Abstraction: The Sequel


Ahhh, the ’80s: Reagan was in the White House, Thirtysomething was on the tube, and Julian Schnabel’s retrospective was at the Whitney.

But the decade wasn’t all bad. Early in curator Raphael Rubinstein’s insightful essay for this group exhibition, David Reed, one of the included artists, points out, “It amazes me that in New York there’s a history that painters know, a street history of painting, that is totally different from the history that the museums know and the history that is written about in books.”

A fascinating chunk of that lesser-known story hangs on the walls of this sensitively selected show. Art in the ’80s may be best remembered for the cack-handed bombast of such neo-expressionists as Georg Baselitz, Sandro Chia, and Schnabel, but here we get 15 painters (13 are still living) who struggled to find renewed power in abstraction, which had been enervated by color-field formalism and minimalist astringency in the ’60s and ’70s.

All of these artists were born between 1939 and 1949, and perhaps coming out of that fulcrum of history—shortly before, during, or soon after World War II—this group can be considered pre-eminently “Post-War.” Maturing amid the social upheavals of the ’60s, they ultimately emerged as irregular pegs that don’t fit into any art-historical holes, and so have avoided dogma from both critics and other painters. One of them, Joan Snyder, was unimpressed with a dominant theory from the ’60s and ’70s: “I think that the talk of the death of painting had to do with a certain male sensibility. They were making paintings without stories. They were dealing with formalism, abstraction, minimalism, whereas women were questioning all of those ways of working.” Her great title for the 12-foot-wide painting here, Beanfield with Music, provides an entry into the work’s sprawl of lush green horizontal strokes, which indeed evoke a field as well as Monet’s multidimensional scrim of water lilies and surface reflections. However, Snyder doesn’t allow any element to break the edges of the frame, negating the classical idea of painting as a window opening upon a scene, choosing instead to emphasize the exuberant materiality of her brushwork.

Bill Jensen, Terry Winters, and Carroll Dunham are male artists who seem never to have even considered the possibility that painting could die. Arrayed together in the show’s opening room, their work alludes to obscurely natural forms—Jensen’s flapping protuberances, Winters’s vague bands of desiccated flora and gargantuan spores, Dunham’s striations of colorful tubers—that suggest otherworldly beings in search of actual worlds to inhabit.

Mary Heilmann’s Rio Nido presents drippy blotches of yellow and red mingled with wedges of black, dark green, and midnight blue. A subtle interplay of layers reveals colorful geometries, their edges exposed through smeary voids like the holes in a construction fence. It’s no surprise to learn that the colored lights festooning the porches of a beloved California vacation spot from Heilmann’s childhood inspired this thoroughly engaging composition.

The emphatic vertical format of Reed’s No. 230 (For Beccafumi) recalls another California influence: motion pictures. A stack of magenta arches soars heavenward, occasionally mixing with a thin bar of green and white on one edge, bringing to mind movie frames with their attendant soundtrack strip. But through his virtuosic paint-handling, which seems to capture light and color within a surface that is as smoothly interwoven as the dyes in film emulsion, Reed delves into the physics of abstraction, of how color and shape can spark thought, emotion, and allusion in varying, sometimes conflicting degrees.

Drama of a different sort suffuses Gary Stephan’s untitled, medium-size canvas, in which a black biomorphic shape floats above a crepuscular Romantic horizon. A much smaller companion echoes this big, dark, surrealist refugee, implying broad atmospheric distances. Centuries of art history coalesce in this uncanny vision, which seems blithely unconcerned with anything but itself.

Which constitutes a fine attitude for the painting of any age.