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Reinventing Abstraction Cheim & Re ad

Cheim & Read

REINVENTING ABSTRACTION NEW YORK PAINTING IN THE 1980S

Raphael Rubinstein


Carroll Dunham, b. 1949, New Haven, Connecticut Photographed on a train, 1985


Louise Fishman, b. 1939, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Photographed in her Worcester, New York studio, 1989


Mary Heilmann, b. 1940, San Francisco, California Self portrait, c. 1980


Bill Jensen, b. 1945, Minneapolis, Minnesota Photographed in his Brooklyn studio, 1984


Jonathan Lasker, b. 1948, Jersey City, New Jersey Photographed in New York, 1981


Stephen Mueller, b. 1947, Norfolk, Virginia, d. 2011, New York City Photographed in his Charles Street studio, New York, 1974


Elizabeth Murray, b. 1940, Chicago, d. 2007, New York City Photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1986


Thomas Nozkowski, b. 1944, Teaneck, New Jersey Photographed in Lyonsville, New York, 1980


David Reed, b. 1946, San Diego, California Photographed in his Broadway studio, New York, 1986


Joan Snyder, b. 1940, Highland Park, New Jersey Photographed with her daughter Molly Snyder-Fink in Eastport, Long Island, 1989


Pat Steir, b. 1940, Newark, New Jersey Photographed in her Greene Street studio, New York, 1988


Gary Stephan, b. 1942, Brooklyn, New York Photographed in his Canal Street studio, New York, 1994


Stanley Whitney, b. 1946, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Photographed in his Cooper Square studio, New York, 1984


Jack Whitten, b. 1939, Bessemer, Alabama Photographed in his Church Street studio, New York, 1983


Terry Winters, b. 1949, Brooklyn, New York Photographed in his White Street studio, New York, 1986


REINVENTING ABSTRACTION NEW YORK PAINTING IN THE 1980S R APHAEL RUBINSTEIN CHEIM & RE AD NE W YORK


TH E LUR E O F T HE I M P UR E R APH AEL R UBINST E IN Critics and curators need to listen to artists as well as look at their work. The idea of doing this exhibition came to me as I was immersed in what I’ve termed “provisional painting,” work that variously engages impossibility, lack of finish, deskilling, self-defeating strategies and dandyish nonchalance. Repeatedly, painters I was close to, whose work I valued highly, made it clear to me that there was nothing “provisional” about their work. On the contrary, they exerted all their efforts and drew upon all their skills to make paintings that were as deeply controlled, as fully finished, and as visually powerful as possible. If the concept of provisionality proposed one strain of contemporary painting, it wasn’t useful in relation to so much other work. As I was trying to find a new way to think about these differing approaches to painting, I came across two eye-opening statements, both by artists. The first was a comment David Reed made in a 2010 Brooklyn Rail interview: “It amazes me that in New York there’s a history that painters know, a street history of painting, that is totally different from the history that the museums know and the history that is written about in books.”1 The second was something painter Carrie Moyer wrote in her 2011 Art in America review of a Stephen Mueller exhibition: she identified Mueller’s as “the generation that essentially reinvented American abstract painting in the 1970s and 1980s.”2 This show is my attempt to pursue the implications of those two statements, as well as to explore an alternative genealogy for contemporary painting. “Reinventing Abstraction” focuses on New York painting in the 1980s as practiced by a generation born between 1939 and 1949. Official accounts of the 1980s—the decade when most of the artists in this show either emerged or solidified their approaches—tend to ignore the individualistic abstraction exemplified by these painters in favor of more easily identifiable movements and styles (Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, the “Pictures” artists) and a schematic narrative in which the decade opens with a “return to painting” and ends with the conservative pushback against contemporary art (most notably directed against the Robert Mapplethorpe show in Cincinnati, “Witnesses Against Our Vanishing” at Artist’s Space and Richard Serra’s Titled Arc) and the emergence of modes and styles disengaged from painting (abject art, identity art). For these artists, who were in their 30s and 40s during the 1980s, the beginning of that decade did not signal a “return to painting,” but, rather, the urgent task of building a bridge from the radical, deconstructive abstraction of the late 1960s and 1970s (which many of them had been marked by) toward a larger painting history and more subjective approaches. They had, in fact, been painting before the medium’s revival. Writing in the catalogue of a 1984 exhibition at the Whitney titled “Five Painters in New York” (Bill Jensen, Elizabeth Murray, Gary Stephan, Brad Davis and John Torreano), curator Richard Marshall noted that each artist in the show “has maintained a continuous allegiance to painting as a vehicle of expression, even during a period when this endeavor was often discouraged and denigrated.”3 Amid the more painting-friendly environment of the 1980s, the artists in “Reinventing Abstraction” opened their work to elements that had been largely excluded from advanced abstraction in the previous decade, beginning with a reinvestigation of the conventional rectangular support. Their stretched


canvases began to feature gesture, stylistic variety, relational compositions, figure/ground relationships and aspects of figuration and landscapes, as well as art historical and cultural allusions, high and low. Old enough to fully experience the social upheavals of the 1960s and early ‘70s, these artists came of age in the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movements, urban unrest and, to borrow a phrase from Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, the sex revolts. Although slightly younger painters born in the 1950s—many of whom contributed to New York abstraction in the 1980s—were also marked by these events, they didn’t experience them with the same intensity and duration (for example, the male painters in this show had to face the possibility of being drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces, a threat that receded for those born in the mid and late 1950s4). If the legacy of political engagement of the 1960s can be read into the 1980s work of this generation of painters it will not, in most cases, be on the basis of identifying overt political content; far more nuanced interpretation is required. If the 1939-1949 bracket encompasses a generation formed by the 1960s, it also inevitably excludes many important older and younger artists of the time (just as the limits of wall space impose other exclusions), but the subject of this show is not the entirety of New York abstract painting of the 1980s, rather what a specific generation contributed to it. Although there was never a single exhibition in the 1980s that included all of the artists in this show, they often appeared in New York galleries and museums in various combinations. Jensen, Murray and Stephan were in Barbara Rose’s “American Painting: the 1980s,” a big show that opened in 1979 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and became infamous for failing so spectacularly in its prophetic ambitions. A 1981 “Painting Invitational” at Oscarsson Hood Gallery included Louise Fishman, Jensen, Murray, Joan Snyder and Stephan among the 11 invited artists. A group show at Hamilton Gallery in New York in March 1982 featured Jensen, Mueller, Murray, Snyder and Stephan. In 1984, Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski and Stephan appeared in a three-person show titled “Fact and Fiction” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. The 1985 Whitney Biennial included Carroll Dunham, Murray, and Terry Winters; the curators of the 1987 Whitney Biennial selected paintings by Winters, Mueller and Fishman, along with many other abstract painters. Among the artists included in the 1987 Corcoran Biennial were Fishman, Mary Heilmann, Jensen, Lasker, Murray, Reed, Snyder and Winters. Both Heilmann and Reed were in the 1989 Whitney Biennial. Charting these exhibitions, one can’t help noticing that in the 1980s the two African-American artists in “Reinventing Abstraction,” Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten, rarely figured in group shows of abstract painting. This may have been partly a reflection of differing artistic trajectories but surely it is also an index of engrained artworld racism. Although it professed liberal values, the downtown New York artworld of the 1980s was racially segregated when it came to crucial career-building moves like being included in group shows and gaining access to important galleries. As a number of artists have remarked to me, this show would not have been possible in the 1980s, when black artists were routinely excluded—as were women artists—from a painting culture that generally took its whiteness and maleness for granted. As we look to the past it is important to recognize its different historical conditions, and equally important to not unthinkingly perpetuate its failures. While working on “Reinventing Abstraction” I have often thought of it as a sequel to “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” a 2006-2007 traveling exhibition curated by art historian Katy Siegel (who presented a


show that was exemplary in redressing the kind of historical exclusions I’ve just been discussing). Six of the artists in “High Times Hard Times” (which featured 38 artists) appear in the present show (Fishman, Heilmann, Murray, Snyder, Whitten and Pat Steir) as does David Reed, who was an advisor to “High Times Hard Times.” One intention of “Reinventing Abstraction” is to signal the distinct differences between what these artists were doing in 1967-1975 and how they approached abstraction in the 1980s. However, I am well aware that culture doesn’t automatically change with the turn of decades, and that some of the changes in painting practice were already underway in the late 1970s. Siegel points out that “by the mid-1970s, it seemed clear that painting, once again, was contracting in certain ways,” especially in the work of emerging younger painters “who seemed more willing to accept the familiar format of the rectangular canvas as a given.”5 She goes on to say that “this return to the rectangle did not represent an obviously conservative retrenchment to past painting traditions.” Another observer, Klaus Kertess, also points to circa 1975 as a turning point: “In the mid 1970s, Terry Winters and such peers as Carroll Dunham, Bill Jensen, and Stephen Mueller began to feel increasingly constricted by painting’s and drawing’s phenomenological order and orders. How to reintegrate more variegated mark making and spatiality, how to give body not just to process but to metaphor, without sacrificing the hard-won physicality and non-narrative abstractness so crucial to late Modernism—all of these became overriding concerns.”6 By the start of the 1980s, painters everywhere were shaking off such constrictions. Because there are 15 artists in this show there are, at a minimum, 15 points of departure. One of them is June 8, 1980, the date that Thomas Nozkowski began a painting in memory of Philip Guston, who had died the day before. “The image that emerged,” Nozkowski recalled years later, “came from a detail of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love of 1514. In a garden an antique roman sarcophagus has been remade as a fountain: the water of renewal, life, and possibility flows over the edge of the coffin.”7 In this vignette we find many of the elements that run through this show. First of all, Guston himself, whose plunge into figuration not only provided a model for younger representational painters but also affected many abstract painters—“in a way,” according to Terry Winters, “the ‘80s began with Guston.”8 (It’s interesting to note that several of the artists in this show had personal encounters with Guston: Steir studied with him at Pratt; Reed and Whitney did so at the Studio School; Whitney also previously encountered Guston at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut.) Secondly, the newfound desire to engage with art history, something that had been largely avoided by generations of modern artists in quest of the new. Like other artists in this show, Nozkowski had to jettison the minimalist modes of abstraction that prevailed in the 1970s; he also got rid of an even more ubiquitous feature: large scale. As he told David Ryan in 1997, he came to the conclusion that the large, system-based paintings he was doing were a way of “avoiding responsibility” for his desire to “make images” and also at odds with his political convictions. So, in the late 1970s, Nozkowski began making small paintings (on 16-by-20-inch canvas board), each of which started with a specific reference to something he’d noticed in the world or a detail of an art-historical work. For the artist, working at a small scale was a conscious ethical decision: he wanted paintings that would fit “into ‘normal’ rooms; paintings that weren’t appropriate to bank lobbies.” Another departure Nozkowski made from ‘70s styles was to build his paintings around figure/ground relationships, an approach that had been dismissed by much “advanced” painting from the allover compositions of Classic Abstract Expressionism to the grid-based structures of Minimalism. By these various means, Nozkowski staked out a space for a distinctive painting practice in which nothing was forbidden, in which every new painting revealed new combinations of shape, ground,


pattern and color that drew on modernist biomorphic abstraction but had a whimsical narrativity and diversity of touch all their own. While Nozkowski was a key figure in the “reinvention” of abstraction, in contrast to quite a few other artists in this exhibition he seems to have detoured around Neo-Expressionism. As Carter Ratcliff observed in 1984, Nozkowski “refuses to send expressionist conventions into action.”9 Another artist who began investigating the possibilities of small-scale paintings built around figure/ground relationships was Bill Jensen, who, in the mid-1970s, also dramatically scaled down his work. This shift, which was partly healthrelated (Jensen realized the medical dangers of the ground pigments and polyurethane he was using for his large paintings), allowed Jensen to more directly engage the work of early American moderns such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. As he explained in a 2007 Bomb interview, “Seeing the presence of this work that didn’t rely on large physical scale reinforced the belief in what I was doing, that in our mind’s eye, when something is deeply felt, it takes up the whole world, and that is scale.”10 Densely textured, relentlessly reworked, Jensen’s late 1970s and 1980s paintings depict volumetric forms seemingly derived from natural phenomenon but also clearly throbbing with symbolic meaning. Although nominally abstract, they share many qualities with figurative painting. “Homeless representation” is how Peter Schjeldahl, borrowing a term from Clement Greenberg, characterized his style: “He paints abstract shapes as if they were objects and imaginary spaces as if they were atmospheres.”11 The Tempest (1980-81), which was included in Jensen’s midcareer survey at the Phillips Collection in 1987, is a key early 1980s work, made around the time Jensen’s work became more textured and grittier. Although the central elements of The Tempest suggest a starfish or some exotic botanical specimen, the composition has close affinities with Ryder’s The Tempest, an 1892 painting inspired by Shakespeare’s play. After this painting, says Jensen, he “locked away” his palette knives and turned exclusively to brushes. As the decade progressed, landscape themes loomed larger, initially inspired by stays in Maine and Italy. (At least three artists in this show—Jensen, Louise Fishman and Stanley Whitney—experienced significant changes in their work as the result of trips to Italy.) At the end of the decade, Jensen, whose work had long been suffused with personal emotional charge, began making paintings for Ronald Bladen (1918-1988), a close friend whose sculptures and paintings had been important to Jensen, and who was dying of cancer. In this work, Bladen carried Hartley’s emblematizing tributes into more intuitive realms. The challenging task that Terry Winters set himself as his art coalesced in the late 1970s was to reintroduce imagery into abstract painting without sacrificing the structural approaches to painting pioneered by artists such as Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. As he told Nancy Princenthal in 2009, “I wanted to connect process and picture-making. I wanted to figure out a way to reconcile those interests. And to figure out a way to paint pictures that didn’t seem like a fallback to representational imagery.”12 Like other artists of his generation, he was dissatisfied with the reductivist legacy of late modernism, and also ready to look again at the biomorphic experiments of the 1940s and ‘50s. By emphasizing drawing and organic form rather than fields and grids, Winters gradually opened up new territory for painting. As Lisa Phillips recounts in a 1991 essay, Winters drew on his readings of architects and engineers (Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto) and 19th century naturalists (D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson) for his imagery, though his creative method always involved significant transformations of his original sources. Ironically, it was by grounding his drawing in existing objects in the physical world, rather than in pure improvisation, that Winters liberated his


painterly ambitions. At the same time he was able to engage with new concepts then emerging from scientific fields such as fractal geometry. Point (1985) reveals how subtle Winters’s work had become by the mid 1980s. Against a rich ground that suggests hammered copper or tanned leather, the painting employs line and shape to establish several different kinds of pictorial space. Poised between paint-as-paint facticity and meticulous image-making, each mark in Point offers itself to multiple readings. Although ostensibly connected to the objective realm of science, Winters’s paintings often court allegory and metaphor, and threaten to plunge us into the charged subjectivity that drove so many Abstract Expressionists. As younger abstract painters in the 1980s began introducing biomorphic imagery into their work, they often found themselves flirting with representational techniques. For other painters, the lure of representation resulted in paintings that were explicitly depictive, featuring figures, objects or landscapes. Much abstraction of the 1980s was impure abstraction. Indeed, it could be argued that impurity, opening abstraction to the kinds of content that had been excluded during the previous decades (especially by those following a Greenbergian logic of medium specificity), was its major source of energy and inspiration. One of the artists who did the most to break down distinctions between abstraction and figuration was Elizabeth Murray. In the early 1980s, the biomorphic forms that had been animating her shaped canvases in the late 1970s were suddenly joined by recognizable imagery: paint brushes, coffee cups, chairs and tables. At the same time, she began breaking her supports into separate elements, and to employ some traditional painting techniques. Recalling her breakthrough, she told Robert Storr how, while working on a painting titled Small Town (1980), she started to “use all of those techniques that I’d learned in art school, and that I’d said I would never use again—like modeling the paint to create illusionistic dimensions, and using scumbling to make the sun really round and bright and intense. . . . It was at the beginning of the ‘80s and it just blew the top off the can for me.”13 A good example of this is how she uses modeling to give illusionistic volume to the “comma” in Sentimental Education (1982). Dynamically choreographing the jagged and the curvilinear, Sentimental Education is very closely related to another tripartite painting, Bean (1982). Murray’s comments on Bean help us to recognize the segmented red shape of Sentimental Education as a human figure. The black and blue canvases offer, as the artist says, “different views of the same things,” arranged in a visual grammar.14 Writing about Sentimental Education just a couple of years after it was made, Joan Simon described the “comma” as “a pendant and endstop to the other panels which make up the painting.”15 Taking cues from the shaped canvases of Ron Gorchov, the clunky figures and objects in late Guston, artists associated with New Image painting (especially Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Moskowitz), as well as looking back to Synthetic Cubism, Murray also had to deal with (as did, in one way or another, all the artists in this show) the unexpected arrival of Neo Expressionism. It’s worth listening to Murray’s account of this period, not only for what it tells us about the context of her crucial works of 1981-82, which includes Sentimental Education, but also to highlight the predicament of women artists in the early 1980s: “While those paintings were being made, the whole art world was changing. NeoExpressionism was starting—Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer, David Salle—and honestly I thought I was going to be the leader of the pack—ha ha ha ha—delusional as I was. Instead, suddenly, I was over, or that’s the way it felt to me. And there those guys were. It was amazing: after all this feminism, the boys were back in town.”16 Ultimately, Murray was able to fulfill her ambitions, despite the setbacks of the early 1980s. In 2005, two years before she died, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave her a full retrospective.


For Joan Snyder, the “painting is dead” mantra of the 1960s and ‘70s was inseparable from gender. As she told The Brooklyn Rail in 2008, “I think that the talk of the death of painting had to do with a certain male sensibility. They were making paintings without stories. They were dealing with formalism, abstraction, minimalism, whereas women were questioning all of those ways of working.”17 Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Snyder consistently questioned the abstraction/figuration divide. If many of her influential “stroke” paintings could be read as systembased abstractions, there were other paintings in which hand written texts, children’s drawings and iconic imagery of houses, hearts and trees continually disrupted the abstract shapes and marks. The figurative elements in Snyder’s works proliferated in the early 1980s as narratives and landscapes took center stage. Inspired by the farms of Eastern Long Island, she began her “Field” paintings, canvases in which the paint strokes of her early 1970s abstractions are repurposed to do double duty as depictions of plowed furrows. In the same Brooklyn Rail interview, she traces the origins of these paintings back to her childhood and her early artistic influences. “I have had a great love of nature ever since I was a child. And even though I love Ryder, Dove and especially Forrest Bess, I felt greater kinship with Cézanne, Van Gogh, Vlaminck, Jawlensky and other European painters from the early part of the 20th century.”18 Snyder’s 1980s paintings throng with many kinds of figurative elements, from naked female figures to oceans, moons and gaping human mouths, but in them she never seems compelled to choose between abstraction and figuration: grids and landscapes, brash materiality of paint and expressionist symbols intermingle in pluralistic cacophony. In the early 1980s, most notably in “The Brueghel Series” (1982-84), Pat Steir was using historical appropriation and figurative painting techniques to, as she put it, make sense of postmodernism. Her paintings in the 1970s had been diagrammatic and analytical, involving grids, color charts and monochrome squares; when recognizable imagery appeared it was usually in grisaille or crossed out with a big X. Following the Brueghel Series—a 64-panel tour-deforce still life in which each section repaints a Jan Brueghel the Elder still life in the style of a different artist—Steir embarked on series of large paintings of waves, again alluding to historical artists. In an interview he conducted with Steir, Phong Bui offers a compelling interpretation of these works: “I felt that your paintings of the wave in the ’80s were attempts to infuse both Western and Eastern sensibilities respectively. The painting called Autumn: The Wave after Courbet, As Though Painted by Turner, Influenced by the Chinese (1985) was on one hand about maintaining the level of required energy of that large scale with Neo-Expressionist paintings, mostly dominated by many male painters. On the other hand, by expanding the maximal degree of the arm’s gesture it eventually led to the pouring, splashing and drip gesture, which is quite evident in Last Wave Painting (Wave Becoming a Waterfall) (1987-88).”19 Dominated by three enormous, overlapping circles, Last Wave Painting also possesses incredibly dense arrays of dripped paint. In some sense, the painting stages a confrontation between curves and drips, between tensile strength and the effect of gravity on liquid. In startling contrast to the “Wave Paintings” that preceded it and the well-known “Waterfall Paintings” that followed, Last Wave Painting evokes an industrial rather than a natural sublime. Like giant rusting metal sculptures, the three rings—evocative of Venn diagrams or the structure of binocular vision—are set amid of a rain of sulfurous, corrosive-looking rivulets of paint, in which fine dark capillary lines are etched into lighter drips. Usually “transitional” paintings are weakened by their torn allegiances; Last Wave Painting (Wave Becoming a Waterfall) is that rare instance when the passage from one body of work to another results in a powerful painting.


While, as we have seen, several artists in this show have, at various times, crossed freely back and forth between the abstraction/figuration divide, only one has moved definitively from making abstract paintings to figurative paintings: Carroll Dunham. For the past 20 years, Dunham’s paintings have been explicitly and consistently figurative. As we look back to his 1980s paintings, it is tempting to examine them for clues to the turn his work would take in the early 1990s, but to do so would be to risk distorting what they meant (to the artist, to viewers) at the time. In 2008, Dunham reflected on the abstract and figurative elements of his 1980s work: “I was trying to continue abstract painting, but to find a way to let more of what felt like an inner emotional life into the work. I wanted to stay on one side of that line, but that line is indeterminate in an almost quantum sense, so it never quite worked. I was obviously aware I was drawing phalluses (I wasn’t that far gone), but I saw them as symbols. . . . I would never have made those paintings if I hadn’t been thinking about the history of abstract art and my possible place in it. Since they come from that impulse, for me they have virtually nothing to do with ‘figurative’ painting.”20 After encountering and working for Postminimalist artists in the 1970s, Dunham discovered, around 1981, that quite a few of his contemporaries had begun to make paintings. An early article by Klaus Kertess—the first mention of Dunham in an art magazine—identifies this turn to painting by linking Dunham’s work to that of Stephan, Jensen and Mueller. While Dunham recalls being impressed by what Stephan was doing with acrylic paint in the 1970s, the artist in this show with whom he had the closest dialogue at the time was Terry Winters. The cartoony, rudely sexual forms and broken-up spaces of Dunham’s 1980s paintings—dramatically on display in the striated structure of Horizontal Bands (1982-83)—may seem worlds away from the muted palette, stark figure/ground compositions and science-inflected imagery of Winters’s work, but both painters shared a fascination with biomorphic shapes (which almost acted as surrogates for human figures) and a new kind of visual energy produced by a distribution of forms that didn’t seem to follow any immediately evident pictorial logic. Peter Schjeldhal, in a review of a 1990 Dunham show, proposed a common source for these two artists: “Though mostly male, the new painters [of the early 1980s] like Dunham and Winters were plainly affected by feminism, cultivating androgynous symbols and tones.”21 By no means was every abstract painter looking for figure-surrogates in the early 1980s. Stephen Mueller once told an interviewer that he “ended up making abstract paintings because figuration seems unavoidably melancholic.”22 Nonetheless, Mueller’s early 1980s canvases rely greatly on the sort of feathery impasto brushwork favored by many Neo-Expressionist painters. But the images in those paintings are always suggestive (of figures or animals) rather than explicitly representational, and, like a 1970s painter, he used acrylic rather than oil paint, which had suddenly regained its allure in the 1980s. For some viewers, Mueller’s work of the 1980s didn’t fit in with the paintings of his contemporaries. Holland Cotter, for instance, in a catalogue essay for a show of Mueller’s work in London, thought that “the three spectacular paintings by Stephen Mueller included in the [1987] Whitney Biennial looked like nothing else around them, and certainly not like the other abstract work in the show.”23 For Cotter, Mueller’s canvases possessed a “formal largesse” and “textural extravagance” that wasn’t evident in the work of other artists. Cotter also zeroed in on how Mueller had injected a certain aggressivity into the serene realm of Greenbergian abstraction (Mueller’s stained grounds show “the wan prettiness of ‘70s Color Field work turned mean”) and embraced extravagant theatricality. By the end of the decade when Mueller painted Delphic Hymn (1989), which was shown at Galerie Carzaniga and Veker in Basel, Switzerland in the summer of 1989, Mueller had jettisoned any frenetic brushwork. Instead, he relied on


stained color, discrete gestures and luminous geometric shapes that seemed to float in illusionistic space. Already one can see the influence of tantric art, which would take on a bigger role in his later work. Many Mueller paintings of the late 1980s are anthologies of abstract modes, drawing on stain painting, gesture and geometry, yet they never seem to be about stylistic eclecticism; they are not instances of parody or pastiche or critique. Keenly aware of his medium’s history and current situation (an awareness that informs his art criticism) Mueller sought and found a way to gather up his influences (Color Field, Cobra, Tantric art), his lexicon of painterly motifs, and cast them dynamically across the canvas—note how every mark in Delphic Oracle has its own space. Mueller’s work is distinctive in how it deploys lyrical abstraction and mystical geometry within the disjunctive visual syntax of postmodernist painting. Looking back at his own work and at Mueller’s, Stanley Whitney recently remarked to me that he thought both he and Mueller had to “fight” their way out of Color Field painting. For Whitney, one of the first things that had to go in his exit from Color Field was acrylic paint. When he first came to New York in the late 1960s it was clear to him that “abstract meant acrylic” but by the early 1980s, he recalls, “acrylic paintings had died on me.” He switched to oil paint, which gave him greater flexibility, more ability to move things around. It also allowed him to bring drawing into his painting, something that wasn’t an option for Color Field painters. Whitney’s newfound freedom to draw directly in paint came from his experiments with drawings on Mylar and his interest in monoprints, two “outside-of-painting” activities that contributed to the abbreviated marks that pervade his mid-1980s paintings such as Sixteen Songs (1984). Contemporary viewers who know Whitney’s grid-based, color-block paintings may be surprised by his more gestural, loosely structured work of the 1980s, especially because his work was rarely shown at the time. Two factors contributed to keeping Whitney’s work out of the public eye: first, that he knew early on that his paintings were, as he says, “going to take a long time,” that he would have to put in many years in his studio to fully develop his work; second, he had to cope with the invisibility that plagued so many African-American artists, especially within the New York abstract painting circles of the 1980s. As a result, during the 17-year stretch from 1972 (the year Whitney earned his MFA at Yale) to 1989, Whitney had only one solo show in New York (in 1987, at Peg Alston Fine Arts, a gallery specializing in African-American art). In Sixteen Songs we are given a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Whitney’s art: the individuated shapes of color of the post-1995 works are present but not yet arranged into a grid; his distinctive horizontal lines are evident but still broken up into dozens of disconnected dashes; his distinctive use of black as a spatial anchor is emerging; some deceptively casual paint handling, largely adapted from Guston, is deployed but with a nervous energy Whitney would later leave behind. Eventually, the artist became dissatisfied with the residual landscape associations of his 1980s paintings and his feeling of being “a juggler” of shapes. It was not until he visited Egypt and Italy in the early 1990s that everything finally fell into place as he said to himself, “I’m just going to stack the color” and discovered a new density and, eventually, a new audience. Like Whitney, Mary Heilmann foregrounds color, makes extensive use of grids and favors seemingly casual paint handling, but there are also substantial differences in the oeuvres of these two New York colorists. First of all, Heilmann fashions a new compositional strategy for each one of her paintings, in contrast to Whitney, whose format changes very, very gradually. Further, Heilmann arrived at painting from other mediums: her training was in ceramics, and when she arrived in New York in the late 1960s, her ambitions were as a sculptor. Frozen out by the post-


minimalists she admired, Heilmann, as she describes it, “segued over to a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work.” Like many other artists in the early 1970s, Heilmann was skeptical about the viability of traditional painting formats, yet by the end of the decade she was using a brush to paint geometric shapes onto stretched canvas. While it is possible that some viewers mistook her late 1970s-early 1980s paintings for some kind of neo-formalism, they could only do so by ignoring the autobiographical and pop-culture allusions in the paintings and their titles. Personal memory animates Rio Nido (1987), a painting named for a resort on the Russian River in Northern California. In a 1999 interview, Heilmann spelled out the story behind the painting’s “little spots of light.” In the 1940s, her parents used to take her “to a summer vacation spot where it was common to put colored lights around the porches. . . . This was a working-class resort where teachers, nurses and policemen went. The memory of this place is just fantastic to me and that picture reminds me of it.”24 In typical Heilmann fashion, Rio Nido strikes one first as a vivacious shout of high-key color and what-you-see-is-what-you-get directness. It is this quality that Stephen Mueller had in mind when he told an interviewer who asked him about Clement Greenberg: “I would say that somebody like Mary Heilmann, who started out in craft, is more of an influence on me than Greenberg’s criteria—just her play it as it lays, put it down here, one-two-three, without any trickery.”25 As so often with Heilmann, the subtleties of Rio Nido sneak up on you only after that first once-over glance, as you notice how she has extracted a grid of colored lights by carving in to the vaguely conical black overpainted shape, and how the changing colors of these dripping orbs correspond to the blue, green, red, purple and yellow rectangles underneath. Are there really five colored rectangles painted under the black conical shape, or has Heilmann used “trickery” to convince us they exist? Throughout her career, she has consistently pursued these kinds of unpretentious visual complexities, sometimes (as with Rio Nido) in an autobiographical mode, sometime with enthusiastic references to popular culture. David Reed, like Heilmann, is a Californian who has been living and working in New York since the late 1960s. Much has been written about the quality of light in California, which is stronger and more glare-inducing than the gentler light of the East Coast. Do Reed’s and Heilmann’s paintings share any qualities that could be traced back to their West Coast childhoods? Both have spoken of the lingering impact of their visual memories of California and their paintings achieve their effects of color and space with relatively disembodied means, the emphasis is on pervasive light rather than materiality. Reed sees his work as having been affected by “the stark contrasts of black and white that the intense light [of California] produces” As with many other artists in this show, Reed’s work changed dramatically circa 1980. In the late 1970s, he had gained attention for his “Stroke Paintings,” vertical canvases featuring stacks of isolated horizontal black brushstrokes against a white ground (it’s hard to imagine a starker black-and-white contrast). Breaking with the systemic and process-driven procedures of the Stroke paintings, Reed introduced color and divisionality into his paintings; he also adopted the narrow formats (vertical or horizontal) that he has retained ever since. Some critics have suggested that Reed’s elongated supports were influenced by the Cinemascope movies of his childhood. The artist, who has frequently engaged cinema in his work, welcomes the comparison but says they were primarily a means of avoiding conventional compositional strategies. Reed’s work is also noteworthy for how it redefined gesture: first by deemphasizing the tactility that nearly always accompanies gesture, from de Kooning to Richter; second, and perhaps even more radically, by separating the gestural mark from its color. All of these features can be seen in No. 230 (for Beccafumi) (1985-86). The scalloped tower of arching marks (not so different, after all,


from the stacked brushstrokes of the Stroke paintings) is an acidic magenta, but the shifts of color near the bottom of the painting signal to us that color and gesture did not come into being simultaneously; they are divided by an infrathin membrane that, paradoxically, opens up a vertiginous space. As the subtitle of No. 230 suggests, Reed, like so many other artists in this show, was looking to art history in the 1980s. (Older painters, as well, were reaching back into the past to re-energize abstract painting, notably Norman Bluhm and Frank Stella.26) Some critics have been troubled by the finished surfaces of Reed’s paintings, equating smoothness with lack of feeling. Such responses rely on a strictly codified concept of gesture, and also miss Reed’s more subtle approach to expressivity. As he told Stephen Ellis in 1990, “I insist that my paintings have a wide range of light and dark, as well as a wide spectrum of color. Greenbergian formalist painting suppressed value contrast in order to stress the flatness of the picture, and by doing so eliminated a lot of the expressive possibilities of abstraction.”27 Attitudes in New York toward painting changed around 1986, the year Reed completed No. 230. In January 1986 a New York Times headline asked, “Is Neo-Expressionism an idea whose time has passed?” Before the end of the year the answer could be discerned by the media attention given to a group show at Sonnabend Gallery of four young artists: Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, Jeff Koons and Meyer Vaisman. Although enthusiasm for figurative painting may have been waning, this didn’t automatically translate into a more receptive audience for all abstract painters. In the course of a long wrap-up article about 1986 for Art in America, Peter Schjeldahl picked out recent solo exhibitions by Reed, Fishman and Stephan as “shows of serious (unsimulated) abstraction, each good and each touched with the odd glamour of the resolutely out-of-step.”28 The “simulated” abstraction that Schjeldahl contrasted them with was, of course, the mostly geometrical, citational, critique-driven (yet market friendly) meta-painting generally tagged with the label Neo Geo. If Reed, Fishman and Stephan looked out of step (at least to Schjeldahl) in 1986, the same could not be said of Jonathan Lasker. Around 1985, Lasker’s paintings began to be included in group shows (often organized by independent curators Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo) alongside work by Halley, Koons and Ross Bleckner, artists closely associated with Neo Geo. At first glance, this made sense: Lasker’s paintings were, in part, intended as critiques of modernist abstraction. They also sought to break down the distinctions between the abstract and the figurative, not by adopting figurative painting techniques à la Jensen’s “homeless representation,” but by introducing a schematic kind of perspectival space into abstract compositions and placing figural forms within that space. Lasker said, at the time, that he didn’t really consider himself an abstract painter since, in his view, abstract painting had “ended” with Stella’s Black Paintings. (Mary Heilmann, too, was included in exhibitions and articles addressing NeoGeo. Despite their differences in method and age—Lasker is eight years younger than Heilmann—the two painters shared an interest in excavating midcentury modernism, from its high-art glory to its most suburban trickle down.) The shift in sensibility noted by Schjeldahl and many others happened to coincide with a major shift in Lasker’s practice. In 1985, as he was in Germany preparing for a show at Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, Lasker began making preliminary studies for his paintings rather than working directly as he had done previously.29 He used these oil-onpaper studies for his large-scale paintings, seeking to match the painting as closely as possible to the study. Although Lasker retained the figure/ground/line format that he had been using for most of the 1980s, the use of studies (which


David Moos and Rainer Crone, borrowing a term from traditional sculpture, have described as “maquettes”) amplified a certain distancing effect. This change in process clarified something for the artist: “I realized that all along I had been regarding my imagery in a very tactical manner. Intuition was an initial part of these paintings, but feeling was not part of it.” There is certainly something “tactical” about Double Play (1987), the painting in this show. The repetition of the clotted tangle of impasto yellow brushstrokes atop a blue and red pattern as a jagged, vaguely geographical linear shape evokes Rauschenberg’s cloned paintings Factum 1 and Factum 2, while the flopped relationship of the two shapes suggests the use of projections or mechanical reproduction. (In fact, Lasker simply traced the outline of the impastoed area after it had dried and, as he recalls, “rendered it as an outline on the right hand side of the painting to mirror” the initial form.30) As always chez Lasker, historically diverse modes of abstraction (gesture, geometry, color field) cohabit in the painting, but it would be a mistake to think that Double Play or any of Lasker’s paintings is about art-historical genealogy; the elements in this artist’s work always seem fully his own, completely keyed in relation to one another rather than standing in for some external reference. This may be why, ultimately, Lasker’s work is not, and never was, about “simulation.” Context for his work should also take into account some early New York encounters the artist has identified as important ones. These include meeting Thomas Nozkowski soon after moving definitively to New York in 1979 (they met when Nozkowski was manning the desk at his own show in the coop gallery 55 Mercer), and encountering Reed and Stephan in 1982. In 1984, Lasker, Nozkowski and Stephan appeared together in “Fact and Fiction” at Tibor de Nagy; recently, Lasker has recalled how at the time he had an “extensive dialogue about abstract painting” with both Nozkowski and Stephan.31 One might add, as well, that Lasker has spoken about his work in terms that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the discourse surrounding Neo Geo. Rather than focusing his attention on the commodity status of the work of art, Lasker looks in other directions: “I’d like to think of [the image that is presented in painting] as an ‘ethical’ image, which can have a very strong moral grounding force.”32 In almost every discussion of painting in the 1980s reference is made to Thomas Lawson’s “Last Exit: Painting,” an essay which argues that contemporary painting must take a cue from artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine and engage directly with photography if it is to be rescued from its artistic obsolescence and market collusion. In the same issue of Artforum (October, 1981) that carried Lawson’s piece there is an article by Klaus Kertess titled “Painting Metaphorically: the Recent Work of Gary Stephan, Stephen Mueller and Bill Jensen.” Kertess’s choice of artists seems like an explicit rejoinder to Lawson’s argument that abstraction was finished and painting should concern itself with the critique of representation. Yet, Kertess is hardly a “long live painting” ideologue. Giving an unexpectedly conceptual twist to the three artists he discusses, Kertess claims that they “make images that contain what they refer to,” that although their work can “encourage external associations” Stephan, Mueller and Jensen chiefly seek to “form icons of paintedness.” Kertess also points out how by emphasizing physicality and materiality the work of all three “subverts and reverses the tenets of abstract painting still prevalent in New York when they arrived there at the close of the 1960s.” It’s hard not to be struck by how the forcefulness and partisanship of these two neighboring articles, their implied disagreement, seems to belong to a very different critical landscape than today’s plethora of anodyne endorsements.33


Grouping artists is difficult, especially when art-historical importance, and the critic’s or curator’s reputation, seem to depend on the validity of such linkages. Because his work emerges to a striking degree from dialogue with other bodies of work (be it his own, his contemporaries or past masters), Stephan presents particular challenges to the would-be classifier. This was particularly so in the 1980s. In 1982, Robert Pincus-Witten sought to explain to his readers why Stephan’s work was crucially different from the paintings of Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Chiefly because all three were showing at the same gallery (Mary Boone), many people lumped them together. This ignored, wrote PincusWitten, the “generational attitude” that separated them; Stephan, himself, also recognized why he was different from his younger gallery mates: “I want to reassert a sense of mission. They. . . need to cover their sense of shame about tradition through visual sarcasm.”34 (Looking back, now, Stephan adds, “It took me some time to appreciate that their attitudes to history were as rich as mine but more oblique and layered.”35) By 1985, Pincus-Witten believed he had a clearer understanding of Stephan’s place. The artist was “at the heart of the new abstraction and its spatial dialogue with a blocked and blindered illusionism that stands with one foot in the utopian abstraction of the 1920s, the other in the illusionistic Surrealism of the 1930s.”36 A year later, according to Schjeldahl, Stephan would be “out-of-step” with where abstraction was headed. Perhaps reflecting on the difficulties that critics, as well as dealers and collectors, have had in categorizing him, Stephan told an interviewer in 1988, “One of the reasons I think that my work continues to crawl along the cracks is that it is neither manifestly radical, nor is it manifestly avant-garde. I can’t give them to the collectors who buy Susan Rothenberg because they smell a rat. And I can’t give them to the collectors who buy Jeff Koons because they think they are too conservative. One group thinks I’m too normal, the other group thinks I’m too strange. Which is exactly the place I think you are supposed to paint: dead center.”37 Apart from the rare candor of this statement (artists rarely speak in public about their market and here Stephan comes close to breaking some art-world omertà), it prepares us for the unsettling mixed messages of the untitled painting in this show, which was completed the same year as the interview just quoted. If, as I’ve suggested, a renewed interest in figure/ground relationships runs through the work in this show, the untitled painting of Stephan's in this show takes the concept to extremes. The “ground” is not any kind of abstract plane but an artfully depicted piece of illusionistic space, suffused with old-masterish light and reaching back toward some invisible horizon. The “figure” is a concatenation of biomorphic shapes the artist refers to as a “template.” In some late 1980s “Template” paintings these forms are suggestive of Mickey Mouse ears or pince-nez glasses, and act as a frame for the deep space; in other paintings such as the one in this show they are more isolated and central. If a few other artists in the show (Jensen, Murray) dip into the toolkit of traditional painting, mostly for understated volumetric effects, none of them is as boldly historicist as Stephan. Is he thumbing his nose at modernist flatness, or does he have other meanings in mind? By opening up a vast gulf between the picture plane and what is “behind” it, and flooding that space with Romantic light that seems more suggestive of dusk than dawn, Stephan seems to be invoking our, or his, distance from something, But how do the somewhat goofy templates relate to this elegiac atmosphere? In the face of such conundrums, maybe it’s helpful to quote from a recent interview with Stephan, particularly a passage where he compares his paintings to those of two other artists in this show. After the interviewer (Phong Bui) brings up Thomas Nozkowski and Jonathan Lasker, Stephan observes that he “leans much more on process” than Nozkowski does, while Lasker’s work is “completely process-oriented, very legible.” Stephan then adds, "you could say that I’m in the middle of Tom and Jonathan. I wanted my paintings to be personal and mysterious, but I also wanted legibility.”38


The work of at least four artists in this show has been profoundly influenced by visits to Italy: Fishman, Jensen, Reed and Whitney. Of these, Fishman was first to be impacted. Thanks to a 1979 Guggenheim Fellowship she was able to travel to Italy for the first time in her life. Throughout the 1970s, Fishman had expressly rejected the trappings of tradition: she made paintings by stretching colored threads and strings across canvas, painted on Masonite disks and scraps of scavenged wood, and studiously avoided using oil paint and anything that smacked of gesture. All this changed following her return from Italy. As she recalled to Sharon Butler in 2012, “I began making marks with my hand that involved the natural curve of the arm and the body; it was the result of having studied the Duccios and the Pieros in Italy. I realized that I had been missing that arm, which I had used as a young student. So to learn how to trust that hand again, that movement of the body, took a while.”39 Working with oil paint on stretched linen, Fishman introduced gesture into her painting, and in richly colored and textured paintings such as Navigation (1981) began using her brush to delineate sinuous shapes against layered grounds. In 1982, for a symposium on Expressionism in Art in America, Fishman said she was looking for “a feeling of immediacy” that she associated with Soutine and Van Gogh. Although largely dismissive of recent Neo-Expressionist painting (“I think most of it has to do with fashion”), Fishman acknowledged that she had been energized by Julian Schnabel’s early work: “It had a certain license that may have affected my own work, almost imperceptibly. I think that otherwise there might have been more that I would have painted out.”40 Fishman’s paintings changed again in 1988, following another trip to Europe. This time her itinerary took her to sites associated with the Holocaust, including Auschwitz and Terezin. The paintings that followed such as Memorial Book and Haggadah were darker in every way (in some, Fishman mixed in residue she had gathered from the Pond of Ashes at Auschwitz): gloomy, stripped down compositions in which stern forms barely emerge from the shadows. Like other artists in this show, Fishman doesn’t see abstraction as foreclosing any kind of content; her paintings are deeply autobiographical and also driven by moral choices. As she confessed to Cora Cohen in 1991, “My painting follows my life. It has seemed important to me to make choices about coming out as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a Jew—in my work—at times when these choices were politically powerful and important to those groups. It hasn’t helped my career.”41 Fishman’s comment about how engaging with socially explicit content may have hurt her career suggests that some viewers had a hard time with what might be called engaged abstraction. From the early figurative work of the 1960s to the evolving modes of abstraction that have followed, Jack Whitten’s paintings have always engaged in socio-political content. And, like Fishman, his work hasn’t always met with market approval. For a lot of artists the 1980s were a boom time, the first moment in their lives they began to make some money. Whitten’s experience of the decade was very different. As he told Kenneth Goldsmith in 1994, “See, the ‘80s were a bad time for me as far as the commercial world was concerned. The ‘80s really hit a peak of materialistic thinking. My work didn’t suffer. What happened to me in the ‘80s is that I buried deeper into my mind. I got ten years of work out of the ‘80s that is a solid body of work. I’m not one for knocking my head against a brick wall, so I went underground into the woodshed. But I realized that the works I was doing could not participate in the sort of thing that was going on in the ‘80s.”42 During the 1970s, Whitten had been considerably more visible. In 1974, his work was presented in a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a series of 12 exhibitions of African American artists the Whitney mounted between 1969 and 1975. Robert Miller Gallery gave him a solo show in 1978. Throughout the 1970s, Whitten made his paintings by dragging a variety of tools through wet canvases laid out on a


platform. Afro combs and saws were among his favored tools. As Kellie Jones has observed, the “former was a sign of African-American identity and the latter of manual labor and the construction trade in which Whitten worked when he arrived in New York.”43 Whitten also built large tools that worked like huge squeegees; as they were raked across a canvas they created large-scale abstract images in a single movement. An innovative method that stands with Pollock’s dripping, Louis’s pouring and Frankenthaler’s staining as a technique that transformed the possibilities of postwar painting, this approach was later taken up and popularized by Gerhard Richter. In 1979, Whitten made a significant change in his practice by shifting his canvases to the wall as he worked. As he told me in a recent conversation, this was “the first time I could stand upright to do a painting. It was like coming out of a salt mine.” While he still used his set of tools to striate the ground, Whitten also began introducing geometric forms into the paintings, in particular concentric circles. Thinking of telescopic gun sights and navigation techniques, Whitten understood clearly that the introduction of circular lines “wasn’t just geometry.” Along with these striated black paintings, in 1980 Whitten was also employing string and collage to produce multi-panel acrylic paintings, two of which paid tribute to Norman Lewis, who died in 1979. The painting in this show, Red, Black, Green (1980) deploys the colors of the Pan-African flag not in their usual horizontal stripe format but as three abutting blocks of color. This structure mirrors the triptych format of Whitten’s Norman Lewis paintings, while also suggesting a military ribbon. The painting invites us to speculate what it meant to evoke the theme of black power in 1980, as the liberation dreams of the 1960s seemed increasingly far away and the U.S. stood poised to elect Ronald Reagan, largely thanks to his “Southern Strategy” and coded appeals to racism. But if the concentric circles can be read as the view through an assassin’s gun sight, they can also be understood less ominously as a means to direct attention, the artist’s and the viewer’s. The title of a similar painting, Dead Reckoning (1980), which resembles a radar screen, seems to invite both interpretations. Another related work, Psychic Intersection (1979-80) suggests more metaphysical concerns. In the spring of 1980, Whitten stopped painting for three years (a fire had seriously damaged his Tribeca home and he had to put his art aside as he rebuilt it). As he emerged from this hiatus, the Studio Museum in Harlem mounted a mid-career survey “Jack Whitten: Ten Years 1970-1980.” Whitten’s paintings in the second half of the 1980s rely largely on tight, meshlike grids, sometimes broken into many fragments, out of which indistinct images seem to be emerging. Most of them are grisaille and many were painted as memorials. In 1988, Whitten wrote to a curator that he was “very much involved with the process of eliminating the known Metaphorical devices in Modern art.”44 He went on to list nine metaphors he had targeted for elimination: naturalism, sex, religion, politics, decoration, formalism, art history, ethnic stereotype and corporate aesthetic. Given this reductivist agenda, so reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt’s exhaustive proscriptions, it is surprising how visually rich and full of associations are Whitten’s 1980s paintings. I don’t think that he was trying to exclude identifiable content from his work (note that “formalism” is one of the entities he was against). Rather, he wanted to ground his work ever more in the physicality of his materials. Whitten’s intention, as he said to me in a 2012 studio visit, was to “make it rather than paint it.” Perhaps painting, at its best, is always about the charged dialogue (which sometimes breaks out into open warfare) between making it and painting it, between materiality and image. It was by opening themselves up to all the contradictory conditions of their medium, and rethinking all its established categories, that the painters in this exhibition discovered new territory for abstraction, in the 1980s and beyond.


“David Reed with John Yau,” The Brooklyn Rail, March, 2010, p. 30. Carrie Moyer, “Stephen Mueller at Lennon Weinberg,” Art in America, February, 2011, p. 100. 3 Richard Armstrong and Richard Marshall, Five Painters in New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1984, p. 9. 4 David Reed and Stanley Whitney recall their experiences with the draft in “Stanley Whitney by David Reed,” Bomb, 123, Spring, 2013, p. 38. 5 Katy Siegel, “Another History Is Possible,” in High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, ed. Katy Siegel, Independent Curators International, New York, 2006, p. 74. 6 Klaus Kertess, “Drawing Desires,” in Lisa Phillips, Terry Winters, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 28. 7 “To Philip Guston,” The Brooklyn Rail, November, 2003, p. 14. 8 Quote from “Thick and Thin,” a roundtable discussion of painting, Artforum, April, 2003, p. 240. 9 Carter Ratcliff, in Fact & Fiction: Abstract Paintings by Jonathan Lasker, Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 1984. 10 “Bill Jensen by John Yau,” Bomb, 99, Spring, 2007, p. 32. 11 Peter Schjeldahl, Columns & Catalogues, The Figures, Great Barrington, 1994, p, 122. Originally published in The Village Voice, Dec. 7, 1993. 12 Nancy Princenthal, “Terry Winters: an Interview,” Art in America, February, 2009, p. 95. 13 Robert Storr, Elizabeth Murray, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, pp. 175-176. 14 Murray’s comments on Bean are in Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1987, p. 52. 15 Joan Simon, “Mixing Metaphors: Elizabeth Murray,” Art in America, April, 1984, p. 143. 16 Robert Storr, Elizabeth Murray, p. 177. 17 “Joan Snyder with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, September, 2008, p. 35. 18 “Joan Snyder with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, September, 2008, p. 36. 19 “Pat Steir with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, March, 2011, p. 21. 20 “Laurie Simmons speaks to Carroll Dunham about his Paintings on Wood,” in Carroll Dunham: Paintings on Wood 1982-1987, Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2008, p. 8. 21 Peter Schjeldahl, Columns & Catalogues, The Figures, Great Barrington, 1994, p, 19. Originally published in The Village Voice, Nov. 13, 1990. 22 “Stephen Mueller by Joe Fyfe,” Bomb, 79, spring 2002, p. 39. 23 Holland Cotter in Stephen Mueller, Fabian Carlsson Gallery, London, 1987, p. 5. 24 “Mary Heilmann by Ross Bleckner,” Bomb, 67, Spring, 1999, p. 58. 25 “Stephen Mueller by Joe Fyfe,” Bomb, 79, Spring, 2002, p. 33. 26 The cues that Reed took from Italian Baroque and Mannerist painting were very different from the program advocated by Stella in his 1986 book Working Space; Stella wanted to introduce real space into painting; Reed’s version of the Baroque was purely pictorial. 27 “Talking Pictures: David Reed interviewed by Stephen Ellis,” in David Reed, ed. William S. Bartman, ART Press, Los Angeles, 1990, p. 19. Reprinted in Between Artists: Twelve contemporary American artists interview twelve contemporary American artists, ART Press, Los Angeles, 1996 p. 192. 28 Peter Schjeldahl, “A Visit to the Salon of 1986,” Art in America, December, 1986, p. 19. 29 This isn’t to say that Lasker’s pre-1985 paintings were purely “direct.” As Saul Ostrow has pointed out, for his early paintings Lasker “would fill pads of newsprint with gestural drawings before hitting on a shape to overlay in his paintings.” Saul Ostrow, “Jonathan Lasker: A Pre-Fab View,” in Jonathan Lasker: Paintings from 1978 to 1982, Bravin Post Lee, New York, 1994, p. 6. 30 Jonathan Lasker, email to the author, May 6, 2013. 31 Jonathan Lasker, “One’s Self, By Chance,” in Jonathan Lasker: The ‘80s, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, and Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin, 2011. 32 Jonathan Lasker in conversation with David Ryan, 1997, in David Ryan, Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p. 148. 33 For more on this subject, see Raphael Rubinstein, “Neo-Expressionism (Not) Remembered,” Art in America, February, 2013, pp. 80-87. 34 Robert Pincus-Witten, “Gary Stephan: the Brief Against Matisse,” Arts Magazine, March, 1982, p. 137. 35 Gary Stephan, email to author, May 13, 2013. 36 Robert Pincus-Witten, “Entries: Becoming American,” Arts Magazine, October, 1985, p. 101. 37 “Gary Stephan by Georgia Marsh,” Bomb, 25, Fall, 1988, p. 23. 38 “Gary Stephan with Phong Bui,” The Brooklyn Rail, September, 2012, p. 28. 39 “Louise Fishman with Sharon Butler” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2012, p. 20. 40 “Expressionism Today: an Artists’ Symposium,” Art in America, December, 1982, p. 66. 41 “Louise Fishman by Cora Cohen,” Bomb, 37, Fall, 1991, p. 61. 42 “Jack Whitten by Kenneth Goldsmith,” Bomb, 48, Summer, 1994, p. 40. 43 Kellie Jones, “Energy/Experimentation; Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980,” Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2006, reprinted in Kellie Jones, EyeMinded, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011, p. 374. 44 Jack Whitten letter to David Driskell, quoted in Henry John Drewal and David Driskell, Introspectives: Contemporary Art by Americans and Brazilians of African Descent, California Afro American Museum, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 83. 1 2


Jack Whitten Red, Black, Green 1979-80 acrylic and string on canvas 64 x 64 in 162.6 x 162.6 cm


Bill Jensen The Tempest 1980-81 oil on linen 22 1/8 x 30 1/4 in 56.2 x 76.8 cm


Louise Fishman Navigation 1981 oil on linen 25 x 22 in 63.5 x 55.9 cm


Elizabeth Murray Sentimental Education 1982 oil on canvas 120 x 7 x 96 in 322.6 x 17.78 x 243.8 cm


Carroll Dunham Horizontal Bands 1982-83 mixed media on pine 62 x 48 in 157.5 x 121.9 cm


Stanley Whitney Sixteen Songs 1984 oil on linen 66 x 108 in 167.6 x 274.3 cm


Terry Winters Point 1985 oil on linen 102 1/8 x 69 in 259.4 x 175.3 cm


Joan Snyder Beanfield with Music 1984 oil and acrylic on canvas 72 x 144 in 182.9 x 365.8 cm


David Reed No. 230 (For Beccafumi) 1985-86 oil and alkyd on canvas 108 x 36 in 274.3 x 91.4 cm


Jonathan Lasker Double Play 1987 oil on linen 76 x 100 in 193 x 254 cm


Mary Heilmann Rio Nido 1987 acrylic and oil on canvas 39 x 58 in 99.1 x 147.3 cm


Pat Steir Last Wave Painting: Wave Becoming a Waterfall 1987-88 oil on canvas 84 x 138 in 213.4 x 350.5 cm


Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (6-30) 1988 oil on canvas board 16 x 20 in 40.6 x 50.8 cm


Gary Stephan Untitled (#45418) 1988 acrylic on canvas 40 1/4 x 38 1/4 in 102.2 x 97.2 cm


Stephen Mueller Delphic Hymn 1989 acrylic, raw pigment and ink on canvas 72 x 60 in 182.9 x 152.4 cm


IMAGE CREDITS: Carroll Dunham, Horizontal Bands, 1982. © Carroll Dunham. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Portrait: Laurie Simmons. Louise Fishman, Navigation, 1981. Photo: Brian Buckley. Portrait: Betsy Crowell. Mary Heilman, Rio Nido, 1987. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Thomas Müller. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, Hauser & Wirth. Portrait: Mary Heilmann Self Portrait, c. 1980, © Mary Heilmann. Bill Jensen, The Tempest, 1980-81. Photo: Brian Buckley. Portrait: Peter Bellamy. Jonathan Lasker. Portrait: Carrie Welch. Stephen Mueller, Delphic Hymn, 1989. Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Gallery and the Estate of Stephen Mueller. Portrait: © Billy Sullivan. Elizabeth Murray, Sentimental Education, 1982. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Portrait: Robert Mapplethorpe, courtesy Pace Gallery, Portrait: Elizabeth Murray, 1986 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission. Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (6-30), 1988. © Thomas Nozkowski, courtesy Pace Gallery. Portrait: Judy Linn. David Reed, No. 230 (For Beccafumi), 1985-86. Courtesy The Maslow Collection. Portrait: Peter Bellamy. Joan Snyder, Beanfield with Music, 1984. Courtesy of John K. Baker and Nina Nielsen. Photo: Ruth Makofske. Pat Steir. Portrait: Vittorio Santoro. Gary Stephan, Untitled (#45418), 1985-88. Courtesy The Maslow Collection. Portrait: © Sebastian Piras, NYC. Stanley Whitney, Sixteen Songs, 1984. Photo Brian Buckley. Courtesy team (gallery, inc.), New York. Portrait: Stuart Math. Terry Winters, Point, 1985. © Terry Winters, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Portrait: Jeannette Montgomery Barron. Jack Whitten, Red, Black, Green, 1979-80. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Portrait: Peter Bellamy. Cover: Fred W. McDarrah/ Getty Images.


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REINVENTING ABSTRACTION NEW YORK PAINTING IN THE 1980S Design John Cheim Essay Raphael Rubinstein Editor Ellen Robinson ISBN 978-0-9851410-8-0 Printed In The United States By GHP Media


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REINVENTING ABSTRACTION NEW YORK PAINTING IN THE 1980S

Raphael Rubinstein


Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s