Make it new? Conversations about abstract art at The Clark

I visited The Clark in Williamstown, MA this past Saturday. The reason for the visit was a symposium featuring artists talk about the current exhibition of abstract art at The Clark titled Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975. I didn’t get a chance to see the exhibition but I was happy to walk through the gorgeous new addition by Tadao Ando and enjoy three stimulating conversations.

The symposium brought together distinguished artists and writers to share and reflect on their thoughts about abstract art and the history of abstract art as represented in the exhibition. For this blog post I just wanted to highlight some of the discussion that I found interesting and show some examples of the artists’ work.

Conversation #1: Poet and critic Vincent Katz and artist Brice Marden

In this discussion a couple themes emerged that were carried through the other conversations – the issue of titles for abstract works, and the idea of creating “difficult” art. When it comes to naming work, Marden said he was more romantic about it than some. The Ab Ex ethos would be more inclined to simply name the piece “Untitled” or a number.

Brice Marden, Study for the Muses (Hydra Version), 1991-1997

Marden elaborated on the tension between abstract art and realism that he experienced in the 1960s. He described it as a battle over which style of art was more valid and described himself as a “vehement abstractionist.” In the end the battle was lost, since abstract and realist art are both considered valid today. Or as other artists commented, today we have a hybridity of styles, form, and content.

When Katz pushed Marden to explain “vehement abstractionist” Marden responded by saying that it had to do with how much the artist led the viewer and that realism does it by providing a convenient reference. He explained that it used to be that Norman Rockwell was the devil, and now no one gets too riled up about Norman Rockwell. Using Jasper Johns “Target” as an example, Marden went on to explain that one of the main concerns for abstract artists in the ’60s was the question “What’s real?”. Focusing on the divide between real and purely abstract, Marden commented that illusionism had no place in abstract art. He pointed out that in abstract expressionism the little things matter a lot: if there are overlapping planes, the exact positioning of the lines, etc. Today, in contrast, it is hard to tell what matters.

Conversation #2: Artists Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon:

Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon in conversation at The Clark on Sept. 6, 2014.

Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon in conversation at The Clark on Sept. 6, 2014.

Kim and Ligon exchanged friendly banter as they discussed works of art that particularly appealed to them. These included selections by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt (poorly reproduced above), and On Kawara. The artists also brought and talked about examples of their own work.

Both artists talked about where they begin works of art – for Ligon it was text, for Kim it seemed to be visual experiences found in daily life mixed with a desire to create abstract color-focused paintings. Ligon talked about choosing texts and how he uses text to get to abstraction, that the words become difficult to read, but they are still meaningful, and that ultimately they drive many decisions about how the work will turn out.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (Conclusion), 2004

Kim talked about the titles of his works, his undergraduate education as an English major when he studied 19th century poetry and aspired to be a poet, as well as visits to the Rothko Chapel, and how “time is so strange…in general.” I found it incredibly helpful to hear Kim talk about his process in creating his paintings of the night sky as seen from the city. He explained some of his doubts in creating the works and how input from other artists like Ligon really affect his decisions.

Conversation #3: Artists Amy Sillman and Thomas Eggerer

Both artists are currently faculty at Bard. Since Eggerer hails from Germany, his perspective on the abstract expressionists was very interesting and very different from the American artists. The Germans it seems find the machismo and expressiveness of ab ex a little embarrassing. Instead of looking towards De Kooning or Pollock for leadership or inspiration, the German artists Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter led the way. In this conversation I learned more about Eggerer’s work than Sillman’s, but got the impression from her probing and easy way of talking that Sillman is probably an amazing teacher.

Thomas Eggerer, The Privilege of the Roof, 2004

Eggerer declared himself “more than just a happy figure painter,” and Sillman admitted, “I’m rather hostile toward pictures.” The fact that both are looking at and creating art from two different perspectives and attitudes was very clear, but also made for an entertaining dialogue.

With the artists featured in these discussions we got to see the relationship between abstract and realist art as it exists today – not completely at odds, but firmly rooted in separate genealogies. Overall an interesting symposium that made me think and laugh a bit. The weather was stormy throughout the day but on the way home to Fitchburg, my mom and I saw an amazing full rainbow. Here’s a pic of one from Chicopee, MA.

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