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ART : Curatorial Concept in Search of an Enemy : Pure abstraction hasn’t predominated for decades, so why is a new exhibition at the Hammer attacking it as if it had?

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Here’s a yes-or-no question: Has pure abstract painting and sculpture been riding high in the saddle during the past 15 or 20 years, casting a blinding light over artistic discourse and throwing every other kind of art into the deep and forbidding shadow of discredit and dishonor?

Time’s up. Since the answer is obviously no, here’s another question: Why then is an exhibition of mostly recent art whose theme is “Critiques of Pure Abstraction” currently filling up space in the galleries of the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art?

New art whose principal aim is to critically question the validity of a form that hasn’t been of central significance since the 1970s would seem to be vainly tilting at windmills. The battle is long since over.

You’d never know it, though, perusing the work at the Hammer. The show valorizes paintings and sculptures that, according to an accompanying catalog essay by its curator, Mark Rosenthal, “skeptically examines the issues of the preceding period.” Ostensibly, that means Postmodern art dismantling Modern art.

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The show concentrates on abstract paintings and sculptures from the past 10 years, which are said to offer a critical reading of abstraction itself: Mary Heilman’s eccentrically shaped or multi-part canvases, loosely painted; Jonathan Lasker’s awkward style of drawing, which is actually executed with excruciating care; David Reed’s lush, baroque interlaces of translucent color; Rachel Lachowicz’s sculptural replications of other artists’ work, now made from lipstick and eye-shadow; Peter Halley’s loud Day-Glo geometries, and more.

A few historical antecedents have been sprinkled among the 31 works on view, most of those taken from the canon of Conceptual art: a 1967 painting by John Baldessari, a 1975 video sculpture by Nam June Paik and mid- to late-1970s prints by Bruce Nauman, Jasper Johns and Daniel Buren.

Curatorially, the show is rather flabby. It certainly makes no claims to comprehensiveness in its gathering of recent art, with a thumbnail sketch standing in for full scale articulation of its thesis. And the historical selections are more nods in those artists’ direction than singularly selected works of art, critical to understanding its idea of Postmodern critique. Still, it’s the flabbiness of that idea that is most daunting.

To be sure, pure abstraction was once claimed as the pinnacle of Modern art. For some the two terms were virtually interchangeable. What was abstract was Modern, and vice versa.

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By the end of the 1950s, however, the claim in favor of pure abstraction’s rightful aesthetic preeminence was severely straining credulity. Abstract Expressionism--the so-called triumph of American painting--had gotten itself into a jam.

The Ab Ex commitment to finding painterly form for an artist’s expressive self was, in part, a commitment to establishing art as an essential American cultural symbol of the struggle for personal liberty. But with blacks still being lynched in the South, gays the target of State Department witch hunts and women sent back to the kitchen after brief duty as Rosie the Riveter, assertions of the grandeur of personal liberty were harder and harder to take, especially in a 1950s art world largely dominated by straight white men. Something had to give.

Something did. In fact, it went pop! The paintings of Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Edward Ruscha and Andy Warhol, as well as of loosely related artists such as Vija Celmins, comprised a willful and devastating assault on abstraction’s status quo. The subject and substance of Pop art was--well, a critique of pure abstraction.

So, in some ways, were the Conceptual and Minimal art that also emerged in the 1960s. But Pop art’s visually startling, unusually accessible, very smart and often witty paintings gave visual form to a veritable laundry list of claims made for the virtues of pure abstraction. In the process they acknowledged the importance of the predecessor, while pulling the rug out from under it.

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“Critiques of Pure Abstraction” does make cursory note of Pop in its catalog, but it’s worth our noting that Pop is not among the historical antecedents chosen for the show. Those are strictly limited: to the purely visual, abstract gymnastics of Johns’ crosshatch imagery, represented here by a handsome lithograph, and to Conceptual art, as embodied in the various maneuvers of the rest.

The abstract work that today means to function as a Postmodern critique is thus implied to be a marriage between abstract and Conceptual art. And perhaps it is. If so, that wedding may be one source of the resulting feebleness.

The reason is that Conceptual art today suffers from almost the same woes that abstract painting did at the end of the 1950s. It languishes in its umpteenth incarnation, as produced by several generations of artists over the past quarter-century. Conceptual art is now as much a pale, inbred, hothouse flower as all those acres of 1960s Color-fieldCAPS? painting, which had put abstraction on life support. Most of it is hopelessly academic.

The Hammer show is filled with examples of gruesome pedantry, such as Mark Milloff’s “Fallen Target II” (1993) and Lachowicz’s “Homage to Carl Andre” (1991/94). Each is symptomatic of the problem.

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Using very thick oils Milloff recalls the abstract target-motif so prominent in 20th century painting. Then he peels off one part of the target’s painted ring, shrink-wraps it in plastic and lays it on the floor in front of his canvas, like a dead mouse brought home by a grinning cat.

Lachowicz duplicates a signature checkerboard floor-sculpture by Andre, albeit made from two tones of “perfumey” red lipstick, rather than Andre’s steel, zinc, copper or magnesium. It’s just a new textbook illustration for the old established criticism of Minimal sculpture as a “masculinist” art.

The godfather of this literary approach to “correcting” abstraction is, of course, Peter Halley, the Victor Vasarely of Postmodern painting. Like the Hungarian hack, who translated the philosophically profound geometric abstractions of Moholy-Nagy and Mondrian into empty eye-candy backed by a kind of disco beat, Halley has redone Albers and Mondrian as electrical-circuit diagrams, in Day-Glo colors and cottage-cheese paint. His two paintings at the Hammer don’t reward a second look.

Pop art’s critique of pure abstraction in the 1960s was shocking because Abstract Expressionism, once regarded with suspicion, had lately been absorbed into the museum pantheon. There, sanctioned and subsidized by a grateful public, it climbed atop the proud shoulders of history to represent art’s highest virtue.

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In other words, abstraction had been transformed. From an independent position as high art, offered to everyone but available only to those willing to follow its difficult lead, it became a popular art.

Some artists knew what had happened. They proceeded to picture the transformation in their work. Pop art was born.

Pop art was a lively artistic hybrid. When Warhol made silk-screen paintings using tabloid newspaper photos of fiery car crashes, he was certainly valorizing the violent death of Jackson Pollock, who in 1956 had wrapped his convertible around a tree. But he was just as surely mingling it with a lurid homage to James Dean, youthful pop culture idol of the silver screen, who had met a similar fate.

As a hybrid, Pop had no room for purity. There are artists in the Hammer show whose work I admire, and invariably those works are also hybrid art. Like their Pop forebears, Lasker, Ross Bleckner, Sherrie Levine and others do not critique abstraction, so much as they adamantly refuse all claims to purity.

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When Levine embellishes with gold leaf the plugged-up knotholes in a sheet of plywood, impurities are being consecrated. She, like the others, is looking for ways to make abstract paintings without the baggage of virtuousness, which keeps getting imposed on abstract art.

“Critiques of Pure Abstraction” has been organized and nationally circulated by Independent Curators Inc. in New York. All seven venues in the tour (UCLA is the fourth) are university museums. That figures. The misplaced academic faith in Conceptual dogma is a new mantle of virtue, which is relentlessly being imposed on all kinds of art.

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“CRITIQUES OF PURE ABSTRACTION,” UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Dates: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through March 10. Price: $4.50. Phone: (310) 443-7000.

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