PRINT September 1989


EVERYONE KNOWS THAT abstract painting is “back,” after a decade’s spate of image-ridden art, but what kind of claim on our attention can it make? Is it now—can it be—anything but a periodically reappearing spoke on the Great Wheel of Art Fashion? Those who say that abstract painting is back are often saying nothing more than that it is back at the heart of the contemporary art market. But I think we might legitimately intend more than that. The past ten years’ engagement with tactics of representation in and around art has changed irrevocably what and how picture-making means, including abstract picture-making. We have only begun to detail these changes; the purpose of this essay is to note one of them.

The touchstone of my thinking about abstraction these days is a group of nonfigurative paintings made over the last decade or so by Gerhard Richter, some of which were included in his recent North American museum retrospective. Remembering the tone and flavor of self-consciousness in these paintings, I find it hard to keep from grinning: they are works of Comic Abstraction. They may not be the first of their kind (think of Roy Lichtenstein’s parodic abstractions), but they are paradigmatic in their use of a comic sensibility to open up a future for what might seem a vitiated mode of painting.

Large and garish, these paintings of Richter’s resemble at a glance some sort of inflated, professionally chill reprise of Abstract Expressionism. In the strangest of them, such as Juli and Juno, both 1983, fat, troweled-on strokes of lurid color cut across a softly tinted emptiness not unlike the orbless, weatherless skies of Ed Ruscha. Across such a ground, no paint stroke can innocently convey intention, emotion, or meaning. As you study Richter’s abstractions, gulfs of qualm or stylistic indecision seem to open among the acts of painting that constitute them. It is as if every move were dogged by anxiety about its codifiability—by a sense of the gesture’s absurdity. The theme of these works is the impossibility of making Abstract Expressionist paintings once you know as much as Richter does about the uses of representation, in art and in the rest of contemporary culture. Richter’s abstract paintings are rich in detail and gesture, but everything he does is qualified by his awareness that sheer facture cannot now simply be taken at face value. His essays in different painting styles—pictures derived from photographs, nearly conventional landscape paintings—provide a context for his abstract works that make their ostensible ambitions appear unattainable. In a recent interview he confessed, “I see myself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of painting, and of art in general, which we have lost, but which nevertheless obligates us. In such a situation, it is difficult not to want to restore that culture, or what would be just as bad, simply to give up.”1

Abstract painting occupies so crucial a place in this century’s visual thought that the idea that it has reached—or even that it could reach—a dead end arouses much anxiety. This is one reason why Color Field painting, which almost brought abstraction to such an end, is still anathema to many among those of us who scan art for tools to break the grip of perceptual habit and political dogma. History has embarrassed the utopian hopes associated with early abstract art, and the idea that abstraction may be further reduced to empty, commercial redundancy only redoubles the embarrassment. Frank Stella has argued that abstract painting will have no future unless painters can unearth a history for it that stretches back beyond Analytic Cubism; consistent with his own work, he sees the problem as a formal one: abstract painters must abandon the flatness of Cubist-oriented art and develop a “projective space” that will dovetail with real space and time.2 It is not abstract painting’s supposedly stunted past that denies it a future, however, and it cannot be rescued simply by a move from two- to three-dimensional space, from painting to sculptural relief.

The problem abstract art faces is that it appears to deny everything about the contemporary world with which a historically informed view of culture must be concerned. By its negation of reference, abstraction seems necessarily to cut itself off—not in a critical spirit but in an oblivious one—from a world founded on representations. It seems also to deny the uncomfortable recognition that all art is representational in the broad sense of being positioned in a domain of implicit references, which may become explicit under close and informed observation by the public. A viewer conversant with Modernism will probably see a strictly abstract painting not as an autonomous object sealed against nonart realities, but as something at best betokening the desire for such a possibility, and as an object that stands in a certain relation (deliberate or unintended) to the abstractions of Mondrian, Malevich, or other members of earlier avant-gardes.

There are painters at work today—Ron Janowich and Nancy Haynes on the East Coast, for example, and George Lawson in California—who practice abstraction as a kind of poetic or compositional form, like the sonnet or the sonata, whose history and internal consistency over time claim for it a continuing viability. (I have chosen Janowich, Haynes, and Lawson as examples not because they parallel Richter in experience or reputation, but because they all have respectable exhibition histories and have in common a commitment to the notion that abstraction is viable without special apology. It may be indicative of abstraction’s distressed prospects that the painters who practice it without irony or other qualifying strategy have not achieved great notoriety for their efforts.) By interlocking eccentric stretcher shape and geometric surface design, Janowich acknowledges pressures on abstraction from the context in which it is seen. Where Richter signals his uneasiness about painting abstractly by means of facture too lavish and a palette too tinny to be taken without irony, Janowich defends the self-effacing straightforwardness of his paint-handling by plying it on structures whose eccentricity advertises his self-consciousness about the whole object he is making. By burnishing panels painted in oil, Haynes gives some of her paintings a silvery, depthless internal light that is like a reflection in sheet metal of an endless dusk. The dusk (or incipient dawn) might be symbolic: light failing (or breaking) over the world itself. But Haynes’ art seems to me more withdrawn than that, more concerned with its own strictly local reality. The irony of the present state of affairs is that abstract painting—once the international style—has become strangely self-enfolded, almost an affair of the artist’s private life, constrained in allusion and always on the verge of seeming obsessive. The measured facture and monochromatic color of Lawson’s paintings give them a definite obsessive character, even when he arrays square panels in grid configurations clearly intended as public address.

Under the circumstances, there may be nothing to do but laugh. It is standard psychoanalytic wisdom that the comic is a means of fending off painful emotion. A person facing the possibility of grave illness, for example, may regain some feeling of mastery over the situation, or at least some comfort, by making—or just tolerating—jokes about it. I think this is partly what Richter and others are doing in the face of the threat to abstract painting. Richter refuses to surrender the pleasures of heroic address and swashbuckling facture; he proceeds and takes the consequences. The results are knowing stylistic pratfalls. These paintings conform perfectly to the gloss on the comic that Baudelaire offered in his discussion of laughter: “The comic is an imitation mixed with a certain degree ofcreative capacity or, in other words, of artistic ideality.”3

By means of irony, Richter’s paintings retain the international air that classic abstract art has. He shows how abstraction can make a subject of representation, can address it not as the discarded artistic alternative but as the type of transaction that burdens consciousness continually (often wordlessly) when culture is ruled by institutions that overpower individuals with images, and with things and notions surcharged with engineered fantasies. Clearly the old sense of abstraction as the negation of representation is anachronistic. One thing made clear by the artists preoccupied with representation in the 1980s is that nothing today negates representation because nothing negates power, not even when those who wield it change places with those who don’t. Techniques and tropes of industrialized representation have penetrated everything, right down to our language and sensoria.

Everything reads now in terms of access to or distance from power, of successful or failed connections to it. Everyday life has become a saturated solution of representations from which consumer dollars precipitate out like mineral salts when the right kind of catalyst is introduced as the nucleus of mass response. As I was working on this essay, for example, the logo of the movie Batman, then still forthcoming, began turning up on bumper stickers and window decals, on T-shirts, sneakers, and tote bags. It was the symbol of a new (or perhaps revived) pop cult in the making. It scarcely mattered whether the movie bombed like Ishtar; the chain reaction of spinoff consumption was already unstoppable. The representation involved here—the schematized bat symbol—is minimal, but it is nevertheless a powerful emblem, really the latest logo of Hollywood’s power to galvanize mass sentiment, even in advance of the experience that is actually supposed to produce it.

To avoid looking nostalgic for dashed utopian hopes (as Haynes’ art does) or apologetic for the cultural status quo (as Stella’s and Helen Frankenthaler’s work does), some abstraction has shifted into a key of irony, but one not so acerbic as to dissolve all its artistic possibilities. Richter shows that a comic vein has opened up in abstract painting. And works by other artists that I’ve seen show that there are many paths to it.

When you think of the work for which Meyer Vaisman first became known, it seems as if Comic Abstraction is a pointedly post-Pop development. I’m referring to the paintings that consist entirely of photo blowups of the tooth of canvas painted (or printed) on canvas as though they were abstract patterns. Descendants of Andy Warhol’s wallpapers, they are contrived to show how abstract a representational image can be, and to show that abstraction in art is now a byproduct of representation, and possibly coterminous with it. The trouble with Vaisman’s comic abstractions is that they are one-liners, albeit clever ones. There is really nothing in them to look at except the joke and its strategy. (His works that use other—nonabstract—images are a different matter.)

I am not suggesting that Comic Abstraction is an art movement, or that it could become one. I see it more often in individual works than in bodies of work, although Richter has sustained it, as have New York painters John Torreano and Norman Toynton. Torreano ridicules the precious in art because it creates an appetite for cheap, false equivalents, both in art and in experience generally. But he also reinvents the esthetics of preciousness. Embedding glass jewels or painted wood spheres in painted plywood surfaces, Torreano composes his paintings to suggest astronomical entities like star clusters as they are reprocessed in popular media or in fantasy. The levity in his paintings is an excuse for him to make things that have a peculiar cheap beauty all their own. Their humor is intrinsic to their beauty: it is the genuine part of their sparkle and shine.

Toynton, on the other hand, seems to be deeply attached to the beauties of paint and color, but also to feel that they are insupportable philosophically unless deployed on structures, such as those of his Xingu, 1987, that physically undermine the determinate nature of “the art object.” The gridded holes of the perforated Masonite on which Toynton paints provide an automatic reference to the perspectival structure of traditional picture space. They also snag the eye with connect-the-dots suggestiveness whenever he permits them to show themselves through the paint. In Xingu, as in a number of other pieces, Toynton has used the standard hardware of hooks and brackets associated with perforated Masonite to suspend square open frames obliquely in front of the four main panels. The joke is that much of the work’s painterly richness is confined to the edges of these open frames, as if Xingu were disavowing its own lushness, holding it away. The abstract patterns are projected on the Masonite panels as though they were shadows or bands of light. With its four-part invention of similarities and differences, Xingu enacts an elaborate ambivalence about its being a painting in any sense.

Other artists sometimes stumble into Comic Abstraction in the course of their own pursuits. Sherrie Levine’s backgammon paintings, and the gold-painted plugs in her bare-plywood pieces, have a certain comedy, and simultaneously a certain melancholy. (Richter’s paintings too have their plangent aspects, and we see a mingling of irony and bitterness in the sculpture of Ronald Jones, who derives the seemingly abstract patterns in his work from emotionally and politically loaded sources like the ground floors of buildings in concentration camps.) Though most of Sean Scully’s paintings have the sobriety and bulk of architectural fragments, Backwards Forwards, 1987, is playful in spirit. It seems to be a mask one moment and the next a sort of game-board configuration. Now it shakes off its imagistic implications, now it looks like a joke about abstraction—or style—as a prison. It is the eye’s movement among the four differently oriented squares barred with black and white that keeps these aspects ramifying. Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings,” 1978, made by pissing corrosively on canvases coated with metallic paint, are the ultimate satires on Abstract Expressionism. In a tangential vein are Sigmar Polke’s abstractions in light-sensitive pigments: timed-release art whose future appearance is indeterminate, its alchemic beauty coexists with its sly potential to turn out a poor wall ornament for its purchaser.

I find the works of the so-called “neo geo” painters either too flippant, like Vaisman’s, or too solemn to qualify as Comic Abstraction. To make a painting in the solemn mode, an artist’s belief in abstract art’s future must be more single-minded than ironic. An artist like Peter Halley confronts the embarrassment of abstraction in the same way that Richter does, but hopes to overcome it by supplying his paintings with a supposed referential relevance—hence the talk of cells and conduits. Strategy always seems uppermost in these paintings; I see a quality of came-too-late resentment in them, even at their most refined, rather than the yearning for lost possibilities that suffuses Richter’s paintings, which their comic quality pretends to disavow. Philip Taaffe’s recent, eclectically decorative canvases also seem overstrategic. Taaffe takes what strikes me as a dismissive attitude toward the sources from which he borrows decorative motifs. He is painting to prove, with a sneer, the irredeemability of the pictorial material he borrows and recombines.

Comic Abstraction may be a defensive display of sensibility, advertising a determination not to be caught out by history as the old heartfelt, world-reforming abstract art was. But it is also a means of showing that the self-consciousness that burdens painters today need not be paralyzing. Works of Comic Abstraction detail new, fecund ambiguities in the making and understanding of art where they might be least expected. In this sense, these works are the most optimistic contemporary art I know.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. His book Minimalism: Art of Circumstance was recently published by Abbeville Press, New York.



1. Gerhard Richter, quoted in Roald Nasgaad, Gerhard Richter Paintings, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1988, p. 21.
2. See Frank Stella, Working Space, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
3. Charles Baudelaire, Baudelaire’s Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans., P.E. Charvet, Cambridge: at the University Press, 198T, p. 151.