Abstraction After Abstraction

Jeffrey Deitch

“The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” explores the recent transformation of abstract painting into one of the most dynamic platforms in contemporary art. A painting tradition that was once seen as essentially reductive has now become expansive, bringing popular culture and current technology into its vocabulary. Abstraction has become more external and less internal. The practice of abstract painting has opened up to encompass not only its own history but the other great artistic innovations of the early twentieth century, including collage, the readymade, and the extension of art into performance. Once monolithic and doctrinaire, it is now more open and layered in its structure. Rather than reducing itself to a narrow definition of the medium, abstract painting has reemerged as an arena where opposing concepts can invigorate each other. The hybrid has replaced purity of form.

Ironically, one of the places where this fresh approach to abstraction was germinating was the studio that might seem the furthest from the practice of the abstract tradition: Andy Warhol’s Factory. The Factory was a haven for all sorts of brilliant misfits, but it was also a laboratory where historical and contemporary innovations in art and culture could be remixed and reconstituted. Especially after Warhol refocused on painting in the late 1970s and 1980s with series such as “Shadows,” “Oxidations,” and “Rorschachs,” he transformed pure abstraction into an impure product that opened up new directions. He thrived on the increasing confusion between high art and progressive popular culture and the challenge to conventional methods of painting by the techniques of mechanical reproduction. These confrontations simultaneously undermined and expanded the accepted approaches to painting.

Warhol was able to create paintings that were both mediated and direct. His photo silk screens of found imagery reflected the way the world was increasingly perceived through television, photography, and other indirect experience. At the same time, the paintings recorded the immediacy of their creation with ink blots and misregistrations that showed the vigorous hand work involved in the silk-screen technique.

This exhibition follows a chain of influence from Andy Warhol as an abstract painter to Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel, and a younger generation, working primarily in New York and Los Angeles, who emerged from the mid-1990s to the present decade. Many of these artists draw on Warhol’s use of mechanical techniques and embrace of chance imperfections resulting from a deliberately imprecise use of silk-screen printing. This new generation of abstract artists is revitalizing the abstract tradition of the New York School by incorporating the intervening history of Pop, Minimal, and Process art. Following Warhol’s approach to abstraction, elements of popular culture are often embedded into the work.

The work in the exhibition also shows the influence of other artists who introduced industrial techniques and imagery. There are references to Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots, Robert Ryman’s application of metal and plastic surfaces, and John Baldessari’s photographic printing onto canvas. The galvanized metal and plastic surfaces of Donald Judd’s sculptures are also sources of inspiration as is Bruce Nauman’s fusion of performance and video with the object-making process.

The effort to reconcile contradictory aesthetic directions is central to the work of most of the artists in the exhibition. This challenge has been crucial in the progression of modern and contemporary art. Frank Stella, for example, was seen to have reconciled Jackson Pollock’s organic all-over composition and his drips of black house paint with the stripes and interior logic of Jasper Johns’s flags. Stella’s resulting “Black Paintings” helped change the direction of painting and sculpture from gestural abstraction to Minimalism. Christopher Wool’s work engages in a three-way reconciliation between Pollock, Johns, and Warhol, fusing their seemingly incompatible innovations. Wool also reconciles the refinement of Pollock with the graffiti tags that he sees every day in his Chinatown and Lower East Side neighborhoods.

The new abstract painting is enriched by an engagement with other artistic media. Wool’s work references punk rock in addition to Pollock and Warhol. It reflects his admiration for punk’s directness and its ability to create compelling music with limited means. His paintings also embrace the William Burroughs–influenced cut-up aesthetic that was central to New York punk and no-wave music.

Rudolf Stingel articulated a new artistic vision with his Instructions pamphlet of 1989, a manual on how to make an abstract painting. Following his step-by-step outline, his DIY painting factory produced a confounding body of work that undermined the mystique of artistic inspiration but that over time became increasingly compelling and influential. Stingel also transformed the definition of painting with an audacious use of the readymade, installing “wall to wall” carpeting on the gallery wall as a painting. Visitors could not resist touching the carpet’s weave, creating hundreds of random patterns on the surface. Without theatricality, he had created a participatory performance.

Untitled from The Secret World of Frank Stella, 1958–1962. Photograph by Hollis Frampton.
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis,
© Estate of Hollis Frampton

Jackson Pollock, 1950. Photograph by Hans Namuth
Courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona,
© 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

The oldest aesthetic opposition in modern and contemporary art, representation versus abstraction, also engages many of the artists in the exhibition. Tauba Auerbach’s Fold paintings, for example, are simultaneously and seamlessly both representational and abstract. Abstraction and reality blend in Urs Fischer’s “dust paintings.” Kelley Walker’s bricks read as both an abstract pattern and an impenetrable wall. Walker’s “brick paintings” propose another way to reconcile the opposing aesthetic directions of Pollock, Johns, and Warhol. They reference Pollock’s nonhierarchical composition, Johns’s engagement with the found abstraction of his flagstone pattern, and Warhol’s abstraction of iconic images rendered with a mechanical printing technique.

Wade Guyton uses the ink-jet printer as his painting factory. The artist’s gesture is mediated through the digital file and the printing machine. Even though it is a machine rather than the artist’s hand that makes the marks, the paintings present a strong gestural quality. They are a digital response to the black brushstrokes of Franz Kline and the “Black Paintings” of Stella. Seth Price’s work fuses digital information with plastic manufacturing techniques. Mental images are packaged in vacuum-formed, high-impact polystyrene.

While Warhol’s Factory actually farmed out the production of photo silk screens, Urs Fischer’s studio is equipped with machines to not only make silk screens but wash them as well. He embraces whatever technologies he needs to realize his ambitious vision. Fischer’s “dust paintings” build on the concepts, imagery, and techniques of a succession of radical artistic innovations from Man Ray’s 1920 photograph  Dust Breeding to Warhol’s silk-screened abstractions to the dust in Bruce Nauman’s 2002 videos Mapping the Studio. The structure of the work also references the metal surfaces of Christopher Wool’s paintings. The work fuses a strain of radical art history into a contemporary abstract vision.

Unlike the other artists in “The Painting Factory,” Josh Smith emphasizes his use of traditional painting techniques, even using small canvases as palettes. His approach is anything but traditional, however, as he creates multiple versions of a limited number of motifs and sizes with intensive energy. Curator Massimiliano Gioni describes Smith as a “factory of one.” He does by hand and with endless variations what Warhol would have done with a mechanical process. Smith shows that the painting factory is a state of mind more than a physical reality.

Sterling Ruby makes industrial-strength paintings, bringing to the medium the super-scaled ambition that Richard Serra brings to sculpture. Ruby works in a factory-like studio in an industrial area of Los Angeles. The sublime refinement of Mark Rothko is crossed with the anarchic gestures of spray-can graffiti.

Julie Mehretu brings military mapping, architectural drawing, and urban planning into the composition of her paintings. Her work encompasses both the history of modern abstract painting and the history of the modern world. Glenn Ligon sets up a dialogue between painting and literature, abstracting texts by James Baldwin and other writers. The “literary” references that were dismissed by Clement Greenberg as undermining the integrity of abstract painting are central to the form and content of Ligon’s work. Ligon’s “Figure” series, which is featured in the exhibition, is a fascinating response to Warhol’s “Shadows,” infusing the shadow with additional meaning.

Mathematics and linguistics inform the work of Tauba Auerbach, whose paintings are instilled with conceptual rigor and philosophical challenge. She has been able to update the type of conceptual structures in the work of an earlier generation of artists like Sol LeWitt to the digital age. Her work has the precision of machine fabrication but is laboriously made by hand, sometimes using industrial equipment like paint sprayers. Her work extends the tradition of modern abstract painting into a contemporary context, both conceptually and formally.

Kerstin Brätsch’s paintings put notions of artistic genius and authenticity to the test, whereas the multiplication of Adele Röder’s digital design questions the limits of the pliability of visual data. In 2007, they formed the collective DAS INSTITUT, an “import-export agency” designed to counteract the commercialization of their works and artistic personae by making imagery circulate between design (pattern), announcement, and reproduction (distribution). Painting is extended into printed fabrics, posters, knitting patterns, and various services such as food campaigns and exhibition displays.

Mark Bradford makes extraordinary paintings without painting. The physical presence of his work references Pollock, Johns, and Warhol, but the works are not painted in the conventional sense. They are built up with layers of paper and then incised and sanded down. Embedded in the layers of paper are sections of billboards and advertising posters directed to the residents of his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. The work makes both a compelling social statement and a stirring formal response to the history of abstract painting. He has found a contemporary solution to one of the most challenging problems in painting: how to express a social message in an abstract form.

Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock was the title of Kirk Varnedoe’s brilliant Mellon lectures at the National Gallery in 2003. The title was ironic, derived from a “dyspeptic” viewer’s comment on the painting of J. M. W. Turner recorded in an essay by nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt. One of Varnedoe’s goals in his six lectures was to show how abstract art after Pollock was in fact infused with meaning. Much of the meaning of the work was about its own history and materiality. It reflected the social context of its time, but that was less important than the work’s engagement with formal and perceptual issues.

Painters of Modern Life, an adaptation of the title of Charles Baudelaire’s 1859 essay on Constantin Guys, might be a better description of the younger group of abstract painters who are the subject of this exhibition. No longer “pictures of nothing,” even in an ironic sense, the works of these artists address today’s social and cultural issues in addition to continuing a dialogue with the dynamic history of abstraction. Abstract painting, which for a time was almost left for dead, has reemerged as one of the art forms most engaged with contemporary life.

Jasper Johns, Device Circle, 1959

Jasper Johns, Device Circle, 1959
Encaustic and collage on canvas with object
40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm)
Andrew and Denise Saul
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Donald Judd at Bernstein Brothers Studio, New York, 1968

Donald Judd at Bernstein Brothers Studio, New York, 1968
Photograph by Elizabeth Walker,
Courtesy of Judd Foundation Archives
Judd Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Robert Ryman, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, 1974

Robert Ryman, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, 1974
Courtesy of The Pace Gallery
© 2012 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York