Thinking About Everything And Nothing

Carl Belz

Nothing is everything. The existential proposition is appealing, particularly in relation to visual art. But not all of it. Not art that originates in the purposeful urge to engage directly social or political issues and concerns, for instance, or undertake partisan cultural or institutional critique, or promote exclusively an ideology of one sort or another–in other words, and regardless of quality, not art that’s subsumed first and last by service to a personal agenda or theoretical program. Instead, art that addresses the ways of the world from a position that’s oblique to them, art that is self-aware in acknowledging its limits and autonomous in its being–art as art that stakes its all on being knowable in and of itself and is otherwise good for nothing. And why does such art mean everything to us? Because its ongoing process of knowing and acknowledging is synonymous with the experience of coming to ourselves from within rather than without, and too because it so candidly mirrors what modern experience–what our being in the world in the first place–is itself all about.

The art I’m referring to, modernist art, includes the paintings in this exhibition, a genre of abstraction representing a vital thread within the larger fabric of abstract painting, one whose history now reaches back a full century. In terms of formal character, it generally looks like painting that’s been pared down to its essentials–to a single field of color, for instance, or a few elemental stripes and shapes, often geometric, that are presented singularly or in some kind of progression–hence, its designation as reductive, monochromatic, minimal, systemic and so forth. It’s painting that risks appearing not as non-art, not as ordinary things like readymades–a sub genre that’s tracked abstraction since its beginning–but as art in which there seems to be nothing going on or nothing to look at, art that’s been drained of art’s usual effects and signifiers, as though it’s art in name only, art that may even be nugatory.

The risk has not been merely academic. While reductive and minimal-type paintings have historically not wanted for meaning, their meaning as perceived has at times fluctuated dramatically between the all-or-nothing extremes of everything and nothing. Kasimir Malevich’s seminal White On White, a white square in a white field, envisioned via pure geometries a utopian future imbued with pure artistic feeling, yet his art was quickly condemned under the Stalin Regime of the 1920s as a negation of life’s and nature’s’ purities, and he was ordered to paint as a social realist or not paint at all. A full generation younger than Malevich, Barnett Newman came to maturity in the early 1950s with paintings consisting of vast color fields inflected only with a few slender vertical stripes–zips, as he called them–radically simplified paintings for which he audaciously claimed a life-altering experience of the sublime but which, when exhibited, brought instead mostly ridicule–they were considered empty and pretentious–a response that turned Newman from publicly showing his work for most of the decade. A third generation in this Malevich-Newman line is represented by Frank Stella, a steadfast admirer of the work of both older artists, who wanted in his celebrated Black Paintings, the first of the stripe paintings he developed between 1959 and 1965, not any supra significance–no utopian purity, no sublime–only abstract images that would present themselves front and center with unequivocal punch and authority, everything about them clear and accessible, requiring nothing but a willingness to look in order to understand them. You can imagine the artist’s dismay when a critic designated them nihilist Dada abstractions!

Stuart Fineman, Alan Greenberg and Karen Baumeister are not likely to encounter the resistance, let alone the hostility, faced by their forebears. A full half-century of lean-looking abstraction now informs the historical record and occupies a firm position in the lexicon of painting within the art of our time. Which is not to say they don’t face a challenge in wanting to find a responsive audience for their pictures within the ebb and flow of today’s cultural environment–an environment ubiquitously laced with cynicism and irony, bound to mass media, visually glutted, serving up art as spectacle and entertainment, and promising instant gratification while racing breathlessly and inexorably to the next great thing. Against that backdrop, which is nothing if not challenging, they present us with lean-looking pictures that picture nothing, that are reticent, that are slow to reveal themselves and their pleasures, pictures of the sort that are at their best when encountered not in clusters before crowds but one-on-one and face-to-face, the way we encounter one another, which is how we come to know fully everything they are. Our current cultural environment puts such pictures at risk, not only in increasing the odds against our getting their meaning right but against our finding time to get any of their meaning at all.

And what are the pleasures we miss if in thrall to our culture’s hurried visual cacophony? In the case of Alan Greenberg’s slabs of color–they sometimes look like painting-sculpture hybrids–it’s the pleasure that attaches to their substantial and visually engaging physical presence, to the vital way they assert themselves via richly worked surfaces variously scarred and smoothed, edges rough yet supple, bulk that’s sometimes ample and sometimes spare, sometimes firm and sometimes yielding–that is, to physical presence linked not so much with things in nature, inanimate things like rock formations, but more meaningfully with the spectrum of experiences we associate with our own bodies and with the human body generally. Not the body as we imagine and dream it–the body weightless in which we magically soar–rather the body obdurate that sometimes gets in our own way and over which we end up tripping ourselves–the body in lived experience; which is the same body that is also prized and celebrated here–the body capacious in enabling self expression, the body confident and resilient as well as robust and sensuous, the body as a vehicle for pleasure than which none more satisfying is known to us.

Karen Baumeister’s pictorial route is physically reserved and quietly dignified, a matter of guiding her brush with a sure and gentle hand in coating everywhere the painting surface, gradually and steadily building it, unifying it stroke by stroke and layer by layer, and thereby bringing it patiently and fully to resolution. In keeping with her reserve her palette is hushed, typically inclining toward soft reds and greens, grays, and off-whites, a range of color imbued with the life-giving natural light in which the paintings are made, color at the same time glowing within a quiet register of feeling that attaches to lived experience, a murmur of the heart, a fleeting thought, the whisper of a memory. Reserved yet clearly felt, the pictures are accordingly personal, even intimate; they seem made not for museums as much as for private living spaces, for times when they can be engaged and known individually and in depth–but also for moments when they catch our attention while we’re doing something else, looking up from a book, say, and we notice they’ve become bathed in natural light at a certain time of day and we thrill to see them suddenly come alive and blossom anew. Such are the pleasures of living with an art framed by the feelings that attend being human.

Emphatically more than minimal in appearance, Stuart Fineman’s recent pictures are better described as field paintings in the way the layers of closely-valued pigments comprising them are made to penetrate and mingle with one another to produce a seemingly boundless, overall presence of splendrous, radiant color. A chromatic presence that’s altogether visual–intangible, that is, not a graspable thing, not a wall or a tapestry or even a veil–a presence whose inner light references phenomena like the evanescent glow of an autumnal sunset in the natural world, yet equally references the abstract, dematerialized and otherworldly world of Byzantine mosaics we know in the world of art–thus, pleasuring references that also freshen and deepen our appreciation of worlds we’re already familiar with. And further a presence directly related to modern experience via its acknowledgment that the human spirit informs our being in the world to no less an extent than the human body or the human heart, which is to say body, heart, and spirit vitally complement one another–as they complement one another within the works of each of the artists in this exhibition–in our ongoing quest to be whole in and of ourselves, a quest that may not equate with everything we might be, but one that is surely not nothing in the context of the imperfect world we live in.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.  His essay ‘Thinking about Everything and Nothing’ was written for the exhibition ‘nothing is everything.’

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[…] The art I’m referring to, modernist art, includes the paintings in this exhibition, a genre of abstraction representing a vital thread within the larger fabric of abstract painting, one whose history now reaches back a full century. [Read more…] […]

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