacy is implied, one the painter apparently accepted as a given aspect of the art he practiced.
The silence and opulent visual substance of each painting is reflected, as was often the case in early and post-war modernism, in Opper’s titles. They are all untitled, leaving curators and catalogers to distinguish one painting from another with parenthetical alpha-numerical tags. The monikor, “Untitled (185J)” (1983), offers no hint of the artist’s motivation. Meaning is ostensibly left to free, open, and primarily visual interpretation by each viewer. This particular canvas is somewhat representative of the group, as it is defined by rough-hewn vertical rectangles, their edges jagged and vague, their dimensions irregular. Each image is built of a dominant color, yet within each color there are subtle variations that maintain a shallow atmospheric depth — not enough to sink the color into a distracting illusion, but more than enough to activate its magically ambiguous relationship to the picture plane. Moreover, within each color division there are similarities in touch and density that are reprised in other parts of the painting. The canvas is less a container of discrete items and more a field of discernible yet harmonizing parts. This attention to compositional structure is what separated him from his AbEx colleagues and is what distinguishes his work from most contemporary abstraction.
Opper somehow transcended the mythology of the AbEx period and almost clandestinely slipped into the more formalist designs of color field painting, while holding to a visual language that was both his own and an echo of Bonnard. In other words, Opper was not a prisoner of a narrow decade-based understanding of art history. One can find hints of Clifford Still, but at the moment of recognition, the connection suddenly seems impertinent. Something more substantial is going on. Opper chose to paint as if art history was a long game, which calls to mind an idea Jacques Barzun floated in his summary volume, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Near the end of the book, Barzun suggests that modern art developed too fast; that its practitioners failed to absorb the full potential inherent in each art movement. To paraphrase his thought, ideas were dropped so quickly that dropping them became the focus of the modern painter, to the detriment of any effort to mature a general cultural vision.
With that in mind, there is considerable irony — to apply a once useful and now hackneyed word — in noting that this selection of Opper’s work is from the Neo-Expressionist 1980s. There, among the broken plates, the angst, and the forced juxtapositions of modernism’s last and near farcical art movement was an older painter, a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, quietly composing visual music that, like Claude Debussy’s more-than-a-century-old piano portfolio, remains as rich and as readably complex today — perhaps even more so — than when first shared with the public.
John Opper: The 1980s continues at David Findlay Jr Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 19.