Essay for the exhibition Nothing is Everything at Pagus Projects, Norristown, PA (opening March 22nd).By Carl Belz
Nothing is everything. The existential proposition is appealing, particularly in relation to visual art. But not all of it. Not art that originates in the purposeful urge to engage directly social or political issues and concerns, for instance, or undertake partisan cultural or institutional critique, or promote exclusively an ideology of one sort or another – in other words, and regardless of quality, not art that’s subsumed first and last by service to a personal agenda or theoretical program. Instead, art that addresses the ways of the world from a position that’s oblique to them, art that is self-aware in acknowledging its limits and autonomous in its being – art as art that stakes its all on being knowable in and of itself and is otherwise good for nothing. And why does such art mean everything to us? Because its ongoing process of knowing and acknowledging is synonymous with the experience of coming to ourselves from within rather than without, and too because it so candidly mirrors what modern experience – what our being in the world in the first place – is itself all about.
The art I’m referring to, modernist art, includes the paintings in this exhibition, a genre of abstraction representing a vital thread within the larger fabric of abstract painting, one whose history now reaches back a full century. In terms of formal character, it generally looks like painting that’s been pared down to its essentials – to a single field of color, for instance, or a few elemental stripes and shapes, often geometric, that are presented singularly or in some kind of progression – hence, its designation as reductive, monochromatic, minimal, systemic and so forth. It’s painting that risks appearing not as non-art, not as ordinary things like readymades – a sub genre that’s tracked abstraction since its beginning – but as art in which there seems to be nothing going on or nothing to look at, art that’s been drained of art’s usual effects and signifiers, as though it’s art in name only, art that may even be nugatory.
The risk has not been merely academic. While reductive and minimal-type paintings have historically not wanted for meaning, their meaning as perceived has at times fluctuated dramatically between the all-or-nothing extremes of everything and nothing. Kasimir Malevich’s seminal White On White, a white square in a white field, envisioned via pure geometries a utopian future imbued with pure artistic feeling, yet his art was quickly condemned under the Stalin Regime of the 1920s as a negation of life’s and nature’s’ purities, and he was ordered to paint as a social realist or not paint at all. A full generation younger than Malevich, Barnett Newman came to maturity in the early 1950s with paintings consisting of vast color fields inflected only with a few slender vertical stripes – zips, as he called them – radically simplified paintings for which he audaciously claimed a life-altering experience of the sublime but which, when exhibited, brought instead mostly ridicule – they were considered empty and pretentious – a response that turned Newman from publicly showing his work for most of the decade. A third generation in this Malevich-Newman line is represented by Frank Stella, a steadfast admirer of the work of both older artists, who wanted in his celebrated Black Paintings, the first of the stripe paintings he developed between 1959 and 1965, not any supra significance – no utopian purity, no sublime – only abstract images that would present themselves front and center with unequivocal punch and authority, everything about them clear and accessible, requiring nothing but a willingness to look in order to understand them. You can imagine the artist’s dismay when a critic designated them nihilist Dada abstractions!
Stuart Fineman, Alan Greenberg and Karen Baumeister are not likely to encounter the resistance, let alone the hostility, faced by their forebears. A full half-century of lean-looking abstraction now informs the historical record and occupies a firm position in the lexicon of painting within the art of our time. Which is not to say they don’t face a challenge in wanting to find a responsive audience for their pictures within the ebb and flow of today’s cultural environment – an environment ubiquitously laced with cynicism and irony, bound to mass media, visually glutted, serving up art as spectacle and entertainment, and promising instant gratification while racing breathlessly and inexorably to the next great thing. Against that backdrop, which is nothing if not challenging, they present us with lean-looking pictures that picture nothing, that are reticent, that are slow to reveal themselves and their pleasures, pictures of the sort that are at their best when encountered not in clusters before crowds but one-on-one and face-to-face, the way we encounter one another, which is how we come to know fully everything they are. Our current cultural environment puts such pictures at risk, not only in increasing the odds against our getting their meaning right but against our finding time to get any of their meaning at all.
|Alan Greenberg, Five Holes, 2014, acrylic and gesso on plaster, 37 x 24 ½ x 2 ¼ inches.
|Alan Greenberg, Left: Red Two Holes, 2013, acrylic & gesso on plaster, 16 x 10 x 2 inches; Right: Red Oblong, 2014, acrylic & gesso on plaster, 24 ½ x 18 x 2 inches.
|Alan Greenberg, Small Yellow/Green, 2013, acrylic & gesso on plaster, 16 x 16 x 2 inches.
|Alan Greenberg, Left: Small Grey, 2013, oil, acrylic & gesso on plaster; Right: Ultramarine Blue 2013 oil, acrylic & gesso on plaster.
|Karen Baumeister, Installation view, Left: Deep Violet Grays to Pink, 2013, acrylic on linen, 40 x 40 inches; Little Pink, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 inches.
|Details of above, Karen Baumeister, Deep Violet Grays to Pink, 2013 (left); Little Pink, 2012 (right).
|Installation view, Karen Baumeister, Pink Whites to Yellow, 2013, acrylic on linen, 40x40inches; and detail of Pink Whites to Yellow, 2013.
|Stuart Fineman, untitled series/works, 2013, dry pigments and acrylic ground on paper, 44 x 22 inches.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.