In his series of lectures, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock, Kirk Varnedoe asks tough questions. Why abstract art? What is abstract art good for? These questions, the topic of his six lectures, are familiar. It seems to me that they are asked, and in a sense answered, every time an artist makes an abstract work. They are the questions that artists ask as we wrestle with the history of abstraction and as we work to move abstraction forward. And for artists making abstract work now, Pictures of Nothing is necessary reading.
The 2006 publication of these lectures, given as the National Gallery of Art’s Mellon Lectures in 2003, offers the many of us who could not attend the talks access to his clear, concise, deeply informed and often funny examination of the art of the last fifty years. The discussion of abstraction begins, after a very brief summary of the early 20th Century, with the 1950s – the Cold War and Abstract Expressionism. While it progresses to 2003 in a fairly linear chronology, Varnedoe also moves sideways, describing the significance of multiple and seemingly contradictory things happening at once.
James Turrell, A Frontal Passage, 1994
Light, 12′ 10″ x 22′ 6″ x 34′
Pop Art and Minimalism emerging from the same moment. Frank Stella making paintings that are equal parts Pollock and Johns. Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman make quiet, subtle works that appear similar but are worlds apart. Although Varnedoe is forced, in the interest of time, to omit many artists and works that could have been included, he’s not working in art historical generalities. He’s looking at specific ideas, moments and relationships. With regard to this he says, “Epochs do not have essences, history does not work by all-governing unities, and works of art in their quirkiness tend to resist generalities.”
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959
Enamel on canvas, 7′ 6 3/4″ x 11′ 3/4″
As he leads us through de Kooning, Johns, Judd, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Hesse, De Maria, Turrell, Halley, Richter, Marden and Serra (and many others), Varnedoe keeps an emphasis on experience and our responses to the very particular details of a piece. Small differences, he says, make all the difference. Whether it’s how we experience the work directly or how the work relates to our experiences in the world, he ties the art to our personal encounters. Through this he builds his argument that abstraction isn’t grounded in something universal. Rather it’s based on responses that are our own. Subjective. Individual.
It’s this, a culture that coheres because it values independence, that abstraction offers us. In Varnedoe’s words, “This is why abstract art, and modern art in general, being based on subjective experience and open-ended interpretation, is not universal or the culmination of anything in history but the contingent phenomena of a modern, secular, liberal society.”
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1968
Brass, 22″ x 48 1/4″ x 36″
Varnedoe concludes with a reference to the faith that abstract art requires. As he describes it, “Not a faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing…” His faith, his unwavering belief in abstract art is present in every word of these lectures and it’s what makes his insights and arguments so extraordinary.
A modern, secular, liberal society. That’s something to have faith in.
Lynne Harlow is a New York City-based artist. She will present a project at MINUS SPACE project space in December 2007.
Kirk Varnedoe. Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock. Foreword by Earl A. Powell III, preface by Adam Gopnik. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2006.