New York

“Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere”

Haunch of Venison

This sweeping show of Abstract Expressionism, organized by the British art historian and critic David Anfam, was long on firsthand pleasures, and offered room to reflect on what abstract meant initially and what it means now—not simply “a world elsewhere,” but worlds that seem a trillion miles apart.

There were sixty-two works on view by AbEx’s main protagonists and a handful of artists that Anfam meant to wedge into the canon. In place of a strict historical narrative, his exhibition was propelled by his sheer visual confidence, beginning with starker works and opening out into loosely syncopated installations of canvases and works on paper with lush distributions of looping, dribbled, and jotted brushwork by de Kooning, Krasner, Tobey, Mitchell, Newman, Reinhardt, and Tworkov, among others, along with sculptures by David Smith. Anfam choreographed scale well, juxtaposing grand gestures and intimate ones across the galleries, correlating Pollock, say, with more marginal figures, such as Norman Lewis and Charles Seliger. Photographs by Aaron Siskind, Barbara Morgan, and others inscribed their imagery in the ledger of Abstract Expressionism, adding texture to the spirit of a movement whose existential aspirations are now bracketed by historical shifts of every kind.

“Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves,” Barnett Newman wrote in his 1948 essay, “The Sublime Is Now.” Abstract Expressionism was, in fact, a representational abstraction, a paradoxical sign of an infinite, ethereal Otherness that surpasses earthly burden and yet, through acts of heroic sublimity, could be pictured. “ Life,” to Newman, was shorthand for the social sphere, and all of the artists and their signature works—whether the muscular, pulsing blackness of Motherwell’s “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” or Pollock’s airborne, pullulating skeins, or the nimbuslike haze of Rothko’s colors in the diminuendo of their soulful minor key—signify the historically localized vision of an art that turned entirely inward, restituting the self in the aftermath of the technological apogee of the atom bomb and the devil’s work of Hitler’s efficient slaughter. In an act of resistance, representational abstraction was egoistically centripetal rather than publicly centrifugal, investing in a romance of the self in place of an art instrumentally focused on the problematics of society’s weal.

That differential is crucial to reflecting on the end term of Abstract Expressionism and what it has ultimately led to in contemporary practice. The social abstraction that has replaced it in current discourse is not an object-bound practice, but a framework for performative activities that scrutinize, replicate, or simply set the stage for reflections of and on the endless convolutions of collective and individual relationships, and transactions of all kinds.

The artist and writer Melanie Gilligan states the case succinctly in 
her essay “Derivative Days,” pub
lished in Texte zur Kunst earlier this
 year. Speaking of contemporary 
art’s typical self-criticality and
 dependence on repurposing earlier 
art and its modalities, she notes that
 these artistic practices are akin to
 derivatives, or “financial instruments whose value is derived from
 the value of other things.” The term 
abstraction is used with easy fluency 
today to denote both the process of 
cultural cannibalization and the 
autonomy of exchange so charac
teristic of derivatives and other
 abstruse financial instruments whose
 relation to their sources of capital 
has become ever more distanced and opaque. It is no small irony that a similar degree of convolution pertained to this very show, held as it was in a gallery that, owned by Christie’s auction house, helps ferry artists and their works through different channels of the market to elevate their status and prices. More than artistic production and art- world practices simply being in thrall to capitalist models, they are in fact parallel modes evolving over time that demonstrate an evident momentum toward complexity as a continual elaboration of human practices that are increasingly distant from their origins. This systemic reconfiguration of our behaviors and activities is akin to what Frederic Jameson called the deterritorialization of capital. What we are seeing today is the deterritorialization of culture in general, a larger picture of abstraction.

Steven Henry Madoff