Abstract’s Second Act
Feared moribund by the early 1960s, abstract painting continued to be a lively art in the decades that followed, as demonstrated by a wide-ranging exhibition at the Blanton Museum.
By John Dorfman
Although arguably all art is abstraction, the idea of painting “abstractly,” that is to say, without creating representations of external objects, dates back to around 1910. The “non-objective” painting practiced by Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Frantisek Kupka, Robert Delaunay, and others in Europe and the U.S. at that time was revolutionary but remained limited in its appeal. The public was largely bewildered and most modernist artists continued to retain some elements of figuration in their work. After World War II, however, abstraction, in the form of Abstract Expressionism and related schools, became the dominant mode of art making and conquered the art market. This triumph was short-lived, and the 1950s proved to be the high-water mark of abstraction in art. In the 1960s and ’70s, new approaches arose including Pop Art, Minimalism, performance, conceptual art, installation art, video and other new media, many of which employed figuration. Even those, such as Minimalism, that did not use figuration still departed significantly from the aims and methods of abstraction. Moreover, the new movements de-emphasized painting, to the point where many critics and even artists declared—some with glee, some with sadness, some with resignation—that painting itself was “dead.”
Of course, as we now know, abstract painting was by no means dead, even if it would no longer be the center of the art universe. While in the ’40s and ’50s many critics were claiming that figuration or representation was no longer a viable strategy and some even went so far as to assert that any non-abstract painting was fundamentally dishonest, during the ’60s abstraction found itself demoted, so to speak, to the status of just one mode of art among many. Rather than harming abstraction, though, this change turned out to be beneficial to many artists, in that it released them from slavish adherence to absolutistic and creativity-stifling critical canons, or at least from the intimidation that such a critical atmosphere might engender.
Shifting studio practices also aided the cause, as artists employed new materials and media to make abstract work. Even as simple an invention as acrylic paint, quicker-drying and more versatile than oil, significantly extended the possibilities of abstract painting and encouraged experimentation, for example in the various Color Field-influenced styles. Abstract painters responded to the new focus on unconventional and “found” materials by adding them to the mix while retaining existing abstract design principles. And for many artists, no new materials were necessary, just a continuing commitment to painting abstractly and following their own personal vision, regardless of how the market winds were blowing.
“Expanding Abstraction: Pushing the Boundaries of Painting in the Americas, 1958–1983,” an exhibition on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, chronicles the vitality of abstraction after its postwar period of dominance. Through some 50 paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition chronicles a quarter-century of material, conceptual, and formal innovation in abstract painting, with a special view toward Latin American contributions, which are a strength of the Blanton’s holdings. One of its patrons, Barbara Duncan, was an early collector and scholar of Latin American abstraction, and nine of the paintings on view come from her bequest. Fifteen of the works on view come from another foundational gift to the Blanton, from bestselling author James Michener and his wife Mari Yoriko Sabusawa Michener.
Carter E. Foster, Blanton deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Blanton, says that the exhibition “explores this moment of innovation through the lens of the Blanton’s collection—how painters experimented with new materials, especially newly available acrylic paint, and challenged conventions of flatness and rectilinearity—transforming the medium in the process.”
The exhibition is arranged in six sections, each emphasizing a trend or approach, although there is certainly some overlap between the categories. The sections are titled “Emphatic Gestures”; “Stained, Poured, Sprayed”; “Material Radicality”; “Between Painting and Sculpture”; “Opticality”; and “Geometries.”
“Emphatic Gesture” is obviously a reference to the notion of gestural abstraction, according to which it is not simply the form and colors on the canvas that matter but also the manner in which the artist placed them there. The gesture of the hand and arm, and by extension of the artist’s whole body, is part of the artwork. This is true conceptually, insofar as the canvas is “an arena in which to act,” as Harold Rosenberg put it in a 1952 Art News essay on “the American Action Painters,” but it is also true physically and can be seen in the way paint leaves a trail on the canvas. The mark is not just an optical sign or symbol but also a piece of evidence as to the artist’s unique gesture, analogous to a fingerprint. The gestures in modern gestural abstraction tend to read as passionate and intense, and that is certainly the case with the paintings on view in this section of the exhibition. The brushstrokes in Beverly Pepper’s Tempesta (1959–65) are as energetic in themselves as the ocean waves they abstractly conjure. On the other hand, Norman Lewis’s gestures in La Puerta del Sol (1958) are short and tight, in order to convey the shimmering and glittering of sunlight and the surfaces that catch and reflect it.
One of the salient features of postwar abstraction was the use of paint applied by means other than a brush, using methods that involve thinning it and letting it soak into the canvas. In 1953 Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis saw Helen Frankenthaler doing this in her studio, were impressed, and adopted it as their primary technique. The newly available acrylic paints—essentially liquid plastic—retained their vividness even when thinned out, and laying a canvas flat on the floor and pouring colors onto it became common practice. The fact that a stained canvas has essentially no impasto or third dimension was conveniently in line with the critical doctrine that the flatness of the picture plane was sacrosanct. Later on, spray paint also fulfilled the criteria of flatness and evenness of application. In the Blanton’s “Stained, Poured, Sprayed” section, Frankenthaler’s Over the Circle (1961) shows how the seeming randomness of pain’ve movement on the canvas can be evocative and eve symbolic, while Alice Baber’s Lavender High (1968), with its more geometrically regular payout, makes the paint seem almost like stained glass. Morris Louis’ Water Shot (1961) has his trademark vertical stripes, created by letting gravity cause the soaked-in paint to descend through the canvas.
The idea of artists using materials that come from outside the traditional art media has gone hand in hand with modernism ever since Picasso and Braque started gluing bits of newspaper and wood veneer onto their still life paintings. In the 1960s, experimentation with new materials accelerated dramatically, with artists drawing on substances that connote industry and everyday life rather than the studio, at least in part as a way of dissolving the boundaries between art and life. In the “Material Radicality” section of the Blanton show, José Antonio Fernández-Muro’s Al gran pueblo argentine… [To the Great Argentine Nation] (1964) uses acrylic wash over aluminum foil gilt on canvas. The result of this unusual combination resembles a flag in grisaille or else a manhole cover in the middle of a paved street. Sam Gilliam’s Pantheon II (1983), made of acrylic on canvas as well as polyurethane enamel on aluminum, combines geometrical and gestural abstraction in a way that breaks away from the rectilineal assumptions behind the concept of a painting.
In a movement diametrically opposed to the quest for flatness in abstract painting, some artists during this period pushed against the two-dimensional confinements of the picture plane. In the section “Between Painting and Sculpture,” the exhibition highlights works that flirt with the third dimension while still in some sense laying claim to membership in the category “painting.” Alejandro Puente’s Estructura (3 Panels), from 1966, playfully and colorfully accomplishes its goal by taking three paintings and assembling them into a floor-mounted object. Agustín Fernández’s Armatura, series no. 18 (1973), by contrast, is monochrome, almost black, and uses a deeply wrinkled and manipulated canvas to convey the texture of the breastplate of a suit of armor.
“Opticality” is one of the major themes of 1960s abstraction, as so-called Op Art and the related Kinetic Art sought to explore the farther reaches of human perception. The immediate, unignorable effects of such works on viewers led some critics to dismiss them as tricks or cheap shots, but artists very rightly perceived that one of the most interesting aspects of geometric abstraction was its interaction with the existing perceptual frameworks of the eye and the brain. Modernism had always cherished repetition for its subversive qualities; now Op artists were upping the ante on repetition, using it to create the illusion of motion in an immobile artwork. Kinetic art added actual motion for an even stronger effect. Peter Ford Young’s acrylic on canvas Capitalist Masterpiece #26 (1968), with its intricate arrangement of dots, evokes a color-blindness test image, while Richard Anuszkiewicz’s Plus Reversed (1960) fully exploits the power of complementary colors, to the point that one cannot look at it for very long. However, one is inevitably drawn back to it.
The first non-objective painters believed, in the tradition of Plato, that geometrical shapes and colors give one access to the realm of pure ideas, and that impulse, though it waxed and waned over the following decades, has never disappeared. Latin American artists, in particular remained interested in geometrical abstraction, due in part to traditions of Pre-Columbian art and to early modernist pedagogy from seminal teachers such as the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García. In the “Geometries” section, the final one in the exhibition, Argentine artist Ary Brizzi’s Activated Surface #2 (1969) combines Op and more traditional geometric abstractionist strategies, while Dean Fleming’s Snap Roll (1965) uses color to give three-dimensionality to an otherwise flat composition. Fleming was a part of the Park Place Gallery group of artists in New York in the ’60s, who are particularly well represented in the Blanton’s collection.
Also in the “Geometries” section is an astonishing work by the American painter, writer, and collector Charmion von Wiegand. Her Offering to the Adi-Buddha, Amoghasiddha (1966–67) uses circles, triangles, and very bright colors in a symbolic way that evokes a strong sense of mystical spirituality. In doing so, it taps into the original sources of inspiration for the abstract art movement at the beginning of the 20th century.