On January 16, 2020, artist and curator Jason Stopa invited Katherine Bradford, Sharon Butler, Craig Stockwell and Thomas Micchelli for a panel discussion about the issues abstract painters are addressing today. The conversation took place at Monica King Contemporary, a new gallery in Tribeca where Stopa organized “New Skin,” an exhibition featuring his work, alongside abstract paintings by Michael Berryhill, Clare Grill, Shirley Kaneda, and Juan Logan. The discussion touched on identity politics, Like Art, social media, politics, and more. Overall, the conversation seemed to point toward several trends: identity as content, painting as refuge from despair, passive political content, and a renewed interest in aesthetics that embrace beauty and pleasure. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Note: Carol Saft put together a video with excerpts of the discussion, which is available here.
Jason Stopa: Some 10 years ago there were a number of exhibits focussed on provisional painting. Sharon Butler, Lane Relyea Raphael Rubinstein, and David Joselit wrote agenda setting articles. When curating this show, I struck me what a different artworld we are living in. There has been an incredible amount of socially and politically motivated painting in the past 5 years. To cite a few examples, I can think of Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at The Met Breuer, The 2019 Whitney Biennial, and most recently Kent Monkman’s painting “Welcoming the Newcomers” in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How do you see this in relation to work that might have less of an explicit social or political dimension? Can abstract painting vie for the social or political? Does it have to?
Sharon Butler: I’ll start. So many things have changed since those days. The GOP takeover of the government, and the Trump administration, the opioid crisis, addiction to social media, climate crisis, the killings that precipitated Black Lives Matter, mass shootings. I think that all those things have made a huge impact on the work that we’re making. When you look back to those days, it all seems so naive. We were making work about failure and things that were slightly off-kilter. But now they’re off-kilter in a very real way. I’ve seen a return to traditional skills and the meditative practice of making the work as a way of enduring. It’s not necessarily political, and I wouldn’t say that it’s decorative, but it has something to do with making it through difficult times.
Craig Stockwell: That’s exactly the difference. When things get real and very difficult, I need to turn to something that is sustaining. I think painting in all its forms is remarkably engaging as a thoughtful activity, as a thoughtful and physical activity. Personally, to go to the studio and have the experience of making, spending hours in this thought process, and responding to difficulties, seems so small in certain way, but it’s incredibly sustaining in a difficult time.
Katherine Bradford: I think I would piggy back on what you said since we’re getting so many messages from the news. There are so many conversations about what’s going on politically that we need to protect our inner life, and, as far as I can see, this show comes from artists who are relying on their subconscious, their imagination, their inventiveness, their sense of color. Thank you for bringing color in, in the month of January, just brilliant of you to do that.
JS: Thanks, it feels like summer in here…..This space of imagination, this space of inner life, what does that have, there’s definitely a number of camps out there. There are people who feel as though, well, art has a responsibility to address these very things that Sharon has mentioned. Can it do that in a show where it’s not perhaps on the nose or as direct. Do those things still have as much merit?
Thomas Micchelli: Yeah, I mean, it’s a tricky question to talk about because you’re wrapping art with words and every word you say is bound to be interpreted in a number of different directions. But, because I would just love to say, of course not —it doesn’t have to deal with any of that and it still can be meaningful. But, that would be a falsehood because it is dealing with that but not directly. If it’s going to have some kind of resonance for the moment, it’s dealing with the moment, and so any one of these paintings you could say have nothing to do with the list that Sharon provided us with. But they also very much do, because they affect us in an emotional and an intellectual way. I think that’s why a show like this is drawing attention. The last review I wrote in 2019 was a show of Pete Schulte at Mckenzie Fine Art and it was drawing, but with the same properties– a lot of symmetry and pattern. I described the gallery as an Apollonian sanctuary. You just felt sheltered going in there. And I think that if, yeah, we can talk about art’s responsibility and we can talk about content, but walking into a show and feeling that kind of comfort, for no good reason, is what really brings us continually back to art.
JS: There can be kind of a profound resonance that happens in the exchange of work that affects us on a sensorial level, and a way that might be difficult to attach language to.
TM: It’s beyond words.
JS: Which is going to piggy back into our next question. In curating this show, I referenced Miro’s painting “Birth of the World.” He described his approach to this painting stating, “rather than setting out to paint something I began painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush.… The first stage is free, unconscious. But, he continued, “The second stage is carefully calculated.” How do you see the role of chance versus intention in this show? How does this play out in your own work?
Craig Stockwell: I love that quote. It speaks to what we referred to as ”the prohibitions“ in the 1980s. We moved through a series of prohibitions during that time and this idea that you can actually enter into a painting is a very old idea, a very Abstract Expressionist idea, but wandering into a painting and seeing what develops was just outside of our thinking. I visited you soon after you turned out this painting behind your head and the incredible combination of preconception, but also call-and-response — putting down things and responding to them on the spot — is an amazing human activity and potential that we have and we can do. It’s like conversation. It’s the things we do on the spot. To refer back to Miro and an earlier way of thinking about painting is actually a very rich place for us to talk about painting now.
KB: That painting of yours right there, Jason, it’s so assured. I read that it was done from a smaller sketch. And it was then that you wandered into the painting. And then you made it bigger.
JS: Yeah, I’ll make a drawing and then I’ll make a study, sometimes a few studies, and then I eventually get to the painting. It’s not all execution, ithere’s variation that happens there, but it’s a way of thinking through the painting.
KB: I think the Miro that you referenced, and I took a long look at it, looks like a Miro, like he wandered in there and just had a good time. He’s giving us his vocabulary which he’s built up over decades. And I would say the same about this show. You can recognize each artist by their color, shapes, approach, and so on. One great advantage of having lived through decades, is that not only have you built up a lot of mannerisms and stories, but you have shapes and ideas that you can reach in and use in your paintings. So when you asked how do we use chance in our work, I always say that when I begin my day in the studio, ok, you can do anything, make an abstract painting, make a monochrome painting, but, in fact, I don’t, because I have these things, this use and addiction. I rely on using the same things over again. And I also want to remember a time when Provisional painting was all the rage. We were introduced to James Sienna’s work and were fascinated because here was an abstract painter that had a system. One line crosses over and then goes down. One line crosses over and then goes down. And it looked great. It looked like maybe he was using chance, but he wasn’t. And we were spellbound by that.
JS: That’s a good example. I often think of a painter like Albert Oehlen, who I think is an interesting and curious example of someone whose work has spanned a number of genres, and flirts with things that sometimes are absurd, sometimes downright stupid, and allows that to also enter into the work, and then uses that, embraces that sometimes. And then also clearly has the ability to make a very sophisticated painting. It strikes me that these questions of how I’m doing what I’m doing are just as important as what it is I’m painting in that studio. It’s the process versus result.
SB: I agree. I don’t think there’s a painter in this room that doesn’t use both. I don’t think it’s binary–are you using chance or are you being intentional? It’s a spectrum. In the intentional, there’s an element of chance, and in chance, there’s an element of intention. And it’s just a matter of where it is on the scale. That’s the beauty of painting. When you’re working digitally, your head has to be in the process. You’re using fast tools that do what you expect them to do, but when you’re painting, the process is much more meditative. You have the time to notice the accidental and make the decisions that you’re talking about. Those choices comprise the process of painting–yes, no, this, not that. These are the choices that create the meaning. Particularly in abstract painting. How the line is drawn.
TM: That’s an interesting distinction you just brought between digital and manual work because with digital there are so many safeguards from really screwing it up, and with painting you can never escape that.
SB: There is no Command-Z.
TM: In terms of chance versus deliberation, I agree with Sharon, in this room there’s combinations of everything in varying degrees. But even in a painting like Shirley Kaneda’s, it looks like it’s planned out, but look at the brushstrokes and the way that the yellow shapes and the purple shapes overlap the green verticals, and you see a dark U just below the outline of the purple shape, and this space recedes beyond that, and I don’t know whether that was planned or not, but that really works.
JS: Well this is the thing that I think is overlooked. This notion of space which is central. We have an interior space or our own lives, then we have a public space that we operate in here in New York City, there’s a digital space that we‘re all addicted to, which Sharon mentioned, and that these all have a kind of social, emotional, and kind of psychological component to them, they all bring that affect, which most of the time were taking for granted, but space within the painting then becomes, well, how does this, in an abstraction, represent some sort of space in a social dynamic that takes place within that setting? In the case of Shirley’s work, the forms that become illusionistic start to feel sculptural, and then flatten back out again. There are implications in making space like that, and implications of using color like that. The referent, or what it’s pointing to, is not a solid fixed thing, but neither is it a totally neutral thing.
JS: Work that embraces formal issues has had a long history. The artists in this exhibit make work that references decorative ornamentation, weaving, architecture and the landscape. Despite the differences, pleasure seems to be an affect. Is the decorative still a pejorative? What role does pleasure have in painting? Can pleasure be a radical act?
SB: I don’t think pleasure is a radical act. Pleasure is only a radical act in our community in New York. Outside of our community, if you just went to go live in, say, Oklahoma or something, and you said “My work is radical because I take pleasure in painting,” it wouldn’t make sense. There’s no there there. The idea that pleasure is a radical act relies on context– on being in New York and having the burden of art history. And understanding that, for so long, the idea of challenge, the idea of progress, the idea of struggle, has been how we think and talk about painting.
JS: So you don’t think that a painter in Oklahoma struggles with painting art history in that same way?
Sharon: Well I don’t want to go there, I’m just saying that if you’ve ever lived outside of an urban art community, it’s a very different thing. And trying to explain your work to someone who is not in the art community just makes you realize if there’s something there or not. But I do think that there is this return to pleasure, and it’s not unrelated to the market. I really enjoyed that article in Hyperallergic, “Like Art,” by Rob Colvin. Was that in the Weekend section? It was published on March 1, 2019, and it was about how, with social media, there’s art that is made to be seen on Instagram to get likes, and that when you see the work IRL it’s disappointing. The whole idea that Rob was pointing out is that it’s a type of art that is decorative in a way. It’s colorful, doesn’t take many risks, and they often mix in styles from older artists, but takes the teeth out of them.They use earlier work as stylistic pastiche.
JS: There’s a lot of work that is privileged by social media or just by the screen. Things that are sort of graphic, that sort of have a punch to them, usually something that has a kind of color. And then there are things that are really not privileged. I mean these are questions that have been going on, of course, and I think in that article he’s trying to make a case that there’s work that has a really light approach toward making progress withIn painting. They are very content to pull from the things that are already socially acceptable and rehash them in a socially acceptable manner.
KB: Jason I would take issue with the word “pleasure.” I think I am assuming that everyone here is a painter. It’s a comforting thought, but I don’t feel that as makers of paintings we are after pleasure. I think that doesn’t give us enough credit. I go back to something you said about how something comes about, rather than what is there. And that is the language of painting that we’re all using, and I think that everyone here is using it differently. That’s what’s so interesting, and then we come across someone who uses it in a surprising way, a troubling way, in a practically ugly way. Go up the street and look at Katherine Bernhardt’s ET exhibit, you’ll see a painter who’s taking a lot of risk with color, subject matter, and how paint is being put on the canvas. I don’t think we’re after pleasure. And I don’t want to use the word beauty. I think we’re after making a statement and using an invented language.
SB: I also see it in the shift from theory to poetry, where people in graduate programs used to read a lot of theory, now they’re much more likely to be reading poetry.
TM: I am going to counter what you said, Kathy, because I feel that the hang-up about beauty and pleasure in painting is a vestigial trait of American Puritanism. I think there’s a reluctance to embrace pleasure, guilt about embracing pleasure. I take a lot of pleasure looking at your paintings. They’re really beautiful, ok, so 1, 2, but what I wanted to say is pleasure does have a checkered history in Modernism. Do we want to look at Matisse from the 1930s or Picasso from the 1940s? There is a kind of illegitimacy for something that is simply beautiful, a bourgeois notion of what art is, but I think that we’re just not defining it correctly. One of the most beautiful and pleasurable exhibits I have seen in years was the Nancy Spero exhibition. I mean that show was stunning and it had nothing to do with the content it just got me visually. So I think that what draws us into the studio is the pleasure of making and the pleasure of seeing it when it’s done, and I think that anything that does strike us visually can be defined as beautiful. I mean, I kind of always felt that the avant garde, from one generation to another, was seeking a new definition of beauty.
JS: Do you feel that they were actively searching for that, or it was a byproduct of what was made?
TM: Good question, I would say byproduct, creating art in a completely new and different way. When you think about it, what was Robert Rauschenberg doing when he was throwing together those cardboard boxes? He was seeking beauty in a different material, something that was completely unlikely.
SB: But, see. now you’re using a definition of beauty that has become very slippery.
CS: I just wanted to mention sentiment, as well as pleasure and the decorative. And I think one of the things that abstract art messes in is decorative pattern making, and we can’t escape that. We can’t escape the pleasure of the making, the pleasure of the viewing. This is a more risky statement: any work that does not dabble in sentiment is blind, in a way. Any work that is sentimental is a mistake. And back to Kathrine Bernhardt, there’s an ET thing over there that is really disturbing and sentimental and beautiful and pleasurable. How well it delivers all these things is just very surprising.
JS: Using this case of Rauschenberg, and the people who are involved in the avant garde, this notion that it will rise through like a contradiction. That’s kind of Matisse’s thing as well, that he’s going to throw something irrational at the painting, in an effort to disrupt the logic, and that that might produce some unexpected EFA fect. Maybe that’s an effect we might describe as beautiful, but if he wasn’t doing that, perhaps it would be a pedestrian idea. If there wasn’t this thing that wasn’t somehow interrupting the idea of just enjoying it for its own sake.
CS: That goes back to our conversation about Modernism.
TM: It also goes back to the idea of art being of the moment. And every day it changes, and so you can’t rely on any past tropes. Maybe that’s where the ambiguity is seeping into the conversation. When I use the word beauty, when I use the word pleasure, I’m not talking about pleasure or beauty from art history, or historical works, or early Modernism. I’m talking about what we’re creating now as something new and truthful and brazen. It’s a matter of words and that was my opening statement: that we’re going to wrap these objects with words and that’s the problem.
JS: Going back to the conversation earlier of how much this is a moment that is invested in trying to kind of attach a certain kind of language to art making. It’s not necessarily the theoretical one that past generations have had to contend with, but still there’s an effort and we have to do it somehow.
JS: Let’s move onto our last question: I’m now realizing that all of my questions are incredibly hard and no one can really answer them. (Laughter) Thank you for trying to answer them. There are a number of problems, of course, in painting, this idea of figuration vs abstraction is a 20th century problem, the arguments on formalism, the end of painting, low art vs high art, neo and post isms. What are some stakes for painting now?
KB: I interpreted that question as “What do you see as the future of painting?”
JS: Yes and no. I’m looking at the idea of the stakes in this moment. I’m not trying to speculate about the future.
KB: I couldn’t help but think around the first of January where there were lots of lists of the best shows. What is so different is the priority that’s being placed on the identity of the artist, which I don’t think has been so strong. I’m stuck by this when I go to MFA programs, that there is a great effort to have a lot of diversity and a lot of political correctness, and I’m struck by this when I read the art writers who seem to be deliberately choosing a variety of artists, many of them marginalized, not having had enough attention. The exhibit I saw this year that I lthought was the most profound, that I learned the most from and was most struck by, was Brice Marden’s exhibit at Gagosian. Was he mentioned in any of those best shows lists? No. He’s a successful white man, he didn’t have a chance. (Laughter) But what’s happening? Did anyone put DeKooning in because he was a Dutch man? Or Rothko because they needed a Jewish guy? This is really a big change. The ethnic identity of an artist is counting for a great deal.
JS: Among other things like sexual orientation. These are important. There was a cannon that was very narrow and did not allow a lot of diversity. It’s a wonderful thing that we’re now talking about a much more broad, pluralistic art world in this way. The question is, where does the antecedent for that come to view? I have yet to walk into a show, when I was thinking about a number of artists that received a lot of the same acclaim, well, where are the mentions of Robert Colescott, where are the mentions of Barkley Hendricks, all these people who came before and have opened this door? Artists are indebted to them and can’t escape historically. Also with respect to gender and social orientation. I think we need to revisit notions of what makes successful art despite our differences, right? That becomes a huge issue knowing that there’s a much wider door for people to walk through. The criteria for judgement can’t go out that door with it.
TM: I would like to counter again. I have to say that I’ve spent my writing career bashing MoMA for one reason or another, but I do have to say that their rehanging is tremendous. What it does is exactly that. It opens the door. That art was always there, but it was never in anyone’s forefront. When I walk around, I’m not particularly looking at who’s who and where they’re from, I’m just enriched by the variety and the splintering of the canon. Growing up as I did, with the priorities I had, I always did feel that there was this kind of narrative. As that began to seem less and less viable as an alternative, it felt like, okay, maybe certain principles of quality or something would have to go, but it didn’t have to go. I did a critique at Hunter a few weeks ago and everyone was talking about identity, and I thought, oh my god, and I thought it was going to be all navel gazing and where my grandparents came from, and it was none of that. It was just solid, really imaginative, really well done work of every variety. This is a really positive development, and one of the few things that we can hold onto as an institutional redirection.
SB: I think that the world and the country is in this incredibly transitional moment. You have to appreciate it and say this is amazing–like the MoMA show. All of these things we hadn’t seen before. It’s wonderful to be more inclusive, but that doesn’t mean that individuals feelings aren’t hurt. Like Brice Marden. (Laughter) Whenever there’s a period of transition, there are always going to be winners and people who don’t win so much. I am actually quite interested in that conversation from the people who don’t win so much. I think it’s an interesting conversation. I think it’s too bad that people are unwilling to talk about it, because this is a pivitol point in our history. Don’t we want to think and talk about that? It has become very tribal, though. When you have people making nominations for a prize, say, a black woman will pick a black woman, a white woman will pick a white woman, a white man will pick a white man. As Kathrine said, there’s an expectation that everyone has to get their share, and it’s difficult in that way.
JS: You can’t expect that everyone’s work will somehow rise to the level of acclaimed success, critically, financially. That’s not a thing, and that’s never been a thing. People will be included, people being excluded, but that’s not necessarily for negative reasons.
SB: But that’s because we are in this transitional moment and once we get through it, it will become more of a holistic community again.
CS: Returning to your question about what possibilities there are for painting at this time, first of all, I’m amazed to walk in here at this point in time and see such an exciting painting show. Because part of the premise that we’ve walked across for years is that there’s nothing else to do, no new songs to be written. And these are all very fresh surprising paintings. The Provisional painting gambit is still on the table–Jason, you’re working with that, and Shirley. It’s interesting that your work is so accomplished, but if it was just accomplished, it would be very dull. It actually has this wonderful sort of human provisionality to the making and to the brush strokes, the way the marks go on the canvas. The room is filled with paintings that are considering, still, if there is enough there. And I think the best painting really struggles with that question because when you do too much, it’s too much. Unless too much is the quality. I think that question is still on the table. And I think that’s a huge existential question for us all in terms of our work. What presence can we have that is neither too much or too little?
Questions from the audience:
Robert Morgan: Don’t worry about Brice Marden. (Laughter) I’ll tell you why. He’s taken care of. And there are a lot of other people who are taken care of who We’re first recognized in 1993 by Elizabeth Sussman at the Whitney Biennial. Identity politics has been with us for over thirty years and it has worked its way into the big time market. This show has the opportunity to turn that around. And other shows like it. Because it has gone far enough, we don’t need more of it, let’s go ahead.
Linda Francis: You have to be careful. What we’re talking about are two things. We’re conflating two things that really should be pulled apart. And one of those things is the social construct that we’re all laboring in, and the other thing is the art. So if you look at the things you are talking about, some of those things are just about social constructs and the problems we have in judging what is good and what isn’t. We conflate the two. Identity politics is not really identity politics. It’s about all the preconceptions that people have, and how they judge what the art looks like. And none of them are about the art.
JS: Do you feel you can separate art from the social and political?
LF: You have to try. The avant garde, for example, forever and ever, was based on the fact that they looked at what it was, then said we’re going to fuck with that. We’re going to do something opposite (Laughter) from what is considered good. Now that’s interesting. Because that’s then what we call avant garde. Now people say “there is no avant garde.” Well what does that mean? It doesn’t talk about the art, it talks about the social construct about what is defined as the avant garde, not what it looks like.
JS: Because something has some sort of social or political subject, does that mean it‘s political as an act? It’s a very easy marriage that has happened recently but it doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s like making a painting and saying you care about deeper environmental issues. Well you’re still making a painting, you’re making an object in the world. The problem is when you try and knit those things together.
LF: Yes, but we’re not single minded people. What gets me is people not taking any political action because they’re painting. I don’t get that. I heard Barnet Newman say that all art is political. That the act of it is political. And I would say your entire life is political so where you are, everything you do, it is political.
Kadar Brock: Abstraction‘s possibility of being political ties into time and speed, and I was wondering if you can talk about time and speed as a political thing in relation to the acceleration that’s taking place in neoliberal capitalism in America, and how making slower paintings could be a political act, because it’s reclaiming your attention.
TM: I do think that slowing down is a political act, or at least a social act. And when Newman said that all art is political it made me think of African American artists in the 1960s who were painting abstractly as a political act, because they were bursting out of the box that the art world was putting them into — if you’re an African American artist you’re going to do social issues. Time and speed—yeah. I think that‘s what we do when we look at abstract art especially. A kind of slowIng down — that meditative engagement with our imagination, connecting with the artist’s imagination. It can only be good.
SB: Painting is always going to reflect the political moment, even if the artist had no intention of creating a political painting. The work is always going to reflect the time in which it was made. I don’t know where I’m going here. (Laughter) About this notion of time and speed. Some of the things that you can see reflected in painting today are smaller scale and a push towards narrative. There’s a lot of narrative in painting and that has to do with identity — even in abstract painting. And I challenge everyone to think about time by leaving your phone home. It’s amazing how much more time you will have to look around. Looking at things and people will begin filtering into the paintings.
JS: Steven Westfall wrote about Slow Painting a few years ago, and he mentioned a number of painters that seem to have a meditative practice. The work was about perception, or something phenomenological that was supposed to reveal itself over time that wasn’t an immediate thing.
CS: The act of studio painting is incredibly anachronistic and really serves so little function in our contemporary world, except perhaps as a place for thoughtful, slow activity.
Gaby Collins-Fernandez: I have a problem listening to how the conversation has unfurled. I have a lot of questions about the implicit binary between identity driven art and work like Brice Marden’s. It’s troubling to see that kind of work being dismissed as not having to do with painting concerns, but assuming it’s about the world and politics rather than surface. I wonder if thinking about how the kind of plastic translation of whatever concerns, whether they are identitarian or abstract, would be formative in thinking about certain kinds of subjectivity of something like this. In your earlier questions, it seems to be coming up again, whether politics is ever just transmitted through the work, or if it’s just being made in a time because it influences us. Whether abstraction, in different kinds of modes or languages, points to a kind of subjectivity in one place and a different kind of subjectivity in another. It’s important to push back on the easy line between work referencing the artist’s great grandparents and specific material conditions. Because one of the points of this show is to talk about abstraction in a more expanded field.
JS: Well there’s a number of identities in this show. I’m half white and half black, and we have a Japanese American and an African American, so there is that diversity. It’s interesting when we can talk about our subjectivity through a rarified lens, a lens that is less of a confessional lens. People are incredibly complex. I really hope no one is walking around thinking, like, I want someone to read my work through this one lens. That’s so limiting. It’s much more interesting if we can talk about the aesthetic, psychological, subjective, personal, philosophical, and identity issues the artist is speaking to. It really has to check off those boxes and if it’s not then it’s not doing much of anything. It’s staying in its lane.
GC-F: So my question, to follow that up, is do you feel abstraction can create a set of criteria for looking at painting at large? And is that something you are trying to do in this show?
JS: I am pointing towards it. That’s a big claim, but I’m trying to point towards things so there can be an audience reception where they can take it in a variety or directions. I reference things like landscape orientation, weaving, a number of possible trajectories which all have their social, personal connotations, but I’m not interested in laying that responsibility on the viewer to necessarily agree with me, or go with me to those same places. Perhaps that’s what it is, maybe in some of this panel, that we’re pushing back at. I hate reading museum didactics and a lot of wall text, I don’t want to be told what it is I’m going to experience. I want to have an experience and then understand what that experience was. We’ve done this reversal in the past few years that I just think is misguided.
Carol Saft: I was totally in love with the title of this show, “New Skin.” Maybe by “new skin” you meant many skins.
JS: Yeah, in a way. As a physical thing paint has a skin to it, that’s what we’re seeing on a perceptive level, we’re experiencing physicality, the color, the temperature, all of these perceptive acts, but then there’s the skin of the container for the artist. Those two things are happening, both the thing itself, and the way that it was transmitted through the person who made it.
CS: So you mean “membrane.” The way a membrane holds something. But naming a show “new membranes” isn’t as good. (Laughter)
Patricia Miranda: Not necessarily because of the particularities of what you guys were saying, but there is this implication of ”this has been done,“ or ”that has been done,“ and “how can abstraction speak today,” “Is identity art over,” etc. To me, one of the things about the 21st century that’s so fantastic is that you have all of these things happening. We’re not in this grand narrative of the 20th century right now, we’re not in this linear thing, and we can have all of these conversations at the same time. I want more identity art and I want more abstraction. It’s just a question of whether it’s being done in an interesting way. But none of those conversations are productive. So that’s one thing. I wanted to stand up for identity work, work that proclaims a certain kind of identity. The problem is when it becomes reductive. I also wanted to go back to the what Katherine said about the autonomy of the imagination. To me, what makes one part of abstraction political, is the definition of a totalitarian regime: It’s in your brain. One of the things that we do is reclaim the autonomy of our interior life, and that is a political act, especially today when I think politicians want to have a reductive effect on our imaginative life and our material life.
Unidentified audience member: I want to go back to the idea of what’s at stake. For me what feels like a stake right now is opportunity as an entrepreneur–to make a living as an artist with the birth of social media. I’m curious what you all think of that. I have so much access to galleries, on a very personal basis, when in the past it was just rejection, rejection. You can get your work out to the world, and, now with the birth of social media, I have tens of thousands of people looking at my work every single day, liking my work, being reached out to by galleries, being able to reach out to galleries, and so one of the things that I think is so exciting for an artist right now is the opportunity to be successful without ever being in a gallery or a big show and making a living as an artist, which I think, for most artists, that’s the core want. To be able to paint and live and eat. The idea of a starving artist is dying right now. I know many artists — I’m mentoring young artists — who really see the potential of making a living as a painter, and I think that’s really exciting for the art world, but I’m also curious about the relationship between artists and galleries and artists and art world and I feel like its shifting.
KB: So you would say DO NOT leave your iphone in the studio? (Laughter)
UAM: All I’m saying is Instagram changed my life. It made me a paid artist. I make my living completely selling my art, which many artists couldn’t say a long time ago. It’s a huge change in the art world. Artists can make money without ever going to school, without ever being in a gallery, without ever being in a big show, without ever being recognized by anyone other than their own community.
SB: Well, you know, there are different communities in art. I grew up in Mystic, Connecticut. Every summer we had an art festival, and artists would arrive, in their vans, set up their tents, sell their work, and make tons of money. Then they would go to the next fair and the next. And they loved it. They were itinerant artists, and they spent the winter making the work. So there’s always been the festival circuit, the Burning Man crowd, as well as the gallery community in New York. For some people money is the goal, to support yourself as an artist, but when you do that you might have to sacrifice a certain amount of risk taking, and experimentation, and political content, because you’re geared towards this market that you’ve developed on Instagram. That’s one way of approaching the art world.
UAM: I would say that’s an assumption.
SB: I’m not saying that I know everything, I’m saying these are some of the situations. Then there are people who aren’t as interested in this approach, for whom success is not about making money and selling the paintings. Maybe it’s about critical acclaim, maybe it’s about being influential, maybe it’s about something else. I think you’re right that there are many ways to create and sustain your art practice outside of the gallery system. Absolutely. But I think where it falls down is this assumption that what people want is money. Because I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everyone.
JS: For me, it becomes a question of context. I see work that’s being posted on the internet and I participate in it too. It’s a context-less space, and meaning is only derived through context. I might be able to understand if I like something, and I appreciate something, if I think it’s interesting, and there is, of course, a number of opportunities to speak with galleries, critics, other artists. But in terms of meaning-making situations, which for me is essential to having an artistic or aesthetic experience, is that there’s some “get” and that “get” is a material “get” and that’s what I’m after. If that doesn’t happen, then, well, an incredibly attractive thing may lack some greater dimension, and it doesn’t hold up in the same way. Again if I go to that thing in real life and it does deliver that thing, then great. It serves both ends for me, but if it only does the one, then I see it as a passing experiences that I would not consider to be an aesthetic experience. I would consider them to be pedestrian, quotidian, everyday experiences that lack lasting value. Who among us is trying to have mediocre food, or mediocre dates, or mediocre art experiences, right? You’re trying to have deeper, enrichening, more meaningful experiences in the world, and I don’t know if the public, necessarily, myself included, has a lot of that on social media. But that doesn’t mean it’s a damning account of what social media can do. It just means that there’s a different reason why I’m engaging with that platform.
Joe Fyfe: There was a lot of talk in the beginning about all the issues in the world. Does anybody think there are issues specific to painting that are contemporary, the way there seemed to be at one time? When Brice Marden was a young man he brought back an inflected surface to what had been Minimalist painting. The other thing I want to say is that you want to make your own interpretation of an abstract painting, but I never thought that painters like Peter Halley were about that. He could tell you very specifically how to interpret his paintings and that was the way to interpret them. He is a good example of someone who has figured out for himself what the issues are and how to solve them. Do you think there are the issues in abstract painting at the moment that everyone is sharing, or is it just endless pluralism and communities?
TM: I don’t think there are. Look around the room. No painter is alike even though they may share certain qualities. But each painter, despite a ten-year age difference in some cases, work so well together. I feel that the splintering of the narrative that I touched on earlier is also a splintering of style. There isn’t one. Yeah, you can look at what was happening in the 1970s, and say there was a very clear dialogue that we could follow, but it was a very exclusionary dialogue. More confusion now, and more mess, but maybe it’s better that way.
JF: Well I’m not saying there is necessarily one problem everyone has to solve, but are there some problems as opposed to individual problems for everybody?
Sharon: Painters want to be popular.
JF: But that’s not an issue.
Sharon: It is an issue. This notion of what is a popular painting, Every young artist may not be making paintings about it, but they are thinking about it. When you post something on Instagram, why do you get 100 likes on something and 500 on another? This notion of popularity sounds kind of glib, as if I’m not serious, but I do think that it’s something that artists, and abstract artists in particular, think more critically about. [This is related to the conversation around Like Art, beauty and pleasure.]
JF: But you think that’s an issue? I could see something like identity politics being a contemporary issue. I don’t think “how I can get people to like me” is an issue.
Shirley Kineda: One thing that this show clearly elaborates on is the fact that we can’t have a movement anymore. It touches upon a lot of different issues, and the only thing the general public can focus on is identity politics. You don’t need a movement for that. It could be all sorts of different styles–abstract as well as figurative. In terms of beauty and pleasure, which for me is tied with the notion of an aesthetic experience, a very Greenbergian, Kantian idea, but still very relevant as an abstract painter. Because abstract paintings don’t represent anything even though the public wants to know what they mean. They don’t mean anything. The meaning is derived from the relationship that form has with other elements in the painting. It creates an aesthetic experience for the viewer. That’s what is relevant for me and hopefully relevant to the viewer. The formal qualities, although often denied, create the experience.
JS: If Americans were trying to get away from relational painting, at some point, now it seems to be fair game. But I agree, we are struggling to find some moniker that can be attached to it.
SB: Can I add something here? I’ve been wondering if the style now is to have a personal voice. To develop a personal, unique and individual voice.
JS: But isn’t that voice always inflected by all the other voices that came before you?
SB: But could that be the style, the goal. That, too, could just be a style. What would it mean if that weren’t important anymore? What if that wasn’t the goal? The idea of the distinct voice and a personal language. Is it possible that this could change?
SK: Language comes from somewhere. It’s not developed out of nowhere.
KB: It’s the goal in communist countries.
Sharon: Right. I mean look at Social Realism. And we are moving into this uncharted political territory.
CS: The best painting today explores inconsistency, within a certain problem. It brings me back to the viewer when shifts are made. Everyone in the show has exhibited that. Inconsistence within a certain problem.
Patricia Torvalds: We’ve talked a lot about history and how students don’t read theory, or don’t engage in history, and don’t engage with the painters that came before them that allowed them to have, basically, a new cannon. There’s also immense cynicism that identity politics has been happening for thirty years, new voices have been making themselves clear. In abstraction, in this place where there is a great deal of cynicism on the future of art and also about immense individuality, how do we engage with art history within our own abstract paintings? We are still talking about the 30s and 40s with the rise of fascism, then, but also the painters, and how they were alive and engaging with beauty. How do you engage with history in this art form that is cynical about the future, rejects the past, and claims to be only about the individual…?
SB: Why do you think it‘s cynical about the future?
PT: We’re talking about the transitive nature of what’s happening right now, and yet, we do see parallels with other things in the 30s, and, yes, things are very uncertain right now. We’ve seen so much change in how we approach the art world, whether for good or bad. The art institutions are controlled by a very small elite. But all these complex contradictions are coming to light, and so how do we engage in history, in a form of painting that is abstract, that wants to be ahistorical, but can never be ahistorical?
CS: In the show at MoMA [The Forever Now] a few years ago, the curator suggested that one of the marvelous things we do right now is that we dig in the past. Any good painter digs in the past, and acknowledges and expresses their love and interest in past things. To me, it’s a very anti-Modernist thing to take approaches that were left on the table in the Modernist effort, and now were saying, okay, that didn’t work, let’s go back and pick up those pieces. There are a number of things in this room that come out of historical painting. Now we can use them. We don’t have to march past them.
TM: I think that trying to (either) pull out of the air where painting is going or to apply predictions to where painting is going is inevitably lead us off a cliff. Exactly forty years ago, would we have imagined the future that we had waiting for us? Absolutely no. Painting takes the same twists and turns, in terms of the dialogue we were talking about earlier, in terms of Minimalists and Abstract Expressionists. I mean they all breathed the same air. They came to this movement because they came to the same storefront and every Friday or Thursday and they would talk about Existentialism and Jung. They started thinking about the same ideas, and then they started doing these paintings. It’s a much more complex world now and we each respond to our stimuli in our own way, and whether you want to do something with content, or no content, it still has a specific political spark.