Washington, DC

“40th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting”

Corcoran Gallery of Art

In contrast to its better-known counterpart to the north, the 40th Corcoran Biennial didn’t pretend to provide an overview of current American art. Instead it presented New York as the latest in a series of “regional” art centers being considered by the Biennial. (The West and the Midwest were featured in the two previous editions; still to come are the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic, and New England.) Curator Ned Rifkin (now at the Hirshhom Museum) redeemed this somewhat droll conceit by narrowing the focus of the exhibition to the work of a group of midcareer artists, all of them abstract painters, none usually included in the group of neo-abstractionists who have attracted much attention recently. The result was a thought-provoking consideration of a kind of painting whose practitioners acknowledge that it exists in the wake of the heroic age of Modernist abstraction without accepting that in order to reclaim its legitimacy it must mock itself.

Not that the artists included here deny history. Instead, their work is full of reformulations of the stylistic trademarks of earlier Modernists. However, these allusions are usually playful, contradicting the sterner dictates of Modernist progressivism. For example, Harvey Quaytman’s use of rust powder as pigment, important more for its sensuality than for any postindustrial symbolism that might be read into it, contrasts with the apparent formalist purity of his minimalism. In a similar way, Mary Heilmann’s geometries recall the profound assurance of work by Piet Mondrian or Ellsworth Kelly, but in their use of drippy, off colors and almost-square lines they also offer a sense of the physical particularities of each work.

This emphasis on the physical is one of the strongest links among these artists. It takes a variety of forms, including the use of richly tactile surfaces (especially in the paintings of Terry Winters, Gregory Amenoff, Louise Fishman, Bill Jensen, Joan Snyder, and Sean Scully, as well as Quaytman) and shaped or multipanel canvases (in paintings by Elizabeth Murray, Robert Mangold, David Reed, and Scully). It is also present as a metaphor in the subject matter that they work with—whether Jonathan Lasker’s bio-decor, Jensen’s sci-fi organisms, Winter’s cellular forms, or different forms of landscape used by Amen-off, Fishman, and Snyder—which are all derived from the physical world. Even Andrew Spence’s design-filtered forms cross geometry with organic references.

Beyond this insistence on the physical fact of the painting is an affirmation of the specificity of the series of decisions through which it is made. The combination of historical awareness and an emphasis on physicality provides the sense of wary optimism that one finds in this work. Instead of cynicism about the continued possibility of discovering meaning through art there is an acknowledgment of style as a human invention, influenced by the givens of history and embedded in the contingency of the present. And beyond this is a reliance on the complexities of meaning that can emerge in the process of making the work, rather than being imposed before or after.

Charles Hagen