Alan Charlton

Victoria Miro Gallery/ICA

Everyone knows it is not easy being a “pure” abstract painter today. We are so accustomed to the idea of the death of the historical avant-garde that any practice that justifies itself in the name of a hermetic, reductive formalism is received with indifference. Our persistent appetite for the “new” is such that our self consciousness of the paradoxical and tragic dimensions of the historical avant-garde remains curiously underdeveloped.

Alan Charlton is a “pure” abstractionist, and as such, the historical potential for his painting seems, frankly, bleak. The formal possibilities of such a practice are all too transparent: the monochrome, the allover, the mise-en-abîme, and the grid are the only possible strategems such work can adopt. Of interest is the convoluted attitude that invariably accompanies a deep commitment to pure painting. The ironic adjustment to painting—exemplified by artists such as Olivier Mosset and Niele Toroni—releases one from the grasp of sycophancy; at the same time, one is constrained to act within a restricted formal field or the irony is lost. In contrast, the unironic or sincere painter is disallowed such alienation in advance; to believe in pure painting is to accept the timeless and universal quality of that practice without regard for its reception. The last generation of pure painters found their models at the margins of Minimalism. To recapitulate painting ironically, however, is to parody those sacrosanct historical models; to deny them their historical sanctity. The contrast between these two esthetic positions is figured as a bizarre inversion: the traditionalists of pure abstraction commit themselves to the (futile) development and expansion of exhausted formal conventions, while the post-Modernist pretenders dutifully repeat those same strategies. The “innovative” surface of the pure painter harbors the deeper conservatism, wherein the trope of the “new”—the new monochrome, the new grid, etc.—is blithely played out. The discourse surrounding pure painting typically consists of something like a travelogue of formal and technical microevents.

Charlton survived the ’70s by riding the crest of Minimalism. His paintings were self-referential: their various square holes, channels, and intervals were based on the dimensions of the stretcher-bar. During the ’80s, however, Charlton looked committed, simply because people seemed to forget that it was in part a reaction to the painters of the ’60s and ’70s that fueled Conceptualism, performance, and video art. In the ’90s, when the New York/Cologne axis threatens to push all artistic activity toward indifference and banality, Charlton may look like an artist of some finesse, but little more.

Small ideas pursued with great vigor do not add up to great work. Yet it would be unfair to criticize Charlton simply by calling him a refiner, especially since the opposing position—that of the innovator—is historically and conceptually untenable. The fact that there is no real innovation possible within pure abstract painting makes the recent moral claims in the name of abstraction seem ignorant and pretentious. Nevertheless, some artists, including Charlton, still find the promise of formalism’s “unfinished business” compelling. To hold that view demands nothing less than a practice that spans the symbolic space that separates the historical avant-garde from Minimalism. In this respect, Charlton’s work is a model of painting’s ongoing if exhausted practice. Superficially innovative, yet deeply conservative, Charlton’s art suspends the question of rupture by eliminating all historical consciousness of rupture. His gray monochrome panels are “neutral,” devoid of symbolic reference via color (like much of Minimalist sculpture) and self-assertive through continuity and repetition. What transitions do occur in Charlton’s work are incremental. At the level of installation, Charlton seeks to address the elimination of the esthetic difference of painting, sculpture, and architecture, just as de Stijl and El Lissitzky did decades earlier. But what Charlton achieves is not the unity of art and architecture in advance of the dissolution of art, but the continual production of self-reflexive art objects.

Michael Corris