In the June 18 issue of The Nation, Barry Schwabsky’s reponse to Frieze echoes my own–critics must begin to approach art fairs as critics rather than journalists (or paparazzo and PR flacks). After lamenting the rise and influence of art fairs, he addresses the fair from a critic’s perspective, outlining his strategy for viewing Frieze and concluding that there may not be a dominant style, but that there is a family resemblance among much of the work that he calls retromodernism:
My way of proceeding critically through Frieze New York was different: I sought to construct from within it not anything as ambitious as a musée imaginaire, but at least a galerie imaginaire, consisting not necessarily of favorite pieces but rather of works that seemed to form among themselves a kind of constellation, a set of family resemblances unremarked upon by the various galleries that displayed them. The correspondences didn’t coalesce into the fair’s dominant style—there was no such thing—and I’m not prepared to say they are typical of the moment or even of what was marketable at the fair. But they do exist, and seem to make some kind of sense as a form of expression in the present.
Call the style retromodernism, a term meant to be oxymoronic. At a purely descriptive level, retromodernism would mean a synthesis between figuration and abstraction (mostly geometrical rather than gestural) in a manner that evokes the spiritual and intellectual strivings of classic modernism, but elides—some might say, betrays—a modernist faith in progress, replacing it with nostalgia. It’s as if these artists see history as stuck in a holding pattern, and so seek sources of hope in the past.
I’m thinking of artists like Benjamin Butler (whose works I saw at the booths of Gallery Tomio Koyama, Tokyo and Kyoto, and Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna); Uwe Henneken (Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and the Breeder, Athens); Sanya Kantarovsky (Marc Foxx, Los Angeles); Allison Katz (Johan Berggren Gallery, Malmö); Florian Meisenberg (Kate MacGarry, London); Ryan Mosley (Alison Jacques Gallery, London); Anna Parkina (Wilkinson Gallery, London); Qiu Xiaofei (Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing); Peter Stauss (Carlier Gebauer, Berlin); David Brian Smith (Carl Freedman Gallery, London); Alexander Tovborg (Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen); the team of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor (Andreiana Mihail Gallery, Bucharest); Emily Wardill (Altman Siegel, San Francisco); and Thomas Zipp (kaufmann repetto, Milan, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, among others). There was even a street art version of retromodernism (too cute for me) in some of the paintings by Joshua Abelow at James Fuentes, New York City.
Schwabsky is right–but postwar-era abstract easel painting has been a touchstone among painters (including myself) and widespread in galleries for several years, not just at the recent version of Frieze. Rather than observing a new trend, Schwabsky is giving what is already a robust movement, and therefore self-evident, a new, somewhat derogatory, name. Indeed, many painters have appropriated the visual language of Modernist painting, but from a critical stance, not as a form of nostalgia.
Regaining relevance: Writing critically about art fair art (May 8, 2012)
Worst of Frieze: Anselm Reyle @ CFA Berlin (May 16, 2012)
Frieze highlights: Fredrik Vaerslev’s all-over paintings (May 23, 2012)
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