Schwabsky coins the term "retromodernism" for work that references postwar-era abstract easel painting

In the June 18 issue of  The Nation, Barry Schwabsky’s reponse to Frieze echoes my own–critics must begin to approach art fairs as critics rather than journalists (or paparazzo and PR flacks). After lamenting the rise and influence of art fairs, he addresses the fair from a critic’s perspective, outlining his strategy for viewing Frieze and concluding that there may not be a dominant style, but that there  is a family resemblance among much of the work that he calls retromodernism:

My way of proceeding critically through Frieze New York was different: I sought to construct from within it not anything as ambitious as a mus�e imaginaire, but at least a galerie imaginaire, consisting not necessarily of favorite pieces but rather of works that seemed to form among themselves a kind of constellation, a set of family resemblances unremarked upon by the various galleries that displayed them. The correspondences didn�t coalesce into the fair�s dominant style�there was no such thing�and I�m not prepared to say they are typical of the moment or even of what was marketable at the fair. But they do exist, and seem to make some kind of sense as a form of expression in the present.

Call the style retromodernism, a term meant to be oxymoronic. At a purely descriptive level, retromodernism would mean a synthesis between figuration and abstraction (mostly geometrical rather than gestural) in a manner that evokes the spiritual and intellectual strivings of classic modernism, but elides�some might say, betrays�a modernist faith in progress, replacing it with nostalgia. It�s as if these artists see history as stuck in a holding pattern, and so seek sources of hope in the past.

I�m thinking of artists like Benjamin Butler (whose works I saw at the booths of Gallery Tomio Koyama, Tokyo and Kyoto, and Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna); Uwe Henneken (Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and the Breeder, Athens); Sanya Kantarovsky (Marc Foxx, Los Angeles); Allison Katz (Johan Berggren Gallery, Malm�); Florian Meisenberg (Kate MacGarry, London); Ryan Mosley (Alison Jacques Gallery, London); Anna Parkina (Wilkinson Gallery, London); Qiu Xiaofei (Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing); Peter Stauss (Carlier Gebauer, Berlin); David Brian Smith (Carl Freedman Gallery, London); Alexander Tovborg (Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen); the team of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor (Andreiana Mihail Gallery, Bucharest); Emily Wardill (Altman Siegel, San Francisco); and Thomas Zipp (kaufmann repetto, Milan, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, among others). There was even a street art version of retromodernism (too cute for me) in some of the paintings by Joshua Abelow at James Fuentes, New York City.

Schwabsky is right–but postwar-era abstract easel painting has been a touchstone among painters (including myself) and widespread in galleries for several years, not just at the recent version of Frieze. Rather than observing a new trend, Schwabsky is giving what is already a robust movement, and therefore self-evident, a new, somewhat derogatory, name. Indeed, many painters have appropriated the visual language of Modernist painting, but from a critical stance, not as a form of nostalgia.

 Benjamin Butler
 Thomas Zipp
Uwe Henneken 
I would disagree with Schwabsky’s inclusion of Florian Meisenberg. His large-scale work, although illustrative, seems more casualist than retromodernist. 

Related posts:
Regaining relevance: Writing critically about art fair art (May 8, 2012)
Worst of Frieze: Anselm Reyle @ CFA Berlin (May 16, 2012)
Frieze highlights: Fredrik Vaerslev’s all-over paintings (May 23, 2012)


Subscribe to Two Coats of Paint by email.


  1. Are these terms meant to simply summarize trends among today's painters or are they a way to place the trends within an art historical context? Though one does see trends in painting these days, of course, I'm always a little wary of labels being applied too quickly.

  2. Barry Schwabsky responded via Facebook:

    Thanks for your response to my piece on Frieze New York. Just one thing: While I agree that there has been some excellent "easel-sized abstraction" all along–I've written about Tom Nozkowski andTomma Abts, to name just two–I think this unstable mix of representation and abstraction, which seems to conjure modernism's obscured roots in symbolism/theosophy, folk art, and other now-seemingly-eccentric sources, is something rather different.

  3. I love this article, especially the last part about not including Florian Meisenberg. But I was confused in the response, maybe this is the wrong place to ask for clarification, but who is he referring to as far as the unstable mix of representation and abstraction. It seems to me that could be fairly accurate in his retro-modernism claim to easel sized painting, even seems like a downsizing of Diebenkorn's style in the Ocean Park series. But is he claiming this to Nozkowski and Abts too or saying they are exceptions to this?

  4. There seems to be a bit of a problem that we are stuck with the words modernism and postmodernism. It was somewhat arrogant to define these movements by being "modern" as in "of now", as they would eventually side step into the past. Todays critics either talk about art being from the future, the past or some derivative of Modernism/postmodernism.

    Brilliant piece Sharon btw!, I always read and rarely comment.

  5. If the images above are to represent retromodernism, it would appear retromodernism and "casualist" are part of a spectrum, not category differences. Only Zipp's painting seems to dip (sorry for the aliteration) heavily into Modernism.

  6. After Lascaux and Chauvet, all painting could be considered "retro".

  7. Retro-Modern is a tern of the academic/c ritic and not of tyhe artist. Sadly it will look silly in a hundred years .

  8. It seems to me that giving the arts static tags such as "movements" is a dated concept that might have been useful at one time, say when art history began to be a discipline, but now seems meaningless. Instead, they flow and develop organically over time and it is that dialog that says "yes" to the universe and breaths life into our efforts.

  9. some painters are simply more interested in moments of intellectual friction between process and representation. For me a desire is expressed within these conflicting moments. This language is heavily used in modernist painting as well as folk art and has become a language for longing or reaching not a language of nastalgia.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *