- On Formal Noodling:Invention and Determination in Recent Abstract Painting
Click for larger view
View full resolution
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...