New York

Michael Scott

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Over the past near-century, abstraction has come to constitute a tradition, a virtual contemporary academy. The legacy of vanguard intention supplies a luster to the ongoing endeavor, but by and large, abstract painting proceeds quietly, shorn of its combative urgency. Though a new crop of painters is always coming up the ranks to mine this territory for its still appreciable riches, one of the surprise artistic twists of the ’80s has been the rise of a wave of painting that has roused abstraction from its respectable torpor, precisely by pressuring its status as a historical movement. Some commentators dismissed work by painters like Philip Taaffe, Sherrie Levine, and Peter Halley—work that treated Modernism as an archive of “found” styles—as a meaningless neo-ism, a lightning-fast stylistic pendulum-swing wholly symptomatic of the market’s thirst for the pseudo-new. Others argued that the impulse constituted something like a paradigm shift that strained available painterly models and ennervated abstraction by treating its sustaining mythologies as historically local conventions.

Coming as it does on the heels of this recent wave of abstraction, Michael Scott’s exhibition of black-and-white striped abstractions raises the question of how his work stands in relation to this precedent. All clues afforded by the paintings, as well as by the brief statement and interview that appeared in conjunction with the show, would seem to make flatly untenable the “business-as-usual” model of abstraction—the return to plain painterly values—whereby Scott’s work would stand or fall depending on whether or not one deemed him a sufficiently strong late stylist to warrant attention. Scott explains that the only difference between his black-and-white striped, eight-by-four-foot panels is a one-percent increase in the width of the lines from one panel to the next, suggesting that their lack of immediately appreciable differentiation, coupled with their abrasive opticality, is not calculated to “draw the viewer in” in any normative sense. In other words, the paintings are subtly different, but different in such a way that they draw our attention to the fact of discerning difference and not to the differences themselves.

Scott rehearses these artistic conundrums as if Minimalism’s latent theatricality had never been explored. As soon as work proceeds, by formal negation, beyond a certain point in the direction of the monochrome, it taps precisely into the part of the modern “tradition” that posits itself against artistic tradition as such. (In fact, Scott’s statements have the eerie cadence of an antiquated vanguardism.) Like any severely reductive painting practice, Scott’s work remains freighted with the legacy of vanguard intention. Yet to resuscitate this mythology in an unproblematic way, especially considering how many times the monochrome has been reinvented and greeted as a revelation over the past 60-odd years, is itself highly problematic. Scott states that “this work is motivated by a belief that painting has nothing new to offer except for repetitions of its past history.” Yet like most work that owes a debt of allegiance to Conceptualism—that posits itself self-consciously against Modernist conventions—this kind of gesture depends on strategic positioning. While the work of Taaffe and Halley packed a charge five years ago, it is difficult to see how Scott’s work offers an appreciable twist or deviation that supplies his gesture with any urgency so soon after these recent efforts.

Jack Bankowsky