In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten many emails responding to “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists,” an article I wrote for the June issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Thanks to New American Paintings, Painter’s Table and other bloggers for sharing the article with your readers–conversation is good.The majority of the correspondence has been positive, but I wanted to address some questions and respond to a few comments and one Particular Reader’s complaints.
This Particular Reader (PR) wondered why I felt a need to write the article at all since, in his mind, it seemed like a rehash of “Provisional Painting” Raphael Rubinstein‘s excellent 2009 article in Art in America, so let me differentiate between Rubinstein’s provisional painters and the painters I described, for lack of a better term, as “casualist.” The casualists use earlier abstract styles and motifs intuitively as a visual language rather than as a conceptual premise. Plenty of artists believe in the premeditated strategic employment of references to historic abstraction, but the paintings I’m discussing are more likely to emerge unplanned through the process of painting – not through the focused exploration of a front-loaded conceptual proposition. All casualists could be called provisional painters, but not all provisional painters are casualists. That many contemporary artists appropriate and strategically quote previous styles is less relevant to the casualists’ way of working than the way Rauschenberg used, say, a tire or a cardboard box. The idea is that meaning emerges from the act of making, not the other way around. Clearly PR was more interested in the ideas of older artists like Jacqueline Humphries who belong to the “painting is impossible” tradition that Rubinstein teases out. The painters I call the casualists, however, are far less concerned about framing their work in terms of the impossibility of painting than they are with uncovering, with good humor, new possibilities for painting. It’s subtle, but the approach is different.
For those who object to the term “casualist,” which PR says implies laziness, “casual” is not an inherently derogatory word. I meant the word to conjure a nonchalant, offhand, and flippant sensibility, but nonetheless a purposeful one–not lazy. The same reader misread the tone of the article as belittling, patronizing and condescending, but actually, I’m fascinated by some of the ideas outlined and am exploring them in the studio myself (although I’m far too much of a handwringer to consider myself a casualist). Is it cheating to steal phrases from my own artist statement for my articles? I hope not, because for this article, I did. I would never deny that a painting, despite appearing unfinished or sloppy, might be a good painting.
Since the article was published, I’ve had several inquisitive readers write that different influences, exhibitions and sources might also have been included, and PR went so far as to say that the piece was a muddle–under-researched and without appropriate citations. As a university professor, I’m familiar with MLA citation guidelines, but I didn’t write the article for a peer-reviewed journal. I wrote it essentially as an opinion piece, springing from an exchange on Two Coats of Paint about a show at Nudashank, a Baltimore gallery that features work that might be considered casualist. I supported my argument, as any decent writer of this form would, with references to general knowledge and information that most Rail readers would be expected to possess. Obviously I was constrained by The Rail’s standard length and form limitations. A longer article might have referred to “A Painting Show” a terrific survey at Harris Lieberman that I saw just before turning the article in to the editor, as well as artists represented by Tanya Bonakdar, Lisa Cooley, Rachel Uffner, Untitled, and Canada all of whom present excellent exhibitions of work that might be considered casualist. Unfortunately an article like this wouldn’t have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail.
And, although I didn’t specifically mention it in the article, I cheerfully acknowledge the blatant influence of the early modernist easel-sized abstraction on the casualists. But it just seemed too obvious to mention. My aim in suggesting a link between the casualists and female artists from the 1970s was to illuminate a more intriguing, less transparent connection that readers might not be so quick to identify. For the peeved reader (same one) who questioned the inclusion of less prominent artists like Martin Bromirski (an early advocate of provisional painting who brought it to my attention on Anaba) and groused that I interspersed relatively unknown artists with internationally celebrated artists “without distinction,” I say, welcome to the less hierarchical world created by Web 2.0 and social networking media and offer no apologies. Isn’t it amazing that we have easy access to info about so many unrepresented artists and images of their work?
Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful feedback–even the negative. And now, back to vacation, where I’m contemplating still life, landscape, the figure, and more — does the world need any more abstract paintings? And I’m finally reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which, incidentally, is not unrelated to the new casualism.