posted 2012-10-16 08:05:56

CONCEPTUAL ABSTRACTION

Times Square Gallery exhibition review

Irina Lotarevich

Staff Writer

A piece in the Conceptual Abstraction exhibit. Photo by Mimiko Watanabe.

CONCEPTUAL ABSTRACTION, a new exhibition at the Hunter College Times Square Gallery, showcases the work of twenty artists working within the varied field of abstract painting over the last twenty years. Like the concurrent “Times Square Show Revisited” exhibition at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery in Hunter’s main campus, CONCEPTUAL ABSTRACTION takes as its starting point an older exhibition. In this case it is a 1991 show, “Conceptual Abstraction” at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, and the new exhibit attempts to re-examine it in a contemporary setting.

Unlike “Times Square Show Revisited,” in which the older exhibition is completely remade, CONCEPTUAL ABSTRACTION presents one older and one newer painting by each artist in the original “Conceptual Abstraction.” Despite the combination of the old with the new, the exhibition fiercely resists a linear interpretation, wonderfully confusing any preconceived ideas that the artists’ work must have developed in any quantifiable way over the space of twenty years. Some artists included are currently making work that looks and feels the same, while others have made work that looks different, but it is clear for everyone that the questions they were asking about painting in 1991, they are still asking today. If there is any trajectory here, it is circular.

The intimidating roster of artists includes heavyweights Mary Heilmann, Peter Halley, Ross Bleckner and Sherrie Levine, among others. While most are primarily known as painters, some, like Levine, have achieved prominence working in other media as well. Everyone included is a relentless experimenter, making this a very fun show to look at—there is a variety of material (oil, acrylic, watercolor, plywood, canvas, aluminum, Day-Glo and Roll-a-Tex) and a great variety of ways that these artists manipulate it. David Reed’s contributions, #307 (1991-2) and #576 (2007), have him painting with oil as though he were using an iPhone – there are marks that look like brushstrokes made with your finger poking at a screen, completely digitized and devoid of human error. In contrast, Peter Schuyff’s tiny watercolor paintings from 1987 and his highly rendered painting “Earth Shield” (2006) are very much handmade, their sweetness located in the delicate layering of one color over another, one brushstroke over the last. The unrivaled master of material sumptuousness here is perhaps Jonathan Lasker, whose “Born Yesterday” (1989) and “The Inability to Sublimate” (2009) show off just how much he can do with a line painted in oil.

A piece in the Conceptual Abstraction exhibit. Photo by Mimiko Watanabe

A few artists worked in a much more severe style, preferring to make paintings that nearly eliminated paint from their vocabulary. David Diao’s “Barnett Newman: Chronology of Work (Updated)” (2010) and “Plus and Minus” (1991) both featured flatly painted backgrounds in dull colors underneath silkscreens or vinyl lettering. In “Plus and Minus,” Diao had silkscreened images of critical reviews of his own shows, published in Arts Magazine, Artforum, and Art in America, onto two canvases. The use of silkscreen unfortunately made this painting look like the most dated one in the exhibition. While other works from around 1991 used more painterly techniques that are still being explored today, silkscreen, as used in “Plus and Minus,” is no longer as interesting a technique, since it has been largely replaced by digital printing. Similarly, Christian Eckart’s “Square Monochrome Painting” (1989-2011) scares you with how serious it presents itself to be—the surface of this monolithic block is finished like an untouched piece of high- end commercial furniture (the material is acrylic urethane on aluminum). When I was at the show, I overheard another visitor comment, “Well, this just doesn’t let you in, does it?”

Regardless of how you feel about the individual works, CONCEPTUAL ABSTRACTION is a must-see show, for it offers the unique experience of seeing so many different viewpoints on abstract painting brought together again. It is also an exhibition that celebrates artists who have spent decades making work, showing the immense value of a prolonged commitment to one’s ideas in a field that is obsessed with the young, the new and the superficially radical.

A piece in the Conceptual Abstraction exhibit. Photo by Mimiko Watanabe