Los Angeles

“Oranges and Sardines”

THIS PAST NOVEMBER, to kick off a panel discussion about the exhibition “Oranges and Sardines,” curator Gary Garrels asked Amy Sillman—one of the six artists participating in the show—to “describe the situation of abstract painting today.” Sillman adjusted the microphone, took a deep breath, then came up speechless. Finally, she said, “The mind goes blank,” just as Garrels interjected, “Maybe that’s the wrong question.” But his question wasn’t wrong per se—it just didn’t have much to do with the achievement of his exhibition, which takes a more interesting, less expected tack: Garrels asked six abstract painters working in the United States to “select one or two of their own recent paintings to be shown with works by other artists who have had a significant impact on their thinking and the development of their own work.” This relatively humble premise, combined with the show’s smallish size (six rooms, one for each artist), stands in stark contrast to the largesse of the exhibition’s pleasures and complexities, not to mention its soft-pedaled but profound refusal of normative art history and curatorial dogma.

“Oranges and Sardines” takes its title from the 1957 Frank O’Hara poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” a jaunty account of how inspiration matters, even—or especially—when it ends up buried. The poem sketches the links between the studio process of artist Michael Goldberg (whose painting, in its early stages, features the word sardines) and O’Hara’s own meandering attempts to write a poem (about the color orange). O’Hara eventually finishes his poem and calls it “Oranges,” just as Goldberg calls his finished painting Sardines; in each case, the title is vestigial, as the completed works bear no direct traces of the sources that played parts along the way. O’Hara’s performance of artistic camaraderie is certainly buoyant, but it is also shot through with uneasier feelings: envy, dissatisfaction, and a sense of “how terrible orange is / and life.” In the end, the poem’s twinned aesthetic resolutions are not nearly as interesting as the aimless swirl at its center—the days that go by in a fever of parallel, devoutly insistent making.

“Oranges and Sardines” set up shop in this fever. Rather than trying to breathe life into long-cold conversations about influence and its alleged anxieties, the show allows the artists to model ways of seeing, refracting, and honoring that both chart their particular trajectories in the world and immerse the viewer in the enigma of their taste. The gamble of the show is that such libidinal, individualistic investments might add up to more than the sum of their parts. Here, they do. “I like, I don’t like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning,” writes Roland Barthes. “And yet all this means: my body is not the same as yours.” Barthes goes on to say that from “this anarchic foam of tastes and distastes” there emerges “the figure of a bodily enigma, requiring complicity or irritation.” Garrels may have been after a chronicle of impact, but what he conjures here is more of an anarchic foam.

Mary Heilmann’s room opens with a bang and a whisper: To the right of the entrance is Francis Bacon’s majestic, distorted Figure with Two Owls, Study for Velázquez, 1963; next to it is David Hockney’s Little Splash, 1966, featuring tiny squiggles of white above a placid pool. The contrast provides one of the show’s many “Of course!” moments, as the kinship between Bacon’s stringent geometry and Hockney’s serene version of such is immediately clear. The revelations continue as one beholds Heilmann’s own Blood on the Tracks, 2005, a constellation of red lines painted over black-and-white squares, which speaks directly—albeit coolly—to her formulation about Bacon in the catalogue: “He has the gore, but then he has the geometry.” A Bruce Nauman sculpture from the mid-’60s—a fiberglass T conveying both rigidity and flaccidity—brings this geometry decidedly off the wall, and reminds the viewer of Heilmann’s own roots as a sculptor, which continue to inform her work.

Mark Grotjahn’s room, meanwhile, provides few, if any, of these reveals. Instead, the artist offers coherence, choosing mostly works by canonical figures such as Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, John McLaughlin, Ad Reinhardt, and Clyfford Still. But if its sobriety borders on the staid, the room’s emphasis on the diaphanous and the precarious enacts a subtle upending of Abstract Expressionist gravitas. There’s an oblique tenderness, almost a pathos, underpinning Grotjahn’s choices: Albers’s Homage to the Square: Confident, 1954, looks more delicate than confident; the Mondrian, more cracked than cool. In a ballsy move, a shiny red monochrome of Grotjahn’s own hangs directly across from Reinhardt’s Red Painting, 1953, which here appears as a luxurious knockout. Given that the show privileges correspondence over qualitative comparison, however, the contrast feels more thought-provoking than showy.

Adjacent to Grotjahn’s minimalist corridor is arguably the most disjointed room, Wade Guyton’s crowded, Dan Flavin–lit gallery. The congested feeling is partially due to the fact that Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991, takes up much of the floor space, awaiting its go-go dancer (who appears once a day). Guyton has more bulky sculptures than the others, as makes sense for the only artist in the show who doesn’t think of himself as a painter (his works on canvas are created via ink-jet printer). His choices also evidence a more direct sexuality: Robert Morris’s vaginal sculpture House of the Vetti II, 1983, replete with steel-pipe clit and folds of pink felt, anchors one end of the room, while Isa Genzken’s Gelbes Ellipsoid (Yellow Ellipsoid), 1976—an oversize yellow knitting needle—lies feminine and phallic along the wall. But despite the humor and sexuality in these pieces, the room doesn’t feel particularly funny or sexy. As Guyton says about Go-Go Dancing Platform, there’s “something obnoxious about it, disruptive”—which isn’t to say I disliked it. For while the abruptness of Guyton’s shifting interests disallows continuity, it also returns us with force to the serpentine fascinations of another’s “bodily enigma.”

Nowhere is this enigma more on display than in the gaudy, far-flung cacophony of Charline von Heyl’s room, which features Franz West’s psychedelic, encrusted log of a sculpture, Lustrolle, 2002, at its center. Lustrolle is surrounded by some of the hardest-to-look-at pieces of art I’ve seen in one place, including a glazed ceramic blob by Rosemarie Trockel, Malcolm Morley’s messy 1972 reproduction of Raphael’s School of Athens, and a pink Jörg Immendorff painting depicting a Miró-like inkblot dancing next to a miniature inset of an owl. The room churns with a weird, gripping disharmony, amplified by von Heyl’s own Big Nobodaddy, 2008, a large black-and-white abstraction evoking stencils, snakes, and photo negatives, which bears no immediate resemblance to anything else in the room.

Given the insistent oddity of von Heyl’s gallery, it’s perhaps fitting that she is the most fervent advocate of taste as a structuring principle. “Taste is a word that has been approached so negatively,” she tells Garrels. “But I see it in a positive way now. . . . It’s recognizing what you want—what creates longing and desire—for whatever reason.” If there’s any school of art that could benefit from this informal challenge, it’s Abstract Expressionism. While not this show’s explicit subject, the movement remains a sort of elephant in the room, insofar as its critical terms continue to shape the language used to discuss abstraction. The loquaciousness of the exhibition performs yet another subtle revision: Garrels’s multiple invitations to “conversation” (the catalogue interviews, the attendant talks, the laminated gallery cards with comments by each artist) work to dismantle the imago of the abstract painter as a man of few words.

The only artist mildly resisting the call is Christopher Wool. Rather than a printed interview, Wool provides a chronological, no-caps list of certain “artists, exhibitions, and events” that have been important to him over the years—a list that eddies out into a typographic blob: “richard serra ‘thrown lead piece’ . . . tony smith ‘die’ . . . tiepolo . . . picasso . . . etc.” But really this is another attempt to represent profusion, and Wool’s gallery choices reflect a similar penchant for personal homage and surplus. The loose gestures in Wool’s enormous Untitled, 2007, are uncannily mirrored in a moody Picasso portrait, Homme à la pipe, 1969, which looks terrific and debased. There’s also an entrancing wall of gloppy Dieter Roth paintings, fat with glue, all sorts of detritus buried in their gunk. Two posters by Otto Muehl announcing late-’60s direct-art events initially fl ummoxed me: Were they to be taken as artworks or as memorabilia? But such confusion is central to the show’s enterprise, as it reminds the viewer that a lived history in art is not a series of staged encounters with stable objects, but rather a mysterious network of associations, legends, contingencies, and fantasies.

The network on display in Sillman’s room is a web of corresponding, oddball sensibilities: Each piece here has a terrific, anthropomorphic sense of humor, as well as an off-kilter palette. Howard Hodgkin’s After Matisse, 1995–99—a hilarious slime of green paint overtaking its frame—as well as smallish works by Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, and Alice Neel are as compelling as they are eccentric. On the more monumental side, Philip Guston’s spellbinding red Sleeping, 1977, shares Sillman’s interest in the tragicomedy of the body. The most revelatory moment, however, comes from beholding John Chamberlain’s crushed-automobile-parts sculpture Rayvredd, 1962, next to Sillman’s U.S. of Alice the Goon, 2008. If one steps back far enough, the relationship between the crumple and thrust of each artist’s line pops out.

And it’s here—and perhaps only here—that I remembered Garrels’s desire to stage a reckoning with the status of abstraction today. In the catalogue, Garrels invokes Kirk Varnedoe, who famously deemed abstract works “pictures of nothing,” or of nothing “except themselves.” The visceral affinity between Chamberlain’s steel and Sillman’s oil paint destroys the grounds of such a formulation. The show has no appetite for outmoded debates about referentiality; the artists are too busy showcasing the rhythms of their attention and pointing toward the multitude of material, “abstract” phenomena that constitute everyday life: the corner of a room, a printout from an Epson, an indiscernible ceramic hunk, graffiti on an overpass, a compacted car. The triumph of “Oranges and Sardines” lies in the attention it pays to the visceral and the idiosyncratic, without presuming that such a focus need displace conceptual rigor or collective purpose. It merits the compliment O’Hara once paid to Larry Rivers: “What his work has always had to say to me, I guess, is to be more keenly interested while I’m still alive. And perhaps this is one of the most important things that art can say.”

Maggie Nelson is on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.