🤔 Rethinking Art History 🤔
Tonight is the final instalment of my latest class, where we have closely investigated historian and curator Pepe Karmel’s latest survey of the past one hundred years of abstract art making. Titled Abstract Art: A Global History, the goal of Karmel’s survey has been to cast a wide net, to research and highlight abstract artists with a specifically global emphasis, looking to places around the world that the Western Art Canon has long neglected.
Karmel’s book comes during a time of upheaval and searching, a time when writers, curators, and artists are looking to highlight figures whose influence on the development of abstract art deserves greater recognition, but whose names are not as widely known.
During the course of our class, we’ve looked at the household names of Abstract Art: Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler. But along the way we’ve also looked at many artists whose work I’ve never seen before.
There are moments of disbelief as I read about the backstories of some of these artists. Over the past five weeks of teaching this course, I’ve learned the names of artists who lived, worked, befriended, and influenced the much more famous painters. Karmel pulls back the frame of art history to reveal an enormous cast of characters who had been exchanging ideas with each other just out of view.
Karmel’s book adds richness and depth to the story of abstract art, by linking artists together in a chain that doesn’t just connect Paris and New York, but stretches to include Taipei, Buenos Aires, and Addis Ababa.
There are certain places and characters that pop up again and again in this survey. Piet Mondrian is a recurring character. There are dozens of artists who made pilgrimage to Paris to study with the masters of abstraction, and in turn become masters themselves.
There are also artists who try to fight off the influence of others, to make a claim to originality and the uniqueness of their own work (usually unsuccessfully).
On the other hand, Karmel also profiles multiple artists who, living as youths in China, received postcards from relatives visiting the West. These youths turned artists then struggled to figure out how, and if, they should combine these western influences with their knowledge and training in traditional painting. These artists worry less about originality, viewing their work as the next link in a long chain.
Karmel’s book doesn’t seek to provide a grand unified theory of abstraction, to counter the existing Western focused narrative that has become the conventional wisdom. The approach alone is his refutation of the historical narrative, the fact that there have been all of these artists working all along, across continents, that have made abstractions from diverse source material that sometimes looks similar, sometimes looks distinct.
Part of the pleasure of reading this book has been in closing it, putting it aside, and googling an artist to see more of their work. Not every piece of work in this book is going to hold the same amount of interest for you, because that would be impossible. But the way the book is structured, with so many connections operating in plain view, floating just under the surface, and buried deep down, there are fascinating revelations with every other turn of the page.
There is a new exhibit opening at MoMA that is very much in the same vein as Karmel’s survey. Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury sees curator Samantha Friedman dive into the museum’s permanent collection to try and re-contextualize the “so-called triumph of American painting” in the 1950s.
Degree Zero puts on exhibit artists from different parts of the world, demonstrating the highly experimental approach to art making that followed after World War II. Although the works are more “stripped down” and are largely in just black and white, the “effect is less austere than sparkling.”
(with one of the more colorful works on display)
As with Karmel’s book, the most celebrated painters of the era are not absent. Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline — but they are very much in the mix, not placed on a pedestal. Notably, “their ranks are expanded” with the inclusion of several works by well-known women artists like Joan Mitchell and lesser known, even “long neglected” ones like Dorothy Dehner and Sari Dienes.
This show “provides a new sense of art’s irrepressible breadth” using artworks that were collected 50 to 100 years ago. It’s an exciting new prospect: digging back into the archives to see what to see what we missed the first couple of times around.
Study Halls continue this Wednesday
Our painting study halls have been running every Wednesday. This is a chance to create time in your schedule for consistent art making. We’re a friendly group of painters who don’t bite and would love to have you join our crew.
Think of the study hall like a social hour where you can log on and work on your latest art project in the company of other painters.
Painting Study Hall: Wednesday, May 18th
If you’d like to join us, you can use this Zoom link for tomorrow at 7 PM EDT.
Study Halls are free to attend, but to show your support, please consider subscribing to my Ko-Fi account. Ko-Fi works like a virtual tip jar, and you can choose to make your donation recurring.
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Our garage gallery project, Goodluckhavefun, was featured in the arts magazine Sightlines. You can read about the project here and also find out more about the fascinating, “phantasmagorical” paintings of our latest artist, Matthew Langland.
If you’re in the Austin area, book a visit to come see our show in person.
A humble offering of electronic tunes this week:
Durante — Maia
Louis La Roche — Snstvty
OTHERLiiNE — Chimes
Ted Jasper — Back for More
That’s all for this week folks. See you next time, and happy painting