In the past quarter-century a great debate that dominated the visual arts for a hundred years has faded, but without a conclusion. On one side were the abstractionists, with Mondrian demanding an art of “pure plastic” relations. On the other side were the representational painters and sculptors, with Giacometti, in the 1940s, at the very end of Mondrian’s life, celebrating salvation through a return to the figure. Nothing less than the future of painting and sculpture was at stake in what amounted to a war of ideas.
And now? Many artists, curators, critics, and gallerygoers seem to feel that we’re so familiar with the strategies of representational and abstract art that any attempt to dig deeper into the roots of an artist’s choices belabors the obvious. When I look at contemporary art—ranging from the work of celebrated figures such as Gerhard Richter and Julie Mehretu to that of a newcomer, Michelle Rawlings—I find there’s a tendency to embrace abstraction and representation as vehicles rather than avowals, means to an end rather than philosophical imperatives. Within a relatively brief period an artist will make representational and abstract works that look entirely different (Richter). Or juxtapose representational and abstract elements in the same painting (Mehretu). Or hang representational and abstract paintings in close proximity in an exhibition (Rawlings). Artists appear to think that it’s possible to be a representational artist one minute and an abstract artist the next. Simone Leigh, the sculptor who represented the United States at this past summer’s Venice Biennale, has said, “I toggle back and forth between abstraction and figuration.” But is that really possible? Possible, I mean, if you’re going to take the full measure of an artistic language?
This new attitude surely has its attractions. Many of the old arguments between abstraction and representation were coarse, with a my-way-or-the-highway belligerence. A generation and more after artists, critics, and curators rejected what they saw as the astringencies of modernism in favor of a variety of postmodernisms—the term has all kinds of meanings, some wildly contradictory—there may be a sense that we’ve arrived at the end of artistic ideologies. I certainly wouldn’t want to return to the time, some seventy years ago, when Clement Greenberg (according to some accounts) announced that “you can’t paint figuratively today.” Back then there was talk of betrayal when Willem de Kooning mounted a show called “Paintings on the Theme of Woman.” Seen in that perspective, Leigh’s approach—“I toggle back and forth”—might look like just the thing. The curator Michael Danoff observed, at the time of a 1988 Richter exhibition, that his decision to work in “various styles in a single year” was “emblematic of his refusal to proceed in an ideological lockstep.” He quoted Richter: “I have become involved with thinking and acting without the help of an ideology; I have nothing that helps me, no idea that I serve and am known for.”
But should representation and abstraction be regarded as ideologies? I don’t think so. It’s true that styles have sometimes been given an ideological spin. Hitler and Stalin were doing that when they embraced the art of the figure and banned everything else. Avant-gardists have all too often regarded abstraction as a symbol of human progress. But representation and abstraction—and their almost limitless variations—are anything but ideological absolutes, at least not when they are celebrated by a solitary artistic explorer, whether Edward Hopper or Mark Rothko or any number of other artists. A creative process is a philosophical search, shaped by matters of practice and procedure that extend from the first touch of the artist’s pencil, brush, or chisel to the final decisions about what constitutes completeness.
Stylistic particularism—the decision as to what kind of abstract or representational artist you’re going to be—shapes, deepens, and extends the artist’s imaginative powers. Most artists who work for many years see their style evolve, sometimes dramatically. In the 1930s and 1940s Giacometti, who had first been admired for Surrealist sculptures in which representational elements are set in essentially abstract structures, found himself increasingly focused on the direct observation of the human figure. What by the mid-1940s could look like a wholesale transformation of his artistic language was the result of a gradual accretion of individual decisions, all of which, during Giacometti’s career of nearly five decades, interlocked. They reinforced one another. They added up.
Academic art is art in which style has become ideology. We’re right to reject that. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences that matter and distinctions that need to be made. Those are the questions that Giacometti was grappling with in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1954, at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., its first director and guiding spirit, reflected on the passionate differences that animated twentieth-century art:
A leading authority on cubism still insists that a Mondrian is not a work of art at all; a devotee of Mondrian denounces the surrealism of Ernst and Dalí as perversion of true art; a dadaist of 1920 finds the abstract expressionist of 1950 tedious.
While to some this might just seem like “squabbling,” Barr wanted to emphasize that these differences were important, “real and significant, slowly developed, passionately believed in, and expressive not simply of artistic convictions but often of deeply-felt philosophies of life.” Those “deeply-felt philosophies” are commitments that artists make, both to themselves and to those they hope will take an interest in their work.
Perhaps the most widely discussed effort in recent years to bring abstraction and representation together has been in some of the paintings of Julie Mehretu, who was the subject of an enormous retrospective that came to the Whitney Museum of American Art last year. When this fifty-one-year-old artist overlays abstract and representational elements in her immense canvases, she creates an elegant onslaught. Her works have an openness and an amplitude, with jostling shapes and marks in tighter or looser arrays suggesting variegated speeds and interactions, a kind of dance. There’s a suggestion of worlds within worlds; when I first saw her paintings some years ago I was reminded of the deep, almost science-fiction spaces in the abstractions that Al Held was doing in his later years.
Mehretu’s work has had an enthusiastic following in recent years. But I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t the only visitor to the Whitney who found myself more than a little bewildered—and eventually nonplussed—by her bravura juxtapositions of representational and abstract elements. I believe Mehretu’s work has something to tell us about how feelings for both representational and abstract conventions can become hollowed out. The trouble begins when we linger and attempt to navigate her complex compositions. Mehretu often presents, behind her fusillades of abstract markings, a web of architectural or at least architectonic forms rendered in a dry linear style (and probably computer-generated). Her representational manner is as chilly as her abstract manner is feverish. Mehretu wants to create some sort of dialogue, with abstract forms intervening in a representational world. Or is she after something more like a war of the representational and abstract worlds—a visual shouting match?
There’s a method behind this cacophony, one that most people will only begin to grasp when they turn to the titles and commentaries on Mehretu’s paintings. Among her most discussed works is Mogamma, a huge composition in four parts from 2012, her meditation on the events of the Arab Spring. What may first strike a museumgoer are the torrents of black marks that cover the surfaces of four vertical canvases, the grisaille accompanied by an austere counterpoint of a few hard-edged colored elements, including lines, four-sided shapes, a triangle, and a circle. Examine this elegant surface for a little longer and you discover, beneath all the frantic mark-making, renderings of windows, arches, façades.
The title is the tipoff. The Mogamma is a governmental building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where some of the most important clashes of the Arab Spring took place. Mehretu’s collage of architectural elements, we discover as we read about her work, refers to a number of squares where political confrontations have taken place, including Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Red Square in Moscow, Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, and Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, where she was born and spent her earliest years. I don’t think it’s easy to say what Mehretu’s frantic abstract mark-making has to do with these schematic representations of such sites. Is the abstract overlay meant to suggest chaotic social turmoil, a disruption of the old order? Maybe so. But the face-off feels static. It certainly doesn’t help that the significance of the architectural elements is unintelligible without a crib sheet.
Mehretu is an intellectual. I can see where she’s headed when she observes that
architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.
That may well be, but the coldly conceptualized architectural renderings in her paintings have no metaphoric resonance. They don’t suggest power, much less power politics. Representation is an extraordinarily complex language that an artist must inhabit fully, whereas what Mehretu presents are mere images—fixed, inscrutable elements. As for her emphasis on mark-making as abstraction, that also amounts to a diminishment of a great tradition. For marks to be meaningful they must be tied to some vision of an alternate reality, a new reality; that’s what you find in the expressionism of Kandinsky, de Kooning, and other artists.
Mehretu wants us to believe that she’s thinking big when she mixes and matches all these elements. The bigness is mostly bluster. In Mogamma abstraction and representation are little more than clichés, with representation representing power and abstraction representing revolt. That doesn’t take us very far. Theoretically, the juxtaposition and combination of radically different pictorial systems can seem exciting. But the experience of a work of art isn’t a matter of theory (which isn’t to say that artists and audiences can’t be interested in theories); it’s visceral, whether Mondrian’s spare abstractions or Giacometti’s roiled portraits.
I was struck by how many people were eager to discuss their very mixed reactions to the Whitney show. And I was interested to find Roberta Smith, one of the chief critics at The New York Times, observing in a review of Mehretu’s printmaking that her more modestly scaled works “exude a kind of lushness, avoiding the brittle impersonality and formal melodrama often found in her paintings.”
“Postmodernism” is a term we hear much less than we did twenty years ago, but the postmodern emphasis on a relaxation of artistic dispute—a sense that art history has ended and we are now enjoying a creative free-for-all—is one way of understanding the collapse of representation and abstraction as distinct value systems. Of course, for Mehretu they are distinct values, but now robbed of so much of their autonomy and authority that what she wants to present as an epic drama feels more like a position paper. Representation and abstraction have become shadows of their former selves, not philosophies but packages, messages, brands. You could say that Duchamp saw that coming when he drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And there is no question that there are still many artists who are grappling with the deep implications of both representation and abstraction. But at this point a dedication to representation or abstraction of one kind or another can feel nostalgic, sentimental. Now, as often as not, representation and abstraction are used for ambiguity and irony, with results that range from the self-consciously saturnine to the downright silly.
Gerhard Richter would seem to be posing some sort of challenge with the range of his work, which includes painterly abstractions and cool, photo-derived studies of his wife, his children, a candle, or a skull. The individual compositions—a blood-red abstraction on a diamond-shaped support (1998) or a study of a corner of a farm covered in snow (1999)—couldn’t possibly account for his exalted reputation. What exactly is going on here? A reading of the considerable literature that has grown up around his work makes it clear that Richter’s admirers see him as some sort of modern tragedian, navigating the mission impossible that both representation and abstraction are believed to have become. It’s not the value of the individual works but the juxtaposition of representational and abstract works and their impact as a totality that explain Richter’s enormous celebrity.
In interviews—he gives a lot of them—Richter invites his interlocutors to discuss his work in relation to the death of painting and other fashionable topics, and then almost invariably insists that he’s unmoved by these theoretical machinations. I don’t think he’s interested in pictorial problems, either, except insofar as he can skewer them. At a time when critics like to say that they’re “problematizing” art, Richter gives his supporters in the critical establishment a dose of their own medicine; they welcome his paradoxical relationship with both representation and abstraction, no doubt impressed that he’s problematizing the problematizers.
While Richter says that he’s freeing representation and abstraction of their ideological burdens, what I think he’s really doing is denying their philosophical richness. The individual paintings may be banal, but when taken together they seem to inspire—and his admirers are eager to praise—a muffled, thwarted melancholy. Robert Storr, in the catalog of the immense retrospective he organized twenty years ago at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that Richter “has proven capable of holding together the dispersing but not yet entropic fragments of modern experience and consciousness.” Entropy is Richter’s subject.
The stylistic free-for-all that in Richter’s work suggests an artistic endgame can as easily suggest a kind of comedy, as if abstraction and representation were no more than competing fashion statements to be mixed or collaged for some fresh, outré effect. Michelle Rawlings’s show in early 2022 at Chapter NY, one of the newish galleries on Walker Street in Tribeca, was a case in point. Some of the small paintings were representational—studies of fashionable young women. Others were gridded arrangements of tiny rectangles. All that united them was their diminutive dimensions and a self-consciously sentimental palette of pale pinks and greens. As a sort of accompaniment to the paintings, Rawlings glued on the gallery walls, here and there, bits of antique ribbon. Her show could be dismissed as unimportant, a twee escapade. I think it’s symptomatic—and therefore significant.
The gamesmanship was more portentous in an exhibition around the same time by the well-known British artist Keith Tyson at Hauser and Wirth, where he presented a series of still lifes executed in every style, from sharp-focus realism to something verging on abstraction. The result was coldly theatrical; each painting suggested little more than a change of costume. With Rawlings and Tyson—and they’re not alone—the artist becomes an impersonator of styles and style itself becomes a masquerade. I have nothing against a masquerade. But the great stylistic masquerades (de Chirico’s work comes to mind) have deeper foundations. There’s something behind the mask.
Like many major changes in creative and intellectual life, the transformations I’m describing are so much a part of the air we breathe that we’re in danger of missing their broad ramifications. Some will point out, quite accurately, that representational and abstract styles have always been embraced with greater and lesser degrees of gravitas. And mix-ups of abstract and representational elements go a long way back; the argument can be made that they’re an essential aspect of Picasso’s achievement. But the fact that representation and abstraction have never been unchangeable or absolute values does not mean that they haven’t been belief systems that artists depend on as they grapple with the inherent unpredictability of their work.
Up until a couple of decades ago artists, critics, collectors, and the people who ran magazines, galleries, and museums hoped to have a clear sense of where everybody stood. That wasn’t always easy, as Barr pointed out. Positions and viewpoints shifted. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the extent to which the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art were favoring representational or abstract art was a subject of hot debate among New Yorkers, with the battle lines changing from time to time. The combatants sometimes demonstrated considerable respect for one another’s hard-won views.
Some of the most exciting galleries of the midcentury years, among them the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and the Tanager Gallery, embraced a pluralistic view. But pluralism didn’t mean papering over fundamental differences. There was a recognition that arguments might provoke innovations. In a catalog published by the Tanager Gallery in the late 1950s, the critic Irving Sandler, who worked with the gallery at the time, observed that the artists involved—including the representational painter Alex Katz and the abstract painter Alfred Jensen—were “a diverse group with irreconcilable artistic differences” and were “unreservedly outspoken on behalf of their individual viewpoints.” Nobody doubted that the essential nature of art, the morality and metaphysics of art, hung in the balance.
Of course, the problem with belief systems is that they can become sclerotic. For much of the twentieth century, abstraction was presented, at least by its most outspoken proselytizers, as a critique of the rigidities that they felt had overtaken representation. Meanwhile representational painting and sculpture had its own staunch supporters, who saw in some sort of return to realism a rejection of the overly prescriptive or restrictive nature of abstraction. Confronting these competing and often confusing ideas in the decades after World War II, the painter Fairfield Porter, who for some years was the art critic for The Nation, wondered if the arguments between representational and abstract artists were much more than grandstanding—maybe even pigheadedness.
In an essay with the striking title “Against Idealism,” published in 1964, Porter had this to say:
Both realists and abstractionists think they embody an ideal of art of which each work is the shadow: the realist making a reflection of the natural world and the abstractionist making a reflection of the world of ideas in the largest sense, which of course includes non-verbal ideas.
Diabolically playful, Porter proceeded to scramble all their ideas. He commented that paintings by the realist Balthus, with their dreamy interiors, were conceptual and abstract, and suggested that the visceral paint-handling of the Abstract Expressionists—no doubt thinking of his great hero de Kooning—was reality incarnate. “The real,” Porter wrote of the Abstract Expressionists, “is what can be seen”—by which he meant the abstract marks on the canvas. By the end of his essay, Porter had offered his own ideal, which he dubbed “illogical immediacy” and saw as originating in the work of the Impressionists with their direct, unmediated, and—so he believed—untheorized relationship with experience.
Porter’s basic argument, which strikes me as germane to the situation we find ourselves in today, was that many artists who identified themselves as abstractionists or realists were producing little more than illustrations—“shadows”—of an idea or ideal. By the years around 1960, when Porter was writing, the New York galleries were crowded with knockoffs of the painterly abstraction that de Kooning had arrived at only after a long, difficult struggle—and that Porter fervently admired. He must have worried, at a time when the market for contemporary art was exploding, that all that counted any longer was the superficial look of the work—whether it could be labeled abstract or representational, or painterly or hard-edged. One can disagree with some of Porter’s judgments as a critic; he was, for example, no friend of Mondrian’s paintings. What is important about his work as a critic is his willingness to raise alarms at a time when stylistic positions were becoming empty gestures.
There may be some relief and even some wisdom in promoting a cessation of battle between abstraction and representation. Or in celebrating the marriage of opposites, as Mehretu proposes. In the 1960s and 1970s the advocates of abstraction could be brutal—and, frankly, blind—in their rejection of representational art. As a critic who wrote a good deal about representational painting in the last decades of the last century, I saw firsthand the hostility that all too often met any enthusiastic interest in a figure, still life, or landscape painting. But the solution to that kind of prejudice isn’t to argue that any visual artist can speak any visual language.
There is a sense in which any art that succeeds is like all other art that succeeds—at least if we believe that beauty, in its manifold forms, is ultimately one and the same thing. All enduring works of art are both coherent and complex, with forces and counterforces somehow united in a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. But this assumption, which goes back at least to Kant, should not become a cover for what amounts to a muddleheaded eclecticism.
In the last few years there seems to have been a rising fashion not only for artists but also for exhibitions that present abstraction and representation in tandem. The David Zwirner Gallery brought together works by Giorgio Morandi and Josef Albers under the rubric “Never Finished,” and the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, a relatively new organization, presented work by the still-life and landscape painter Jane Freilicher and the abstractionist Thomas Nozkowski under the title “True Fictions.” The juxtaposition of works in these two shows certainly looked elegant, at least in a high-end shelter magazine way. But when the people involved reached for an organizational principle to explain what they were doing, all they could summon were banalities like “Visual perception undoubtedly remained the starting point for both artists” (Morandi and Albers) and “There is a commonality more significant than all their significant differences put together: Let’s call it integrity” (Freilicher and Nozkowski). Aren’t these observations that could be made about any work that succeeds to some degree?
Morandi and Albers were fanatics. They did what they did, to the exclusion of everything else. Their limitations are a key to their achievements. So why this urge to put them together? I think it’s in part because we see artistic limitations, even self-imposed limitations, as a sign of failure—a retreat into art for art’s sake. At a time of political, social, economic, and environmental emergency such as ours, many people find it retrogressive to insist on anything like stylistic purity. How can we risk that, when a show dedicated to Black experience will almost inevitably have to feature work in a great variety of styles, from the painterly abstractions of Stanley Whitney, with their rows of brilliantly colored forms, to the sharp-focus realism of Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama? An exhibition devoted to LGBTQ experience would surely have a similar stylistic range. We hear a great deal about a revival of portraiture today, but the discussion tends to focus on the subject of the portrait, whether the Obamas or a popular entertainer, rather than how an artist actually navigates the traditions of portraiture, an art that is thousands of years old.
Artists have always aimed to expand their horizons, sometimes by embracing modes of representation or abstraction well beyond their comfort zone. You see Picasso thinking along those lines in some of the neoclassical portraits he produced around the time of World War I. That spirit of exploration helps to explain why the contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, who has achieved an enormous reputation with his panoramic studies of American life, recently felt the need to paint a few abstractions, musing in an interview, “How do you do those things now, and really make those things as interesting as they can possibly be?” With Marshall this may be a brief experiment—an interesting experiment.
I can also see why Charles Ray, who earlier this year was the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wanted museumgoers to contemplate, almost simultaneously, a realist figure sculpture that he based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a minimalist box that he made (or had others make) some thirty-five years ago, and a sculpture that replicates an old tractor that he found abandoned in the San Fernando Valley. Each one rubber-stamps a different tradition: representational figure sculpture with Huck and Jim; Minimalism with the box; a sort of Duchampian found object with Tractor. Some may feel that a sleek, seductively anonymous perfectionism unites them. The artist becomes an impresario presiding over the history of art.
We’ve all taken advantage of the unlimited instant access that the wired world claims to provide. So it’s not surprising that many artists are reluctant to contemplate, much less accept, any limitations, even self-imposed limitations. Painters and sculptors who remain in their studios grappling with the fundamentals and fine points of representation or abstraction—worrying about Renaissance theories of perspective or Klee’s and Kandinsky’s ideas about plane geometry—can be accused of having their heads in the sand. But there comes a time when certain questions must be asked. What are the artistic traditions that mean the most to you? What is your artistic heritage? Where do you stand?