Amanda Wojick

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.

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Considering the Art Gym’s abstractions

At Marylhurst, curator Blake Shell has gathered 10 artists who work in the abstract for a colorful group show

One of the dominant art doctrines during the Renaissance argued that art was “an allegory of the mind of God,” an imitation of a hidden reality, a form of revelation. Culture critic and historian Raymond Williams teased out this one (along with three other aesthetic philosophies) in “The Long Revolution,” and it seems especially pertinent to abstract art, some of which has a specific spiritual connection, after all, as early abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky made clear.

Approaching the ten artists and 32 artworks in the Marylhurst Art Gym’s “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive” with the idea of the hidden made visible in mind leads to some happily perplexing moments.

'and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,' (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein's "Flesh of My Flesh" is at the far right.

‘and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,’ (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” is at the far right.

For example, Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” gathers a set of small splashes, ribbons, and shapes of thick oil paint on a gleaming white canvas. How should we interpret those individual gestures and the painting as a whole? What hidden reality does it reveal? Something about the nature of pure paint, its elements, perhaps, the attraction of color—bright blue, red, purple striated with white—deployed in various small splotches? Or the mind of the painter who deployed them in just this way, which seems random but is not? Is this the way God creates, and what would the implications of THAT be?

Blake Shell, the exhibit’s curator and Art Gym director, picked out a set of four of Pat Boas’s Sumi ink on paper pieces, gradations of gray, pale to nearly opaque, layer upon layer, curves and lines, diagonals, verticals and horizontals. The hidden reality might be that the universe conceals as it reveals; or, that the number of veils between us and reality is countless. Of course, if Shell had picked a different four pieces from the same set, called “Unalphabetic,” which overlay the Sumi ink with a riot of bright colors, shapes and lines in gouache and watercolor, then the thinking might be entirely different.

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

My point isn’t to argue that art IS an allegory of the mind of God. Another doctrine that replaced the Renaissance attempts to square the aesthetic ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Christianity, gradually gained strength, according to Raymond’s account: Nature is God’s creation; art is man’s. He quotes the poet Tasso: “There are two creators: God and the Poet.” I suppose a poet would say that?

No, my point is simply to observe that if we’re going to get anything out of “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive,” an exhibition of abstract work, it will involve some interpretation on our part after we’ve spent some time observing the art. In that speculation, anything goes, from thoughts about the divine mind (or its absence) to a sudden, non-biblical revelation about a color combination that might work in the kitchen.

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