This month New York painters and critics are talking about “Reinventing Abstraction,” an exhibition of paintings from the 1980s curated by Raphael Rubinstein. His incisive selection includes one painting each by Carroll Dunham, Louise Fishman, Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann, Bill Jensen, Stephen Mueller. Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski, David Reed, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir, Gary Stephan, Stanley Whitney, Jack Whitten, and Terry Winters.
(Image at top: Bill Jensen)
Full of painterly brio, the show inspires nostalgia for my early years as an undergraduate (1985-87) at MassArt, before I moved to New York. Once in NYC, I was bombarded with the hype surrounding New Image painting (Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Longo, Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, etc.), the blitz of Neo-Expressionism (Polke, Immendorff, Penck, and Baselitz), the irony of Appropriation (Sherry Levine, David Salle, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, etc.) and the semiotics of Neo-Geo (Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe), but the artists Rubinstein has selected for this show were more urgently compelling.
Discussing the exhibition with other artists, I was surprised when several suggested that Rubinstein was attempting to “rewrite history.” To be honest, I hadn’t realized that these artists didn’t have the same historical import as the others I mention above–though I might have included work by Gregory Amenoff, Harvey Quaytman (maybe a little old?), Sean Scully and Susan Rothenberg, too. In my cohort, Rubinstein’s choices (plus my additions) have always been equally, if not more, influential. It may not be obvious today, but the symbolism, tactility, color, art historical references, and compositional simplicity are still embedded in my generation’s painting DNA.
In a conversation with Joan Waltemath at The Brooklyn Rail, Rubinstein says that
The transition from the ’70s to the ’80s is a big part of what I’ve discovered in doing “Reinventing Abstraction.” Around 1980, a generation of artists who had been involved in the radical strategies of the ’70s rediscovered the possibilities of painting on stretched canvas, and working with oil paint, figure/ground relationships, applying paint with a brush instead of spraying or folding or pouring or staining. They also acknowledged and sought out relationships to art history. In the ’70s there was still this idea that you could make an absolute break with the past and start from degree zero. In the early ’80s that began to look not only like a naïve fantasy but also like a formula. Suddenly, it became a lot more exciting and adventurous to reconnect with art history. There was a rediscovery of history—not as something to escape, but as a source of new content.
And now, with a return to more conceptual, self-aware, and sometimes ironic approaches rooted in Support-Surface and Arte Povera, we’re going in the opposite direction, rediscovering the fold, the spray, the pour, the stain, the process, the object, and other strategies that preceded this, for the most part, earnest strain of abstraction from the 1980s. After digesting its lessons in our school days, many painters have rediscovered the once-radical notion from the 1960s and 70s that how we make paintings is just as important as what we paint.
“Reinventing Abstraction,” curated by Raphael Rubinstein. Cheim & Read, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through August 30, 2013.