WHY ABSTRACTION MATTERS
Click here for PDF of catalogue
Abstract painting, once considered the most radical and contentious art genre, drove much of the revolutionary spirit of twentieth century art. Now more of a tradition than a means to overthrow the status quo, the persistence of contemporary practitioners raises critical questions about its power and relevance in a world consumed with dazzling art spectacles and a continuous barrage of sensational imagery.
A hundred years of Modernism continually redefined abstraction via a sequential series of formal innovations in the early geometric abstractions of DeStjil, Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, then Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Hard Edge and Post Painterly abstraction. Each movement induced another with its own manifestoes and apologists ensuring its avant garde status via its effrontery to the reigning aesthetic norms. This evolution reached its apotheosis in the 1960's with Clement Greenberg's reduction and subordination of abstract painting to the purity of its medium. A serious painting was essentially about paint on a canvas with no personal narratives, political agendas, or transcendent spirituality. At this Greenbergian endpoint, painters could either be burdened with (again) defining abstraction that had ceased to be a revolutionary art form as postmodern theorists then began arguing or they could assume an alternative position. To avoid endlessly recycling its past achievements and losing its urgency in light of its own remarkable history demanded a different dialogue about abstraction than that of-- in Olympic terms-- topping the previous world record. Critics like Arthur Danto saw it most positively when he wrote that the end of abstraction's Modernist axioms opened a wide window of possibilities for new forms of expression while art historian Kurt Varnedoe probed deeply into the tradition to understand its continuing presence. In his 2004 text Pictures of Nothing he asked, somewhat rhetorically, if there were any hard reasons why abstract art "has to be" or what abstraction is good for but then answered himself by stating that there was a cumulative dialogue around abstraction that renews through "adapting, recycling, recontextualizing, recombining inherited conventions to propose new thoughts." For Varnedoe, abstraction is a"self-renewing, vital tradition of creativity" with still to be discovered levels of invention in all those drips and smears. While abstract painting no longer maintains its previous radicality, there is still a belief, despite its challenges, in its ongoing potential.
So one way of appreciating contemporary abstraction is to assess the sometimes subtle ways that abstraction is still inventing new forms, albeit perhaps not as dramatically as its 20th century predecessors but with measurable visual impact and significance. Most easily recognized in the contemporary painter Gerhard Richter's novel way of squeegeeing wet layers of paint on canvas, he made the brush obsolete as the required hand tool of communicating straight from the mind and heart to the canvas. Acutely aware of painting's formal limitations after the Modernist creative boom, Richter slowly "undid" the image as well as the standard modus operandi of abstract painting, consigning painting's storied past to huge blurs, as if he had to dismantle it in order to release and renew it, to once again have us believe in it. "To believe, one must have lost God: to paint one must have lost art", he wrote. Although many contemporary painters had continued to paint abstractly, it was the highly visible Richter who restored our faith in contemporary abstraction. In our image saturated environment, Richter's erasure of the image is not nihilistic but rather an act of emancipation that opens a vast, multi-dimensional space to meditate and contemplate with no interference of objectivity. Working outside the knowable world of explicit imagery, Richter helps us understand and value the continuing presence of abstract painting. Reinvigorating its purpose allows abstraction to respond to the challenges of the changing world---globalism, climate change, racial and gender issues, pandemics. What may seem to be familiar abstract gestures and approaches are being used in these new circumstances to convey new meanings. Further, terms like "social abstraction" in reference to the mixed media abstractions of Mark Bradford, are employed to introduce social and political dimensions to abstraction.
On the surface, the five abstract painters in "observant touches" could all be placed within the stylistic variations of the movements previously mentioned with a special emphasis on the physicality of the paint medium through personal handwork and craft in order to investigate the tradition as well as on some of the extra-art issues and questions of today. Some overtly recall Modernism's greatest masters. For example, Pamela Smith Hudson makes use of encaustic closely identified with Jasper Johns but with very different ambitions. In contrast to Johns' insistence on painting as oscillating between readymade images like flags and painterly gestures, Hudson's layerings exceed Johns' playfulness with the nature of painting to meditate on the fluid, non-fixed nature of history and identity. Simultaneously covering up and revealing, constructing and deconstructing, extinguishing and reigniting through color and form, her painting process is an apt metaphor for fluid social and environmental conditions. They refuse simple resolutions to have us dwell in anxious states of uncertainty, conflict and paradox. Similarly, Carol Kaufman's hand drawn penciled lines on joined painted canvases that first might appear as swatches of pinstriped fabric are indebted to the subtly gridded and hued paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin that in the 1970's seemed to form a bridge between the overly rational aspects of Minimalism and the subjective in painting. Kaufman's methodical, laborious, and exquisitely controlled process does likewise. Every line is a measure of time that countermands our current hypertrophied visual,/aural space and accelerated sense of time. When life shouts, Kaufman whispers. And when it speeds by Kaufman slows us down to contemplate the poetry contained in a single drawn line.
Minimalism is the antecedent for Lies Kraal's pristine, modestly scaled "monochromed" canvases composed of multiple layers of sanded and polished paint. Subtly embedded grids, slight variations in surface textures and sheen, and simple extruding shapes and ridges belie their apparent reductiveness and encourage prolonged study. As with Kaufman, there is a commitment to painting as a ritual and to what creating a painting in such a patient, devoted way might mean to the present-- as opposed to what such a process, for example in the Finish Fetish work of the 70's, meant then. Untethered to any specific movement, Kraal's obsessive refinements seems less about fulfilling expectations for inventing new forms and more about the rewards of sustained looking.
Although many of Samuel Erenberg's paintings recall the simplified aesthetics of Minimalism and the vibrating optical effects of 60's Op-Art, those are just a part of a diverse body of work that, liberated from these earlier movements, makes liberal use of a vast visual repertory. Brightly colored patterning and near monochromed darkened fields punctuated with pinpoints of light meld figuration and abstraction to suggest landscapes of sunsets and rippling waters as well as the cosmos Ð oceanic sensations verging on the sublime. Erenberg's paintings seem to fuse Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, perhaps with the hopes of deepening consciousness and dissolving the limitations of genres, hierarchies, and ideologies. There is no better time to reassess the connectivities between nature and the human experience as hinted at in Erenberg's hybrid works.
The Abstract Expressionists Lee Krasner and Wilhelm DeKooning are evoked in the swirling, gestural abstractions of Vincent Johnson. He shares much with the other four painters in his absorbing methods, here with his working of textured, vibrant layers of paint. For the original Abstract Expressionists paint was a conveyor of raw emotion, spilled onto the canvas directly from the unconscious. 70 years later, the approach has now come to signify in a very identifiable, accessible way, subjectivity. Johnson enlists abstraction's unique ability through its use of color, the dynamics of line, and suggestive shapes, to engender intense responsesÑfrom anger to ecstasy-- in our conflicted and problematic present.
Separating us from representation while eschewing the orthodoxies that maintained the importance of its Modernist forebears, such artworks promote liminal states that have been constantly eroded in the digital age, allowing speculation and deepening consciousness and perception. By desubstantiating external realities, abstraction turns our attention to those things that are not instantaneously recognizable or meaningful, urging a psychological and spiritual regeneration through probing interpretations. In doing so, it helps shape our experiences and emotions in this particular moment when the historical circumstances for abstraction, once considered an autonomous pursuit, have changed. While abstract painting has a long and revered history of experimentation which defined its relevance, the importance of abstract painting as these five painters have shown, now depends less on invention but on abstraction's disorientation from a digitalized, near schizophrenic world that offers instantaneous answers and superficial meanings to the pressing issues of contemporary existence. Beckoning us beyond, abstraction promotes necessary free spaces for exercising introspection, imagination, and intuition. And that is seeming more radical every day.
SAM ERENBERG, COLA 2012
Sam Erenberg employs a combination of intense color, unbound linguistic references, and a gestural application of paint to create a process for investigating the relationship between the visual and textual, corporeality and representation.
Like James Lee Byars, an artist whom Erenberg knew and admired, he has developed a unique, visual lexicon based on forms and colors that are imbued with deep, but open-ended symbolism. His mementos series from 2008-09 consists of numerous paintings on paper. All are of a similar small-scale size and depict the names of places (countries, U.S. states, cities and years) that float on an abstract field of color, such as CHILE 1891 and ANGOLA 1976-92. Others, such as SAUDI ARABIA 1990-91 ring more familiar, assuming it suggests the first Gulf War. IDAHO 1892 could refer to the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892, which led to violence and lasting effects on the labor union—but this association is found by way of a Google search. Only the artist can confirm his sources. Actually, locking down their meaning is antithetical to the intended function of these paintings—interrogating the world rather than seeking to explain it.
Erenberg does so through a purposeful lack of reconciliation: the all caps, sans serif typeface and its field of color, are populated with organic, abstract markings, suggesting topographic or microscopic elements. Never gelling—always together, but forever separate. Here, he displays the battle between the specificity of text and the ambiguity of painting. When combined, their tension creates a third space for exploring how meaning is brought into being.
In the series, LOS ANGELES, Erenberg repeats the city’s name that not only evokes the imperious sprawl of Los Angeles, but also becomes a logo in the middle of each painting. It is as if Erenberg were acknowledging the city’s kitchiness in its transformation into an emblem of popular culture. However, his position is actually less ironic. Instead, he is fascinated with how a word can be both specific in its reference yet can lose its significance by becoming an object in its own right. Intentionally open-ended, the works encourage viewers to examine their own cultural memory.
Erenberg has pursued this special brand of conceptual abstraction in Los Angeles since the 1970s. His committed focus to creating a liminal space by converging media is evident in a collection of his experimental films from the late 1960’s, such as Time (1968). Multiple-exposures, painting on the film stock, and other techniques, reveal a combination of influences ranging from Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, psychedelic imagery, and rock club light shows. Viewing some of his recent paintings in his Santa Monica studio forty years later, they feel like film stills from the older films. The breadth of his approach and the duration of his aesthetic inquiry is deserving of a future retrospective.
Erenberg's peripatetic journeys among various media point towards a fascination for exploring how we perceive objects, language, and the interaction of our bodies with these things that first gestate in our minds. He illustrates the dialogue between experience and representation. He also points to their limitations when separated from one another.
SAM ERENBERG AT SPACE GALLERY
In a forty-year career centered in and around Southern California, Sam Erenberg has been pursuing the elemental in the making of art. A prolific artist his practice encompasses performance, photography bookmaking and above all, abstract painting. Each of these explorations have marked a circular journey toward an essential commentary on abstraction and on the questions of absence/presence, voice/silence. Often monochromatic, his paintings examine space as surface, texture, shadow, and light. His constant search for a more essential abstract language blurs and slowly erases the artifice of representation, drawing him ever closer to the purity of the abstract.
This exhibition of "Small Works and Short Films" includes short experimental films from the sixties and seventies manipulated by painting, bleaching and even through the process of heating up and burning the film. Films are accompanied by small, white, oil on wood paintings, all untitled and ranging from 4 x 5 to 9 x 7 inches. The largest works here weigh in at 12 x12 inches. Tiny photographs, some as small as one inch wide, are mounted either vertically or horizontally about two inches from the top of the white surface. Approximately twenty-five of these are photographs of photographs, which Erenberg has taken from anthropological texts or which he has photographed himself during his travels. These black and white photographs are of aboriginal or tribal groups, individuals, tools, utensils or ritual objects, and in the case of his own photographs, purposefully unidentified architectural spaces. The images themselves have been worked over, distressed and manipulated by the artist. In some cases, the yellowing image conveys a feeling of a daguerreotype or what the artist refers to as the "antique space" the photographs once occupied, a space now taken over by digital technology.
There are also three series consisting of six works apiece, each dedicated to cosmological images: the sun, the moon, and a third series on creation (the Big Bang) and destruction (black holes and exploding stars). These works pose a different issue than the twenty-five referred to above, in that these images are even more worked over and manipulated. Revealing the artist's hand, they free the viewer's eye to interpret the image.
Erenberg emphasizes the aesthetic space and composition of these small oil on wood paintings with tiny photographs. Each is mounted on a wood frame which is painted white; thus the specific spelling out of their description. Each "white, oil on wood painting with a photograph" is conceived as a totality. The result is that the white ground on which the two-inch photograph is mounted creates an intimate space that allows the viewer a one-on-one relationship with the image.
The two approaches--the appropriation of anthropological documentation via the photograph of the printed image, and the distorted and blurred heavenly bodies of the "Cosmological" series--allows for quite distinct perspectives in our viewing experience. In the first, we see the image of the primitive accented by Erenberg's manipulations, which add the antique patina of a decades old black and white newsreel. Rather than taking you back in any nostalgic sense, it calls up our own primitive impulse to stereotype.
If this series heightens our awareness of historical perceptions, in the "Cosmological" series our awareness is directed outward. The three sets of tiny distorted images of what could, but may not actually be the sun, the moon, and other stellar bodies provoke reflection on our most mundane sensory consciousness, not only of the planets and stars but of our a priori and conditioned response to the world around us. The group of stellar bodies convey the strongest feeling of cosmological phenomena and scale, which provokes reflection about the consciousness of our origins and our end, challenging us to think about where we come from and where we are headed. It's fine that we are beguiled into seeing these representations prompted by the images' assigned name, but keep looking and the certainty of what we think we see starts to break down.
In 1999 Erenberg created a LA MetroArt Lightbox project, "The Complete works of Roland Barthes," an installation of twenty-four hand-bound books with the titles of Barthes' works displayed along with a series of photographs of well-known LA artists holding the facsimile books. The current exhibition of small and exquisite works is surely Erenberg's latest homage to Barthes, in that one of Barthes' main thrusts, particularly in his writings on photograph, was his interrogation of the bourgeois love affair with "realism," the question of subjectivity, and, to quote from the author "the birth of the reader" (or, for us, the viewer).
THE ASH PAINTINGS
Sam Erenberg is a thoughtful and serious artist, highly dedicated but infinitely more modest than many of his fellow abstract artists in Los Angeles. He has had a steady, although not overly conspicuous career, which includes performance, photography, bookmaking, and especially abstract painting, since the mid-1970s. In the early eighties, he produced rectangular as well as shaped paintings with rich, waxy surfaces and muted, opaque colors. A subsequent series, PLANETS/pocket paintings (1986-88), consists of one hundred small, deeply framed panels in the shape of geometric figures such as triangles, circles, and pentagons. Thoroughly iconic, the painted image varies from hard-edge symmetrical compositions to fluid gestures. Erenberg's commitment to coloristic explorations along with a longstanding interest in Roland Barthes led to The Complete Works of Roland Barthes (1999), which includes twenty-four volumes of the author's works bound in brightly colored linen covers. Nestled edge to edge on a table, the books create a vibrant, checkered composition. Color-coordinated photographs of friends holding the books accompanied the installation of The Complete Works. Erenberg's intellectual investment in Barthes, however, provoked a conceptual interpretation of the piece that failed to take formal issues into account. As Erenberg has acknowledged, his work has more in common with European than with American artists, since the latter, along with their critics, tend not to breach the divide between aesthetic formalism and referential conceptualism. The European tradition of abstract and monochrome painting, which includes Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Blinky Palermo, and Imi Knoebel, is more accommodating to Erenberg's sensibility than the reductively materialist American version.
Erenberg's newest body of work includes commanding, seven-foot square monochromes as well as somewhat smaller canvases and works on paper. More expansive and atmospheric than any of his previous paintings, their spontaneously articulated surfaces have a slight metallic sheen that is the result of painting on surfaces prepared with a mixture of traditional rabbit skin glue sizing and ashes. First incorporated into his paintings in 1999, the ashes were collected from burnt fireplace wood and newspapers, ground to a fine powder, and dissolved in the glue, which was applied to raw canvas or paper supports. Washy layers of thinned oil paint, in a range of warm and cool tones, are then laid down in long horizontal strokes. Depending on the density and distribution of ashes, the paint is more or less absorbed by the surface of the support, resulting in random passages of opaque and transparent color. Erenberg's method and materials reinforce the transformative nature of abstract painting, in which the unobservable (in the sense of a thing not previously existing in observable reality) is actualized and given a material dimension. Simultaneously, ashes and oil paint are transformed from the mundane to the transcendent in a process analogous to alchemy. As Donald Kuspit has observed,
The alchemical approach emphasizes art's transformative power. Art has not only the power of transforming materials by locating them in an aesthetic order of perception and understanding but also of transforming the perception and understanding of different kinds of being by making explicit their hidden connections. . . . Alchemy is a demonstration of the unity of the immaterial and the material.Fire, in particular, plays a role in alchemical art as evidenced by the paintings of Yves Klein and Alberto Burri or the sculptures of Eric Orr. Sigmar Polke's incorporation of metals, mineral dust, and arrowheads in his murky resin paintings, The Spirits that Lend Strength Are Invisible (1988), also bear comparison to Erenberg's ash paintings.
The three large untitled canvases in this exhibition share a common scale, a glistening and mottled yet not unpleasantly tactile surface, and a palette of inky blue. In one, a dark, rough-edged aperture seems to emerge from a cloudy, graphite-gray atmosphere. In another, a scruffy, deep blue patch dominates the center of the painting. The third contains gentle, horizontal striations, slightly darker at the bottom than at the top, recalling a calm ocean vista in the early dawn. All three are infinitely spatial-in contrast to the obdurate flatness of late modern painting-generously opening up to accommodate the viewer's imagination. The smaller paintings in Erenberg's Winter series are lighter and cooler, their surfaces tinted a pale milky blue reminiscent of snowy winter skies. Reinforced by the horizontal orientation of the canvases and subtly gestural brushstrokes, they evoke the barren spaces of land- or seascapes, but remain resolutely in the domain of the abstract.
Frances Colpitt is a corresponding editor for Art in America. Her most recent book is Abstract Art in the Late Twentieth Century, published by Cambridge University Press in 2002.