Oranges and Sardines

Oranges and Sardines: Conversations on Abstract Painting
UCLA Hammer Museum, November 9, 2008 – February 8, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 26

View PDF

The idiosyncratic title of “Oranges and Sardines,” one of Gary Garrels’s parting exhibitions as Hammer chief curator, is derived from Frank O’Hara’s 1956 poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in which O’Hara, who counted numerous abstract painters among his friends and was a curator at MoMA from 1960-66, muses on the mysterious black-box nature of the creative process. Inspiration goes in; work comes out; but the result often bears little resemblance to the initial idea. The similarly opaque relationship that can exist between artists and their influences provides “Oranges and Sardines” with its structure. Garrels offered individual galleries to six contemporary abstract painters—Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Christopher Wool—inviting each to install, alongside one or two of their own recent paintings, a handful of works by other artists having some formative influence on their practice. But the O’Hara poem provides a still more appropriate point of entry when you consider its context, the fact that it was penned at a time and place when abstract painting ruled the entire conversation. Where that conversation now stands, having been shushed to a near-whisper in the late 60s and early 70s and later crescendoing back to join the present cacophony, is the subject of Garrels’s intelligently unorthodox exhibition.

Most museum shows avoid the personal like quicksand. Curatorial predilection can never help entering the picture, but it’s played down to the public in favor of arguments for objective worth and academic importance. “Oranges and Sardines” embraces the personal, nodding back to an era when supporting an exhibition with a lot of theoretical scaffolding was largely unnecessary, before the curatorial studies discipline sprouted up in response to unruly, hard-to-categorize art, and when a poet with no official art historical training could rise to the upper ranks of MoMA. It’s impossible now to return to that climate, and there are many reasons why we wouldn’t want to, but its echo of reprise here makes for a refreshing departure.

Garrels chooses his six artists as if engineering a high-stakes dinner party—others could have been invited, but, aside from his partiality to these artists’ work and thought processes, he aims for meaningful conversation at the table by stretching the range of generations and approaches. Half, notably, are women. Five live in New York, but three of those spent formative time elsewhere that’s strongly reflected in their practice (Heilmann, California; von Heyl, Germany; Sillman, Chicago)—and New York, while not the only hub for abstract painting, remains the largest. At one end of the spectrum you have Sillman, a mid-career die-hard painter who harbors no apparent anxiety about the status or importance of her medium, who exhibits total commitment to color, gesture, and the physical properties of paint, who works with what one imagines as tempestuous intensity, swirling fragments of narrative and crooked body parts into her canvases. At the other you have Wade Guyton, the youngest artist at 36, who’s only marginally a painter and then almost by accident; he just happens to work on panels of linen run through an ink-jet printer, and the printouts happen to hang on the wall. Guyton’s work is important for the purposes of this exhibition because, rather than deconstruct painting as at first glance it appears to do (and would be doing, if this were the 70s or even the 90s), it moves, if anything, in the opposite direction, as if attempting to reassemble painting from the scrapheap of conceptual art. Educated on a steady diet of post-studio conceptualism, Guyton arrives at painting via a back route, like a thief or just a wanderer. In between, you have Heilmann, a painter who started out as a West Coast ceramicist and sculptor and still dabbles in craft, and who, as a young artist in the late 60s, gleefully put herself through the wringer in New York, provoking anti-painters like Robert Smithson into arguments. Wool, who’s migrated from his conceptual, text-based paintings of the 1980s and 90s toward something approaching gestural abstraction; Grotjahn, an LA artist whose images of shifting, wheeling vanishing points shows there’s still new ground to be broken in abstraction; and von Heyl, who works in the bold, heated, intellectually rigorous tradition of German abstraction—her “Big Nobodaddy” 2008, wants to grip you with tentacles, and does—round out the list.

Governed as they are by personal taste and life events, the contents of the self-curated galleries are eclectic, though Garrels worked with each artist to refine and narrow selections. Painting and drawing dominate, followed by sculpture; there is no purely conceptual work, no film or video, and only one photograph—a quirky, funny Warhol in Guyton’s room, “Hammer and Sickle” (c. 1976-77), a still life with hammer, sickle and slice of pizza. In fact, the only painting Guyton includes is a minimal, airy work by Martin Barré, “67-Z-16-86 X 70” (1977), consisting of a few stripes of black spraypaint on white canvas. Sillman’s gallery focuses, characteristically, on more painterly affinities: paintings by Howard Hodgkin, Lee Krasner, and Forrest Bess key in to her palette, which tends toward offbeat fleshtones and phosphorescent oranges, pinks, and greens. As in her painting “U.S. of Alice the Goon” (2008), crumpled, broken forms proliferate and shapes seem to tussle—an irregularly cut painting by Juan Mele, “Irregular Frame No. 2” (1946), kicks at its contours like a feisty animal. Her room also contains the most examples of figurative painting, including “Sleeping” (1977), a late work by Philip Guston, the only artist to show up in two different galleries. An earlier painting, “North” (1961-62), occupying a shadow realm between figuration and abstraction, its black forms largely ghosted out with white paint but still projecting a vague anthropomorphism, is chosen by Wool. This double-bill could hardly be more apt, not only because Guston spanned the divide between representation and abstraction, but because he did so when moving from abstract to figurative work was backward, significant and dangerous—whereas now the perceived chasm between the two is all but closed up, and artists routinely shuttle back and forth across it.

In overall effect, Grotjahn’s gallery is probably the least appealing; with eleven works, it feels crowded, and might have breathed better and felt more cohesive had he cut one of the two Paul Klee paintings and the Clyfford Still. But then, as the only example of hardcore New York school abstraction in the show other than Ad Reinhardt, maybe Still’s clunky, crotchety presence is necessary. On the other hand, Grotjahn’s room houses some of the exhibition’s most sublime individual works: a Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square: Confident” (1954), in puckering hues of orange, blue, and yellow; the Reinhardt, “Red Painting” (1953), a patchwork of silky apple reds; and, pièce de resistance, a Yayoi Kusama net painting, “No. T.W.3.” (1961), a dense web of white lines painted over a dark background, giving the appearance of thousands of overlapping snow owl feathers—three paintings that illuminate something about Grotjahn’s sensibility for color and texture. Meanwhile, the rooms curated by von Heyl and Heilmann yield a few surprises: we learn that the only work by another artist von Heyl keeps in her studio is a tiny, weird Paul Thek, an anti-monumental painting in shaggy turquoise acrylic containing the grandiose but numbing statement “God Is” (1998). Heilmann serves up a Francis Bacon, “Figure with Two Owls, Study for Velazquez” (1963), a seemingly left-field choice that makes some sense when she reveals that the influence lies in the structure rather than the content of Bacon’s images. There’s also a Joseph Beuys suit, “Filzanzug (Felt Suit)” (1970), which nobody ever would have associated with her, but which seems meant to point at some darkness in her work that her audience tends to overlook.

If “Oranges and Sardines” sets out to explore the question of where abstract painting stands today, it doesn’t arrive at a pat answer. With its cyclorama of diverse, viable approaches, it essentially reaffirms what we knew already: abstract painting, like other modes, stands in many places simultaneously, and the distinction between abstract and figurative painting matters far less than it did historically. Wade Guyton may come at abstract painting obliquely, but many other young artists engage it straightforwardly. Painting—representational, abstract, and hybrid—continues to flow from artists right out of school. Still, as a well-worn field, abstract painting benefits from occasional exhibitions like this one that insist on its relevancy. “Oranges and Sardines” is also significant for its curatorial model: such out-of-the-box exhibitions often put art in the service of illustrating a theme, in a manner that rarely enlightens either the theme or the art. As an innovative curatorial endeavor that doesn’t compromise the integrity of artworks, delves into the personal without indulging in cheap psychology, treats autobiographies as winding narratives rather than as stories to be neatly packaged, provides rich context around the exhibition in the form of actual conversations (a roundtable and printed interviews), and encourages viewers to look closely in ways that may be unfamiliar, it echoes the aim of good art: to challenge its audience as a matter of mutual respect.