David Ryan



Talking Painting Artists
Ian Davenport*
Lydia Dona
Gunther Forg*
Bernard Frize*
Mary Heilmann*
Shirley Kaneda*
Jonathan Lasker*
Fabian Marcaccio
Tom Nozkowski*
David Reed
Gary Stephan*
Jessica Stockholder







Talking Painting




The present volume suggests the possibility of examining aspects of the practice of contemporary abstract painting against a shifting theoretical and cultural climate. It has attempted to bring such theory into the studio so to speak, and attempts to remain close to the practice itself. It does not seek to map out any totalising vision for such practices but rather, through the process of juxtaposing the informal conversational interview and the more formal exposition of critical commentary, allow a variety of practical, historical and theoretical perspectives to emerge. Both intentionality and critical distance are allowed to unfold here as potential sites for the production of meaning, acting as ‘snapshots’ of artists’ and critics’ responses and thought processes. Each essay was chosen by the artist in question, reflecting a diversity of critical approaches and concerns, also bringing together new essays especially written for this collection and re-prints. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe provides a key essay, discussing current painting from the viewpoint of a practitioner and theorist.
A word might be needed about both the scope of the book and the selected artists. Firstly, the majority of practitioners included here came to the fore in the mid to late 1980’s, and might be identified as artists re-assessing the possibilities of abstraction in the wake of the rather hostile culture of the early 80’s, from which period the earliest of the essays dates from. Secondly, most of the painters present in the volume, have had to address the kind of spaces that have opened up since the demise of the American formalist discourse within modernism. Such a demise does not, of course, infer any redundancy of formalist approaches or of abstraction’s address to form, but instead marks them off from any linear or totalised and unifying framework. It is now difficult to argue the ‘sovereign’ place of either abstraction or painting, in the sense of being superior to other genres or mediums, or as heir to a more central or essential lineage. Because of this, painting positions itself in relationship to other media, the everyday and heterogeneous practices in ever new and exciting ways. In the present context the term ‘abstraction’ and the debates which such a term develops should be seen as provisional and questioning, rather than as a label or categorical term.
Finally, the artists selected for the book are not to be seen as a coherent grouping or ‘movement’, even though various painters might share visual similarities or approaches. Nor should they be seen as any definitive lexicon of ‘contemporary’ abstract painting, as there are many other practitioners or even modes of working which have been excluded. It might be added here, though, that ‘complexity’ rather than ‘reduction’ figures as a prominent thematic for the book. The issue of this ‘new complexity’ - to borrow a term from New Music - actually forms a thread that might bind these artists together in a loose way. The emphasis is also on the complex legacy of American abstraction as both a ‘negative’ catalyst and ongoing source of reference. For this reason, the core of the interviews took place in New York City from 1996-7, which later included some European artists in 1997-8 who had a similar critical relationship to American painting, and finally a recent interview with Jessica Stockholder which took place in 2000. In terms of its span, the book looks back over the last 18 years, and if it opens more discussion as to the future of abstract art in an ever changing context then it will have served its purpose.


I would like to thank all the contributors, writers and artists, and the various relevant galleries for their help in realising this project, and also Chelsea College of Art and Design in London for their generous support. Finally, particularly warm thanks go to Jonathan Lasker for his initial suggestions and advice, and also Shirley Kaneda and Saul Ostrow for their invaluable help. I would also like to thank Melissa Larner for her assistance and judgement, Kieth Patrick for his support and Katie Pratt for her generous practical help during the early stages of preparing the manuscript.
David Ryan July 2000


How do we connect the contemporary condition of abstract painting with its history? Such a question invites not just an interrogation of what we might mean by ‘abstraction’ but also the complex issue of constructing histories, or even a sense of the ‘contemporary’, from the perspective of the present. Here, we are immediately presented with the seemingly double-bind of the situation of abstract painting: how, for example, might a particular work consciously posit itself within a historical framework, and yet point to its singularity, eluding any simple demonstration or didactic illustration of a tradition or genre? In having to engage with such questions abstract painting remains more actively involved in its own ‘narratives’ and histories than many other contemporary approaches to art-making. To some interpreters this has appeared a mixed blessing, and is partly responsible for abstraction’s perceived ‘irrelevance’ amongst certain quarters of the critical and curatorial establishment. Seen in this light, abstraction is construed as a discipline that cannot rid itself of its own important role within the Twentieth Century, where it took on almost emblematic proportions through a sequence of defining moments upon which it continues to reflect and, some might say, endlessly re-enact. One such moment was abstract painting's paradigmatic functioning within North American formalist criticism, canonical and stifling enough to suggest a situation of exhaustion for later generations of artists.
Despite various declarations of a ‘return to abstraction’ that have ritualistically, and rather predictably, taken place periodically since the early 1980s, abstract painting continues to develop, in the words of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “in a subterranean sort of way”. The present condition of abstract painting is like an inversion of its valorisation within American modernist formalist thinking. Fragmented, multiple, heterogeneous, without any unified or centralised core of theory or history; this is the topography of what might be referred to as post-formal. The writings and interviews that form this collection occupy such a multiple space; what follows below will endeavour to provide a broad context, and some kind of background. It seeks to refract the concept of abstraction, and reframe its place within a process of ‘moving through’ signification and representation - one that is also connective, rather than essentialist or reductive. In order to arrive at this point, it is necessary to cut across a series of concepts, historical moments and accounts, without which it would be impossible to examine various inferences of abstraction: its historical bond with notions of autonomy, its relation to modernism, to language, and finally, the seeming inevitability of the complexity of its present condition.
As a term, ‘abstraction’ has been with us for a long time and while often causing more confusion than clarification, the term has stuck; and despite the resulting encumbrance, artists and critics have continued its usage, more as a convenience or a convention rather than an accurate pointer. If we think of its literal meaning, then it implies an extraction of some kind, or an essentialist position, which is why so many artists are wary of it as a tag or label. Yet, such processes of extraction, and the deduction of essential principles, cross over with notions of abstract thought in other disciplines: music, mathematics, science and technology; each of these, in fact, were variously invoked as analogous parallels within the diverse practices of early abstractionists. Modernism (again thinking across disciplines) for at least the first half of this century, put direct emphasis on structure as revelation, as though some ‘abstract’ basis of the mind, or even reality itself, could be projected, figured and experienced.
Stripped of the Idealism of pre-war pronouncements, later modernism sought to reground the transcendental aspects of experimental abstraction back into a material context. In their different ways Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno, prominent cartographers - and war-horses - of the modernist project, suggest divergent topologies of both the abstract and the autonomous. Famously, Greenberg stressed a rationalisation of artistic spheres through the intense process of “the avant garde's specialisation of itself,” while Adorno, more cautiously, always presented the moment of autonomy as one perpetually stalked by the ghost of social heteronomy.
Greenberg and Adorno's attempts to articulate the logic of abstraction within modernism are, at the end of the day, fundamentally opposed, despite certain overlaps. For one, the movements of the ‘logic’ of modernism positively rationalised competence; for the other, it was the erosion of these qualities, a brinkmanship that teetered close to the edge. Both these positions formulated critical methods and responses that have heavily influenced the reception and critical discourses of abstract painting, and in many ways continue to do so. In different ways, abstraction figures for them as a negative moment; Greenberg sees abstraction partly defined by a suppression of illusionistic space, or of any particular form that might allude to such space; it is, therefore, defined by what it avoids. While Adorno, on the other hand, imbricates the abstract with a negative dialectic - one that is sedimented with the social and yet appears as its ‘other’.
More recently, John Rajchman, writing from a Deleuzian perspective, has argued for a sense of abstraction that is opposed to this ‘via negativa’, which he sees as a thread running throughout modernist narratives, whereby abstraction is figured as, “What is not figurative, not narrative, not illusionist, not literary and so on to the point where one arrives at a sanctifying negative theology in which ‘art’(or ‘painting’) takes the place of ‘God’ as That to which no predicate is ever adequate and can only be attained via the ‘via negativa’.” Certainly, Adorno would have balked at such a model of the negative being bound up with a unifying transcendental signifier, but Rajchman's point is to stress the differences between an abstraction that is bound up with saying ‘Not...’ and one that enunciates ‘And...’, therefore to be viewed with rather than against. Thus the ‘stripping-down’, ‘clearing-away’ processes of formalist modernism are replaced with an, "Abstraction that consists in an impure mixture and mixing up, prior to Forms, a reassemblage that moves toward an outside rather than a purification that turns up to essential Ideas or in toward the constitutive ‘forms’ of a medium". Such rethinkings, for Rajchman, offer up a realignment of the notion, and nature, of 'abstract' thought processes and the relationship such processes will have with not only a given art-work, but also the world in its broadest sense. These relationships should then be thought of not as concrete oppositions but as ‘forces’ that will connect, detach, and re-form with other structures; what Deleuze and Guattari have referred to as abstract machines. The reliance of abstraction on form is thus rethought, suggesting the possibility of a less 'leaden' way of thinking - one that is sensitive to intensities that cut across the difference between specific forms and that openly display a 'passage' between; without recourse to any Hegelian informing spirit, Platonic Idea, or materialist structure. These thoughts, it should be stressed, open up a trajectory that reconfigures ways of addressing abstraction, and subtly find connections with recent practice, rather than offer direct explanations or any coherent program.
Deleuze and Guattari illustrate this possibility of forces and intensities which cut across various manifestations of form with a model of immense variability and potentiality; this model is the rhizome, which is presented in opposition to the root-and-branch classical schemata of the tree as world-image. The rhizome, by contrast, operates as a complex ‘transformal’ structure that can adopt many different forms and which, “Vary [...] from ramified surface extension in all directions to bulbs and tubers”. Such a position does not engage in revealing primary structures, or entertain any metaphysics of absence that inform many of the ideals of the early abstractionists, including Mondrian and Kandinsky. In one of many such examples, Deleuze and Guattari criticise the basic binary logic of dichotomy that permeates Chomskyian linguistics with their ‘deep structures’, suggesting that,
“Our criticism of these linguistic models is not that they are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough, that they do not reach the ‘abstract machine’ that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field. A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles.”
The ‘use’ of rhizomatic structures, therefore, allows Deleuze and Guattari to make constsnt connections between things, as well as think beyond the erected boundaries of medium-specific criticism. Also beyond chronological structuring itself. On one level, the rhizomatic explodes the space-time frame of formalist criticism; but this does not mean any displacement or supercedence as in many crude postmodernist positions or outlines. These ‘abstract machines’ are always deducted from - and at work in - the singular and particular, even though, “They know nothing of forms and substances. This is what makes them abstract, and also defines the concept of the machine in the strict sense.” At the same time, because of this, such abstractions are not to be conflated with any informing essence or foundation: “There is no abstract machine, or machines, in the sense of a Platonic Idea, transcendent, universal, eternal.”
Any discursive theoretical approach to abstraction, especially one that reflects on recent practice, must accept that the concept of autonomy has, in this way, been unravelled. It can also be argued that the purely visual alone - which itself is always a construct - can no longer provide a sufficient basis for the practice of abstract painting. This is not to say that all recent abstraction is overly theoretical or sets out to denigrate the purely visual, but that the forms in themselves which are mobilised put previous theoretical frameworks under pressure. Having said this, it is important of course, not to smooth out the inherited complex spaces of modernism into a caricature; particularly as the construction of this relationship of the visual to the autonomous finds difficulty being integrated into any one univocal model. Andrew Wilson picks up on this in his essay on Ian Davenport. Wilson makes it clear from the outset that the issue of visuality itself within modernism cannot be reduced to a singular Greenbergian or Friedian reading. Within this context, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's perceiving subject, as one phenomenologically and corporeally positioned, is invoked in order to complicate the site of this visuality. Whereas paintings such as Davenport's might, at first glance, be seen to address an autonomous modernist visuality in the former sense, Wilson stresses the interconnectedness between a triadic projection of the various spaces of work, production and siting; despite generating different meanings and contexts, each of these spaces can be folded onto each other. The relationship between meaning, making and their connection with the environment is explored through examining various aspects of Davenport’s output. Differentiating this approach from Process art or the purely optical, Wilson suggests that, “The painting can be recognised not as a mute object but as a collection of structures that connect to the space of the viewer as much as the space of the painting and the spaces through which it has been made.” Likewise, Guy Tosatto discusses the work of Bernard Frize also in relation to autonomy but reaching very different conclusions. Frize’s sense of the autonomous, according to Tosatto, is arrived at through both skepticism and play, which in turn help keep the ‘wieght’ of painting’s traditions at a critical distance. Frize’s apparently simple approach to composition, chance, and colour, display a subtle and disconcerting ‘ruffling’ of certain assumptions regarding ‘craft’, process, and the resultant image. In other contexts Colour has often been pinpointed in formal analysis, not to bring attention to itself, but rather to explain the spatial construction of a painting. David Joselit, on the other hand, focuses on the ‘virtually literary excess’ of Mary Heilmann's loaded colour combinations which, despite their seemingly formal staging, unbind sensations of time and place. The grid, Joselit argues, formerly the site of ‘a perfect spirituality’ is now filled, “Almost to the breaking point - with allusions to the domestic everyday world and to an intense and palpable presence of the body. What was stiff and otherwordly has become intimate and overflowing.”
Such reversals are common within recent practice, but certainly not always programmatic. Gerhard Richter's seminal abstract paintings from the early 1980s, to take an example outside the remit of this book, offer up only enigmatic clues to their intentionality, identity, and positioning within abstract painting's various histories. Benjamin Buchloh has read them as critically (but also ambiguously) conjuring up various moments of 'authenticity' from painting's hallowed past: of chromaticism and its relation to ‘spiritual space’, and facture as a, “Symbolic sign that supposedly renders an unmediated and substantial presence of the transcendental experience”. While Ulrich Loock, in another commentary, suggests that Richter utilises such activities as a means of stripping them of their ideological and historical constraints. Richter, Loock suggests, reveals the picture’s ‘event’- its alignment to the incomprehensibility of the ‘real’ - engaging a non-systematic but rigorously methodical un-anchoring of the pictorial elements through a play of difference. Here, the important question of the arbitrary is raised, an anxiety that runs through the history of abstract painting, and is tackled head on, reassembling a painterly practice not governed by models or determinable rules. On another level, not only does such a practice question the nature of any binary opposition of figurative/ abstract, but also highlights the whole issue of unity and part/whole relationships - in the individual work and also in the larger frame of the œuvre itself.
Unity, later transposed into ‘wholeness’ and ‘completeness’ by the Minimalists, became for formalist modernism another means of achieving an integral and autonomous status for the work of art. This wholeness functioned in a variety of different ways, whether as some kind of acceptance of non-anthropomorphic 'concreteness' for the minimalists; or for critics such as Greenberg and Fried, a kind of mirage, a sublated trompe l'oeil transfigured into the optical field. While recent abstraction has tended to avoid such a conception of wholeness, it would be misguided to suggest that a logic of the detail, fragment or fracture has completely replaced any striving for coherent unity. It is a conception of the whole that has also been re-figured: one that is inclusive, pliable and open to difference. Gilles Deleuze has clearly shown how an obsession with the fragmented and the multiple can fold onto another sense of unity or totality. Citing the philosophy of Leibniz, and the writings of Mallarme, and Joyce, Deleuze suggest the paradox of the inseparability of a fragmented chaosmos and ‘ total book’. A Baroque over-determination informs such an outlook, with the work as the world. Elsewhere, in his writings on cinema, Deleuze develops another fluid interplay of whole/ part relationships, drawing on a Bergsonian notion of Open wholeness. Such a temporal model might, ironically, shed some light on the multiple spaces of much contemporary painting, especially as it was this very temporality that was suppressed in late modernist criticism. I am thinking here of Michael Fried's articulation of 'presentness' in relation to the particular experience of modernist painting, as opposed to the mundane ‘presence’ of the everyday. Here, the instantaneity of forming a perception of the whole is stressed, its seeming ‘completeness’ devoid of any sensation of ‘real time’. Contrary to this, in discussing Bergson, Deleuze’s projection of the ‘whole’ works at the level of keeping a series of sub-sets from complete closure:
“A set of things may contain very diverse elements, but it's nonetheless closed, relatively closed or artificially limited. I say ‘artificially’ because there's always some thread, however tenuous, linking the set to another larger set, to infinity. But the whole is of a different nature, it relates to time: it ranges over all sets of things, and it's precisely what stops them completely fulfilling their own tendency to become completely closed...It's the whole which isn't any set of things but the ceaseless passage from one set of things to another, the transformation of one set of things into another.”
For Deleuze, this interpretation of part-to-whole is suggestive of how cinematic processes actually work. From still-frame to sensations of movement and right through to our perceptions of off-screen action and voice-overs, etc.. In considering the complex address to the viewer made by many contemporary abstract paintings, it is possible to translate these concerns back, from a philosophical musing on time via cinema, to the plastic visual arts. Shirley Kaneda’s paintings explore multiple spaces that combine the literal and the optical in such a way as to block any ‘instantaneous’ illusory grasp of the whole. This is replaced by what Andrew Benjamin refers to as, “Points of dissociation and differentiation”. In developing a kind of contrary motion of splitting apart and moving across, Kaneda implicates the viewer in a slower pace of looking. Benjamin ‘writes’ and ‘thinks through’ this process of looking, of piecing together, and identifying the nature of parts and their interconnection, highlighting the whole/ part relationships that are manifested through such a process. “Moving from one stage to the next is to move between elements constituted by interruption. And yet, precisely because this is not a simple activity the question of relation insists.” Such a concern with difference, connectivity, relation and interruption, ensure the figuring, within each work, of a whole which both underlines and realises their singularity and yet potential interconnectedness with other paintings.
David Reed also explores the temporal, but from rather different perspectives. The painterly processes utilised by Reed are difficult to trace in the finished pictured image, with seemingly spontaneous marks frozen and integrated by embellishment. Unity is fractured by Reed on many different levels: by this deferral of the display of the time of making through its difficult readability; in the environmental realisation of the installational ensemble of works; and, also, the questioning of the actual ‘space’ of painting. Arthur Danto concentrates on this latter point in his essay on Reed where he discusses the insertion of his paintings in various stills from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This exchange leads to a transformation of each space. What happens, asks Danto, when a museum painting becomes part of the intimate space of the bedroom? How does this change our reading of both? Addressing the artist's installation in Cologne, Danto suggests, “One of Reed’s paintings hangs over the bed, as if to say: ‘Experience these works as you would if they were your bedroom paintings. Experience them as occasions of intimacy and reverie.’” Danto goes on to point to the nature of the work in this context as being both, “Real outside the film...and unreal as part of the bedroom in the film”. This ‘virtual’ life of the painting explodes the limitations of the physical constraints of the work, putting it in circulation as a fictional image amongst other fictional images.
By complete contrast, Gunther Forg emphasises architectural space as both unifying subject matter for his diverse output, and as physical container. The theatricality of such an event is explored by Max Wechsler, who interprets such a staging as a Baroque gesture whereby processes are allowed to flow from one medium to another: from photography to painting, from painting to sculpture and back again. Wechsler suggests that this dialogue allows the development of a discursive approach to, and within, the works themselves. If Forg uses the architecture of a space to allow this discourse to unfold spatially, then Jessica Stockholder goes one step further in dissolving the boundaries between painting, sculpture and installation. Stockholder’s dialogue involves a vast array of materials and processes - encapsulating readymade objects and the potentiality of the colour field, together with an active intervention within the space, sometimes actually transforming or cutting into it. Jennifer Higgie takes us through one of Stockholder’s more recent installations, allowing a personal and poetic response but also making suprising historical connections on the way: “ Stockholder’s giant installation is as indebted to the history of still-life painting as it is to the theatricality of process art, even the most humble of still-life paintings employ a strategy not dissimilar to hers - re-presenting the mundane objects we surround ourselves with, and often ignore, focusing on them with an intensity that casts a different light on both their function and their context.” This, too, is a process of abstracting, and Stockholder herself sees such displacements as setting up a conversation between the objects, the various visual articulations of the installation, and the spectator’s discursive journey around the space ‘in time’. Here, she alludes to the ‘total’ experience - which each individual installation can potentially slowly reveal - as being akin to ‘fictive narratives’.
Abstraction's relation to discourse, or more specifically to language, continues to be a moot point. Bound as it is with questions of representation and recognition, it is possible to move between various positions - of painting's resistance to words, of a parallel language of formal elements that is purely visual, or as a participation in a codified semiotic field. Then there are the problems of commentary, interpretation and theory per se.
Shirley Kaneda has suggested that, as a practitioner, these positions are not mutually exclusive:
“Certainly aspects of my work can be verbalised. I can name elements or describe certain passages, but the totality of the work cannot be named. If we accept language's deficiency, it forces us to understand things differently which to me is something useful...Our language intrinsically fails to deal with abstract relations, it closes them down and doesn't allow for speculation...A painting's meaning is what you can attribute to it, and its purpose is to propose something about how meaning is brought about. I believe that there are more types of texts than literary ones and that understanding has a place alongside meaning and interpretation.”
Kaneda usefully mobilises, here, different ways of connecting the visual and linguistic, while stressing the ultimate shortfall of the latter. Semiotic analysis, grounded as it is in linguistics, has always had problems when it comes to painting, and especially abstract painting. Roland Barthes suggests, in a rather defeatist tone that, “We have not been able to establish painting’s lexicon or general grammar - to put the picture's signifiers on one side and its signifieds on the other.” This is exacerbated in ‘non-representational’ painting by the notoriously unclear process of framing legibly semiotic events, and the fact that the ‘language’ of abstraction consists of what might be seen as ‘sub-semiotic’ marks, gestures, inflections, too indeterminate to be captured by any stable classification of coding; painting, therefore, remains a medium of excess. Barthes accepts, relishes in fact, this excessive quality, and finds his way out of the semiotic cul-de-sac as follows: it is through the language we use to read a work that a connection is made back to the work - how we write the picture; in such a way each reading (or rather ‘writing’) pictures the picture. The picture ‘in itself’ will always remain in excess of its reading. Such a situation reverses the traditional semiological equation of a painting being generated by a system of analysable codes, but rather projects painting itself as the generative model. This proposition underlines the indeterminate interface between language and the visual, one which mirrors the increasingly conscious use of indeterminacy on a formal level by practitioners of abstraction. It is this very indeterminacy that brings us back to classical semiotics and also issues of representation.
The complex perceptual processes of signs and codes are now recognised by abstract painters in a very different way from previous generations of practitioners, emphasising, in turn, a realm of inter-subjectivity and discourse rather than the illusion of pure spontaneity or ‘private languages’. In this way, the ‘isolated’ perceiving subject enters a field of signification. “It takes one person to experience a sensation,” suggests Norman Bryson, “It takes (at least) two to recognise a sign.” This is not to suggest that the actual practice of abstraction is now rigidly socially codified or reduced simply to the level of recycling or quotation. What is does imply is a situation of more fluidity between the purely perceptual and the social space of the sign - or at least more awareness of this process - and in this context Barthes, again, has discussed this fluidity in relation to representation itself. The word ‘representation’, with its dual meaning, conjures up a paradox that is writ large within art and its history. Barthes sees this dual meaning as both classical and etymological: in the sense of an analogical copy, “a resemblance product” (which can be both affective and objective), and literally, a re-presentation, “The return of what has been presented”.
Desire and pleasure within practice negotiate a path through and around these notions of representation, attempting to explode the already named, but constantly discovering what is already existent and present in language. “It is here...”, Barthes argues, “...That the two meanings unite: from one end of its history to the other, art is merely the varied conflict of image and name: sometimes (at the figurative pole), the exact Name governs and imposes its law upon the signifier; sometimes (at the 'abstract' pole - which puts it very badly indeed), the Name escapes, the signifier, continually in explosion, tries to undo the stubborn signified which seeks to return in order to form a sign....” Barthes’ hesitant reference to the ‘abstract pole’ illuminates the problems of any binary oppositional categorisation of such terms, as well as the refusal of the 'abstract' to be expropriated from the realms of representation. At the same time it refuses to be unproblematic when situated here. Hence, a simultaneous triadic movement emerges within a conception of representation, through which we can identify: the analogical, the excessive, and the return of the signified which constantly attempts to (re)figure its sign-vehicle. Rather than a static model of the sign and signifying systems, into which much of the production of the ‘80s was locked, recent abstraction has developed a more dynamic approach that traverses the complex movements and forces that both crystallise and dissolve the formation of signs. If we use a notion of representation, then it is one that is continually in motion - literally a passage - rather than a locatable site.
Fabian Marcaccio's work does just this with a velocity and violence whereby matter transforms into sign, and from swirling textures and quasi-brushmarks we can literally identify crowd scenes, Fascist insignias and various emblems from pop mythology. Carlos Basualdo sees, in the earlier works a, "Distortion of the alphabet", moving from, "The autistic phrase, and now, the ecstatic representation of a continuous activity, the verbalisation of dead times, the conjunctive tissue of the phrase". Such an "Ecstatic representation of continuous activity" might also describe activities at work in Lydia Dona's practice, whereby the elements of each painting have their roots in highly codified signifiers, which in turn are dispersed across what Dona refers to as a 'conceptual site', where identities collide and 'contaminate'. David Moos suggests Dona’s work, “Speaks in two tongues with two referential codes: the textual (Deleuze and Guattari) and the art historical (Duchampesque diagrams, abstract expressionist icons, minimalist components)”. These are not posed as simply contrasting oppositions but constantly reformulated and adapted as ‘multiple plateaus’. If Dona and Marcaccio both actively utilise the role of the sign and linguistic analogies, then it is to set in motion an excess of production, a system of leakage whereby a transformational instability replaces any coherent grounding of the sign or code.
Although open to a notion of discourse in a very different way, Jonathan Lasker stresses the inherently visual nature of this process. Lasker presents this dialogue as a kind of ignition between the elements in the painting and the perceiving viewer; almost placeable, almost nameable, the forms in these paintings both partake in and resist the process of recognition, and thus categorisation. Joseph Masheck’s virtuoso rollick through art history underlines this point: how do we find any compatible theoretical model which adequately matches the visual experience of a Lasker? Masheck finds, after various temporary locations of rest, resonance in Heidegger’s ‘world-picture’, suggesting the very project of picturability is one that sets Lasker's work apart from many of his contemporaries. Simultaneously archaic and contemporary, Lasker's painting examines the very means of discourse - a picturing that crosses over drawing and the basic elements of writing; that configures the body yet lies beyond it; that embraces a morality which, ultimately, underlies what Masheck calls the artist's ‘dandyism’.
For Peter Schjeldahl and Robert Pincus-Witten, the notion of theoretical congruence is not an issue. Schjedahl, writing on Thomas Nozkowski's idiosyncratic abstractions, develops poetic metaphors that run parallel yet obliquely contextualise Nozkowski's work. This stresses the text's adjacency to the work, delicately underscoring an appreciation, as opposed to literal reading or analysis. Pincus-Witten's approach to Gary Stephan, on the other hand, is that of the biographical document; it examines artistic development, personal history and their ensuing formative contact with the volatile social construct of the artworld. Pincus-Witten’s ‘realism’ consists of vividly situating the artist at a point in time, and within a given material culture.
Finally, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's introductory essay also highlights the preponderance of the verbal and linguistic through the emphasis put on ‘reading’ contemporary artworks, which he feels has led to the deprecation of not only non-representational painting, but also the visual as a valid experiential mode in itself. Surface is extrapolated here, as being intimately bound up with, and yet differentiated from, the historical morphology of painting as both skeleton and skin, a site which Gilbert-Rolfe suggests, “Can persist as a place where the body may think itself”. In stressing the potentiality of surface as one that is periodically re-defined in terms of its status as temporal and actual interface - between the subjective and the environmental - Gilbert-Rolfe posits painting in active dialogue with the technological. From its relationship with electronic screens to the blank, smooth plastic surfaces of the contemporary everyday, “Painting reconsiders, by realising it in terms which have nothing to do with it - and no desire to reproduce or represent it - the zone of alienation between the human and the surfaces within and between which it tries to find its subjectivity, or, if you like, is invented by them.”
The latter point underscores the implicit complex positionality that non-representational or abstract paintings will have today, with their questions of relation (to the environment, the world) and also selfhood. No longer reducible to the cleavage of exteriority or interiority, such selfhood occupies a transverse space, as much realised by as through the materiality it sets in motion. Rather than a ‘turning away’ from the world, abstraction's continual development exhibits an inexhaustible tropism, constantly forming new connections and surprising allegiances. While still clearing the space for a self-reflexive examination of the medium itself, uniquely, abstract painting proffers, philosophically speaking, an arena where the hermeneutical, the ontological and the phenomenological collide, coalesce and interpenetrate.