It is hard to tell if abstract painting actually got worse [after the 1960s], if it merely stagnated, or if it simply looked bad in comparison to the hopes its own accomplishments had raised.
—Frank Stella, Working Space, 1986

It must be acknowledged at the outset of these observations that the question of whether abstract art has a future is anything but new. The question of abstraction’s future has been raised many times in the past. Historically, the question of abstraction’s future is as old as abstraction itself, for the birth of abstract art some ninety years or so ago immediately prompted many doubts about its artistic viability. No sooner did abstract art—particularly abstract painting—make its initial appearance on the international art scene in the second decade of the twentieth century than the doubts about its future course began to be heard.

Many good minds have raised such doubts, and many benighted minds have done so as well. There are highly accomplished artists and critics who have taken sides on the question, as well as respected museum curators, art collectors, and art dealers. Over the course of time, in fact, debate about the future of abstract art has been an equal-opportunity enterprise to which the smart and the dumb, the advanced and the reactionary, the informed and the misinformed have all been eager to make a contribution.

I have a particularly vivid memory of an evening in 1954 at the Artists Club in New York when no less an eminence than the late Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, announced that the age of abstraction was drawing to a close and would now be succeeded by, of all things, a revival of history painting. The occasion was a panel discussion on what was then called the “New Realism.” It was organized by John Bernard Myers, the irrepressible director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which represented a number of the painters under discussion—among them, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, and Grace Hartigan.

The Artists Club had been founded, of course, as a forum dedicated to the advancement of Abstract Expressionism. It was therefore inevitable that Barr’s provocative pronouncement—and indeed, the very subject of the panel—would be greeted with a vociferous mixture of skepticism and hostility. It had clearly been Johnny Myers’s intention to create such a stir on that occasion, for he knew very well that public controversy would have the effect of making some of the figurative painters he represented better known to the art world. He also knew that Barr had just acquired Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, a modernist version of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s well-known nineteenth-century history painting in the Metropolitan Museum, for MOMA’s permanent collection, and could therefore be counted upon to acclaim Rivers’s picture as a significant development on the contemporary art scene.

To discuss this controversial development, however, Myers had deliberately convened a panel that could be relied upon to be evenly divided about the significance of Rivers’s painting. Joining with Barr in extolling the virtues of Washington Crossing the Delaware and the shift in direction it was said to represent was Frank O’Hara, already well-established as a poet and art critic. Opposing this view, not surprisingly, was Clement Greenberg. Although he had praised Rivers’s earlier work, Greenberg clearly had a low opinion of both Washington Crossing the Delaware and Barr’s claims on its behalf. Relations between Greenberg and Barr had never been anything but icy, and Greenberg remained, in any case, firm in his often-stated belief that abstraction represented what he characterized as the “master current” of the modernist era.

I was the fourth member of the panel, a newcomer to the art scene whose sole claim to attention on that occasion was an essay I had recently published in Partisan Review that was highly critical of Harold Rosenberg’s theory of “Action” painting, then a hot topic in the art world. This criticism of Rosenberg, then an arch rival of Greenberg’s for the critical leadership of the New York School, had the effect of allying me on the panel with Greenberg even though some exhibition reviews I had lately contributed to The Art Digest were unmistakably sympathetic to a wide range of contemporary figurative painting. I didn’t think much of Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, however, and much as I admired Alfred Barr, I didn’t believe that a revival of history painting was either imminent or even possible. Like many first-rate art historians, critics, and connoisseurs, Barr was better at codifying the past than at predicting the future.

I mention all this as a reminder that some of the harshest criticisms of abstract art, and some of the direst predictions of its demise, have come from within the ranks of the modernists themselves. In the 1950s, few living persons could rival Alfred Barr in his knowledge and understanding of abstract art, yet he seems genuinely to have come to believe that its end was nigh—and indeed inevitable. In the 1960s, Philip Guston, after winning considerable acclaim as a convert to Abstract Expressionism, won even greater acclaim for loudly denouncing abstraction in favor of a pictorial style derived from comic-strip and other populist images. Then in the 1980s came Frank Stella’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, Working Space, with its litany of contemporary abstraction’s repeated failures to produce an art that we had any reason to admire. Stella, too, looked to populist imagery for inspiration—in his case, urban graffiti—with results that are depressingly familiar.

Given this checkered history, in which so many gifted people have said so many foolish things about abstract art—and we haven’t even mentioned the openly declared enemies of abstraction—why does one feel compelled to raise the question of its future yet again? I think there are several good reasons for doing so. One is that by any objective measure, the place occupied by new developments in abstract art on the contemporary art scene—what we see in the galleries and museums and read about in the mainstream press and in the art journals—by this measure, the place occupied by new developments in abstract art is now greatly diminished from what it once was.

In this country, certainly, you have to go back to the 1950s and 1960s to recall a time when new developments in abstract art had shown themselves to have the effect of transforming our thinking about art itself. This is what Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and others accomplished in the early years of abstract art. It was what Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and others in the New York School accomplished in the 1940s and 1950s. And, for better or for worse, it was what Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and certain other Minimalists accomplished in the 1960s.

I don’t myself see anything comparable to this group impact on aesthetic thought happening at the present moment. I haven’t observed anything of comparable magnitude occurring in the realm of abstract art since the 1960s. Let me underscore here that I am speaking about group impact on aesthetic thought, about art movements and not about individual talents. I am speaking about the impact of abstract art—or more specifically, abstract painting—on cultural life. That kind of impact on cultural life can rarely be achieved by an individual talent working in isolation from a group of like-minded, or similarly-minded, talents.

I think there is a reason why the place occupied by abstract art is now so radically diminished not only on the contemporary art scene but in cultural life generally. At least I have an hypothesis as to the cause or causes of the diminished power and influence that abstraction has suffered since the acclaim it met with and the spell it cast in the 1960s. And let me be clear once again about what I mean in speaking of abstraction’s diminished powers. I mean its power to set the kind of agenda that commands the attention of new and ambitious talents—and at times, indeed, even the emulation of established talents.

Before speculating about the causes of this diminution in what may be called, for want of a better name, movement abstraction, I think it important to recall something that has been central to the aesthetic history of abstraction itself—specifically, its inevitably symbiotic relation to representational art. As all of us know (but sometimes forget), abstract art—especially abstract painting—derives, aesthetically, from representational painting. Whatever the degree of purity abstraction can be said to attain, it cannot make claim to a virgin birth. If abstract painting could be said to have a genetic history, its DNA would instantly reveal its debt to some representational forebear. Whether abstraction derives from Cubism or Impressionism or Fauvism or Neo-Impressionism or Expressionism or some combination of these developments, its antecedents are traceable to the aesthetic vitality of representational painting. This is true of abstract sculpture, too—for abstract sculpture comes out of abstract painting—specifically, Cubism and Cubist collage.

In my own speculations about the fate which movement abstraction has suffered in our own day, two specific developments seem to nominate themselves as the cause or causes of our current impasse. The larger and more general cause is the fate of painting itself—its fate as a factor in cultural life generally as well as in the life of art. If we look back on two recent developments—the series of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art called “MOMA 2000” and the transformation of the Tate Gallery in London into two really bizarre institutions—Tate Britain and Tate Modern—we are obliged to recognize two things: (1) that on both sides of the Atlantic, abstract art has been marginalized by the institutions that were formerly in the vanguard of its public support and presentation, and (2) that painting itself is well on its way to being similarly marginalized.

It was certainly striking that in the vast logistical planning that went into the organization of the “MOMA 2000” exhibitions, no place was accorded to the birth and developments of abstract art. There were plenty of examples of abstract art in the separate little shows that constituted “MOMA 2000,” but those examples were in every case presented to the public on the basis of their subject-matter, their so-called “content,” and not on the basis of their abstract aesthetic. John Elderfield, one of the curators involved in the organization of “MOMA 2000,” at least had the decency to acknowledge this perverse treatment of abstraction as a failure of thought, but elsewhere in the voluminous texts that accompanied “MOMA 2000” the aesthetic history of abstraction was consigned to oblivion.

At Tate Modern in London, there was also a discernible hostility to all aesthetic considerations, for painting and sculpture of every persuasion were similarly presented to the public on the basis of their thematic “content.” And in the Tate Modern’s initial blockbuster exhibition—a real horror called “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis”—painting could scarcely be said to have been given even a marginal status. In the section devoted to New York, for example, the twentieth century was represented by work from the period 1969–1974 with the principal focus on Andy Warhol, Lynda Benglis, Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Mary Miss. There were no paintings, abstract or otherwise. Even in the sections devoted to Vienna 1908–1918 and Paris 1905–1918, where paintings could not be avoided, they were presented as a kind of tribal art of interest for its social content and political imagery.

In my own thinking about this fateful shift of priorities away from the aesthetics of painting, both abstract and representational, in favor of a political, sexual, and sociological interest in art-making activities, two historical developments—one within the realm of art itself, the other in the larger arena of intellectual and cultural life—appear to have shaped the situation in which we find ourselves. In the art world, the emergence of the Minimalist movement, which has been so central in determining the fate of abstract art since the 1960s, went so far in diminishing the aesthetic scope and resources of abstraction that it may in some respects be said to have marked a terminal point in its aesthetic development. At the same time, in the larger arena of cultural life, the fallout from the 1960s counterculture left all prior distinctions between high art and pop culture more or less stripped of their authority. It was hardly a coincidence that Minimalism and Pop Art made their respective debuts on the American art scene at the very same moment. However they may have differed in other respects, they were alike insofar as each constituted a programmatic assault not only on the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School—their initial target—but also on the entire pictorial tradition of which the New York School was seen to be a culmination.

It was left to Donald Judd, the most militant of the Minimalists, to spell out exactly what was at stake in this project to sever all ties to the cultural past. About what Judd contemptuously called “the salient and most objectionable relics of European art,” he was nothing if not explicit: “It suits me fine,” he said in a radio interview in 1964, “if that’s all down the drain.” He clearly meant it, too, for what was needed, in his view, was an art that would radically occlude all connection not only with the great traditions of the distant past but also with the kind of latterday modernism that he had come to regard as the depleted remnants of a moribund culture. For Judd, art itself had become a utopian project.

There is a passage in an essay by Lionel Trilling—“Aggression and Utopia,” published in 1973—that neatly defines the spirit that came to govern this utopian project and so much else in the Minimalist movement. Never mind that Trilling was writing about a Victorian utopian romance— William Morris’s News from Nowhere. His admonitory analysis of its utopian vision applies with uncanny accuracy to the Minimalist project. This is the key passage:

the world is an aesthetic object, to be delighted in and not speculated about or investigated; the nature and destiny of man raise no questions, being now wholly and finally manifest… . [I]n Morris’s vision of the future, the judgment having once been made that grandiosity in art is not conformable with happiness and that Sir Christopher Wren had exemplified radical error in designing St. Paul’s, the race has settled upon a style for all its artifacts that is simple and modestly elegant, and no one undertakes to surprise or shock or impress by stylistic invention.

This, in my view, is the Ground Zero from which the aesthetics of abstraction has not yet recovered.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 4, on page 9
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