Gallery shows

Rejecting the New: Abstract painting in the 1980s

This month New York painters and critics are talking about “Reinventing Abstraction,” an exhibition of paintings from the 1980s curated by Raphael Rubinstein. His incisive selection includes one painting each by Carroll Dunham, Louise Fishman, Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann, Bill Jensen, Stephen Mueller. Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski, David Reed, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir, Gary Stephan, Stanley Whitney, Jack Whitten, and Terry Winters.

(Image at top: Bill Jensen) 

Full of painterly brio, the show inspires nostalgia for my early years as an undergraduate (1985-87) at MassArt, before I moved to New York. Once in NYC, I was bombarded with the hype surrounding New Image painting (Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Longo, Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, etc.), the blitz of Neo-Expressionism (Polke, Immendorff, Penck, and Baselitz), the irony of Appropriation (Sherry Levine, David Salle, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, etc.) and the semiotics of Neo-Geo (Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe), but the artists Rubinstein has selected for this show were more urgently compelling.

Elizabeth Murray

Discussing the exhibition with other artists, I was surprised when several suggested that Rubinstein was attempting to “rewrite history.” To be honest, I hadn’t realized that these artists didn’t have the same historical import as the others I mention above–though I might have included work by Gregory Amenoff, Harvey Quaytman (maybe a little old?), Sean Scully and Susan Rothenberg, too. In my cohort, Rubinstein’s choices (plus my additions) have always been equally, if not more, influential. It may not be obvious today, but the symbolism, tactility, color, art historical references, and compositional simplicity are still embedded in my generation’s painting DNA.

 Gary Stephan

In a conversation with Joan Waltemath at The Brooklyn Rail, Rubinstein says that

The transition from the �70s to the �80s is a big part of what I�ve discovered in doing “Reinventing Abstraction.” Around 1980, a generation of artists who had been involved in the radical strategies of the �70s rediscovered the possibilities of painting on stretched canvas, and working with oil paint, figure/ground relationships, applying paint with a brush instead of spraying or folding or pouring or staining. They also acknowledged and sought out relationships to art history. In the �70s there was still this idea that you could make an absolute break with the past and start from degree zero. In the early �80s that began to look not only like a na�ve fantasy but also like a formula. Suddenly, it became a lot more exciting and adventurous to reconnect with art history. There was a rediscovery of history�not as something to escape, but as a source of new content.

And now, with a return to more conceptual, self-aware, and sometimes ironic approaches rooted in Support-Surface and Arte Povera, we’re going in the opposite direction, rediscovering the fold, the spray, the pour, the stain, the process, the object, and other strategies that preceded this, for the most part, earnest strain of abstraction from the 1980s. After digesting its lessons in our school days, many painters have rediscovered the once-radical notion from the 1960s and 70s that how we make paintings is just as important as what we paint.

Reinventing Abstraction,” curated by Raphael Rubinstein. Cheim & Read, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through August 30, 2013.

Related posts:
2013: Neo-Neo-Expressionism?
Stephen Mueller has died of cancer

IMHO: Elizabeth Murray, a neo-feminist icon


  1. Great piece, Sharon.

  2. Indeed, I would say that it is just as radical to emphasize the what over the how. We're interested in Wade Guyton, Mark Bradford, Jacob Kassay, and others for their methods, which place them in the context of the readymade and industrial production. Of course there's other esoteric and interesting "hows," but to have the audacity to put forth a "what" that you have invented is to take a particular position in relation to the wide visibility of methods that, at the very least, conditionalize if not efface artistic agency. look, i painted this.

  3. Great piece Sharon.

    You mentioned that several artists you spoke to about the show accused Rubenstein of attempting to rewrite history, and in a way I guess that's partly true. Not from an out an out denial of currently held views, but more from the idea of taking another look at artists who may not always be first in the minds of many from that time.

    Loren spoke briefly to Rubenstein in his latest Kalm Report segment, and to paraphrase, he mentions that many artists in the show are obviously very well known, very successful, but are left out the standard histories by many curators and art historians.

    I'm not sure if that was a driving force behind his choices, or if he just happens to like these particular artists more. Either way, it seems like more of an alternate view, which is usually a good thing.

  4. After seeing "Reinventing Abstraction," reading Raphael's essay, and now reading this reflection on the exhibition by Sharon, I must say that I do not see any "revision" of history in Raphael's exhibition. Raphael curated a tight show showcasing a selection of terrific artists–all of whom were well known at the time–for whom painterly form "within painting" was of the essence.

    How important were these painters at the time? A lot of painters certainly knew who they were, followed their work, and thought of them as significant art world players. How important are they in the long run? Who the hell knows?

    But who knows how important any painters are in the long run–including painters who are part of the "New Casualism" Sharon is currently writing about–artists who Sharon says are interested in the "how" more than the "what"?

    The real problem is that no amount of talk of trends in painting can cover up the fact that while trends and trendy painters always exist, it's been a long time since painters were driven by passionate attachments to particular art movements. As Irving Sandler rather argues, the lack of real "polemics" in art today–not merely in painting, but in contemporary art in general–makes it harder on today's artists' careers compared to artists who lived in times when artists publicly thrashed out their "positions" on art and aligned themselves with art movements.

  5. Great read Sharon. I do agree with Laurie she makes a good point that it does not really feel like their is a "revision"

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