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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Shake and Bake" aesthetics in contemporary abstraction

When I first stumbled into the "Revivalism" of Abstract Painting in NY via an article by Alan Pocaro on Provisional painting in the British art blog “Abstract Critical”, I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to see that installation and conceptual art were not the only art being produced in the City. It led to my writing about provisional painting and becoming embroiled in the labeling of Zombie Formalism. Since the early 2000’s I have been laboring on my non-representational painting in New England and found few fellow travelers in this cultural backwater with whom to share my ideas. Last year I gathered together two former students, who work abstractly, Paul Pollaro and Jason Travers, a friend Addison Parks, whose work I had followed since we first showed together at Creiger -Dane in Boston and Susan Carr, who once showed with me and Addison in group show at Creiger-Dane. I had hoped I would succeed in drawing some attention to our work as a sort of Northern outpost of what was happening in NY. Addison had attempted something similar but more comprehensive in Boston in the late 90’s with a group show at Joyce Creiger’s gallery in which he included his work, Susan Carr's and my work side by side with the an earlier generation of artists including Richard Tuttle, Porfirio DiDonna, Louise Fishman, Leon Polk Smith and Milton Resnick. The show called “Severed Ear” attempted to define a trail of abstraction that was deconstructive of the authoritative work of the Modernist ethos in the same way as provisional painting but with less focus on irony and more of a focus on the lived life of emotions.

Notions of authority keep cropping up in regards to the evolution or devolution of abstraction. Where did this sense of High Modernism being incontrovertible come from, so as to become a lodestone that would define an unassailable high point in American art. In a slugfest with the English sculptor Robin Greenwood on Mark Stone’s Henri Art magazine, we both agreed that there was something lacking in the contemporary iterations of modernism. He thought Matisse was hard to surpass and I was more sympathetic to the work of the Minimalists. The discussion revolved around notions of spatiality and its lack in Provisionalism and Zombie art. Robin seemed to think that spatiality is crucial to great painting. In my attempts to grapple with these issues I recalled a notion of eidetic reduction from my readings of Husserl. In this philosophers attempt to ground our perceptual world in something solid, he focused on the apprehension of the outside world in our mind. It was very Cartesian and is something that comes to mind when I get my hearing tested and I am asked to distinguish pure sounds. In a hearing test we scientifically break the web of hearing and cognition into its separate parts and define its ranges in order to evaluate the condition of the auditory organ. It is similar to the way that abstraction breaks down the visual world into pure colors with ranges from warm to cool, grounded in our retinal view of seeing. The world is captured and analyzed in our reduced apperceptions of it. I think it was this connection between science as the only true knowledge and art at mid-century that hoisted abstraction to its cultural centrality. To paraphrase Hegel’s words: abstract art was the century captured in thought.

If the hold on art by science is so total then we have to see any attempt to break that hold as being dialectically related to it. It is this dialectical relation, which allows critics to talk about Zombie formalism for example. There is no inherent value in zombie art except as an attempt to excise from itself any authoritative metaphysical grounding in knowing and science. Without science it becomes a pure commodity retaining however its commercial exchange value. By the same token “Provisionalism”” as defined by Rubinstein or “Casualism” by Sharon Butler have value as attempts to break the bonds of aesthetic purity and ironically refer back to the laid back devalued creator as incapable of any authoritative statements.


Abstract art that falls outside of the parameters of provisional and zombie art I think is often hard to talk about in so far as it lacks the dialectical relation to classical abstraction. This was the problem with a show I recently came across on "Painters Table" of abstract art, entitled "If Color Could Kill” that is currently hanging at Vassar College. By insisting in the title on the aesthetics of color it places itself outside of the commodification of zombie art and the irony of provisional abstraction. Especially in the work of Paul Behnke there is, in his play of pure color and abstract patterns, an attempt to move back into the language of Matisse where color relations create aesthetic moods of pleasure. Few of the other artists are as rigorous in the analysis of color except for Gary Peterson, who brings an Al Held notion of compressed space without Held's ambiguity of flat vs deep space. They are both artists who don’t mind not obscuring their roots. Their influences are obvious as is the case for the rest of the artists in the show, where for example you see Elizabeth Murray all over Benson and Moyse. It is good to be influenced and to live with those influences and see where they take you. How these influences pan out over time will be interesting to see. But at this point there is none of the anxiety of influence typical of the struggling young artist and only from what I can see on line there is a whole lot of shakin and bakin going on.



  1. Hello Martin,
    re the implied loneliness of abstract painters or abstract painting you will find more farther north, particularly many who exhibit at Icon Contemporary Art in Brunswick--dare I say, a hot-bed of abstract artists?
    For me, now concentrating on drawings that look like paintings but are developed out of thinking sculpturally, I am compelled to a bit of nervous twitching when scientific objectivity enters the room. Sometimes I stay for a chat, often I find another room.
    How we see is certainly an optics issue, but it is also an issue of how we live in history and how we contest the future or the forth-coming. Doesn't art act arrow-ishly, aiming somewhere as though finding 'place' or finding as yet to be grasped locales of seeing--seeing being something connected to meaning, but not being meaning?


  2. I guess the harsher the climate the more amenable the public is to abstract art.I liked the poetry of the last paragraph art can aim beyond itself to "yet to be grasped locales of meaning."

  3. Your shake and bake aesthetics just need the final touch of the icing applicator, eh Martin?

    1. Exactly!Mr Greenwood! Always happy to hear your snarky voice. It is with the icing applicator that I assert volume which is a connection to figuration that I am happy you stumbled into finally comprehending despite yourself. It is flatness and its inability to move the viewer anymore that is problematic.I take risks with my work even if the funkiness of an icing applicator pisses some people off.Like all experiments it is slowly being absorbed into a higher synthesis where the icing application effect fades away as rarely do people who view the work now refer to bubble gum or icing . BTW I have never referred to your work as I appreciate your opinions on contemporary art and do not want my opinions about your work which are unfavorable to bring an end to the discussion as you have done with this essay. Obviously what I say in this essay is of no value because you dislike my work.I don't feel the same about your opinions despite the extreme limitations of the aesthetic expressed in your sculpture that matches and does not transcend your prickly personality.

  4. Mark Stone has been helpful in writing about the rules based art of David Reed, the early David Row Mary Heilmann and others done in the 70's and eighties where the intentions were spelled out ahead of time. Abstraction needed rules.

  5. John Yau wants to turn the latest work of Reed into that of a modern master. More shake and bake.