Critics’ Picks

View of “Besides, With, Against, and Yet: Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture,” 2009. Background from left: Patricia Treib, Untitled (Pages), 2009; Alex Hubbard, How to Smoke on a Plane (RF7), 2009; Jessica Dickinson, Here, 2008–2009. Foreground: Polly Apfelbaum, Bones, 2009.

New York

“Besides, With, Against, and Yet: Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture”

The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
November 13–January 16

“Besides, With, Against, and Yet: Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture” makes an important proposition. It goes like this: Arguably the two key artistic inventions of the twentieth century are abstraction and the readymade. Abstraction was by turns utopian and expressive, purporting to withdraw from painting the burdens of history or to channel a pure emotional charge. The readymade smuggled the everyday into art, a stealth move that illuminated and unsettled its linguistic, legal, and institutional supports. The two inventions have on occasion converged—see: Johns, Jasper—but like oil and water remained distinct. In the twenty-first century, however, artists have begun to treat the history of abstraction itself as a catalogue of styles open to appropriation. In short, the readymade devoured abstraction whole.

This argument commands attention given the many compelling artists whom curator Debra Singer corrals into it—Jutta Koether, Seth Price, Cheyney Thompson, and R. H. Quaytman, to name a few—but it also invites ambivalence. Thus merged, abstraction and the readymade risk canceling out each other’s legacies. The secondhand status of a readymade sunders abstraction from its aspirational and emotive content, whereas the uninflected appearance of an abstract painting curbs the readymade’s penchant for mischief. (To this day, nothing accommodates the definition of “art” so comfortably as stretched canvas.) Hung together in this context, the works dangle precipitously over a conveyor belt of art as art as art—the endless concatenation of an emptied category. Singer raises the stakes by forgoing wall texts for the individual works, leaving the conceptual maneuvers that differentiate them up to the viewer’s astute deduction or prior knowledge.

The participating artists’ larger bodies of work complicate this account, but the exhibition nevertheless demands reckoning. Either it restricts to a disheartening extent what painting today can say and how it can function or it bolsters confidence in a still defensible belief: that artists are at their most canny and resourceful when backed—or painted—into a corner.