In 1952, in an article titled “The American Action Painters” that appeared in the December issue of Art News, Harold Rosenberg famously wrote:
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.
Rosenberg was attempting to sum up what the painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and others had in common. Although his view was largely discounted, since it emphasized the artist rather the object, I was reminded of it while looking at Marco Breuer’s exhibition of photographs and related objects in his current exhibition, Silent Speed, at Yossi Milo (September 8 – October 29, 2016).
Breuer has been making abstract photographs since the early 1990s. However, in contrast to Aaron Siskind, whose black-and-white photographs of walls were linked to the gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly those of his friend Franz Kline, Breuer works with sheets of chromogenic paper, which, as the label for “Untitled (C-1773)” (2016) informs us, has been “exposed/embossed/scraped.” Ordinarily when it comes to photographs, we tend to look at the image and ignore the surface. With the work in this exhibition — flowing, monochromatic shapes surrounded by a white field – I found my attention drifting between surface and image, becoming aware of the photograph as an object, a thing: a point Breuer has underscored by framing a plastic sleeve containing three vertical strips.
Conventional photographs might be able to halt time and preserve a particular moment, but Breuer is having no part of it. His photographs are — as Rosenberg would say — the aftermath of an event. What seems different from the artist’s earlier work is that the surfaces feel — paradoxically — pristine and carefully excavated. Breuer has burned, folded, and gouged his surfaces before. This work feels as if he has proceeded differently, as if the embossing and scraping were employed more delicately. Of course, I have no idea if this is true or not, and I don’t think it matters much. Even when scratches are visible in the glossy white ground, there is something implacable about the surfaces of these works.
In a number of photos, an ochre strain (or chemical emulsion) is visible, usually along the edge of the monochromatic shape. With their undulating edges, the monochromatic shapes come across as liquid, while the stark figure-ground relationship might bring to mind certain aspects of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings. And yet, for all the formal power of these recent works, what I find most striking is the feeling that they are the aftermath of a prolonged event. It is an event (or process) that remains largely invisible. Nor do you feel that the process was violent. In one of the vitrines in the back gallery there are two cropped photographs of a man standing on one leg in front of what looks like a painting. That cropped shape is echoed by many of the works on the walls of the front and back galleries. Which came first?
The cropped shape recurs and changes. In the works in which the shapes are black, I began thinking of the white shapes as ice floes on a black sea (or oil slick). Is it because we are living in weird times, thinking about the impending apocalypse, that Breuer’s work stirs up gloomy associations? That it can come across as both the aftermath of one event and the prophecy of another is just one of its many strengths. Moreover, the scratched surfaces evoke the artist’s hand, as well as the labor involved. When a row of them is placed close together, you might be reminded of an action sequence in a film. The liquid shapes underscore the inevitability of change.
These are not static abstractions, and the figure/ground relationships appear to extend beyond the photograph’s physical edges, reminding me of something de Kooning once said: “content is a slipping glimpse.” I am sure that I am not the only one who was reminded of Jasper Johns’ dictum: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it.” The fact that Breuer’s photographs can stir up such associations is a testament to their strength; they never lose their identity.
At the same time, the relentlessness of Breuer’s approach raises another question: How much can an object endure before it is completely destroyed? The different and distinct bodies of work that Breuer has made using only chromogenic paper hints at his resourceful imagination, his refusal to get stuck in a method, as well as his embrace of experimentation.
In the back gallery, two vitrines include things that Breuer has found and stored in manila folders — a cardboard package opened up and flattened out; stencils; plastic sheets containing related images. One work appeared to be an image of two Alexander Calder mobiles in which the artist has erased/obscured the suspended shapes. There is playfulness to Breuer’s experimentation. Subtraction is one of the keys to his approach. By taking something away, he changes what is working — image or surface — into something else. That change suggests that further change can happen, that nothing is indestructible. In this, Breuer brings us to a state of disquieting consciousness: we are on the brink of infinity and it will eventually swallow us up. We have no idea of what will be left behind, our legacy. In the meantime, there is the remarkable pleasure embodied in this unique body of work that Breuer has made in the expanding field known as art.
Silent Speed continues at Yossi Milo (245 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 29.