Is abstract art dead
Is abstract art, especially geometric abstract art, radical anymore? This huge question haunts Whitechapel Gallery’s recent heavyweight historical exhibition, which opens with Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Quadrilateral, a painting that stares straight at you, and you feel like you’ve walked into an empty eye socket. Apart from this black square, which was a sensation at the time, Malevich’s variety varies. Squares, arcs, nets, circles, triangles – Adventures shows us the rich and passionate history of this non-realistic art form, a windy journey that spans centuries and continents, from the fires of the stars that originated in Europe to the Soviet Union and even to the social revolutions that fueled it. A full century later, despite all the attempts to recreate the “journey”, that full-bodied passion has faded.
The exhibition devotes a considerable amount of space to show how geometric art quickly became a spokesperson for utopian ideals of social progress, an intention that is more than evident in the dense to the dizzying first exhibition hall, from the imagery and photographic experiments of the Russian Constructivists, the early experiments of Mondrian-style Neo-plasticism in Europe, to Josef Albers, a pioneer of the Bauhaus movement. The viewer is able to truly feel geometric abstraction, as stated in those poignant declarations, as a symbol of freedom for the artists, not yielding to any set form. What is striking is not only the long history of this art form but what it has achieved in a fairly short period of time. The tension in Lyubov Popova’s 1916 Painterly Architectonic image seems to hold infinite possibilities; Theo van Doesburg’s Colour Design for Ceiling and Three Walls (1926-7), designed for a café in Strasbourg, reminds us that abstract movement is not a utopian daydream, but a tangible transformation in all aspects of real life. Historical material presented in one of the showcases demonstrates how this non-figurative art movement spread from Europe to North America and Brazil.
The curatorial thread of this exhibition is to trace the “course” of geometric abstraction, to see how it is passed on like a baton, or a cultural meme, which unfolds from a historical moment, the emergence of a group of artists, or the beginning of a geographical area, spreading to others, forming a genealogical map between artists. For example, European modernism “infected” the Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, both of whom promoted artistic movements with strong personal overtones, while the English artist Jeffrey Steele encountered the work of the French artist of Hungarian origin Victor Vasarely in Paris, which immediately became the fulcrum for the development of his own “system” of monochromatic paintings that used mathematical models to create complex visual rhythms. Walking across Carl Andre’s metal floor, you realize how ubiquitous wall art canvas can be – a form that should be evolving and unquestionable in art.
Suddenly, the entire tone of the exhibition shifts, and this evolutionary history is interrupted and disappears into nothingness. This part of the exhibition provides an overview of the “Black Cube” from the 1970s to the present, allowing viewers to see the critical revelation of geometric abstraction and early avant-garde painting in the eyes of more postmodern and thoughtful artists. Rosemarie Trockel’s melancholic board-weave “Who’s on Fire in ’99? (Who will be in ’99?), places the question posed in the title above a Malevich-Esque black cross with a gray background, suggesting that all artistic innovation is nothing more than the periodic repetition of trends.
The exhibition then subtly leads you to think about how geometric forms gradually become dull and obscure from a window into the future, as if walking into a dead end. As a result, the second half of this chronicle’s progressively stale works, such as Peter Halley’s breathtaking large abstract painting Auto Zone (1985), are more like claustrophobic office cubicles and daily commutes than they point to a passionate, unknown future. But at the same time, you begin to feel that the blank form of geometry has precisely whatever meaning you wish to give it – it is this sheer nothingness that allows artists to project their lust and frustration to their hearts’ content. At the same time, when minimalist geometric design began to become an accomplice to commercial culture (thanks to IKEA) – denouncing it as a corporate slave seemed to be taken for granted, as Gunilla Klingberg did in the satirical animated film Spar Loop (2000), which transformed the supermarket’s logo into a spinning kaleidoscope of almost abstract patterns.
When you look at recent works, such as Adrian Esparza’s exquisite wall installations done with colored wire and nails, you get the sense that the full power of geometric abstraction has diminished to quaint nostalgia or lobby decor. At best, it provokes a bit of nostalgia for the critical and revolutionary spirit of earlier abstractions, such as the inclusion of an androgynous mannequin in Heimo Zobernig’s Constructivist-like reworking of the plate rack, which, while seemingly identical to the one in the shop, may also be suggesting a future world of macho women (Untitled, 2009).
However, with The Forever Now, an abstract exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York that is “light on the history and heavy on the market,” The Black Cube’s Journey is at least a timely reminder that painting abstract art used to explode with energy to create a blueprint for the unknown, freeing an optimistic new vision of the modern industrial world from dead tradition. Perhaps these aspirations are still alive today, or they are long gone. Maybe today’s geometric abstraction is just an “art” for us and we don’t care too much about it. In other words, if art still plays a role in the vicissitudes of social life, then artists must begin to take the visual form seriously again – at least as seriously as the old-timers once did – and give these aspirations a new, unknown shape.