“The Vertical Flatbed Picture Plane”

Turner and Byrne Gallery

In “The Flatbed Picture Plane,” 1972, an essay discussing the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others, Leo Steinberg posed the idea of a “tilt” in the conventional pictorial surface from vertical to horizontal. He argued that Rauschenberg’s scatterings of mass-media images and Warhol’s pictures of pictures demanded a perceptual reorientation, away from a “worldspace” (a view corresponding to a window on the world or the upright posture of the human form) and toward a “receptor surface,” such as a tabletop, the studio floor, or the flatbed printing press. According to Steinberg, the picture plane’s right-angle shift reflected a fundamental change in the subject matter of art—from nature to culture.

Over the last few decades, the drip-and-gesture iconography of abstract painting has passed from the realm of the exotic into a more ordinary one, adorning T-shirts, consumer packaging, and the walls of corporate office buildings. For some young artists working in the abstract tradition, the ubiquitous effects of mass culture are more or less taken for granted. A premise of “The Vertical Flatbed Picture Plane,” an exhibition of recent abstract painting conceived and assembled by Kenneth Turner and Chris Byrne, is that Steinberg’s “receptor surface” now accommodates the dots, drips, and pours of formalist abstraction right along with advertising graphics and photos of Liz and Jackie; implicit in the title is the exhibit’s endorsement of the idea that the picture plane has shifted back to the depiction of a “worldspace”—that in an urbanized mass-mediated environment, culture (both high and low) has thoroughly subsumed nature.

The seven paintings in “The Vertical Flatbed Picture Plane” constitute a highly focused subset of the recent spate of works variously referred to as “conceptual abstraction,” “post-Modern Ab Ex,” and so on. The artists in the show—Ian Davenport, David Dupuis, Jacqueline Humphries, Bill Komoski, Julian Lethbridge, Dan Levine, and John Zinsser—seem to be exploring the vocabulary of abstraction for its own sake, in the aftermath of its ironic or social recontextualization during the ’80s (by Philip Taaffe and Peter Halley, among others). There is a Warholian coolness to the enterprise: if the work is made without any claim of tapping into the collective unconscious or engaging in a critical debunking of same, what is left? Apparently a cerebral devotion to process as a kind of research. One imagines the artists wearing lab coats rather than smocks while concocting these exquisite, mostly monochromatic surfaces.

Echoes of scientific procedures are felt everywhere in this work. Using alcohol and acrylic paint, Levine artificially ages a white monochrome canvas so that it cracks delicately to a certain point and then stops. Using an electric fan to propel paint across canvas, Davenport creates an austere, columnar procession of drips, converting the idea of gesture into an experiment in the control of random forces. Each of Dupuis’ white-on-white labyrinths of cut paper on canvas is constructed as painstakingly as a behaviorist’s laboratory maze. Komoski went to extraordinary lengths to create photomechanical effects using hands-on techniques, then covered his tracks by making the process almost impossible to decipher. In most of the works in the show, there is an aura of detachment and calculation, yet at the same time there is the suggestion that, even after the various ideological programs associated with the abstract tradition have been thoroughly dismantled, its component processes can serve as instruments of relevant artistic inquiry.

Tom Moody