Is a strain of recent abstract painting obsessed with revitalizing the celebrated tradition of the 1950s New York School?
A peculiar new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art says yes, proposing that a vigorous revival of Jackson Pollock’s drips, Mark Rothko’s luminous clouds of color, Franz Kline’s muscularity of forms and other painterly concerns from a half-century ago is underway — albeit with a notable twist. The old abstraction recorded the singular hand of the artist at work in the studio. The new abstraction, by contrast, exploits diverse printing processes rather than the paintbrush. Silk-screen is king.
The driving force of the new abstraction is said to be the impersonal, factory-made Pop aesthetic first advanced 50 years ago by the late Andy Warhol (1928-1987), silk-screener extraordinaire. But this focus is too reductive. Set aside is all of Conceptual art, which spread like wildfire in the 1970s, until finally it became the primary idiom of every subsequent sort of new art, whatever the medium.
Another troublesome fly in the ointment is this: Warhol’s abstract paintings were mostly a flop — banal retreads of earlier classic images of Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, flowers and more. Warhol achieved a lot during a relatively short career, especially in the 1960s. But his late foray into abstract painting, which mostly came after his dreams of being a Hollywood movie-maker didn’t pan out, set the bar pretty low.
The general guiding principle in “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” seems to be diverse ways to make an abstract painting without a paintbrush. But opening an exhibition with a room full of vapid Warhol paintings of Rorschach blots, camouflage patterns and murky shadows (they date from 1978 to 1986) starts things off with a stumble. The show has trouble recovering.
Organized by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch and curatorial coordinator Ethel Seno, it brings together 57 recent paintings and installations by 14 living artists — 12 in New York and two in Los Angeles — plus nine late Warhol canvases. The pallid Warhol room presents abstract images made using silk-screen printing techniques and — voilà — abstraction a generation after Warhol in the rooms that follow.
Those rooms do include some exceptional individual works by artists who have come to the forefront during the last decade.
Julie Mehretu’s pair of monumental, post-9/11renderings freeze architectonic visual narratives at a precarious, structurally thrilling moment midway between explosion and coalescence. (Think architectural draftsmanship in the spirit of Zaha Hadid.) Similarly, but in his own distinctive way, Mark Bradford uses aggressive techniques of urban collage to forge fierce tensions between creation and destruction. (The tangled, map-like collage material seems burned into his two large canvases.) Both artists harness the energy of worlds simultaneously coming together and falling apart.
Iridescent spray-paint conjures the delicate surface of crumpled sheets of cloth or paper in Tauba Auerbach’s quietly radiant paintings. Even on tall walls they’re hung low to the ground, on the same level as a viewer. This confrontational placement subtly registers a bodily relationship to one’s own ephemeral skin, stretched around a skeleton the way her canvas is pulled around wooden stretcher bars. The luminous abstractions are at once sensuous and poignant.
Two of the show’s lesser-known painters also impress. Like Mehretu, Bradford and Auerbach, however, their Warhol lineage is overplayed.
Josh Smith, initially a print-maker, fuses childlike painterly marks with reproduction techniques, such as copy machines or laser printers, to create a knife-edge balance between accident and premeditation, the raw and the cooked. His energetic works almost look like they’ve been peeled up from the studio floor, at random and intact.
Seth Price’s loosely knotted ropes, strewn across sheets of foam printed with patterns familiar from checkbooks and other banking sources, could be too coy by half as cautionary tales of art-market bondage. But Price packages them in vacuum-formed polyethylene, shrink-wrapped like mass-produced goods. The salutary result is a self-conscious awareness that, in a capitalist society, any claim of possibly standing outside the marketplace is both specious and pretentious. Complicity is best acknowledged.
Rudolf Stingel’s enormous installation, which refers to paintings without being one, even ensnares us in that commercial reality. Wall-to-wall carpeting, off-white like raw canvas, is installed in all of the show’s galleries — easily 10,000 square feet. After a few thousand people scuff the white carpet during the exhibition’s run, expect it to be pulled up, cut into pieces and turned into salable, museum-sanctioned wall works “painted” by unsuspecting visitors’ feet.
If you help to “paint” Stingel’s work, however, don’t expect a cut from future sales. This sly bit of participatory exploitation is even a tad worse than writing for the Huffington Post, since at MOCA a contributor to the final product actually has to pay for the privilege of institutional admission. Stingel, with his disconcerting rug, shows us where we live now, deftly driving the point home by turning a public space into the functional equivalent of a domestic living room. Be it ever so humble.
Also in the show are silk-screen paintings of two-tone color splotches by Christopher Wool and photo-enlarged dust-bunnies by Urs Fischer; smoky gray fields spray-painted on huge canvases by Sterling Ruby; Kelley Walker’s pastiches of news photographs obscured by splatters and patterns of bricks; a large, mixed-media installation with freestanding panels and a slide-show of Cindy Sherman-style self-portraits by Das Institut (the duo of Kerstin Bratsch and Adele Roder); a wall-size suite of dense, black, ink-jet printing on white linen by Wade Guyton; and, finally, a modest selection of text-paintings in silk-screened coal dust by the estimable Glenn Ligon.
Apparently one holdover from the 1950s New York School is that today’s “painting factory” primarily employs men. Just four of Warhol’s 14 proposed legacy-artists are women.
Yet, the exhibition’s thesis that Warhol’s abstractions brought us to this place remains unconvincing.
His vacant late paintings essentially reiterate his revolutionary ‘60s work. The one abstract series not represented here — the 1977-78 “Oxidation” paintings, made by urinating on canvases brushed with copper-based paints that chemically react to uric acid — was even a rerun from Warhol’s glory days. He first tried to make them in1962, but the instability of metal pigments in commercial paints of the day mostly resulted in a mess. Warhol abandoned the project until the paint technology caught up.
The failed “Oxidation” attempt’s cheeky slap to high-falutin’ New York School grandiosity does underscore what his contemporaneous Pop paintings did achieve. With silk-screens, photographs masquerade as paintings. Campbell’s soup cans pictured Willem de Kooning’s description of Abstract Expressionism as soup. Celebrity suicide victim Marilyn Monroe, deathbed-plagued Elizabeth Taylor and assassination-day Jackie Kennedy chronicled famous stories of the tragic and the timeless, said by abstract painters to be art’s most profound subject. Brightly hued paintings of flowers blooming in the grass literally represented Color Field paintings. And so on.
Warhol’s Pop, like Roy Lichtenstein’s and Edward Ruscha’s, used commercial, mass-media imagery to take down encrusted New York School mythologies. “The Painting Factory” turns that upside down. It’s an exercise in re-mythologizing.
The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Aug. 20. Closed Tue. and Wed. https://www.moca.org
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