Abstract Art The Present Situation

by Kenworth W. Moffett




Our best abstract art, our real avant garde, is hardly visible at all today at least in the official showcases for contemporary art. It cannot be seen any of the big New York or European museums or salons. So, for example, no important new abstract painting has been shown in the Whitney Annual or Biennial for almost a decade, and none has been seen in Germany's Dokumenta since 1966. Instead, the art world experts have been preoccupied with something else - with what I call "middle brow modern," a vulgarized version of modern art which is tailored to today's mass audience. But I am not concerned here with this state of affairs. I have written about it before, and so have others like Clement Greenberg and Walter Darby Bannard. Instead, I want to concentrate on what is happening within abstract art itself. Has it been affected by this rejection and neglect? Is it alive and moving in a new direction? Who are the major figures? These are the questions which I want to try and answer here.

First of all I want to point to a very large increase in the production of high quality abstract art and to the emergence of many good, new abstract artists. Most impressive is the way that this increase has occurred despite a near total blackout by the official New York art world during this same period. High level abstract art is found today primarily in six centers in North America - New York City, New England, Syracuse, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton - and in London. Within these centers there are well over one hundred interesting and sophisticated abstract artists. Of course there were many abstract artists already in the 30ís but verb few of the abstractionists of previous decades ever came close to achieving the level of quality maintained by many abstract artists today . We have, then, a raising of the general level accompanied by a decentralization. Both of these developments began in the middle 70ís and have continued ever since. The main centers are all English speaking and the North American work is clearly the strongest. For the first time Canada has become a major source of serious abstraction.

Most of the new abstract artists can be characterized as "third" generation, i.e., artists mostly under fifty who take their lead from the second generation and especially from Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro. Despite their numbers and despite the high quality of their work it cannot be said that this group has fully made its mark yet or has replaced second generation work with a radically new style or outlook. As we shall see this is only starting to happen now. For the most part and until recently Olitski has dominated abstract painting much as Caro has dominated abstract sculpture. Both have been the leading figures in their respective areas for many years; Caro since the early 60's, Olitski since the late 60's. This is not to say, of course, that there have not been, and are not now, other important and influential second generation abstract artists working. Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Friedel Dzubas, Robert Goodnough, Stanley Boxer, and Herbert Ferber are the most notable ones. But it is Olitski and Caro who have had the biggest influence and who are regarded as the leading masters by most of the best of the younger abstractionists, as well as that handful of critics, curators, and collectors who follow abstract art closely.

Because of his achievements in both painting and sculpture, Olitski must be deemed our preeminent master (he also works beautifully from life). His influence, however, and especially in recent years has been confined mostly to painting, where he gained leadership in the late 60's. At that point Kenneth Noland seemed to be the most significant figure (Morris Louis had died in 1962) and the best new painters were all staining (Noland, Frankenthaler, Jack Bush, and the members of the Washington color school) or, at least, painting very thinly (Dzubas). All had simplified their drawing and were working with bright, highly contrasting color oppositions. Olitski was great at this kind of painting. In fact, the best of his stain pictures of 1963 and 1964 are among the masterworks of that idiom. But Olitski did not stay with it very long. Instead, he hurried on to something dramatically different looking.

The basis of his new style was a painterly modulation from thick to thin, the "all-over" or emptied out layout, the complete suppression of contour drawing and, most importantly, the subtlest chiaroscuro-color and the illusion of deep space realized on the surface by spraying and layering. Instead of showing bright, high contrast color, Olitski's pictures were now generally darker, tending toward middle values, close values, and monochrome. All this, together with his temperament and his training at the National Academy of Design, put Olitski in a unique position to exploit more fully the new acrylic medium which had just gained acceptance among his contemporaries. He has gone on to demonstrate acrylic's capacity for an old master-like refinement, complexity, and sophistication. In this way he has opened things up for others and has pushed painting in a whole new direction. Throughout the 70's and early 80's most, if not all, of our best younger painters have felt his influence and almost always it has improved their art. Meanwhile, Olitski himself has been reaching new heights. Recently he has driven further both the assertion of the surface and the vividness of the illusion. These new pictures are rougher than usual, and the most outrageously illusionistic ones have all the noble grandeur of a great Assyrian relief. But recently and in a whole number of cases Olitski's look has started to become a liability. Peter Bradley's show at the Hirondelle Gallery was a perfect example. Olitski's range also seemed to be a negative factor in recent New York gallery exhibitions of John Griefen, Marge Minkin, Jim Walsh, Jill Nathanson, as well as in the group show of new talent held in the Tower Gallery last June. It was present again at the "Six From Syracuse" exhibition that was chosen for Skidmore College by Clement Greenberg and that opened in October. In each case the works were good, very high level, but the color felt unnecessarily limited. That Olitski's influence can still be liberating is evident from the recent work of John Gittens and Doug Haynes. In these cases, as in Olitski's own pictures and the best of Poons or Boxer, a restricted range only makes color clearer, stronger, deeper, and more varied. It isn't simply middle grey - or brown - for its own sake or for the sake of an old masterly look. This same narrowing of color range hung like a grey cloud over much - but not all - of the better abstract painting I saw on my last visit to Western Canada and it was present again in the abstract paintings done last summer at Anthony Caro's Triangle Workshop. Caro organizes this event every year in Pine Plains, New York. About thirty painters and sculptors, some of them mature figures, work together for two weeks and then have a viewing. It was especially instructive last summer since it clearly showed that something like what is happening to much abstract painting is happening to a great deal of abstract sculpture too. In both cases there is the feeling of sameness and restraint.

But as I already indicated, this situation is starting to change at least in painting. In the past three years or so there has appeared a very young group, most of whom are still in their thirties. Following in the wake of Larry Poons, Walter Darby Bannard, Darryl Hughto, Joseph Drapell, and other important painters of the third generation, this younger group can be seen as a second phase of the third generation or even as a "fourth" generation. At the moment Graham Peacock, Bruce Piermarini, John Gittens, Susan Roth, Steven Brent, and Roy Lerner are among the most individualized and exciting members of this group. There are quite a few others I could mention also. This new group is already making many of the older members of the third generation seem a bit slow and transitional. Of course, this new group hasn't yet fully unfolded, but at its best it is very radical and it is already having some influence on second generation work. Within the work of this younger group, as well as in the work of the leading older members of the third generation, I see emerging a major shift in style or sensibility - the appearance of what might be called "Post Olitski" or "Post color field" or "third wave" painting. I am going to deal with some of the individual painters in Special Supplement #2. Below I list the general stylistic tendencies I discern. They are not all to be found in the work of any single painter and they are not yet as clearly stated as they eventually will be.

1. The color key expands from the dominance of middle or close valued color to include greater brightness, brilliance, saturation, and contrast. Sharp value oppositions again become important.

2. Contour or edge drawing reappears and now become intense, highly varied and complex.

3. Surface, which Olitski's spraying had already made tactile and subtly modulated, now is pushed much farther, becoming coarsely and even grossly physical. Related to this is the rethinking of the role of underpainting and of the support as a given flatness - or as a given material. Paint is piled on thickly and there are lots of collagings and mixing of foreign elements into the paint. Often the picture seems to break aggressively into the room. And it is the new boldness in the handling of textures that permits bigger contrasts of color and drawing. Another innovation is the way that a very sculptural surface is in some cases eliminating the need for a surrounding frame. (Certain works by Drapell and Brent are the best examples.)

This heavy physicality or materiality is the most novel of the new tendencies which I'm describing. It creates an expressionistic roughening - a rawness and coarseness - which relates most to first generation painting and makes second generation work seem more refined and controlled by comparison. The older masters who are most relevant to this style shift are Pollock (and not just his drip pictures), Hofmann, Gottlieb, and Still; from the second generation, Louis and Noland.

Trained in the Bauhaus tradition, Noland has been an abstract painter from the first. His special talent has been for ringing color contrasts and his pictures have often had a cool, airy, futuristic look. He doesn't make a point of his relation to the old masters the way that Olitski does. Noland's natural forebearers are all modern painters: Van Gogh, Matisse, Mondrian, Hofmann, and Barnett Newman. If Noland lost his leadership position to Olitski in the later 60's and early 70's, this wasn't because he ceased to grow or went into decline. It was more that he invested so completely in exploration of the picture's shape and stayed away from the new acrylic gel and heavier, painterly surfaces that Olitski, Poons, Hughto, Bannard, Drapell, and others were pioneering. Noland did some great pictures in the 70's, many of which may become more relevant as time goes by, but from the perspective of the present it looks as if Olitski took the wider path. In his recent works, though, Noland has moved in Olitski's direction - admitting a looser handling and thick impasto. He is now willing to vary his surfaces as much as he varies colors. This makes Noland's paintings newly relevant. He now faces the same issue as so many of the most exciting younger painters: how to unite bright, saturated color with thick paint. And Noland's color range offers the antidote to the "Olitskification" of so much abstract painting (this is also the range of the Canadian Master, Jack Bush, whose influence is so scarce in Canada today). But all relevant statements will have to take Olitski's innovations into account and, as I've said, chief among these innovations is his handling of the new acrylic medium. Acrylics have facilitated immeasurably the development of large-scale abstract painting. A point once made by the great connoisseur, Bernard Berenson, is very apt here. He wrote that "art is great when technical and spiritual advances progressing independently synchronize and give each other the hand." This is exactly what has happened these past 25 years. Acrylics have expanded the possibilities for abstract painting which, in turn, has had its counter effect on the development of acrylic paint. Already, in the work of the first generation, we can see a struggle against the limits of the oil medium which was proving to be an inadequate and even refractory vehicle for the new idiom. The members of the second generation, who came to be known as the "color field" painters, were the first to switch to the new acrylics that became commercially available in the later 50's, exactly when this group was coming to maturity. Because acrylics could so easily be watered down and did not attack unprimed canvas, they seemed made to order for these second generation painters, most of whom had just turned to pure color and to staining. By the middle 60's almost all of the second, and several members of the first generation, had adopted acrylics. As I have said, Olitski's spray paintings of 1965 signaled a return to thick and thin. This in turn led to the greater use of acrylic gel. Gel extends the paint, making it much easier and cheaper to use very large quantities of paint and to create much bigger variations of thickness. It also can produce transparent and translucent effects. Gel makes acrylics a full-bodied medium just like oils.

The first important painter to use the new acrylics in a boldly three-dimensional way was Larry Poons who, interestingly enough, was stimulated at this point not only by Olitski's paintings, but also by his 1968 polychromed sculptures. The results were Poons's "elephant skin" pictures in which he worked with massive quantities of paint and gel. At first Poons couldn't control the sheer physicality and only in 1971 did he take command of it by means of his now familiar "cascade" motif - achieved by throwing gallons of paint against an upright canvas surface. The resulting pictures have the same grand and sweeping feeling we find in the pictures of Louis and Pollock.

Stimulated in part by Poons, Olitski began using heavier paint in 1972 and in the same year Bannard started working thickly. Most of the milestones of those years involved the use of gel - the work of John Griefen and Darryl Hughto after the middle 70's, Sandi Slone's "broom" paintings done between 1975 and 1978, and Drapell's series of red pictures done between 1969-1971.

As I have already noted, the 80's and the youngest painters are bringing in a far more coarsely physical and sculptural approach to the surface. Also, acrylics are no longer perceived only as a happy alternative to oils, but now as a whole new substance with their own unique physical properties and possibilities. Working with painters, the chemist Sam Golden of Golden Artist Colors Inc. (formerly a partner of the Bocour Artists Color Co.) has developed a great variety of new acrylic paints and mediums, many of which permit effects impossible with oils. It looks as if, for the foreseeable future at least, the greatest abstract painters are going to be those who handle the rapidly developing acrylic medium with the greatest feeling, imagination, and freedom. The appearance of a new wave and the imminent shift of style that I have just pointed to in abstract painting isn't as apparent yet in abstract sculpture. Here Caro and what I call the "outlook of the 70's" still holds sway.

Caro became an important sculptor in the early 60's with a series of brightly painted steel pieces. These had been influenced by the work of David Smith, Kenneth Noland, and more generally, North American abstraction. From that time on Caro spent large portions of every year in North America. But he was also teaching at St. Martin's School of Art in London, and it was there that he had his first big impact. Almost immediately he inspired a group of younger British sculptors - Isaac Witkin, Michael Bolus, David Annesley, Tim Scott, Phillip King, and William Tucker. Their work was very experimental and playful; it combined materials, used new materials, and worked with varied surfaces and color. Caro had seen Smith through Noland's "color field" paintings. His younger colleagues seemed to add the perspective of Russian Constructivism and even Surrealism.

By the late 60's it became clear that the best of this group was Tim Scott. Scott's great gift is for combining different materials, especially metal and acrylic sheet. His Bird Ink series and the series that followed it, put him next to Caro at the forefront of abstract sculpture. At the same time, Caro's contemporary, Jules Olitski, did his first series of large-scale abstract sculptures. Working at St. Neots in England, Olitski made a group of twenty very large, sprayed, aluminum pieces which were no less startling than Caro's and Scott's. This moment, the late 1960's, remains for me the high point of post war abstract sculpture - the moment when it seemed most exciting and open ended.

The period from 1970 until today has been quite different. First there was the near total collapse of the British School. By the 70's none of them were doing anything significant except for Scott and Caro. Scott continued on until the middle of the decade. Then he, too, lost almost everything. Today he makes mostly small, crabbed sculptures that are very academic. Here and there his enormous talent comes across, but only as a tiny flicker. I will discuss the reasons for Scott's debacle in a moment. First I want to point out that, with the decline of the British School, North America became the center for abstract sculpture. The important factors here were Caro's influence at Bennington College in the late 60's, his influence in Canada throughout the 70's, and the emergence of Michael Steiner in the early 70's. Then, in 1977, Peter Hide, the most talented British sculptor to appear after Scott, moved to Canada and joined the art department of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Hide had done some arresting work in England already in the early and middle 70's, but in the later 70's he became part of the general British decline. North America has rejuvenated Hide, and his works of the past three or four years have established him together with Steiner as the two leading sculptors of the third generation.

Caro, Olitski, Steiner, Hide - four outstanding figures - plus a host of other very good ones. Certainly abstract sculpture is alive and well, at least in North America. At the same time, Scott's failure has been costly, since it has left third generation sculptors without radical leadership. Hide has shown real power and the kind of roughness we associate with David Smith, but he hasn't spread out yet or displayed much range. His pervasive influence in Edmonton is both impressive and oppressive at the same time.

Steiner has had more new ideas and he is the only leading figure, aside from Olitski, who yearns for truly huge, architecturally scaled sculpture (an area that until now has been left to minor figures like di Suvero and Liberman). Yet in recent years, and especially in many of his bronzes, Steiner has been held back by his own good taste, just as Hide is still held back by a temperamental stiffness and rigidity. Neither is quite yet Caro's - or Olitski's - equal, even if their very best pieces can stand with anything that these two older artists have done. As for Olitski, he remains an occasional sculptor and hasn't made large-scale pieces since 1977. Caro, then, is still the model, the most inventive and consistent sculptor since David Smith. (In recent years Caro has done more than his share of indifferent pieces, but this doesn't alter the fact that, at his best, he is as good as ever.)

But if Caro is still the model, he is not quite the stylistic leader that he was in the early 60's. In his later years Caro has reacted creatively to the stylistic initiatives of others, almost always outdoing them in the process. For the most part these initiatives have shifted sculpture away from the breezy, open, futuristic look that Caro had introduced and toward something far more serious and traditional looking. The best abstract sculpture was now almost always done in dark, unpainted steel or bronze. Emphasis was on material presence, space displacing volume, and sometimes mass and density.

What caused this shift? A large part of it was the impact of the American Minimalist movement that became so popular in the middle 60's. Minimalism was the first purely abstract sculpture to become a salon success. It developed out of abstract painting and especially the pictures of Barnett Newman. But, like Newman's own sculpture, most Minimalist pieces are stagey and simplistic. Even the most powerful and aggressive of Minimalist sculptures, like those of Donald Judd or Richard Serra, seem static and design-like when placed next to a good work by Caro or Smith. At the same time Minimalism did offer a very new look, physically imposing and expressively serious. It was this look, together with certain formal features- simple "primary" shapes, relatively closed profiles, bare material surfaces - which influenced more sophisticated abstract sculptors.

Michael Steiner began with Minimalism but, at the end of the 60's, he transformed it with a conception of sculpture he found in the work of Caro and Smith. In this way Steiner, still in his late 20's, became the biggest single factor in bringing in the new style. Caro, Olitski, and Hide all felt his influence in the early 70's (later in the decade Steiner was also the leader in the use of clay and bronze). Then, in the middle 70's, Olitski did two important groups of sculptures based directly on Minimalist ideas. Like Steiner, Olitski transformed Minimalism into something more inventive and developable.

Minimalism also had its effect in England, but there the results were disastrous. Already heavily freighted with pretentious theory, Minimalism played to the fatal English weakness for words and theoretical ideas. This tendency to over verbalize was only exacerbated by the fact that advanced British sculpture was centered around the St. Martin's school and was bound up with teaching. So it was that, in reaction to Minimalism and to other popularizing forms of abstraction, the leadership of St. Martin's set out to define sculpture for itself.

William Tucker's book The Language of Sculpture that appeared in 1974 became an important influence. Like Herbert Read before him, Tucker found Modernism and the "true nature of sculpture" in basic conflict. He recommended a retreat from the constructivist tradition toward semi-monolithic, object-like forms based on Brancusi and Minimalism or toward free-form figure sculpture like that of Degas and Matisse. In 1978, Scott, who had been very influenced by Tucker's ideas and the environment that produced them, became the head of the St. Martin's School and, along with the painter-critic Alan Gouk and others, proceeded to lead some of the best members of the younger generation into the desert.

The basis for Scott's teaching and recent work is a theory which says that constructed sculpture must go- back to the human body for the kinds of structures that yield "real sculpture." A great deal is made of working from a human model and the intense observation of structural relationships between anatomical parts.

There is much talk of going back to the 19th century "European" Modernism of Matisse and Degas and rejecting the "American" opticality and pictorialism of Caro. The ironies here begin with the fact that Scott was already Caro's equal in the late 60's by virtue of work that was even more "pictorial" and "optical" than Caro's. On the other hand, it has been Caro's best work of the 70's and 80's - like the pieces in his 1985 show at the Emmerich Gallery - that most fulfill the real, if unconscious, desiderata of the St. Martin's ideology, namely a powerfully massive and volumetric looking abstract constructed sculpture.

Of course, the human body can be a source for sculptural ideas. Picasso, Gonzales, and Smith all used the human form as a taking-off point for constructed steel sculpture. Also, the St. Martin's emphasis on forging the individual part can be seen as a healthy alternative to an over-reliance on found elements. But, to take the human body as privileged or to foster a mystique of the forge, represents a narrowing of aesthetic perspectives and a retreat from Modernism. It is to miss the real message of Caro and Smith, which lies not in their "pictorialism" or "opticality," but in their freedom and range. Smith, Caro, Olitski (and Scott, too, when he was good) have all done works that are delicate, airy and disembodied, as well as works that seem tough, weighty, and physical - and each in his own distinct way.

This larger Modernist perspective has been lost at St. Martin's and a much smaller vision has taken its place. So it is that third generation English sculptors like Katherine Gili and Anthony Smart, who some years ago seemed so promising, now produce sculptures which look like nothing so much as the tired, academic expressionism that we find in De Kooning's bronzes or in the post war British "existentialist" school. The only British sculptors who are doing at all well nowadays, like John Gibbons, stay well clear of the St. Martin's look.

There are other factors besides Minimalism which account for the "outlook of the 70's." Most obviously, it could be related to the Zeitgeist: Post-Modernism, Neo-Conservatism, etc. Certainly the outlook of the 70's in sculpture seems related to the old masterly chiaroscuro in painting that we find in Olitski, as well as Poons, Boxer, and Dzubas (all of whom overhauled their painting style in the 70's). Perhaps this dominant strain of the 70's should be likened to the kind of Modernism which we find in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the paintings of Cézanne and the analytical cubists. Here, too, the emphasis is on traditional, formal features and a sober, serious look. Essentially restorative in its basic thrust, this sort of Modernism has been wonderfully creative and fruitful. In the 70's it has yielded some of the greatest triumphs of abstract art (as well as the reactionary extreme of St. Martin's). Among the triumphs in sculpture have been Caro's "York" pieces, his "Emma Lake" series, his recent "tank" series, to name only a few of his most notable large-scale series, Olitski's "ring" pieces and "stacked" pieces; Steiner's corten steel pieces of the early 70's and his recent bronze "cages"; and Peter Hide's recent "totem" group. One important advance is the way the best abstract sculpture today is more physically authoritative, muscular, and exists more comfortably out of doors. Finally, there is a large group of very good younger sculptors. Andre Fauteux, Peter Reginato, Doug Bentham, Peter Bradley, Lee Tribe, Willard Boepple, Jim Wolfe, David Schapiro, Ken Macklin, Isla Burns, A1 Reynolds, Peter Lipsitt, John Chamberlain, David Evison, and Vesna Makale are just a few of the many names to mention.

But, despite these accomplishments, it seems to me that the current "traditionalist" emphasis leaves too much overlooked. It neglects Modernism's expansive, visionary side as we find it, for example, in Umberto Boccioni's "Technical Manifesto of Sculpture" written in 1912. In this essay Boccioni attacks the use of bronze, marble and the nude. Instead he advocates using all sorts of new materials as a way of finding something new and modern. Boccioni died in World War I before he could make anything truly radical, but his ideas were realized to a limited extent by the Russian Cubo-futurists and Constructivists like Tatlin and Gabo. Boccioni's open-ended attitude didn't appear in a full-blown way until the appearance of Smith, Caro, and the British School of the 60's. Its basic outlook was expressed by Caro when he said "sculpture can be anything."

This is the side of Modernism that is being neglected today by our best talents, including Caro himself. So, for example, the sculptural problems that are automatically generated when one tries to combine two distinctly different materials hasn't been dealt with freshly since Noland's wood and steel pieces of the early 70's (there were a few very interesting wood, steel, and slate pieces by Phillip King in the middle 70's). Scott, who has combined materials most audaciously and ingeniously, hasn't worked this way for more than a decade and Caro's few efforts in this direction, like his wood and lead series, haven't been especially ambitious or even successful. Here is one of the many areas of contemporary sculpture that is still relatively unexplored. Another is the use of materials other than steel and bronze, like plastic, aluminum, cement, wood, copper, etc. And there is the whole vast area of color.

The insistence on sculpture's unique limits is, in part, an overreaction to the mass of bad "new material" sculpture that was so visible in the 70's (arte pouvre, process art, etc.). Perhaps abstract sculptors have also become defensive about their stylistic dependence on painting. Since the 50's they have looked to painting for their basic direction: first "color-field," then Minimalism. And it is true that abstract painting seems to be our leading art, the cutting edge of taste. So the best new painting, especially that using heavy gel, meets far more resistance these days than does the best new sculpture. And here is the reason why abstract painters often do interesting and important sculpture while this doesn't happen the other way around.

There are, however, a few instances of what can be called the "futuristic" or "experimental" side of modern sculpture. The best example is the wonderful new series of aluminum wall pieces by Margaret Swan, who lives in Boston. There are also individual works or series of works by Peter Reginato, Don Foulds, Anthony Massett, Robert Murray, Campbell Wright, Steven Brent, Otto Rogers, Rani Glick, Peter Lipsitt, Mel Kendrick Jim Wolfe, Ben Woitena, Peter Bradley, Roger Mack, and others. Then there is the recent work of Frank Stella.

Stella's paintings of the 60's and 70's show the same rigid design features that I pointed to when discussing Minimalist sculpture. He has had lots of ideas, but they have all been stillborn. In recent years, however, Stella has turned to aggressive, three-dimensional reliefs, and his work has become much more interesting. The best of the "Playskool" group, which are not over scaled and mechanically painted like the others, are among the freshest three-dimensional works I've seen in recent years, and are certainly the freest works that Stella has ever done.

According to the Norton lectures, which he gave at Harvard last year, Stella believes that abstract painting has become too flat and that he, Stella, is enlarging its "working space." As I have pointed out above, abstract painting as defined by the second generation is starting to be replaced by new tendencies which are pushing painting into the third dimension, so Stella is on to something. But, in his own case, only the constructed, three-dimensional parts of his new works are alive and felt. The color and handling are conventional. The truth is that Stella has never been much of a painter. He simply doesn't have a gift for tone and color or, if he does, he hasn't shown it yet. His "Playskool" reliefs demonstrate that he does have a very real gift for sculpture. Can Stella grasp this point himself and become an important, as opposed to a merely fashionable, abstract artist?

Finally, to complete my survey of today's abstraction, I must mention the critic Clement Greenberg. At 76, Greenberg is the only member of the first generation still actively on the scene and this, together with his wonderful eye, has made him abstract art's most respected connoisseur. and critic. He has served as a kind of editor-critic-advisor foremost of the leading members of the second generation and also many members of the third.

He has often helped these artists focus their art and follow up their own best ideas. I'd say that the greater consistency and productivity that we find beginning with the work of the second generation is, to a significant degree, the result of his efforts. Also, he has taught our best of critics and curators how to look at abstract art. With in avant garde circles his influence has been - and still is - enormous .One wonders, though, what he can make of the present situation. He has described Modernism as the unconscious drive of each medium toward self-definition and he has identified a progressive flattening as the self-definition of painting. But at the moment the newest painting becomes ever more three-dimensional, while sculpture seems to suffer from an overdose of self-definition and must look to painting to find its larger self.

Despite its ups and downs, and whatever the interpretation, our best abstract art remains the vital center of advanced taste and innovation. It is the main stimulus behind much, if not most, of our best representational art. It is also our "new criterion," that against which all post war painting and sculpture will eventually have to measure itself. Just as the work of all of the other late 19th century artists is today automatically judged against the achievements of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, Seurat, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Rodin, so will all of the art done between 1945 and today be judged against the achievements of Pollock, Hofmann, Gottlieb, Rothko, Still, Newman, Motherwell, Olitski, Louis, Noland, Frankenthaler, Dzubas, Bush, Boxer, Goodnough, Poons, Bannard, Smith, and Caro. These are the highest peaks. Which is not to say that the standards for abstract art have now finally been set. Not at all. As I have tried to show, abstract art is still wide open and full of possibilities. Its biggest development may lie ahead. This is why, despite massive resistance and neglect, it is attracting more ambitious talents than ever before. No area of contemporary culture is more alive and exciting.

Published in Moffett's Artletter, Special Supplement #1, March, 1986

Published here thanks to the kind permission of its author

Posted June 29, 2002

© Kenworth W. Moffett, 1986-2002



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