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Figure 1. Jasmine Justice, Thomas Jerome Newton (2010). Acrylic and Flashe on linen, 59 x 63 in., 149.86 x 160.02 cm. Photographed by Florian Balze. Courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 1.

Jasmine Justice, Thomas Jerome Newton (2010). Acrylic and Flashe on linen, 59 x 63 in., 149.86 x 160.02 cm. Photographed by Florian Balze. Courtesy of the artist.

A thin blue band climbs up the left edge of a roughly square canvas and crosses diagonally to the upper right corner, where it turns downward and abruptly breaks off, only to recommence about halfway down the right side (Fig. 1). Its color slyly echoes the blue masking tape that painters use to make fine edges, a device that is notably absent here; its skewed, broken path invokes and just as quickly refuses an inverted "U"—a more complete and correct version of itself. This studied imprecision, according to which the painting approaches but also diverges from identifiable albeit abstract imagery, characterizes its [End Page 67] overall approach to form. Within the central enclosure is a disconnected network of black bars that suggests—but only suggests—a spine with radiating ribs, or perhaps one of Mondrian's trees, those enduring emblems of the passage from representation to abstraction. A preliminary layer of watery stains in green, yellow, and blue is visible through the gaps, and a series of crusty little ovals of red, tan, and magenta dots the painting's face. The black network's intimation of symmetry directs one's attention inward, where a firm structure might lie, but the improvisatory and unmoored nature of the other marks disperses it again.

Jasmine Justice's Thomas Jerome Newton (2010) is executed with an unusual mix of intuition and patience that evokes the tradition of midcentury gestural expressionism, as well as its subsequent deconstruction, without fully participating in either. This latter, deconstructive mode has been manifested in contemporary painting through devices such as stenciling; the systematic arrangement of form according to a priori structures; recitative brushstrokes that distance themselves from the midcentury credo of spontaneity; and pervasive quotation from specific sources and entire genres alike. These devices appear throughout the work of Gerhard Richter, Jonathan Lasker, and Christopher Wool, among many others, both physically carrying out and rhetorically broadcasting the mediation of painting's languages. In such work, indices of artistic intention such as composition, gesture, and pictorial unity are subjected to nonhuman determinants in the form of found imagery and mechanically guided marks, a demonstration of the irrevocably coded nature of the immediate and authentic upon which abstraction had staked its claims.

Curator and critic Bob Nickas has argued that "Abstraction's 'found' state is its permanent, irreversible condition."1 This means that abstraction's midcentury claims to authenticity and immediacy are a historical product, mediated by its accumulation of discourse and techniques. However, the second-order historical condition according to which many contemporary abstract paintings are made need not dictate their formal, aesthetic, or ideological portent. For example, both the productively contested notion of queer abstraction and Phillip Brian Harper's coinage of abstractionist aesthetics put aspects of this "found" visual language to work in ways that surpass the recitation of a monolithic historical state. Analogously, Justice, a U.S. American living in Berlin, shares with [End Page 68] a small number of other painters, most notably Keltie Ferris and Jered Sprecher, a certain agility with regard to the way her paintings both acknowledge and evade the ostensible paradox of contemporary abstraction, insofar as her work strives to reconcile its historical ambition as genuine painting and the "irreversible" announcement of its found-ness. Whereas modernist medium specificity posited abstraction as the very culmination of painting—in its withdrawal from worldly references in favor of the colors, forms, and textures of its medium—abstract painting had long since fallen prey to questions about the conventions, construal, and efficacy of art that might presume to render the medium obsolete, or at least to open it to references outside of itself.2 This is, in short, one of the inheritances of conceptual art. As post-conceptual abstractionists—who share neither a particular ideology, a common geography, nor a common educational background—Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher each synthesize the dilemma by using some of the same devices and strategies of mediated, found, and painfully self-conscious abstraction as the very basis for their abstract painting. They do so, I argue, not to recite conceptualist orthodoxies—nor, for that matter, to stage a nostalgic return to midcentury abstraction's muscular claims to authenticity. Their project is instead to exercise a perverse opacity of form, material, and trace that gladly forfeits the ostensibly enlightened semiotics of the mark, thereby questioning its certainty in favor of a particular experience without pretensions to universality.

In this way, these painters practice what might be termed a figural abstraction, according to the lexicon developed by Jean-François Lyotard and subsequently adopted by Gilles Deleuze. In this context, the figure refers not to a depicted body (as in "figural painting") but to an integral yet disruptive element within a [End Page 69] given system of communication or representation. The dis-integrative force of this figure as it pertains to painting is further analogous to what Georges Didi-Huberman has called the pan, or the "patch" of paint that interrupts the more manageable details that facilitate iconography.3 In such a fashion, Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher employ the visual and procedural codes of mediation in order to block and disrupt the clarity with which these codes might otherwise merely signify abstract painting's conventionality.4 In the work of these three contemporary figural abstractionists, the acute self-awareness to which Katy Siegel impatiently refers to as the "chestnut that expression is constructed," instead becomes a system of mediated gestures that the artists work through each time they paint.5 What might otherwise function as a negation of abstraction's painterly impulses instead becomes its pan, its constitutive gesture.

The recently coined terms "zombie formalism" and "D.I.Y. abstraction" indicate a deep suspicion toward the entropic uniformity that critics have noted in contemporary returns to abstract painting. Critics generally attribute such uniformity to the migration of the site of art-making, from object to milieu.6 How and where to direct one's attention is very much at issue in contemporary abstract art, as not every abstract painting made in the last few years accommodates itself to individuated description. More than one artist's or critic's theoretical edifice deflects attention away from the painting itself in favor of its physical or historical-critical setting. Josh Smith, for example, claims, "I don't care so much about how [the paintings] look because I know how they look. … [T]hey are going to look like abstract paintings."7 By contrast, Justice and painters like her stake the identity of their work on the very compositional choices that Smith attempts to devalue on account of their alleged mass production. To parse the details in an apparently homogenous composition, as I have done in describing Justice's Thomas Jerome Newton above, is to insist on that composition's non-homogeneity, on the priority of its internal distinctions.

This kind of painting is problematic because it does not supply the viewer with a readymade discursive apparatus in the form of references to tick off. For this reason, work that seems to be "about" its abstract imagery, rather than its references [End Page 70] or methods of derivation, is largely missing from recent museum exhibitions centered on abstract painting, such as the Museum of Modern Art's The Forever Now, the Walker Art Center's Painter Painter, or the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's The Painting Factory. For curator Scott Rothkopf, the deliberate focus on composition abandons art's critical potential by evading the demanding issues of reproductive technologies and the burden of history, which he calls "belatedness."

To talk about this or that figure-ground equivocation can only feel so urgent at this point. I don't know whether [an] emphasis on process is a way of importing some urgency back into abstraction, or at least saving it from being some kind of formal noodling or from descending into kitsch.8

Leaving aside for the moment abstraction's fertile intersections with kitsch, it is precisely the more pointed danger of "formal noodling" that these painters take on by showing the anxiety of agency through their methods and imagery, without fully capitulating to it. The decisions they make upon the picture plane itself, rather than within and among their work's intersections with external factors (as in an installation or photomechanical process), constitute a subversion of the shopworn message that abstraction is a culturally constructed, historically contingent practice. Their compositional noodling occurs with and through inherited devices of depersonalization and distanciation interrupting the settled discursive structure of abstraction through each painting's singularity.

Within this artistic climate, painters invested in the picture plane might be accused of avoiding the conceptual sphere, where inquiry and action as to the customs and parameters of art lie. But by insisting on visual invention as the substance of their work, Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher posit stroke and configuration as integral to the discursive (and conceptual) labor of painting, as well as to its material format and historical context. In this way, they intervene in the history of their medium by reassessing the limits of its formal and discursive elements alike. A picture, they claim, can still stir things up.


Skepticism toward the validity of compositional choice as artistic substance is deep-seated within the history of modernism. According to Benjamin H. D. [End Page 71] Buchloh, it was in order to fulfill its "promis[es of] universality and nonhier-archical relationships" that abstraction "abolished … intentional if not rational decisions and the presence of a Cartesian subject." To that end, he continues, "Design was … relegated to a type of structure that carried within itself all of its determinants."9 These determinants include the geometric abstraction of the early twentieth century, and later Sol LeWitt's "machine that makes the art."10 For Yve-Alain Bois, modernism's defining project is the "motivation of the arbitrary," or the grounding of abstraction's infinite variety in concrete factors of the material. He has shown how Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, and Władysław Strzemiński practiced non-composition, or the derivation of a work's structure and incidents from factors exterior to will and fancy, such as the dimensions of the canvas or a found pattern that needs only to be transcribed.11 Bois is careful to acknowledge that this "programmatic insistence on the non-agency of the artist" can never be complete, because subjective choice is always a factor.12

Nevertheless, European and American artists took up this program of non-agency with fervor in the late twentieth century, especially in the wake of minimalism. Howard Singerman has explained the aversion to dividing, designing, or otherwise exerting one's will upon the picture plane:

The monochrome, the grid, [Daniel] Buren's repeated, predetermined stripes and [David] Diao's accumulations of pigment, at once aleatory and indexical: all of these are ways of not composing, of refusing the meanings of parts and divisions. … [C]omposition as intentional formal relation models an individuality. … But against composition's inner necessity, noncomposition stakes its claim to validity outside—that is, precisely exterior to—individual subjectivity.13

Numerous painters such as Wade Guyton and Josh Smith continue to make a show of working outside subjectivity, through repeated and, by implication, automatic motifs. A new generation of painters, however, now conscious of the political specifics of identity, realizes that exteriority is no less chimerical than interiority, and that any claim to have attained it in pure form suggests an extravagant exercise of cultural privilege. To compose—as Justice and other contemporary painters choose to do—amounts instead to an admission of the innumerable and unavoidable conditions that bear upon one's subjectivity, including the very legacy of noncomposition. [End Page 72]

This legacy constitutes the background against which Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher paint. By keeping it decidedly in view, they expose its limitations, dramatizing the extent to which the legacy of noncomposition reverts to an arid demonstration that, when followed to the letter, hampers painting's potential for experience. Such experience remains a priority for these painters, as it did for Jean-François Lyotard, who wrote: "To look at a painting is to draw paths across it, or at least to collaboratively draw paths, since in executing it the painter laid down … paths to follow, and his or her work is this trembling, trapped within four wooden slats, that an eye will remobilize, bring back to life."14 Lyotard's viewer does not decode a painting's symbols, but feels and participates in the forces that infuse it. He continues, "The line is therefore figural when … the painter … places it in a configuration in which its value cannot yield to an activity of recognition."15 Clearly, abstract painting has not played out this way. Recognition is precisely the mode by which paintings have engaged the viewer as far back as Marcel Duchamp's Tu m' (1918), a playful amalgamation of deictic signs, through Jasper Johns's conflation of pictured and real, and more recently at the hands of Kerstin Brätsch, Laura Owens, and others. Visual elements, isolated from within or imported from without the medium's boundaries, form an analytic syntax, perhaps most paradigmatically in the work of Jonathan Lasker. Due in part to his training under "the grand inquisitor against painting,"16 as he later described his Cal Arts teacher Michael Asher, Lasker deftly constructs a history of which his work forms an indispensable part, famously claiming that with Frank Stella's Black Paintings (1958-1960), "The goal of a modern painting, which represented nothing but its own pure form, had been attained." By this logic, viewers and painters alike are called upon "to use our experience of the elements of painting for their associative powers, in a poetics of painting." Lasker pointedly adds, "I'm seeking subject matter, not abstraction."17 To this end, he paints familial series of shapes, repeated and incrementally mutated, which isolate and present a repertoire of abstraction no longer as a set of values to achieve, but as extant customs to re-combine. The protocols of abstraction are the "subject matter" that he seeks, resulting in a second-order abstract-ion of that subject.

Lasker remains a model to many younger painters because he makes abstraction operate conceptually, in that his paintings seem to mirror viewers' habits of looking, of constituting space and construing meaning. At the same time, the work of Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher is significantly different, even antagonistic [End Page 73] to Lasker's regulated imagery and parameters. In contrast to Lasker's analytical project, which is necessarily predicated on visual clarity within and among the elements, Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher introduce a post-conceptual abstraction predicated on untidiness and interruption. Correspondingly, Didi-Huberman sees the production of "not-knowledge" as a fundamental function of painting, just as much as any story or exegetical referent we might think to discern within its details.18 A tiny cascade of red thread in Jan Vermeer's The Lacemaker (c. 1665), for instance, serves as what he calls the pan, or "the part of painting that interrupts ostensibly, from place to place, like a crisis or a symptom, the continuity of the picture's representational system." Incited by "the very gesture, the touch, the intrusion of the paint," the pan is "too singular to propose a stability of signification. …"19 The poignancy of Didi-Huberman's prose is that it seems to call for abstraction as if it had not already existed. One can imagine a painter striving for an art of the pure pan, a painting only of interruptions, of "colored surging-forth."20 This conjecture immediately founders, however, because an "interruption" can never be pure; it must have something to interrupt. But now, of course, it does, insofar as the assimilation of such "stability of signification" into abstraction was precisely Lasker's accomplishment; he brought art's epistemological turn back from its surroundings and onto the surface of painting. Here, it remains unsettled, because as Lasker once reflected: "I often think of these biomorphic shapes that are laid down on top of the grounds of my paintings as being picture puzzle elements that I can grab and lift off the canvas and hang on the wall for a second. Just let them sit there on a coat hanger totally separate from what's happening on the painting ground."21


It is difficult to imagine peeling off and hanging up any part of Jered Sprecher's paintings. Like Lasker, the Knoxville, Tennessee-based abstract painter deploys sets of shapes, grids, stripes, and strokes that can be conceptualized and verbalized. But he also jams them together, creating palimpsests rather than themes and variations. Sprecher continues Lasker's stated ambition to introduce "subject matter" into modernist abstraction's project of self-definition, but he also reverses this ambition by calling into question the analytically denotative function of its elements. In doing so, Sprecher generates and welcomes associations through discursive cues (in which he describes his paintings as "messages in a bottle," or "worn down like steps on a pilgrimage route"22), as well as through [End Page 74] the inherent meaningfulness of his painterly choices themselves: to obscure, to reveal, to crowd, to isolate, to touch, to co-mingle. In Suspended Chords (2009) (Fig. 2), several dozen stenciled black triangles congregate over rows of gray horizontal strokes, which waver and sputter due to an under-loaded brush and a seemingly distracted hand. This brushwork is partially obscured, and perhaps knowingly ruined, by a series of sickly green, golden ochre, and white smears, along with additional traces of color. Taken separately, the platonic geometry, the self-referential brushstroke, and the tachiste blot all seem to signify separate branches of abstraction's historical attempts at unadulterated self-presence, and yet this very recognizability draws abstraction's signs of immediacy into the realm of discourse. Here is where the construal of abstraction has been stalled, and this is the point Sprecher agitates by making a coherent, memorable picture out of what could be an inventory of devices.

Figure 2. Jered Sprecher, Suspended Chords (2009). Oil on linen, 20 x 16 in., 50.8 x 40.64 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 2.

Jered Sprecher, Suspended Chords (2009). Oil on linen, 20 x 16 in., 50.8 x 40.64 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Sprecher's more recent work further muddles the already simultaneous sign-function of recognizable shapes and the more opaque, pan-like function of the mark, whose signification is less determined; in doing so, he heightens their conceptual contrast while merging the jobs they do in the picture. Since 2013, for instance, Sprecher has utilized a stock photo of seagulls in a nest that had adorned a family photo album. Sometimes it appears as a directly painted [End Page 75] albeit fragmented motif in a painting; at other times, a digital print on the canvas serves as the first layer, as in Way (2015) (Fig. 3), whose stark pattern of contrast he has re-painted in order to intensify its color. The birds' rounded heads, breasts, and feathers appear woven into a repeating pattern of triangles, over which he has laid a yellow configuration that, for all of its outlandish branching, seems a partial reprise of the forms of the gulls. Here, he inverts Gerhard Richter's career-long tightrope walk between the deadpan and the empathic, wherein a potentially meaningful image may or may not become neutralized. Sprecher, by contrast, starts with a debased stock image meaningful only as a placeholder, albeit rich in personal associations. He then processes it through old and new technologies, loading it with material traces whose meanings are tied up in their plastic and pictorial function. Imagining or recounting viewers' reactions to his works, Sprecher approvingly lists phrases such as "a color that glows" or "a form that feels … incomplete," and further explains that such an "apparent formal description … starts to take on elements of content or meaning … something beyond paint and canvas."23 Content may lie "beyond" the materials, but it is nonetheless bound up in their accumulation, rather than designating a second-order system of referents to be deciphered. Drawing a parallel between psychoanalysis and art-making, Lyotard noted that the former necessarily "does violence to … syntax and articulated signification," so that, as in the latter, "[m]eaning reveals [End Page 76]

Figure 3. Jered Sprecher, Way (2015). Oil and inkjet on canvas, 36 x 28 in., 91.44 x 71.12 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 3.

Jered Sprecher, Way (2015). Oil and inkjet on canvas, 36 x 28 in., 91.44 x 71.12 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

itself only in opposition to significations."24 Sprecher and Lyotard both seem to look for and foster meaningfulness independent of the logic of signifier-signified.

However, as a corollary to privileging recognizability over what Lyotard called "trembling … paths" within a canvas, the signifier-signified remains prominent in contemporary abstraction. This tendency is evident in the works of Owens, Lasker, and others, where the idiom of readymade criticality submits all painterly gestures to the a priori recognizability of concepts and discourses. This is very much what the Louisville, Kentucky-born and Brooklyn-based artist Keltie Ferris had in mind in her brilliantly playful contribution to an online symposium in 2010 entitled, "What State Abstraction?" "A big question now," she writes, "is the sincerity/irony problem in abstract painting." Yet her response to the "question" is not to come out in favor of either sincerity or irony, but to rewrite the history of abstraction as a series of painterly subgenres to which she ascribes different material tools and techniques distributed according to belief or non-belief. She begins with "Abstraction as action," referring to midcentury-style gestural painting, before updating this category to become "Abstraction as action for the non-believers." As she continues:

By this I mean, Christopher Wool and his descendants. Or maybe Albert Oehlen did it first. Here there is a lot of distancing techniques from mark-making with a brush (spray paint, silk screening, Xeroxing, and other printmaking techniques). Sometimes it feels this simple: brushes and palette knives are for the believers; layers of prints and spray guns are for the critics. Of course it isn't; Rauschenberg started with that sort of critique, but of course didn't end there.25

The example of Rauschenberg is telling because while his early work critiqued the gathering conventions of authenticity, this came hand-in-hand with coded references to his sexuality; this was certainly an example of the "honest internal spot" from which Ferris expects paintings to come, but Rauschenberg also displayed the "distance … in order to see a bigger picture"26 that she further notes is now required. Her speculation as to the breakdown between "believers" and "critics"—"Sometimes it feels this simple [but] of course it isn't"—shows her own productive struggle with the impulses in abstraction, for which she seeks an "intelligent middle ground." Notably, Ferris's own paintings rely on tools from both the brush- and pallet knife-wielding "believers" and the print- and spray gun-wielding "non-believers" whom she divides into hypothetical camps. [End Page 77] Blocks applied with a palette knife follow, define, and depart from passages of sprayed paint, which sometimes unfold in a continuous line, but which more often take the form of discrete spots. The compositional give-and-take between these two paradigmatic sets of tools suggests but always eludes a determining structure, insofar as the knifed-on blocks form a geometric but somehow manic array, which the sprayed paint—propelled from a tool designed to eliminate subjective irregularities—then follows. But this following, this determination, is approximate at best, and is ultimately only responsible to the artist's intention. In Ferris's work, the blocks and spots burlesque what Bois termed "motivation," or the compulsion, under self-selected systems, for a painting to be the way it is. Ferris, moreover, disallows any permanent identification between technique and message, between hand-tools or power-tools, because both are infused with the organic and mechanistic. Even the "non-believers" maintain a faith in the structuring role of procedure and medium, Ferris suggests, a faith that her work seeks to distort rather than to relinquish altogether. Analogously, Ferris was once fascinated by a young relative's Etch-a-Sketch, a classic toy that produces notoriously awkward drawings through a horizontal/vertical matrix; the matrix doesn't cause the drawing, of course, but rather serves as the medium for its characteristic formal awkwardness. Drawing and medium emerge as mutual disruptions: one draws by serially diverging from the horizontal/vertical grid, which delimits in turn the nature of every mark.27 Ferris's designs likewise seem to strain against unseen regimenting forces, manifesting her stated interest in the productive dialectic between "the gesture of the body versus this mechanical distance."28 In this way, she acknowledges the chief historical dialectic bequeathed to abstraction—that is, the longing for immediacy through a bodily trace, as well as the circumscription of any such gesture by the material and discursive conditions of its fabrication. Ferris pits these modalities of abstraction against each other and even merges them by "noodling," that is, indulging in compositional fancy precisely by means of tools and methods that might otherwise lend themselves to an ironic or procedurally determined approach.

Ferris has described the spraying of paint as both transgressively vernacular and ubiquitous to the point of becoming academic, to say nothing of its evocation of the readymade. And whereas art critic Isabelle Graw, in a conversation with the artist in 2015, has linked the palette knife with the ostensibly radical act of "deskilling," the artist somewhat proudly calls it the "squarest way to paint there is."29 Ferris acknowledged the pedigree of her tool more explicitly in 2012 with [End Page 78] Bonjour Monsieur Ferris (Fig. 4), which repeats the subtitle of Gustave Courbet's La rencontre, ou "Bonjour Monsieur Courbet" [The Meeting] (1854). Ferris's title is of course an audacious joke: "It was my first show at a big fancy gallery and it was a giant painting, and [there] was something very vain about it. And I thought it would be fun to have a painting that referenced sort of the vanity of showing and participating and then of course the gender play of calling myself Monsieur Ferris. … And it was just funny to have a French [title]."30 In a naked riposte to what she considered a pervasive pressure to divest one's work of subjectivity, Ferris refuses to purge her paintings of presence and agency, retaining it not in spite of, but precisely through the intertwined masquerades of gender and art history. By invoking Courbet, she gestures playfully to the demands of the art market while also staging its own "meeting" between the spray gun and the palette knife, "believers" and "non-believers" alike.

Figure 4. Keltie Ferris, Bonjour Monsieur Ferris (2012). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 110 x 88 in., 279.4 x 223.5 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Christopher Burke.
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Figure 4.

Keltie Ferris, Bonjour Monsieur Ferris (2012). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 110 x 88 in., 279.4 x 223.5 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Christopher Burke.

In terms of composition, Bonjour Monsieur Ferris squares up its meandering, snake-like form to the canvas edge, while orienting diagonals toward the corners, in a move that allows for an acknowledgement of the totality of the canvas without resorting, say, to a monochrome field. The painting thus demonstrates two important and interdependent aspects of Ferris's work: a preference for expansive forms in keeping with the tropism toward objecthood shared by the [End Page 79] abstract expressionist and minimalist generations; and, more germane to Ferris's critical position, an affinity toward toward-ness itself. As her conglomerate marks reach toward the corners, the composition approaches the monochrome, but she declines to obliterate her role within the painting. Rather than acceding to a longstanding urge for absolutes—an art historical drive according to which the suggested must give way to the realized—Ferris is up front about the impossibility of her desire. She remarks, on the one hand, "I'm interested in an autonomous object," and on the other, "There is no purity of autonomy. But that doesn't mean you can't try."31 The scenario she describes recalls Lyotard's observation that "the artwork does not fulfill desire; it unfulfills it." "The artist," Lyotard explains elsewhere, "is not someone who reconciles, but one who can bear the fact that unity is absent."32 In other words, a work of art does not illustrate desire, but instead carries its disfiguring force. "Desire," in turn, "does not speak; it does violence to the order of utterance."33 In desiring to register her presence in abstract art, Ferris chooses the very arena—the abstract picture plane—marked by art historical discourse as a site of de-personalization. We might even say that her mark, her pan within and against the regimented picture plane, both acknowledges and protests against the foreclosure of desire that is in place due to the literalist and epistemological turn instigated by minimalism. Minimalism made axiomatic the idea that pictorial art simply cannot be experience, in the fullest bodily and temporal sense; all the same, this is what Ferris, like her fellow painters Sprecher and Justice, seeks from it under the constant reprobation of history.

If Ferris's paintings envision the desire to register agency on the picture plane, then this desire is even more conspicuously arrayed in what she calls "Body Prints"—a growing series of works on paper whose process involves coating herself in oil, pressing herself to paper, and then selectively treating the paper with powdered pigment. Her disarmingly simple statement of their meaning, that "Keltie's a person who exists," along with the frontal poses she takes—what she calls an "aggressive, getting-out-your-guns kind of position"34—resonate with the political climate, in which declarations of identity count as resistance in the face of a U.S. political administration bent on ignoring, repressing, and humiliating women, immigrants, and minorities. It is worth noting that Ferris entitled [End Page 80] a Body Print exhibition M/A/R/C/H, just three months after the recent inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth U.S. President. This front-and-center self-declaration and self-representation, however, does seem to contradict the constant mobility, refusal of visibility, and avoidance of reification that characterize the increasingly prevalent notion of queer abstraction.35 And yet, in these works, the faces are often multiple, deflected, and obscured by abstract elements, as she has more recently augmented the figure with bars, wedges, or orbs of color, which in turn recall her paintings, as if asking viewers to also see the bodily presence in the works on canvas (Figs. 5 and 6). Standing before an in-progress Body Print in her studio and remarking on its powdery texture—due to the pastel overlaid on Flashe (a vinyl-based, water-soluble paint)—Ferris explained, "I thought it was also cool to have body parts [become] abstracted, in the same mark, and have my face kind of go through that green blob." These visual interpenetrations operate figurally, disallowing the abstract or representational to

Figure 5. Keltie Ferris, Bluet (2015). Oil and powdered pigment on paper, 30 x 22-½ in., 76.2 x 57.2 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Thomas Müller.
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Figure 5.

Keltie Ferris, Bluet (2015). Oil and powdered pigment on paper, 30 x 22-½ in., 76.2 x 57.2 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Thomas Müller.

Figure 6. Keltie Ferris, sLaSh (2017). Oil and powdered pigment on paper, 40-⁄16 x 25-⅞ in., 102.4 x 65.7 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by .
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Figure 6.

Keltie Ferris, sLaSh (2017). Oil and powdered pigment on paper, 40-516 x 25-⅞ in., 102.4 x 65.7 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by

[End Page 81] achieve stability. Alongside the self-presentational linguistic gesture of Bonjour Monsieur Ferris, this actually is in keeping with queer abstraction's functional aspect of transcending binaries and evading exclusionary standards.36

While Didi-Huberman's pan also "disrupts the stability of signification," there is no class of elements within the Body Prints series that functions in this way; instead, there is a mutually disruptive pan-effect, according to which the "extremely indexical"37 image of the figure shares space with the now-conventional marks of abstraction. The mechanically transferred yet unavoidably iconographic bodies meet the hand-drawn or painted, formalistically pedigreed zones of color, whose idealism must confront the prosaic yet estranged clothing, cheeks, and hair of Ferris's body, and so on, back and forth. These abstract elements disrupt the purity of her indexed body, insofar as "purity" here refers to the steadfast literalism carried over from process and conceptual art, rather than to high-modernist ideas about medium specificity or opticality. With these works, Ferris claims the indexical as a compositional element, heretically merging the two orders.

Justice and Sprecher likewise exercise this pervasive pan-effect. Their work may be full of particular moments that both demand and reward attention, but its principal critical intervention, with regard to recent abstraction, is a matter of method. In their formal noodling, all three painters mobilize the now-familiar mode of deflated, parodied abstraction as a conceptual system of marks and elements that both acknowledges and suspends the second-order status of abstraction as a "found" practice. Their work does not fully rehabilitate abstract techniques into the language of conceptualism, however, on account of the attention they give to each individual composition.

It is precisely through her staunch insistence on painterly agency that Ferris negotiates expectations as to her identity in both artistic and social spheres. Troubled by an unfinished painting that she deemed "fuckin' too lyrical and beautiful," she reflected, "When I'm being homophobic towards myself, I'm like, 'oh, I'm just a flower-arranger.'" She meets this longstanding albeit tongue-in-cheek fear with the recognition that "when I was a kid I actually wanted to be a flower arranger, I wanted a job at a flower shop." In this way, she claims a legitimacy for the aesthetic fine-tuning that Rothkopf finds ruinous to ambitious art, a legitimacy that has less to do with lyricism and beauty than with the personal [End Page 82] history and flouted social expectations to which their excessive fine-tuning opens up. The strategies of mediation that form part of the landscape of abstract painting are not something one can hope to eradicate, as if this might enable a return to immediate painterly expression. On the other hand, the "homophobic" self-doubt instigated by the imperative for mediation counteracts the threat of proliferating and increasingly banal options. Rather than solving the dilemma so many painters must face—that is, of choosing between negation and banality—Ferris courageously makes a position of not solving it, of unfulfilling it, in Lyotard's words, by constantly abutting affected orderliness against compositional invention.

Figure 7. KELTIE FERRIS, Glitch (2016). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in., 182.9 x 152.4 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Christopher Burke.
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Figure 7.

KELTIE FERRIS, Glitch (2016). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in., 182.9 x 152.4 cm. © Keltie Ferris. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo by Christopher Burke.

Recently, Ferris's methods have expanded to include continuous sprayed lines that delineate shapes, which she then fills in with hues more pastel than acidic. Glitch (2016) (Fig. 7) features waving towers of knifed-on blocks in sugary secondaries. To see these blocks as pixels from a screen is to fall into an interpretive trap; despite the painting's au courant title, these tactile squares could have been pried up from Bonnard's bathroom floor. More glitch-like are vertical swipes of a solvent-infused tool, probably a rag or a large brush, which cut dingy apertures in the swirling field, while selective re-paintings in both black and color over portions of these obliterations affirm Ferris's aesthetic choices and abjure the purely systemic. Ferris began these works in order to address her own question: "Can you make an abstract [End Page 83] painting by drawing lines and filling it in like a coloring book? The idea of coloring books was in my mind, and that doesn't seem like a good way to make a painting." However, she adds, "It has generated some strange paintings." Because of the long lines of spray paint, she is aware of potential comparisons to Christopher Wool, who, in the early 2000s, departed from his signature stenciled text paintings in favor of linear tangles of predominant black. Wool also rubs out many of his lines with solvent, interrupting their implied trajectories and invoking the endless revisions of Willem de Kooning. Wool's loops and curves, however, are powered by a kinesthetic frenzy in contrast to de Kooning's studied synthesis of cubist and renaissance drawing. Ferris, instead of freezing an endless play of lost moments, holds the delineations caused by intersecting lines in place with sometimes half-inch-thick shards of oil paint. Held fast by these shards, the individuality and intentionality of each composition asserts itself. By refusing to equalize these compositions into clouds of generic, untraceable processes, she has, in fact, embarked on a brazen negation of Wool's method.

As the modus operandi of her painting, such a recourse to distinguishing one picture from another runs afoul of academic critics who continue to evaluate painting in accordance with its departure from the integrity of the painted object as a locus for attention. In her interview with Ferris, Isabelle Graw confesses difficulty with the painter's claims for "sincerity" in light of her own background with German artists who rely on "'second order expression'—inauthentic gestures, make-believe, index-effects and pretentious poses." While Ferris claims that her paintings consist of "a centralized figure or form that is pulsating and vibrating absurdly in the center of the canvas [whose] energy is robust but bound by those edges," Graw worries about "perpetuating this illusion of an internal life of painting," because "[b]y speaking about what's going on inside your paintings we hold on to the idea of an absolute divide between the internal and the external that is imaginary."38

It is difficult to understand how acknowledging a painter's actions would disallow any contextual understanding, or further how unflinching empiricism is served by ignoring or diminishing what Ferris paints. However, current critical attention tends to privilege discursive systems over individual works, and in doing so, often overlooks the historical imbrications already present in a painting worthy of attention. Achim Hochdörfer exaggerates the distinction in claiming [End Page 84] that "paintings are no longer understood as self-contained, hermetically sealed objects but are instead hubs of much larger referential networks."39 Similarly, David Joselit explains that Martin Kippenberger's Heavy Burschi (Heavy Guy) (1989/1990), a dumpster full of destroyed copies of the artist's paintings alongside photographic reproductions of these copies, "forecloses any possibility of an authentic form of painting by replacing the singular work (the actual source paintings) with secondhand representations cycling through several distinct registers."40 Kippenberger's process-based sculpture on the theme of painting is certainly a poignant manifestation of the doubts and difficulties that painters face amid the complexities of visual culture, but it is hasty to apply his fiat beyond his own oeuvre. Any foreclosure can only be self-imposed.

Ferris is mindful and suspicious of this mode of diverting attention away from the activity across the painting's surface. By insisting on the particulars of each work, she sets them up as blockages in a system, refusals of easy passages or demonstration. Such a project is more in keeping with David Geers's call for an object to "stop us in mid-conversation" than with the call for painting to be an interchangeable node in a leveled field.41 She has reported feeling out of place during a symposium at which the discussion focused on Joselit's notion of "transitivity," or painting's mobility through physical, economic, and social networks.42 Interpreting this as "basically sculpture taking over painting," Ferris laughingly recalled, "I disagree[d] with everybody on everything." She went on to explain: "I think one of my goals always is to make a rectangular thing that is awesome and can exist on its own anywhere." She continued, "I don't want to be drawn into a false dichotomy, but I do feel like my most powerful art experiences with painting have … felt like an autonomous, singular thing, that drew me in, like a Vermeer." Consequently, for Ferris, "the meat of each work is each painting—not the exhibition."43


While the singularity of each of Keltie Ferris's paintings takes precedence over any exploitation of the physical or discursive space in which they are situated, the same is not true for Jasmine Justice and Jered Sprecher, who have explored installation and other three-dimensional approaches in conjunction with their paintings. Justice has, for instance, simply leaned a painting against the wall, calling attention to the customs of display without negating the value of the picture [End Page 85] plane, while Sprecher's 8.25 Minutes (2017) (Fig. 8) consists of six large canvases suspended from the ceiling to create an open, yet marked-off space. Both have made impermanent table-top or floor-bound assemblages as well. Far from nullifying their agency or surrendering to pure contingency, such assemblages expand upon painting's additive and associative properties. Sprecher explains, "I am constantly adding and removing objects, wires, rocks, and pieces of paper in search of the right constellation of objects. When the tabletop is getting close to completion, the objects feel charged and full of energy as if I have connected the circuits. … I want the viewer to feel the weight of a thin piece of paper, a river rock, or loop of copper wire."44

Figure 8. Jered Sprecher. Installation view, 8.25 Minutes (2017). Six paintings; oil on linen, 76 x 56 in., each with wool rug, tape, printed materials, and drawings on paper. Installed in Outside In, Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 8.

Jered Sprecher. Installation view, 8.25 Minutes (2017). Six paintings; oil on linen, 76 x 56 in., each with wool rug, tape, printed materials, and drawings on paper. Installed in Outside In, Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Justice may come closest of all three painters to Rothkopf's dreaded "formal noodling," in that she lacks even the self-imposed procedural scaffolding of Ferris or Sprecher; she instead contrives pictures that step out into zones unsupported by any guiding system, driven only by a wandering but confident hand. Her touch is neither mechanical nor virtuosic, and her images bear a gauche [End Page 86] directness that recalls—without stylistically mirroring—postwar European abstraction as well as certain New York painters of the 1970s.That is to say, she seems to embrace a decadence that follows from the elaboration of the premises of the innovative works of neoplasticism or minimalism, an elaboration that takes place in the absence of an historically programmatic justification. In Hairy Pits (2015) (Fig. 9), Justice seems to have carefully kept the broadest side of a flat brush against the canvas, giving a flat-footed cadence to her slow improvisation, which alternates between irregular geometric shapes and distinct strokes. Her strokes approach the recitative snaking found in Lasker, Reed, and others that signals analytical distance; but in Justice's case, they do not turn about in self-imposed alienation upon a surface, but gladly, if somewhat primly, participate in the structuring of a shallow but complex space. The scalloped pink form toward the left of Hairy Pits, incompletely covered in black and playing at figure-ground reversals where it meets a brushy gray, is the most jarring of many examples of Justice's decidedly unstable balance between all-over and incident. Dual totems in transparent black, and especially their rhyming near-right angles at their tops and midsections, seem to thematize authorial decision-making by highlighting it as a subject without deflating it through parody. At the base of the right-hand black vertical, indigo strokes radiate and are enclosed by pink. Such a simple, even banal device of filling in negative space allegorizes the dialectic of preordained versus improvisational form by subsuming the supposedly self-generated expressive mark to a determinant (the negative space), which again comes only from her own dallying brush. Justice violates a tasteful consistency of scale, color, and touch with thick purple

Figure 9. Jasmine Justice, Hairy Pits (2015). Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 59 in., 149.86 x 149.86 cm. Photographed by Florian Balze. Courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 9.

Jasmine Justice, Hairy Pits (2015). Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 59 in., 149.86 x 149.86 cm. Photographed by Florian Balze. Courtesy of the artist.

[End Page 87] dashes inside a gray area at the lower left, along with charcoal pencil marks in and around the gray, in some cases seeming to add dimension with brusque hatching. The pencil marks congregate on the left side, except where scribbles adorn two angles in the side-by-side black tower forms, indicating the titular hairy pits.

Figure 10. Dan Christensen, Pavo (1968). Acrylic on canvas. 108 x 132 in., 274.32 x 335.28 cm. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum Purchase.
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Figure 10.

Dan Christensen, Pavo (1968). Acrylic on canvas. 108 x 132 in., 274.32 x 335.28 cm. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum Purchase.

Painter David Reed, who once mentored and continues to admire Justice, has spoken of a "street history of painting," consisting not of famous names but of dedicated workers who gained the respect of fellow artists through their dogged pursuit of an independent vision.45 Whatever their degree of notoriety, Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher similarly set themselves against a dominant discourse that demotes invention upon the plane. In this way, they parallel earlier candidates for Reed's "street history," primarily those working in the 1970s, many of whom appeared in Katy Siegel's High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975, a 2006 group exhibition for which Reed served as a consultant. High Times, Hard Times is now legendary among younger artists for its mix of rigor and play. The works show a constant friction between what function as determinants and the wide-ranging sensibilities that generated them, consequently marking the fruitful collapse of the modernist motivation about which Bois writes. The wavering loops of Dan Christensen's Pavo (1968) (Fig. 10) loosen their grip on geometric a prioris, while Howardena Pindell's sagging grid of stuffed fabric tubes overloads its structure from the inside, so that ordering principles seem powerless against lived experience. Lee Lozano's Punch, Peek, & Feel (1967-1970) (Fig. 11) is another case in point. The holes cut into its surface and consequently visible stretcher bars may have conveyed a desirable object-ness, but also constitute unseemly disruptions of the inviolable colored surfaces found in the work of both Kenneth Noland and Donald Judd, [End Page 88] so that, despite its relative austerity, it must have appeared positively indecorous against its minimalist and color field cousins.46

The legacy of the audaciously devised image figured in High Times, Hard Times was figured even more prominently in the exhibition American Painting: The Eighties,47 curated by Barbara Rose, which shared two artists with High Times, Hard Times: Elizabeth Murray and Ron Gorchov. Many readers today know Rose's show through Douglas Crimp's verdict, delivered in his epoch-making essay, "The End of Painting," that the works were "unconvincing … hackneyed recapitulations of late modernist abstraction."48 Crimp's counter-examples of Robert Ryman and Daniel Buren make it apparent that the main offense of Rose's painters is that they dared to compose: to indulge in "formal noodling" at more or less the moment when interior variety had been voided in favor of examinations of painting's external conventions of distribution and construal. Almost forty years later, many of these painters are enjoying renewed recognition, and not just because of the vagaries of the markets or fashion. In addition to Murray and Gorchov, artists such as Vered Lieb, Gary Stephan, Joan Thorne, and Thornton Willis, among others, are capturing the imaginations and respect of younger painters because of their persistence. What once seemed decadent can now seem daring.

Figure 11. Lee Lozano, Punch, Peek & Feel (1967-1970). Oil on canvas with perforations, 243 x 107 x 4 cm., 95-⅝ x 42-⅛ x 1-⅝ in. Moderna Museet © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich.
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Figure 11.

Lee Lozano, Punch, Peek & Feel (1967-1970). Oil on canvas with perforations, 243 x 107 x 4 cm., 95-⅝ x 42-⅛ x 1-⅝ in. Moderna Museet © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich.

In many of these supposedly "hackneyed" paintings, visual abundance is pushed into the service of a willed image, straining against its own apparent lack of historical potency. Unlike Pollock with his drips or Stella with his stripes, painters who compose no longer advance a concept, in an ascertainable direction based on the recent past, of what painting must be. Not incidentally, Ferris admits that she "cannot make an argument that this art should be in the world or is what [End Page 89] history has led to," adding "I don't feel like the most hip person saying this."49 But the very ideology of formal innovation as an avatar of conceptual refinement is in retreat, having been pierced by Lozano and exploded by Murray. The holes Lozano poked in her canvas expose and question the apparent limitations of painting. Alongside the traceable layering of Mary Heilmann's work of the early 1970s, such sculptural activity upon the canvas acknowledges, at the very least, an ambivalence (their own or someone else's) as to the sufficiency of the pictorial.

These painters provide precedent for Ferris and her colleagues, perhaps the historical grounding that she feels is lacking, but whose absence, it must be noted, does not dissuade her from following her instincts. Lyotard, however, never seemed to doubt pictures' ability to move. If, as he writes, "[t]he figural … opposes the discursive through the trace's relationship to plastic space,"50 then the discourse of abstraction as a relic of itself is remobilized, or shaken loose of its reification through the plasticity of these younger painters' marks and compositions, which subversively echo the very discursive methods by which abstraction used to announce itself as counterfeit in order to stave off charges of naïveté. In a chapter that predicts the semiotic turn that abstraction would take in the 1980s in the hands of Lasker and others, Lyotard contrasts Paul Klee and André Lhote with respect to their use of line. Lhote's "methodology," in Lyotard's estimation, "is fundamentally linguistic. … It is as if there were no plastic values specific to the curve, the vertical, the oblique, or intervals that they could determine; as if the value of the element rested exclusively on the group of oppositions in which the drawer placed it." He concludes that, for Lhote, "[a] t issue is the need to rid the eye of the shimmer that beguiles it, and to return it to the clarity of the intelligible."51 For Klee, on the other hand, the line figures multivalent experiences of nature, tactility, and sexual difference. "What [Klee] learned from Cézanne," Lyotard posits, "was not to script with geometric volumes, but rather to deconstruct representation and invent a space of the invisible, of the possible." In this space, upon this "screen," "the line (but also value and color) behaves … not according to the laws of good form but to the power it exerts on the beholder's eye and body, it positions this plane in the field of sensibility, even sensuality."52 Lyotard's kinesthetic ambitions for painting prefigure those of Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher, especially Ferris's above-mentioned description of a "form … pulsating or vibrating absurdly in the center of the canvas." Given the surrounding discourse, Justice and Sprecher's insistence [End Page 90] is just as absurd. Although Todd Cronan has argued that excessive privileging of affective phenomena in painting jeopardizes cogent interpretation, in the context of recent abstraction, the "shimmer," "power," and "sensuality" for which Lyotard hopes—and for which these painters must hope as well—does not diminish the intentionality so important to Cronan. Instead, it reaffirms the co-agency of the artist and viewer in the face of the truism of painting-as-code. The demand for actuality that Cronan critiques has resulted precisely in the compulsion to repeatedly announce the found-ness of abstraction through coded pictorial devices, codes that Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher overload through their formal noodling.53

Deleuze has similarly attributed to the pictorial the movement denied to it by literalism, describing Bacon's imagery as disruptive:

Now what will disrupt [figurative space] and its consequences, in a catastrophe, is the manual "diagram," which is made up exclusively of insubordinate color-patches and traits. And something must emerge from this diagram and present itself to view. Roughly speaking, the law of the diagram, according to Bacon, is this: one starts with a figurative form, a diagram intervenes and scrambles it, and a form of a completely different nature emerges from the diagram, which is called the Figure.54

Morphologically, this describes the paintings of Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher, in that all three disperse web-like networks across the plane, whose uniformity is compromised by various incidents. But even more germane are the discursive disruptions achieved by their "noodling," wherein the methods of mediation (distanced recitation of the stroke, juxtaposition of spatial orders, and regimented execution through the grid or some other structure) are dissociated from the didactic purposes that have accrued to them, and reinvested with a kinesthetic and, by extension, social potentiality.

Deleuze and Lyotard's sympathetic perception of "forces" in Bacon and Klee is bound to seem futile or at least wistful to some readers, because the "insubordinate color-patches" and "a-signifying traits"55 of which the former writes can always appear as just another self-representation. Jordan Kantor has written of Albert Oehlen's Finger Paintings: "At a time when languages and codes seem to define all areas of experience and understanding, 'Fingermalerei' points to the promise of a space beyond linguistic or informatic representation."56 For [End Page 91] Kantor's word "promise," I would substitute "yearning." Faced with an all-encompassing circumscription of abstraction—its "'found' state [as] permanent, irreversible condition"57—Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher show abstraction's continual drawing-away from and re-assimilation into language. Although they may not fully and permanently resist this absorption, their methods spotlight its occurrence, weaving it into the structure of their paintings, almost as a narrative that can be re-played in one direction or the other.

Indeed, as Lyotard shows, the figural becomes discursive when it is imitated and recognized, as "[e]very plastic line submits to linguistic usage."58 This could be a definition of postmodern abstraction: from Roy Lichtenstein through Jonathan Lasker, and carried on by Josh Smith and others, the ciphers of individual presence and consequence are trotted out in a display of their apparent exhaustion. Lyotard also cautions, "Only from within language can one get to and enter the figure."59 The linguistic paradigm of making and construing abstract painting, once a respite to expressionism's complacency, has become quantified and predictable, and unable to account for the particular experiences of socialized, politicized players who manipulate meaning, both intellectually and viscerally. The figure and the pan are models of obstruction and un-communication, when communication is a code for the de-valuation of the individual's intervention. There can, of course, be no return to a pure state of immediacy, but Ferris, Justice, and Sprecher reassert the hand precisely within the confines and contours of already-existing parameters, whether through a found and transferred image or by one's own impulses of a moment ago. Their handwork registers resistance through manifest tension with its conditions. Theirs are images of strife, and as such are grimly but not hopelessly realistic.

Vittorio Colaizzi

vittorio colaizzi is a painter, curator, and Assistant Professor of Art History at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of Robert Ryman (London: Phaidon, 2017) and has published essays on Trudy Benson, Joan Thorne, and Thornton Willis.


1. Bob Nickas, "Introduction: The Persistence of Abstraction," Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (London: Phaidon, 2009), 11.

2. See Jan Verwoert, "Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It's a Good Idea," Afterall 12 (Autumn/Winter 2005),

3. See Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (1971; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Gilles Deleuze, Francis [End Page 92] Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (1981; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); and Georges Didi-Huberman, "The Detail and the Pan," in Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John Goodman (1990; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 229-71.

4. The phrase "working through" deliberately echoes Yve-Alain Bois's account of the project of modernist painting as the attempted, but always deferred, achievement of its end. The "feeling of the end," as he puts it, may have dissipated, but the nagging feeling of foreclosure has not. See Bois, "Painting: The Task of Mourning," in Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 229-44; and for a more recent account of feelings of foreclosure or "impossibility," see Raphael Rubinstein, "Provisional Painting," Art in America 97, no. 5 (May 2009): 122-35.

5. Katy Siegel, "Fiona Rae," Artforum 38, no. 1 (September 1999): 167.

6. See Walter Robinson, "Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism," Artspace, April 3, 2014,; and Lane Relyea, "DIY Abstraction," in Golden Age: Perspectives on Abstract Painting Today, ed. Marco Antonini and Christopher K. Ho (New York: NURTUREArt, 2014), 56–66.

7. Josh Smith, quoted in Daniel Marcus, "Eyes in the Heat: Daniel Marcus on Figuration in Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes, and Josh Smith," Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 373.

8. Scott Rothkopf, in Johanna Burton, Jeffrey Deitch, James Meyer, and Scott Rothkopf, "The Painting Factory: A Roundtable Discussion," in The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol, ed. Jeffrey Deitch (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; New York: Skira Rizzoli), 19.

9. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Pandora's Painting: From Abstract Fallacies to Heroic Travesties," in Gerhard Richter: Documenta IX, 1992 | Marian Goodman Gallery, 1993 (New York: Marian Goodman, 1993), 45–46.

10. This phrase comes from Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 12.

11. See Yve-Alain Bois, "Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation," Painting as Model, 123–55; "Ryman's Tact," in Painting as Model, 215–26; and "Ellsworth Kelly in France: Anti-Composition in Its Many Guises," in Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948–1954 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1992), 9–36. Bois consolidates this argument in his contribution to "Abstraction, 1910–1925: Eight Statements," in October 143 (Winter 2013): 7–17.

12. Bois, "Eight Statements," 8.

13. Howard Singerman, "Noncompositional Effects, or the Process of Painting in 1970," Oxford Art Journal 26, no. 1 (2003): 128, 132–33.

14. Lyotard, 9. [End Page 93]

15. Ibid., 213.

16. Jonathan Lasker, "Jonathan Lasker's Figurative Abstraction," interview by Robert Hobbs, Jonathan Lasker: Early Works, 1977–1985 (New York: Cheim & Read, 2012), n.p.

17. Lasker, "After Abstraction," in Complete Essays 1984–1998 (New York: Edgewise, 1998), 20–21.

18. Didi-Huberman, "Question Posed," in Confronting Images, 7–8.

19. Didi-Huberman, "The Detail and the Pan," 266.

20. Ibid., 271.

21. Lasker, "Jonathan Lasker," interview by Shirley Kaneda, BOMB 30 (Winter 1989/1990): 17–18.

22. Jered Sprecher, "Jered Sprecher: Digging in the Dirt," interview by Lucas Green, Citywide, WNYU, December 16, 2009. I am grateful to Sprecher for providing a recording of this interview.

23. Jered Sprecher, interview by Stephen Wicks, in Jered Sprecher: Outside In (Knoxville, TN: Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017), 35–36.

24. Lyotard, 383.

25. Keltie Ferris, quoted in Jackie Saccoccio, "What State Abstraction: Carroll Dunham & Keltie Ferris," BOMB, Dec. 18, 2009,

26. Ibid.

27. Ferris, in conversation with the author in her studio, Brooklyn, NY, February 10, 2011.

28. Ferris, "Blind Date on Painting: A Conversation between Isabelle Graw and Keltie Ferris," in Keltie Ferris in Conversation with Isabelle Graw (New York: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 2015), 4.

29. Ferris, "Blind Date," 6; Ferris, "Keltie Ferris: In the Studio," interview by Daniel Belasco, Art in America 104, no. 2 (February 2016): 90.

30. Ferris, in conversation with the author in her studio, Brooklyn, NY, January 18, 2017. Unattributed quotations from the artist come from this conversation.

31. Ferris, "In the Studio," 90.

32. Lyotard, 387, 385.

33. Ibid., 233. See also Margaret Iversen and Stephen Melville, Writing Art History: Disciplinary Departures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 130–35.

34. Ferris, "In the Studio," 88.

35. See Ashton Cooper, "Queer Abstraction: A Roundtable with Loren Britton, Kerry Downey, John Edmonds, Mark Joshua Epstein, Avram Finkelstein, Chitra Ganesh, Glendalys Medina, and Sheila Pepe," ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (May 2017): 286, passim.

36. See Chitra Ganesh, in Ibid., 297. See also Jonathan D. Katz, "Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction," in Agnes Martin, ed. Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly, and Barbara Schröder, (New York: Dia Art Foundation; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), [End Page 94] 187, 191–93.

37. Ferris, "'It Feels Sacrificial': An Artist Repeatedly Imprints Her Body on Paper," interview by Samuel Jablon, Hyperallergic, April 19, 2017,

38. Ferris, "Blind Date," 6, 8.

39. Achim Hochdörfer, "How the World Came In," in Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age: Gesture and Spectacle, Eccentric Figuration, Social Networks, ed. Manuela Ammer, Achim Hochdörfer, and David Joselit (Munich: Museum Brandhorst/Delmonico/Prestel, 2015), 25.

40. David Joselit, "Reassembling Painting," in Painting 2.0, 177.

41. David Geers hopes for such an object in "The Gold Standard," The Brooklyn Rail (May 2014): 77, while Relyea's analysis—both in "DIY Abstraction," Golden Age, 56–67, and "Postscript to DIY Abstraction," Golden Age, 68–72—emphasizes this field.

42. This symposium took place on Sunday, February 21, 2010 at the Kitchen in New York City during the group exhibition "Besides, With, Against, And Yet: Abstraction and the Readymade Gesture," among invited guests, selected artists, and curators Debra Singer and Matthew Lyons. I am grateful to assistant curator and archivist Katy Dammers for this information. After the symposium, Ferris reports, "Rich[ard] Aldrich and I had this conversation … and I remember him being like, well, what's so amazing about painting is that it can do both. And he's right." See also David Joselit, "Painting Beside Itself," October 130 (Fall 2009): 125–34.

43. Ferris, "Blind Date," 8.

44. Sprecher, interview with Wicks, Outside In, 35.

45. David Reed, "In Conversation: David Reed with John Yau," interview by John Yau, The Brooklyn Rail, March 4, 2010,

46. Lucy Lippard confirmed as much in a sidebar to Katy Siegel, "Making Waves: The Legacy of Lee Lozano," Artforum 40, no. 2 (October 2001): 126.

47. See Barbara Rose, American Painting: The Eighties, A Critical Interpretation (New York: Grey Art Gallery, 1979).

48. Douglas Crimp, "The End of Painting," in "Art World Follies," special issue, October 16 (Spring 1981): 73.

49. Ferris, "In the Studio," 90.

50. Lyotard, 211. See also 3–19.

51. Ibid., 214–15, 218.

52. Ibid., 231, 232.

53. See Todd Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

54. Deleuze, 125.

55. Ibid., 125, 82. [End Page 95]

56. Jordan Kantor, "Hand Apart," Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 339.

57. Nickas, 11.

58. Lyotard, 212.

59. Ibid., 7. [End Page 96]

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