New York


John Good Gallery

Between abstract painting’s mid-’70s Minimalist crescendo and the mid ’80s, when proclamations that it had reached a dead end were rampant, abstraction, and painting in general, relinquished its status as the dominant mode of postwar American art. Instead, it became simply one option amidst a range of available artistic possibilities, none of which asserted itself with definitive urgency.

This exhibition of 15 paintings by as many artists, provided a sampling of work by lesser-known abstractionists working today. Almost all of the artists included seemed to be looking over their shoulders, referring to earlier styles and approaches. Of course, this was also the case during the mid ’40s before Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists made their initial breakthroughs. The problem with this exhibition is that few of the artists seemed even to attempt to expand upon these historical precedents. A number of artists combined one style with another, arriving at hybrids that seemed more a contrivance than a reevaluation. Richard Kalina, for example, coupled the drippy fields reminiscent of second-generation Abstract Expressionism with the horizontal, hard-edge bars of ’60s geometric formalism, while Richmond Burton’s narrow, pie-wedge format recalled Frank Stella’s black paintings and his subsequent shift to shaped canvases.

Other artists who attempted to propose some twist on a particular period of an older artist’s work were seldom successful in getting out from under the influence of their precursors. Julian Lethbridge’s incised, dark linear web on a white ground recalled Jasper Johns’ “flagstones,” and John Zinsser’s physically insistent surfaces constituted a generic rehash of a familiar painterly abstract manner. Throughout this exhibition, the legacy of formalism’s art-for-art’s-sake argument went unchallenged.

This is not to imply that the exhibition consisted solely of weak paintings by artists who have not yet developed formally resolved and imaginative work. The pieces by David Baker and Jacqueline Humphries, for example, exhibited a directness of thinking, and doing that seemed more particular to them than to any past style.

In Baker’s painting, Avatars of the Tortoise, 1990, the viewer received the contradictory messages of an insistently physical image that seemed, at the same time, coolly dispassionate. This work amounted to neither a sentimental nor an obvious statement about the destruction of the world’s resources and wildlife but rather an articulation of the space between seeing and being able to do something about what one sees.

Humphries is an artist who is attentive to the application of paint, yet she avoids fetishizing her process. In Untitled, 1990, she deflects the outcome of the painting long enough for it to develop a degree of specificity. This is no small accomplishment, particularly at a time when most paint handlers are settling for nostalgic reprisals of Abstract Expressionism.

Among the many artists working abstractly today, a few are quietly demonstrating that painting is not only capable of sustaining major statements, but that they are up to the challenge. Perhaps we will come to the point where we concern ourselves less with the stylistic taste swings that have occupied our attentions since the ’70s, and will realize instead that, if abstract painting is to retain its vitality, it will be at the level of individual accomplishments.

John Yau