New York


Susan Caldwell Gallery

I think we’ve reached a crisis in abstract painting. It’s ironic that I should feel this after seeing “Generation,” because most of the 19 painters in this show organized by Michael Walls are good ones, and most were represented by strong examples of their recent work.

The 19 artists were: Jo Baer, Frances Barth, Jake Berthot, Jerry Buchanan, William Conlon, Stuart Diamond, Porfirio DiDonna, Ron Gorchov, Tom Holland, Ralph Humphrey, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Elizabeth Murray, Doug Ohlson, Robert Ryman, Joan Snyder, Frank Stella, Robert Swain and Joan Thorne.

Any attempt to generalize about these 19 seems doomed to failure, because I can think of at least one exception to every generalization. (Joan Snyder manages to be an exception to almost all my generalizations.)

The generalizations that do apply to all are Walls’ criteria for including them. All are abstract painters born in the United States between 1929 and 1946, which makes the members of this “generation” between 32 and 50 years old today. More than half of the 19 paintings were completed in the past two years, and all but one were completed since 1975. All in all, it seems like a fair sampling of American abstract painting today.

What besides age holds these 19 together as a generation is not so much what they do as what they don’t do. I see no reason to think that the abstract painters of this generation are any healthier psychologically than the Abstract Expressionists, but they’ve kept their angst out of their art. Although this generation has lived through a period of sexual liberation, changes in the relationships between men and women, unprecedented scientific advances, and considerable political and social problems (several wars and the social upheaval of the 1960s), they’ve kept these subjects out of their art too. Nor did there seem to be any acknowledgment of man’s relation to nature or his search for God in the work in this show. In fact, this generation—as represented by these 19 paintings—seems to have entirely avoided most of the great subjects that have interested artists over the last five hundred years.

In avoiding both the psychological and the world around them as subject matter, these artists have left themselves primarily art history and the act of painting as content for their work. The result is a cool, unsentimental and somewhat impersonal art. A number of the paintings—especially those by Baer, Mangold, Marden, Ohlson and Swain—have the cold perfection of objects made in a factory rather than by hand. While the themes these abstract painters have chosen to deal with—Mangold’s concern with the shape of the canvas and the painting as object, Ryman’s and Marden’s concern with the surface, Swain’s concern with color relationships and optics—are not unimportant to painters or painting, they certainly seem secondary to the great themes they have not dealt with.

I don’t know why these themes have been avoided. Many artists throughout history have felt compelled to comment on man’s aspirations and the state of the world. And in the past 20 years, fiction, poetry, theater, film, happenings, and even some realistic painting have dealt with politics, God, and what used to be referred to as “the human condition,” so it doesn’t seem that artists in general have avoided the larger themes. Abstract painting, however, seems no longer able to deal with anything other than itself.

In ignoring the major ideas of our time as well as those themes that seem timeless—birth, love, copulation, death—many of these abstract painters have produced a cool art that is involved with neither people nor the world outside the studio. This is not to say that these artists have not produced well-made paintings at times. Jo Baer’s Untitled (Double Bar Green) is as elegant a contemporary painting as I’ve seen in a long time. Jake Berthot’s Distance #1, though only 16 by 12 inches, has enough of a presence to stay fixed in the mind for years. And Tom Holland’s Nolan is an exceptionally beautiful and strong painting. I’d be happy to have any of them in my house. But in the end, it’s not enough to ask how well an artist does the job he’s set for himself. One also has to ask how important that job is.

Jeffrey Keeffe