This essay, which builds upon an essay about contemporary abstract painting that I wrote for The Brooklyn Rail in 2011, was just published in the January/February 2014 issue of Christie’s Magazine.
A few years ago, having operated safely within traditional painting strictures for decades, I found myself embracing a paradoxically purposeful inattention to detail, nuance and craft in my work. Noticing that many other painters were moving in this direction and, after extended discussion on my blog, Two Coats of Paint, I wrote about it in a 2011 Brooklyn Rail article, labelling this trend The New Casualism. The work I had in mind related conceptually to wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and impermanence, featuring abrupt shifts, cross-currents and a deliberate lack of formal cohesion that constructively agitates the viewer, challenging one to look harder if a painting seems poorly constructed or amateurish.
There is more to the studied, passive-aggressive irresoluteness of these canvases – which often leave large sections unpainted – than meets the eye. They reflect a concern with imperfection, extending beyond traditional Bauhaus principles of good design to the unfinished, the off-kilter, the overtly offhand, the not-quite-right. And, to my mind, they refreshingly embrace almost anything that seems to lend itself to visual intrigue – including formal artistic failure.
For better or worse, the article struck a chord in the painting community, and Casualism has gathered momentum. What distinguishes a casualist approach is the premium on unexpected outcomes rather than handsome results. This translates into a comfort with inconsistency and a willingness – manifested in departures from conventions of colour, composition, texture, material and balance – not to impose harmony on elements that may not be naturally susceptible to it.
Thus, artists including Martin Bromirski, Rebecca Morris, Jered Sprecher, Joe Bradley, and Keltie Ferris (as well as myself) have tried to make paintings that scan as objective manifestations of real-life imperfection and confusion. The complex and often disorderly experience of the everyday is the aesthetic filter through which they entertain multiple, sometimes dissonant, ideas.
More playfully, Lauren Luloff, Patricia Treib, Brooke Moyse, Cordy Ryman, Michael Voss, Amy Feldman, Zak Prekop, Sarah Faux, and Tatiana Berg, to name a few, employ loose, gestural enervation and light paint handling that invites erroneous comparison to projects completed in a beginning painting class. At the other end of the spectrum, painters like Maria Walker, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Matt Connors, Noam Rappaport, Daniel Subkoff, and Lael Marshall take a meta approach that riffs on the process of painting itself, using the materials in decidedly unpainterly ways.
The casualist impulse has yielded compositionally awkward work that may seem humble and self-deprecating, and may employ ‘hobbyist’ pre-fab materials like pre-stretched canvases and canvas board. Though often small in scale, the work might spill into three dimensions because the stretchers loom just as large aesthetically as the paint itself. The most compelling casualist work has an anti-heroic, offhand feel and ostensibly shows little attention to craft or detail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, galleries and collectors have been slow to embrace this type of work because it seems too easy. Some old-school painters have branded the most obvious approaches ‘crapstraction.’
But casualist tendencies suffuse the established art world and should not be dismissed so… casually. Matisse’s casualist leanings were transparent. Picasso’s were more muted, as seen in the seemingly unfinished canvases and simple line paintings in the recent “Black and White” Picasso show at the Guggenheim. Malevich, in advancing Suprematism, believed that pure feeling was to be found in non-objective painting, and that materialism could lead to ‘spiritual freedom.’ Prefiguring casualist strategies, he approached his work intuitively, unfazed by ambiguity, ill-defined parameters or truncated lines of thought.
Casualism is kindred to a range of work by established living artists, including ‘provisional painting’ (in particular, that of Raoul De Keyser, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann, and Michael Krebber) as explored by Raphael Rubinstein in his eponymous 2009 essay in Art in America. In a review of the ‘Reinventing Abstraction’ exhibition of 1980s abstract painting curated by Rubinstein, Thomas Micchelli wrote that “the genome of this generation of post-minimal abstractionists … is embedded in the Provisional/Casual DNA.”
So-called ‘bad painters’ from the 1990s like Chris Martin, Judith Linhares, and Peter Acheson are also a major influence. De Keyser, Jim Lee, Richard Tuttle, Kimber Smith, and Thomas Nozkowski directly anticipated Casualism with their self-conscious resistance to ambition. Like their work, casualist pieces seem quickly made, self-amused and untethered to the rigorously structured propositions and serial strategies favoured by artists of previous eras. This is not to say that the new approach is unserious or heedless of art’s history and evolution. But it embraces and memorialises unpredictable encounters in the studio in ways that their predecessors did not, and may regard the traditional avenue of creating a brand and working it for 40 years as unadventurous. By integrating painting – a traditional form – with a more improvisational and conceptual contemporary sensibility, Casualism presents a principled alternative that stretches, even distorts, traditional boundaries but does not ignore them.
Comparable aesthetic dynamics have arisen before. In the 1970s, for instance, female artists like Elizabeth Murray, Mary Kelly, and Ree Morton countered the macho posturing of the minimalists by working from an intimate point of view that embraced messy everyday detail.
Casualist painting, then, is a synthesising phenomenon. Its very open-endedness leaves ample room for incremental refinement. In December at the Miami art fairs, the casualist approach, albeit on a larger, more-commercial scale, was evident in the surplus of raw canvas and linen, the inclusion of unstretched paintings and the elevation of everyday materials like carpeting to art-supply status. Recalling avant-garde European movements from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s such as Arte Povera, Art Informel, Art Brut and Surface/Support, Casualism stands as a vibrant and durable approach that may be beginning to earn its own place in art history.
Raphael Rubinstein revisits Provisional Painting (2012)
The impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting (2009)
Reader response to “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists” (2011)
Greetings from Nudashank and the Transmodern Festival (2011)
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