Abstract art has not always been strictly the bane of the middle-class. Under the regimes of the former Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union as ruthlessly as the present-day Chinese Communist Party, abstraction has equaled subversive tendencies; neither fish nor fowl, abstract art demands thinking things through, rather than automatically adding things up like a math quiz. Yet, to many people—from Ayn Rand to Thomas Hart Benton (who instructed that enfant terrible Jackson Pollock) to the elderly woman I stood beside years ago at a van Gogh exhibition who declared to her companion, “My grandchildren could do better”—abstraction is all in the mind. Where are the images, the themes, the symbols and the shapes that have always been art’s foundation? Of course, when Kazimir Malevich exhibited his seminal “Black Square,” in 1913, it was pure color and shape: the rest, he felt, was superfluous.
For more than a hundred years, viewers and critics have been sorting out what abstract art should be, while artists have continued one step ahead redefining what it can be. Due to the lavish outsize canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and other painters from the turn of the century onward, abstraction has emerged as the exception to the rule—to any rule, really. It is not only in painting (Klee’s spermatozoa-like squiggles; Kandinsky’s spiritually-inspired blobs), but in film (Resnais’s puzzling “Last Year at Marienbad”; the French director Jacques Tati’s virtually silent comedies with their circular narratives) and in literature (the noveau roman of the Fifties in which plots and characters were rearranged or written out completely, as in the Robbe-Grillet novel where the description is confined to objects like a pencil rolling off a desk). Over time, abstract art has been understood by the public as a mish-mash of images (or non-images) and ideas (or non- ).
The point of abstraction or of any art form is to do it first, or at least to do it well. Two shows currently running—the group exhibition “Aberrant Abstraction” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at the Johnson County Community College; and Wolfgang Laib’s “Without Place—Without Time—Without Body” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum—focus on the value of originality in art. If a tree falls in a forest and someone has already heard it go down, does it still count when the next person hears it?
The polymorphously ambiguous title to the Nerman show (which opened November 20 and runs through January 31, 2010) further dislocates an already dislocated notion. The four artists—Keltie Ferris (large blurred paintings of dots and masked and sprayed-over areas); Agathe Snow (eight pieces, dangling from the ceiling like a giant’s earrings, each loaded with trinkets or toys); Chris Martin (assemblages of record albums and cardboard boxes affixed to canvases); and Cordy Ryman (light wooden planks painted and arranged on and against the walls in geometric sequences)—all share an abstract aesthetic. Yet on closer examination, there is a chasm between what they say (or what is written about them on the wall labels) and what they have done.
All of the work is intended to stretch the boundaries of abstraction, particularly the 3-D pieces. What a viewer notices, however, is how thin, how shallow, and how attenuated these various works appear—especially, still, within the multi-million dollar confines of the white-walled modernist museum designed by Kyu Sung Woo (who designed the sumptuous Korean wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). With no direction, the title points to an aberrant quality in these art works in an unexpectedly ironic sense. Martin is quoted saying, “I’ll try anything once.” That declaration of independence serves the entire exhibition to its detriment. In this deracinated show, the four young artists are competing with the past, without setting forth an identity for the future.
So Keltie Ferris’s paintings, with abstract titles like “Man Whisperer” and “Thriller,” offer dotted lines gone rampant, muted greens and grays stamped out in rectangles: designs, yes, in the narrowest of senses. They bring to mind pastiches of Mondrian’s firm geometric compositions, or of old Navaho blankets. They may be spontaneous in the abstract style; but the idea in Pollock’s overall paintings of art as an act of creation is absent. Chris Martin’s assembled paintings (“First Box Painting” involves a group of cardboard boxes like those shoes are sold in that have been joined onto a canvas and painted bright colors, which is slight even compared to his homages to musicians made with old painted-over albums) recall Rauschenberg, Schnabel, et. al., without enumerating much about Martin or his process. The Berlin-based Snow, represented by the large dangling object-filled wheels, shows the most initiative (if one did not see the ghosts of Rauschenberg, Kiefer, Félix González-Torres and other installation/assemblage-makers in her pieces). But we have seen it before: Pop art was always about art-as-commodity. Calling it abstract does not make the proposition any deeper.
Fitting ideas on like shoes is a contemporary judgment (or non-judgment). However earnest these young artists are, they are playing in the big leagues. Influence is to be expected, though not to the exclusivity of other ideas that pop into the viewer’s mind. I liked Cordy Ryman’s geometric abstract pieces the most, if only because they did not presuppose any meaning. Surely, with their rows of painted wooden beams angled against walls and up corners, they may remind one of Dan Flavin’s stacked fluorescent tubes and Richard Serra’s rolled steel sculptures that he called “Prop Pieces.” Sometimes, though, connections are exciting, when a newer work (even if it only scratches the surface) feels like it follows an enterprising tradition.
At the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Wolfgang Laib’s single installation (in the Bloch Building, Gallery L8, through January 17) is more minimalist than abstract. If one suggests an aberrant view of abstraction—what you think you see is what you get—then his large floor installation of hundreds of mounds of rice laid out in rows, with five “mountains” in the middle composed of yellow pollen, is as abstract as the Nerman group’s. Here, the immediate response is not one of other artists’ effects, but of Nature’s and how men follow its own patterns (talk about influence). The whiteness conveys blankness, quietness, spiritualness. Rather than the Nerman’s call-to-attention over nothing, Laib’s nothingness (for what is it but rice in rows, if one wishes to think of it that way) sets off ideas unique to each viewer. Art, abstract and otherwise, is almost all in the mind.