Mary Heilmann: Visions, Waves, and Roads
Hauser & Wirth, London
23 February–5 April 2012
The Indiscipline of Painting: International Abstraction
from the 1960s to Now
Mead Gallery Warwick Arts Centre
14 January–10 March 2012
Tate St Ives
8 October 2011–3 Jan 2012
by SAM ROSE
Aside from a spate of regurgitated press releases, art critical attention to The Indiscipline of Painting, the Tate St Ives and Warwick Art Centre exhibition of abstract painting from the 1960s to the present day, was surprisingly slight.1 Curated by the artist Daniel Sturgis, one major professed aim was to remind us that there have been ways around the “Clement Greenberg” understanding of abstract painting all along – in particular the “revolutionary avant-garde” strand that rejects all possibility of a practice definable enough for it to even have an “end”.2 It may well be that the tensions inherent in this suggestion have contributed to critics reluctance to engage. Can one be playful and “indisciplined” in a way disciplined enough to justify the deep importance that the project of abstraction always wanted to claim? The point is brought into sharp relief by the current exhibition of Mary Heilmann’s work at Hauser & Wirth. Heilmann plays off these two sides, as she probes deep affectivity alongside the kind of comic seriousness that abstract art has often found itself turning towards.
The “indiscipline” of the title refers to the continual innovation abstract painting has revelled in ever since (and despite) the supposed “discipline” of Greenberg’s account. This for Sturgis is something like abstraction’s life raft, for it shows how wide of the mark the “formalist” reading is when it underwrites the easy story of abstract art’s obsolescence and death some time shortly after the mid century. To take issue with art’s autonomy and the kind of aesthetic immediacy and anti-conceptual “pure opticality” that Greenberg demanded from the viewing experience is nothing new. And as we might expect, Sturgis calls on the relationships between “art” as such and wider “visual culture” to suggest the broader engagement of painting beyond any such now discredited autonomy. What seems especially interesting here is to see this argument made, as it were, from within abstract art, by a writer who is also both curator and practicing abstract painter himself.
In his own words, Sturgis asks us to go beyond a pure focus on form and ask questions that concern both internal and external aspects of the works: “How do these paintings address both the contemporary world and the history of the medium? And how does each of these artists re-write and interpret the history of their medium so that they can create a space in which to work?”3 The critique of “pure” abstraction is made through a selection of artists that includes some classic examples: Gerhard Richter, Binky Palermo, Martin Barré, Niele Toroni, Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, as well as David Diao, Peter Halley, and Sherrie Levine. Despite this focus on critique, and aside from occasional more conceptual works such as an André Cadere barre and Moira Dryer’s large canvas balanced on top of a segment of tree stump, the exhibition tends away from the expansion of practice into the sorts of “conceptual” or “post-modern” painting that blur boundaries between media (the kind of approach taken by Stephen Melville and others in the 2001 exhibition and book As Painting: Division and Displacement, and here specifically acknowledged as outside the scope of the exhibition).4
This results in an awkward desire to negate autonomy while retaining the focus on painting as a specific medium. For Sturgis the answer is the shift of meaning from the introspective towards history and the associative “cultural field”. A host of works are presented that, having learnt and gained a new context from conceptual art strategies, engage with lived experience, biography, and “representation” in its various forms (including the representation of past abstract works). This ranges from Andy Warhol’s part abstract part-representational painting of day-glo Eggs on black, to Bernard Frize’s painting made of nothing but layers of the dried films of paint formed on the lids of paint pots, to Tim Head’s more bizarre Continuous Electronic Surveillance (1989), where a motif is taken from the inside of an envelope patterned to disguise confidential information, then blown up to two by three metre size and rendered in acrylic on canvas. The signifiers of high modernist ambition are naturally re-presented here with suspicion or just plain fascination. In particular, works by Ingrid Calame, Mary Heilmann, and Karin Davie stand for the negotiation of expressionistic “painterly gesture”. In Calame’s work the slightly too neat thick and faltering strokes are revealed as life size tracings of cracks in car park asphalt, carefully filled in with oil paint in colours chosen “intuitively” by the artist.
All this is entertaining and highly successful up to a point, and finds its parallel in aspects of the Mary Heilmann exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. The expansion of the paintings’ frame of reference into biography and broader visual culture is emphasised in Heilmann’s accompanying book, where her autobiographical text is interspersed with both her paintings and assorted photographs of the world around (or in the case of After Hours: Murals on the Bowery, both of these in a single image).5 Titles openly refer to things and places, such as Road Trip, or Winter Surf, San Francisco, while the text itself stresses that her art is never something sealed off from her life. (In Heilmann’s brilliantly deadpan words on driving and drug taking, for example, “all of the long driving was facilitated by doses of crystal meth and cocaine, and levelled off with phenobarbital. A few visions and hallucinations happened, and memories of them are exaggerated in my paintings”).6
In the exhibition gallery itself the kind of “indisciplined” aspects dwelt on by Sturgis leap out. We find similar painted armchairs on wheels placed for viewers to sit in as those included in Indiscipline, as well as paintings made up of irregularly shaped or multiplied and clustered panels, and even those hung at odd heights or with dots that seem to escape the edge and climb off up the wall. All the same, within its own playful logic the space feels controlled and coherent. The gallery as a whole is given a mood that tends towards the warm and playful (the sun and surf brought to the fore), but even where more striking contrasts like neon yellow and pallid greens verge on sickly there is a brash reassurance that lends a remarkable sense of control and mastery. Nowhere is there careless mixing that degenerates into a sloppy neutral brown, and this is a reminder of the deep care with which apparently expressionist “gesture” is approached. In works like Renny’s Right (2011) where an irregular geometric grid appears to have been laid over part of the painting, closer inspection shows a strong consistency in the way these grid lines are allowed to be bled into by the first layer of colour that surrounds them, then given a sharply defined ridge that stands back from this as successive coats of paint are applied with the use of a straight edge. The sprays of white on blue in paintings such as Crashing Wave (2010) clearly suggest mountains and surf, yet the interest in these could hardly be reduced to a mere “evocation” of referents in external visual culture. These aspects register less as symptoms of some rebellion for rebellion’s sake avant-gardism – apart from anything the gallery “formula” which Heilmann has been using for years – than a disciplined search for the kind of affect of which painting as an art form is capable.
In this sense the inclusion in The Indiscipline of Painting of Myron Stout and Robert Ryman alongside Richter and Palermo is either a saving grace or a stark warning of what we might miss with a justification of abstract art as an expanded, purely conceptual art form. Stout and Ryman’s paintings are works stripped down to an absolute minimum – in the Ryman from 1965 just a handful of thick white brushstrokes on bare brown canvas – yet are still deadly earnest investigations into the kinds of experience that the simple formula of paint on surface can generate. Seen alongside these the more “ironic” postmodern works are quite successfully repositioned not as conceptual ends or obstacles to future painting, but a reminder of the unfinished business held in the paintings themselves. Apart from anything else these are all extraordinary physical objects, and it makes sense to think that the way they create even conceptual meaning must be grounded in their sheer materiality and presence.
So Indiscipline shows that the embrace of conceptual strategies and external referents has been extremely fruitful for abstraction. But does the example of say, Ryman, Stout, and Heilmann suggest that a practice that “finds vitality in the languages painting shares with the contemporary visual cultures that surround us” achieves its success at a price? One might here take issue with Sturgis’ account of Greenberg simply as a formalist who can be outmanoeuvred by appeal to the avant-garde. Looking to explain the fact that painting is “easily the most popular visual art worldwide”, James Elkins has suggested that “part of the reason is the invisible dissemination of high modernist ideals, including Greenberg’s”, and that this “usually reveals itself by an anxious interest in the avant-garde, and by an ongoing commitment to painting”.7 Is it a dilemma that on the one hand (if one accepts Sturgis’ argument) one must reject the totalizing nature of Greenberg’s analysis and think of painting as just one of many “options”, yet that this would also be to undermine the continued faith in the special place of painting that (Elkins thinks) implicitly relies on Greenberg?
If it is a true dilemma, the issues raised might be phrased like this: if the “formalist” modernist critics were the ones who invested such great importance in abstract painting, could it be that to reject key tenets of theirs like autonomy, aesthetic experience, and medium specificity is to lose out on the best justification for it? Could it be that to opt for an alliance of abstraction with the wider field of visual culture is to reveal abstract painting as just one unexceptional option amongst many; not necessarily worse, but also no better than any other artistic practice? Painting, above all abstract painting, needs not just new justifications of the sort provided by links with visual culture, but also justifications as to why the medium itself is especially fit to lead the way in these new roles. In its haste to break away from Greenbergian formalism, a stress on “indisciplinary” avant-gardism risks side-lining the kinds of things that people have used in the past to mark out abstraction as a unique and uniquely valuable “discipline”.
Not that this matters especially. Abstraction is a practice that will continue as long as our current institutions continue to support painting “as an art”. And I think Sturgis would agree that Heilmann’s work shows one of these justifications needn’t be employed at the expense of the other. In the words of Bridget Riley, “painting without its problems can no longer be painting: it depends upon them for its existence. From the viewpoint of the modern painter the true tradition lies less in a succession of solutions than in recognizing that the problems of picture-making can never be solved as such. And it is just this that constitutes painting's continuing vitality.”8 Of course these are exactly the smuggled in high modernist ideals that Elkins has mentioned, but they show why the two justifications really need each other. The push and pull of discipline and indiscipline make up the life of painting as we have it today.