Issue Number: 93
Into the void
Is there more to abstract art than meets the eye? Edmund Fawcett enjoys Kirk Varnedoe’s posthumous book on the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most powerful art movements
To be asked to give the annual Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington is one of the top accolades that the museum world can pay to art scholars. As books, the series has resulted in John Rewald on Cézanne and Anthony Blunt on Poussin. Art and Illusion (Ernst Gombrich) and Painting as an Art (Richard Wollheim) both began life as Mellon Lectures.
Into that eminent company in 2003, just before his death at 57 from cancer, came Kirk Varnedoe, a Princeton professor and former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Though his topic, abstract art, was not – and never has been – a crowd-pleaser, people lined up for seats, drawn by his clarity and gusto.
Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field (with Lightning), 1977.
Varnedoe was a character – he looked like Charlton Heston with a PhD, played rugby and rode a motorbike. He was a figure in art-world politics, having won some big battles at MoMA. But people would not have attended his course of six lectures – now published as Pictures of Nothing – if he had not had something to say.
The abstraction he talks of dates mainly from 1960, and is almost exclusively American. It includes painting, sculpture, installations and earthworks, though not video or moving-image art. The lectures open with responses to Jackson Pollock, move on to the different minimalist artists, and end with the more knowing, ironical art of the 1980s and beyond – by which point, earlier abstraction had become a reference bank for improvisation and parody.
Much of the work here is massive, some barely accessible to the public, and almost all of it is hard to grasp in reproduction. But Varnedoe knows and mostly loves this far-flung body of work so well, and writes of it so simply that those drawbacks hardly matter.
He wastes no time filling in the dots in ‘Abstract art is…’, preferring showing to defining. He has in his head battle maps from virtually every art-theory war since Clement Greenberg, but gives us only the relevant details. Individuals and their works, not
‘isms’ and critical vindication, are what stimulate Varnedoe.
Even at second or third viewing, abstract art can be difficult, baffling work. Our eye needs factual nudges. Varnedoe is good at this, without imposing or insisting. On reading that Agnes Martin is ‘a desert mystic’, we stop seeing graph paper and imagine Western landscape. Learning that Michael Heizer is an archaeologist’s son prods us to see Mayan work, as well as Malevich, in his monumental earth constructions in Nevada.
It coaxes the eye, too, to learn that Donald Judd’s repetitious, industrial-looking cubes were made at a craft-metal shop; that Gerhard Richter did his ‘squeegee abstractions’ by rolling a heavy metal bar across thick layers of pigment; and that Cy Twombly executed his obsessive white scribbles by sitting on a friend’s shoulders and working back and forth across a giant grey canvas like a typewriter carriage.
Varnedoe’s enthusiastic insights fill the pages. Through his descriptions, bare, arbitrary or seemingly interchangeable works start to bristle with distinctiveness. His response to materials is especially vivid. Eva Hesse’s latex ‘rope pieces’ from the late 1960s suggest a ‘creepy sense of nubbly skin’, and what skin can do, namely ‘sag, distend, pucker, crease and flap’.
Varnedoe offers no hidden history and makes no predictions. In his classic, A Fine Disregard (1994) – a title inspired by a memorial to the inventor of rugby, William Webb Ellis – he treated modernism as the unexpected result of uncoordinated rule-breaking by daring, original individuals. Pictures of Nothing is similar in historical outlook. Abstract art, he tells us, is neither unitary, inevitable nor necessarily lasting. Nevertheless, he finds abstraction characteristic of a ‘liberal, secular society’ that prizes personal sensibility, even private visions.
That may sound like having it all ways. But inclusiveness was Varnedoe’s thing. At MoMA, he argued that the modern has no cut-off date, and that the museum should continue to collect new work. He argued, too, that it should house everything, contemporary and modern, in one building, to stress wholeness and continuity. He won both points. His vision of America’s abstract half-century in Pictures of Nothing is similarly eclectic and embracing.
Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (Princeton University Press, £29.95)
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