Contributed by Saul Ostrow / The art world is an unfair place — even if an artist is exhibiting regularly, has a critical following, and is making a living from their work this doesn’t mean they will necessarily catch a break. Often among artists who have made significant critical contributions — think of them as the supporting cast, who are slowly forgotten — women and artists of color tend to be forgotten first. As late as the 1980s, the process by which artists were made influential and famous was driven by open debate among the legions of working artists and critics; today such things are instead settled in the marketplace.
While artists come and go in other cases, whole competing critical discourses are wiped away in insofar as they do not fulfill the established critical narrative. With this, entire markets and careers disappear, yet some of these never completely go away. Sometimes, like John McLaughlin or Alfred Jensen, they are remembered and become cult figures who cyclically re-emerge only to recede again. On rare occasions an artist is rediscovered by a dealer, collector, curator, or historian. This requires mustering institutional support to recontextualize them so that they may be inserted into the existing history. In these cases, they are used to fill a gap in the narrative. Carmen Herrera is one such artist.
What brought on these musings was seeing a selection of Li Trincere’s works from 1986–90 and 2020-21. I realized to review her show one would have to establish a context for her work. Thinking about that, I saw that she was part of a lost generation of abstract painters, which consists of various groupings of artists working in styles rooted in the hard-edge, geometric tradition. What these artists have in common is they resist the industrial aesthetic of Pop and Minimalism.
This lost generation emerged in the period marked by Artforum’s proclamation of the death of painting in 1974 and the advent in the mid-1980s of Po-Mo, a time when abstract painting had become its own simulacra. By the end of this period, abstract art had lost its critical clout and the death of Modernism had become an accepted fact. What came to fill this space was a Post-Modernism, which, though it had promised to be polymorphic and multi-disciplinary, in actuality heralded institutionally the return of figurative/narrative art. With this, Post Structuralism as a critical discourse was used to prop-up an art history still defined by a process of negation in which one thing displaced another.
The two principal practices of abstract art form an axis, yet never form a dichotomy. One pole is an expression of the artist’s subjectivity, the other of their rationality — reason. Most artists work is at one pole or the other. In the wake of AbEx’s demise in the mid-1950s, the next generation sought to make paintings that were more specific while retaining the intuitive. They found their models in Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. This gave rise to the various practices associated with hard-edge abstraction from Al Held’s geometry to Kenneth Noland’s stripes and chevrons, which would culminate in Minimalism. Some two generations later, it was in this realm we find artists like Trincere who are seeking a viable alternative to the reductivism of Minimalism. So, while their works were precise, they are never impersonal or systemic. Meanwhile, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, Po-Mo flooded the market. In this environment, abstract art in the hands of artists such as David Diao, Jonathan Lasker, Lydia Dona, and Fabian Marcaccio survived. These artists, a la Jasper Johns, made pictures about abstract painting. With this Trincere’s generation’s object of desire — the idea of a truth rooted in art — disappeared.
Getting off to a good start in the 80 and 90s, Trincere was working with shaped canvas, at a time when this in the main was identified with the works of Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, and the equally important, though lesser-known Leon Polke Smith. Her work was about neither objecthood nor systems; instead she was interested in generating a visual tension. What Trincere brought to this enterprise where chunky , hand-drawn forms whose surfaces she subtly painted and whose nascent illusionism she sublimated. In her more recent works, which are conventional in format, her forms are less bold, her compositions more systemic, her edges crisper, the palette is still muted, and the surfaces have become even elusive.
So, while I can praise Trincere’s work both old and new for its intelligence and technique, the question is, whose work is hers comparable to? Other under-known artists of her generation? This does little to help the reader to understand Trincere’s relevance to the present state of abstract painting, which seemingly is non-existent. Likewise, in terms of contemporary criteria, Trincere’s work appears to have no redeemable social or political content, other than that it is made by a woman. Beyond such triteness and condescension it would be necessary for me to explain how her work might be understood in the cultural context of a politic premised on embodied experiences, abstract thought, and self-reflection. In the present moment, such a phenomenological approach has little currency.
After 50 years of post-Modernism and the continued dematerialization of all things, people have become less interested in being self-reflexive — seemingly there is no need to be able to discern the difference between what it means to look at something and what one sees. Yet both are central to understanding Trincere’s project with all its eccentricities and subversions. If one wants to see Trincere’s work properly, it would have to be in the context of a non-canonical history of post-1950s abstract painting, which includes such influential artists as Paul Feeley, Ludwig Sander, Ed Ruda, Ralph Humphrey, James Bishop, Ron Gorchov, Jack Whitten, Sven Lukin, Paul Mogensen, Harvey Quaytman, Marcia Hafif, Marylin Lenkowsky, Alan Uglow, Marcia Resnik, and Ted Stamm. Given the way things are right now, such an undertaking might be not only worthwhile but perhaps redemptive.
“Li Trincere: Hard Edge, Geometric Paintings: 2021 – 2022,” and “Li Trincere: Hard Edge, Geometric Paintings: 1986 – 1990,” David Richard Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, Suites 311 and 5E, New York, NY. Through February 23, 2023.
About the author: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he co-founded (with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere) the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. He has also served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press, and Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture published by Routledge. A collection of his essays, Formal Matters, will be published by Elective Affinities next fall.