Abstract Painting 1985-????

at 341 W. Superior


Abstract Painting 1890-1985

at the Museum of Contemporary Art

The only way to grasp the significance of a lot of contemporary art is to envision a kind of negative space. The sole purpose that this new work has is to refute something else that isn’t there — some other art that isn’t new anymore, or some other form of newness that isn’t art. It exists only as a rejection of either mass media or classic modernism. It doesn’t construct any new realities or fantasies of its own, but only “deconstructs,” in the jargon of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the worlds envisioned by others. It is impossible to talk about such works of art on their own terms, for they offer none. They force us to focus instead on a different matter — that which they have taken as their subject in order to repudiate it.

The show entitled “The Non-Spiritual in Art” fits perfectly into the vacuum that this new antiart creates. It has been conceived as a kind of antiexhibition. Its purpose is not to attract us to the works that it contains so much as to repel us from seeing, or at least taking seriously, a different show located across town. As its title suggests, it has been formed to be the exact opposite of “The Spiritual in Art” at the MCA. Its aesthetic is intended as a kind of reverse symmetry to that represented by this other show, which was the inaugural one at the new Robert O. Anderson Building of the Los Angeles County Museum. “The Non-Spiritual” can’t even be discussed except by reference to its counterpart. It is a giant black hole of an exhibition, an art event whose existence can be understood only as a reflection of the disturbance it causes in the atmosphere around it.

As a rule, using art in this way, as a critique of someone else’s use of it, doesn’t appeal to me. Nor does much of what I saw at “The Non-Spiritual in Art” strike me as work that could stand on its own, without the context of the exhibition to make it interesting. To lack inherent power is the fate of so much of what is produced in the art world today. Nonetheless, the exhibition in which these works have been brought together is worthwhile. It is disturbing because the attack it makes on the much publicized, very ambitious, ultra-expensive show at the MCA is absolutely justified.

“The Spiritual in Art” begins in a rather promising way, in the main gallery on the museum’s ground floor, with a dazzling series of juxtapositions showing how the concrete, figurative imagery of painters like Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, and Frantisek Kupka was transformed by them into abstraction shortly after 1900. But as soon as you turn the corner, the exhibition begins to run amok. The remaining galleries are intended to illustrate various categories of the Spiritual, which actually turns out to be closer to the Nebulous. These are “Duality,” “Synesthesia,” “Cosmic Imagery,” “Sacred Geometry,” and “Vibration.”

This last is the first we come to and is typical of the speciousness of all. Among the 10 or 12 works encountered near the entrance to the gallery are pieces by the futurists Severini and Balla, de Stijl theoretician Theo van Doesburg, and American “transcendental” painter Agnes Pelton. just looking at them, you can see that what these paintings and drawings have in common, more than any apparent spiritual concern, is an interest in science. Two untitled pastels done by van Doesburg in 1915 are remarkable in this regard. One is of a spherical shape distended at the bottom and filled with squiggly coils of line running in every direction. It looks like a cross between a light bulb full of glowing filaments and an X ray of a human skull. This image is not only not ostensibly spiritual, it’s not abstract.

The same is true of the second van Doesburg pastel, which is the kind of bell curve of colors that a heat flare might produce under spectroanalysis, and the works by the other artists seem similarly oriented. Like van Doesburg’s sketches, Pelton’s 1930 painting White Fire, a composition made essentially of sine waves, has very intense edges between figure and ground, indicating that she had studied laboratory experiments on the refraction properties of light. With Balla’s prismatic painting Iridescent Interpenetration (1914) or Severini’s Spherical Expansion of Light (Centripetal) (1913-14), the title alone makes it clear that the imagery was crucially influenced by phenomena from the physical sciences. Yet in his catalog essay, the exhibition’s organizer, Maurice Tuchman, characterizes these works as “nonreferential” and claims that they “would not have led to the dissolution of materiality without influence from spiritualism.”

In the advertising business a sentence like this is called a “weasel” because it has a certain deviousness to it. It makes one claim that’s dubious while another that’s not is only implied. That painting moved away from perspectival space with recognizable, three-dimensional subjects in it is true, but from this it doesn’t necessarily follow that art left the material world altogether. Tuchman talks as if the rigorous materialism on which the content of these paintings is based were hardly even worth mentioning. This sets the tone for the essays by other contributors too. Carel Blotkamp, for instance, goes on at length about the importance of theosophy to the de Stijl painters, then lumps together in one short sentence the influence on van Doesburg of Einstein, Freud, and the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexkull.

There is a fine line beyond which misrepresentation becomes a more serious offense, the misappropriation of art in the name of a thesis that’s merely academic (the former is only an art-historical misdemeanor; the latter is a felony). Such abuses are what “The Non-Spiritual in Art” attempts to point out and correct through its own presentation of abstraction. All the works included, which are by local, mostly young, relatively unestablished people, emphasize physicality in one way or another. Some do so by alluding directly to the artist’s fascination with science that “The Spiritual in Art” so assiduously ignores. Thus does Frances Whitehead’s Antimony (1985) reproduce in Cibachrome the periodic table of the elements, while Kevin Maginnis’s untitled 1987 painting in acrylic is a study of the distribution of the lines formed on the spectrum by atomic hydrogen.

Other works introduce materialism into the realm of abstraction by different means. They call our attention to the existence of the art work itself as a concrete object, no matter how ethereal its content may be. A 1987 sculpture made by Gregory Green from six circular-saw blades does this as does a piece of raw plywood (1987) that Janet Carkeek has treated with ink in order to bring out the grain, which becomes a kind of natural abstraction as a result. Equally tactile and tacky, as well as abstract, is a 1987 version of the hologram called a “phscologram” that is attributed to the group (Art)n. Even Anita David’s paintings, such as Commerce (1986), in which the Neiman-Marcus logo is reproduced on a plain background, fit in here. They remind us that for all their spiritual aspirations, works of art remain commodities, merchandise that’s traded on the open market in our supermaterialist society.

Such variations on the show’s polemical theme are little more than a form of cleverness. Still, they do impart to the show something that “The Spiritual in Art” seriously lacks: wit, a capacity for the skepticism and disrespect that are crucial to modern art itself. The person responsible for instilling this quality in the show is its curator, Hudson, who is the director of Feature Gallery. Over dinner at a Thai restaurant one night last April, he shared his bad opinion of the Los Angeles exhibition with Kevin Maginnis, who, besides being an artist, happens to own a graphics business. Between the two of them, they decided, they had the resources both to do a countershow and to publish a catalog. Establishment figure Richard Brettell, who is the Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute, then agreed to contribute the catalog’s major essay. The entire show was pulled together in barely two months.

Despite its improvised, ad hoc, ad hominem quality, “The Non-Spiritual in Art” is in a sense a bigger show than “The Spiritual” is. The latter diminishes the work it contains; abstract art seems to recede in significance like something being carried away in a vortex, getting smaller and smaller before our very eyes as it swirls out of sight. The ultimate reverse symmetry achieved by “The Non-Spiritual” is that, instead of reducing the works in it, it makes them seem larger in their implications than they otherwise might. The issues it raises have validity beyond just the one exhibition on which it is an attack. It poses some basic questions about the influence that the academic world has on the culture at large and the place of art in it.

When I was a graduate student (in comparative literature, not art history), I found myself surrounded by eager beavers who were convinced that all the art of the last 200 years was just a code to which there must be a key. The poet Blake could surely be made comprehensible, they thought, if only they could locate the laundry list on whose back they believed he had written down what all his gobbledygook mythology means. And William Butler Yeats — now there was somebody who definitely made no sense until one delved into the mysteries of Rosicrucianism. Such convictions were held with a faith that was itself rather mystical, to say nothing of career-making. These zealous young literary scholars have long since progressed to tenured positions of their own from which they can use the university presses and critical journals as their pulpits. Their counterparts from the art history department have of course done likewise, fanning out not only into teaching institutions but, since there were never enough academic jobs to go around, into curatorships.

The consequences of this trend are what we now see in “The Spiritual in Art,” whose true raison d’etre is to be found in its voluminous catalog rather than in the exhibition itself. Like the CIA, which has in the end usurped the powers of the democratic government it was started to serve, the catalogs and their authors have now preempted the exhibitions they were originally introduced to support. Like CIA agents, academic art historians have a conspiratorial sense of history. That’s why secretive cults such as the followers of Madame Blavatsky appeal to them as the answer to it all. The essay Tuchman has contributed to his own catalog is “Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art,” a title from which the frequent use of the term “invisible” throughout the book naturally follows. This line of argument, which seemed to me peculiar enough where literature was concerned, is even more so when applied to the visual arts. If whatever you find in them is not at least visible, how can it possibly be there at all?

One of the things that I like about Rick Brettell is that he has little tolerance for ingrown thinking by academics. Since he was himself the chairman of a big art history department before coming to the Art Institute, he knows whereof he speaks in his catalog essay when he deplores the excessive power that he feels academicism now exercises in the art world. The trend for the last 10 or 15 years has been toward ever more didactic exhibitions that can each serve as an occasion for an elaborate catalog crammed with turgid essays. In all fairness, there have also been many shows that were truly elegant and genuinely helpful in making art history accessible to the general public. But “The Spiritual in Art” has the opposite effect. Here the didactic turns into the pedantic. The curator is replaced by the hierophant. Whatever the shortcomings that “The Non-Spiritual in Art” may have in its own right, the negative energy that it puts out is just what is needed right now as an antidote to the show at the MCA.