THE WORLD WAS SUPPOSED TO END this past May, but we’re still here. No Rapture, no Apocalypse. The same could be said of Abstract Expressionism: That dripping, demonstrative, unabashedly tactile practice has met its maker many times over. Yet its effects are everywhere apparent. AbEx is there, of course, in works that dramatize the false promises and ignominious deliquescence of the genre, pushing gestural abstraction to its stained, ripped, debased, and de-skilled limits (witness David Hammons’s recent suite of literally trash-bagged pictures). It is there when artists make one more cool, laid-back critical feint in the supposed endgame of painting. But it is also newly and forcefully present as a growing number of artists rediscover its profligate processes and materials, across disparate media and in unexpected hands. After all, in its day AbEx migrated to film, fashion rags, cold-war embassies, and TV, from Mad Men America to postwar Japan. So we shouldn’t be surprised at its relevance for artists nownot so much in terms of its redemption or its ripeness for mockery, but for the promiscuous results its redeployment might yield.
This coming fall, major retrospectives of Willem de Kooning and Gerhard Richter will simultaneously bookend the legacy of AbEx: from early concerns with composition, opticality, physical gesture, and ego, to noncomposition, the conceptual evacuation of gestural subjectivity, and pastiche. And a panoply of shows this past spring have featured contemporary artists who have by and large taken the action of mark-makingthe “spatter-and-daub (-and-scrape-and-swipe-and-pour-and . . . ),” in curator Harry Cooper’s wordsto new arenas not only in painting but in performance, film, and beyond. The question is, then: What is at stake in these various reframings and reinterpretations of Abstract Expressionism?
This special section of Artforum considers both the historical nuances and the contemporary persistence of AbExthe ways in which artists are engaging its expanded notions of affect and experience, but to vastly different ends. If the initial efflorescence of action painting has long been caricatured as vulgar machismo, that vulgarity has been reclaimed by artists, not least women and queers, Amy Sillman argues here, because AbEx has everything “to do with the politics of the body.” Such a re-rereading of Abstract Expressionism finds its echoes in work that pulls the gesture, the painted mark, and the viewing of images into performances or sprawling installations that upend ideas of agency and presence. (As the artist Ei Arakawa reminds us in his text for this issue, “Painting is watching.”) If, in the 1950s, art informel impresario Georges Mathieu was already selling his TV-ready painting events (described here by scholar Molly Warnock as “Gallic corn”) and Cy Twombly was discovering an “untutored rawness” in pencil and paint (per curator Ann Temkin), today artists as diverse as Josh Smith, Nicole Eisenman, Albert Oehlen, Richard Prince, and Leidy Churchman are exploring the visceral and the embodied within a world they know to be mediated, networked, and marketed all at once.
So rather than focus on the state (or dissolution) of one medium, or on monographic treatments of individual artists, the writings that follow pursue the more granular trail of materials, processes, and intricate social and medial dynamics. Several authorsCooper, Sillman, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Daniel Marcuslook at the overlooked: the contradictions of AbEx (the “band of selves,” the “controlled accident”), which have come to shape much artwork today; AbEx’s trade in sexuality, camp, and vulgarity; the physical care of AbEx surfaces and their striking material properties; the figuration, the face, that AbEx seemingly left behind but which would now seem to have resurfaced. Other contributors, including David Joselit and Graham Bader, plumb the way gestural abstraction and spontaneous mark-making are always already tied to systems of communication and exchange. And fourteen artistsfrom Rodney Graham to Julian Schnabelweigh in on their own relationships to AbEx, while Temkin, Warnock, Carroll Dunham, Jordan Kantor, and Mark Godfrey each give close-up readings of five individual artworks or projects. Such a focused eye is needed. While much of the art world is constantly looking at the big picture, on the hunt for the next new (technologically or economically determined) zeitgeist, the texts here take the opposite tack: zooming in, remaining open to the reverberations, however slight or vague or low to the ground, that aesthetic acts may leave in their wake.