Can Modernism be ‘new’ anymore?

A show of abstract work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery leads back to the history of Modernism

This sports anecdote is from the introduction to A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe, the late American art historian who served as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001.

“Somewhere back in a rainy summer in the 1970s, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to a place in the north of England that it fascinated me for years; it’s a playing field that’s part of the Rugby School, and on the wall next to the field is fixed the marker I came to see. It reads: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A. D. 1823.”… I was among [those who played rugby in the late 1960s] and as I moved back toward the bare essentials of the sport, I found my curiosity enduringly piqued by the tale of its origin. What possessed Webb Ellis, in the heat of a soccer game, to pick up the ball? And stranger still, why didn’t they just throw him out of the game?”

In 1823 a guy changes the game from what we call soccer, to the game of rugby. In the late 19th century another game changed, and Varnedoe’s question applies. When Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire with daubs of paint, or certainly when Pablo Picasso began showing analytical cubist paintings—why weren’t they thrown out of the art game? Why did the game change to accommodate them?

So “modern” art reflected an abrupt change from the way art was played in the past, and depending on the critic/historian it originated with Édouard Manet and the “frankness with which [his paintings] declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted,” according to critic Clement Greenberg, or maybe with Van Gogh and Gauguin, according to Arthur Danto—at least sometime before 1900.

Chris Gander,”Plug:Matrix,” 2017,oil on wood construction, 21 x 21 x18″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The idea of modern art also reflected the critical/historical concept of “progress” in art. The genealogy runs something like this: Renaissance begat Mannerism, which begat Baroque, which begat Neo-Classicism, which begat Romanticism, and so on to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism—and then, according to Arthur Danto, in the early 1960s, with Pop Art, and for Danto with the example of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, 1964, which looked just like the mundane Brillo box in the grocery store, the historical idea of “progress” stopped. No longer is there an avant-garde. There is no “next step” in art evolution. As Danto said, “As far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was you had to turn from sense experiences to thought.” It no longer had to look like art to be art.

Modernism in this reading was the last gasp of art “progress.” For a critic like Greenberg (by the way “modern art” is a critical/historical term—I’ve never heard of an artist saying, “I’m a modern artist”) modern painting (painting was the main vehicle for the progress in modernism) tended to strip away things that were not fundamental to painting. The best modern painting, according to Greenberg, would demonstrate recognition of the flatness of the canvas and emphasize color— attributes special to painting. Likewise, Greenberg would find sculpture that was painted with colors irritating, since color was an attribute of painting, not something like scale or form that was essential to sculpture. By the end of the 1960s these ideas were worn out, and nobody cares much about that puritan view now.

Joanna Pousette-Dart,
“Cañones #3,” 2007-08,
acrylic on canvas on shaped panels,
79 x 92″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Now there is an exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery entitled New Modernism that “presents seven artists whose innovative approaches to formalism link them to the modernist art movement of the 19th century.” I don’t buy this premise. All artists have their own formal approaches, and if they do interesting work, their approaches will be personally different (innovative) from those of others. Looking at the exhibition, I don’t see “modernism”—either in the sense of an abrupt break with the past (since there is no “progress” anymore) or in attitudes linked to refinement of the essences of painting or sculpture. The show could easily and more accurately be called Some Current Abstraction, or something like that.

Still, the current abstractions in New Modernism include some interesting artworks for us to consider.

Pat Boas, Untitled (2W3), 2016,
acrylic, flashe and gouache on panel,
20 x 16″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Pat Boas shows four small paintings that exemplify normal abstract painting nowadays. They are tight compositions made from a wide ranging vocabulary of shapes. That vocabulary seems mixed from a variety of shape languages—they don’t seem as if they would belong together. Little paintings like these look simple, but the viewing pleasures come from seeing the refinement in the articulation of exacting shapes and the spaces between them, where they overlap or avoid overlapping, gesture out or sit calmly—and the avoidance of cliché color combinations. Works such as these feel like etudes, little moments to savor.

In contrast to the small “etude” look of Boas’s paintings is the large, almost eight-feet tall, work by Joanna Pousette-Dart, Cañones #3, 2007-08. It is made up of three panels of canoe-like shapes stacked vertically. Sinuous lines swell and swoosh across the panels that are flatly painted in colors that feel as though they might have been chosen from Home Depot paint swatches. I find this painting (and others at intriguing because there isn’t much about it that I “like.” The colors don’t grab me. The canoe-like shapes don’t create a dynamic that I get. The lines dance about too gracefully—for me. What I do like is that I sense a very intelligent painter at work, just making paintings that are not for me—the difference between liking and appreciating.

Both Boas and Pousette-Dart make works that have the modernist absence of illusionistic space, emphasize color, and involve matter-of-fact paint handling. By contrast works by Chris Gander and Amanda Wojick mix sculpture with painting/drawing. Gander’s Plug:Matrix, 2017, is a truncated cone lying on its side. It has lines that denote surface shapes but obscure the form itself. That’s not a problem for the artwork, just a problem for a modernist interpretation. Similarly Wojick’s Cutout, July, 2017, a large triptych of three leaning panels combines sculpture—the fact that they are leaning, not hanging on the wall, and have large cutout shapes within the rectangular panels—with color painting on the flat faces of the panels and different colors on the edges of the cutouts and the panels themselves. These works could be seen as having attitudes of post-modernism or “don’t-care-about-modernist-theory.” Probably the latter.

Amanda Wojick,
“Cutout, July,” 2017,
wood, mulberry paper, paint, 84 x 156″ (triptych, each 84 x 48″ )/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The show is a sampler. We don’t really get much of an idea of the range of thinking by these artists. There are four paintings by Boas, two by Pousette-Dart, two sculptures by Gander and the large one by Wojick. Also there are single works by Chris Johanson (whose print has little people in it—“modernism”???), and Samuel Levi Jones (a big grid of greenish rectangles). And there are three large prints by Math Bass whose intriguing, ambiguous combinations of flat shapes can be read as architectural references (or in one, as quotation marks), but what they have to do with “modernism” is a mystery.

The title New Modernism got me to see the show because I couldn’t believe there was such a thing, and the examples in the gallery don’t convince me of it. I believe in the saying attributed to Socrates: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” “Modernism” was defined by decades of critical/historical writing. The artists here may be linked “to the modernist art movement of the 19th century,” (whatever that was, there really is no “the modernist art movement”) but then so could most artists working today. So, I suppose I came for the title and stayed for the work itself.

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