The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol

Andy Warhol, "Rorschach," 1984, Acrylic on linen, 164 x 115 x 2 in. (416.6 x 292.1 x 5.1 cm), Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For decades now, a sure way for an artist to be irrelevant would be to become an abstract painter, the form having long gone the way of Existentialism, black turtlenecks and angst. At its height in the 1950s and early ‘60s, avant-gardism and abstraction were practically synonymous, but since then very few artists have attempted abstract painting with any success, artistic or otherwise. Indeed, it would be an interesting historical exhibition that would cover the abstract artists that did attempt it, swimming upstream against Pop art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, performance, video and the rest, from the later 1960s and on.

I assumed, going in, that the current exhibition at MOCA, The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Andy Warhol was going to be that show. It is not.

It concerns a younger generation of abstract artists, a group who exhibition organizers Jeffrey Deitch—the Director of MOCA—and Ethel Seno, make out to be something like those old Renaissance-era bibliophiles, excavating Classical texts. These artists are digging the ruins of modernism and repurposing and recombining the forms they have discovered, only aided now by the tools of conceptual art, and of mechanical reproduction.

The historical pivot back towards abstraction is traced to Andy Warhol’s late paintings, his Rorschachs and Camouflage, from the late 1970s and ‘80s, among others. These paintings belatedly poke a little fun at Abstract Expressionism’s sublime pretentions, the Rorschachs for example—large scale Rorschach patterns on canvas—suggests viewers are merely projecting their own feelings onto the canvas rather than absorbing its expressive impact. They are fun, actually—the art equivalent of a one-liner. Though Deitch and Seno might be the only two people who believe these late Warhol abstractions cast such a long shadow over art history.

But really, abstraction serves more as a category of convenience, the one denominator in a motley selection of works. And, oddly, many of the paintings that were chosen—those by Seth Price, Kelley Walker, really even the Warhols themselves, to some extent—should be categorized as representational. The selections are scattershot. It is a splatter-and-daub approach to curation and it makes me question how deep this newfound interest in abstraction runs. And since abstract art is suddenly cool again (read: “collectable”), this hasty show may just be MOCA scrambling to get something hung before the ship sails.

Kelley Walker, "Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees)," 2006, triptych, digital print with silkscreened white, milk and dark chocolate on canvas, © Kelley Walker. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

For most artists in this exhibition, abstraction happens as a byproduct of other concerns. Urs Fischer, for one, comes to abstraction from an omnivorous eclecticism. Known for installations, massive interventions, sculpture and photo-based works, here he debuts two abstract paintings, kind of black and grey with what may be sweepings from the floor of a Home Depot. The good news is they are less derivative than is usual for Fischer; the bad news is they are missing all of Fischer’s usual show-businessy bravado.

In contrast, there is the conceptually embroidered work of Tauba Auerbach, whose retiring canvases look as if they had been crumpled or folded. The effect is a convincing illusion from a distance, but clearly the product of artifice upon closer inspection. They touch on issues of Modernist flatness v. representation, or photograph and computer processes v. the handmade. But rather than stake her position on these issues, these works just allude to the presence of such oppositions and leave it at that. Her coyness tends toward preciosity.

Kelley Walker is more explicit about the opposition between photographic representation and painterly gesture. He is also the most clearly indebted to Warhol. Walker presents a series of paintings that repeat a found journalistic image showing an obscure skirmish or riot. The appropriated images are illegible when presented without an inscription or supporting context: It is impossible to make out the source or nature of the conflict. Going further, Walker turns the image on its side, and overlays it with a rough treatment of thick, gestural brushstrokes. This idea is not a new one, but the painterly strokes bring a gratuitous obscurity to the already illegible image that saves it from a pat Post Modernism. A collision of the artist’s hand and the mass media machine.

Urs Fischer, "Untitled," 2006, aluminum panel, gesso, acrylic paint, silicone, screws, © Urs Fischer, courtesy of the artist, photo by Mats Nordman

A collision between abstraction and other visual codes is also true of the work by DAS INSTITUT (Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder) that combine somewhat cheesy and perfunctory abstractions—they are not even framed—surrounded by Light and Space-style installations. Large sculptures resembling freestanding windows filled with tinted glass placed in the center of the gallery space disrupt and color (literally) the viewers gaze and change the perception of the works on the walls. These collisions of art historical modes seem a bit like chemistry experiments that sometime create reactions, but just as often fizzle.

Wade Guyton does to modernist formalism what Walker (and, a fortiori, Warhol) does with media imagery: He explores the way it is reproduced and codified. His columnar black-and-white multi-panel prints look like black blinds being pulled down over a white background, and are created by running canvas through a very large computer printer. They actually appear to be good, but not great, formalist paintings which only reinforce the conceptual points he is exploring about painting being replaced by the simulacrum of painting.

Some of the work can be passed over in silence; I am sure I do not need to see more cutesy, faux naïf paintings by Josh Smith.

Glenn Ligon’s, on the other hand, are worth spending time with. Ligon’s are wonderfully complex, text-based works, where text is abstracted to the point of unreadability. There is a poetry in the way the lack of signification is compensated for by the glittering quality he creates on the surface of the letters.

The text of the curator’s introduction to the exhibition also lacks signification.

On it, the curator writes that abstraction, which “was once seen as essentially reductive has now become expansive.” Pause for a moment and look at this statement: Abstraction was once essentially reductive. Abstraction is reductive; it will always be reductive; to abstract, by definition, is to reduce.

In the end, I feel badly for the artists in this exhibition. Who of them would want their work viewed by an audience that just had their minds addled from reading something so inane?

The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol
April 29–August 20, 2012


Gabriel Cifarelli is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles. He has written for LA Weekly, the Getty Foundation and other publications. He has an article on Paul McCarthy forthcoming from the journal East of Borneo.

also by Gabriel Cifarelli

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