An Art of Transition

I’ve often heard it said—and may even have said it myself—that the distinction between abstraction and representation (or, as I prefer to put it, between abstraction and images) no longer counts for contemporary painting. But on reflection I don’t really think it’s true. More accurate would be to say that the distinction has been reconfigured. For much of the twentieth century, tremendous ethical and political as well as aesthetic liability seemed to weigh on an artist’s choice between the two. It was a Kierkegaardian either/or. For an artist to make the choice for abstraction after having been trained, as most were, in the techniques and conventions and ideals of representation was an existential transformation, almost comparable to a religious conversion. For the few notable painters whose work shifted uneasily back and forth between the two modes—most notably Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—such shifts were accompanied by acute anxiety and self-questioning. No wonder it took de Kooning two years to come to terms with his Woman I. Nor is it surprising that when Philip Guston returned to painting images two decades after what had seemed a definitive commitment to abstraction, the change was viewed by many of his old friends as a betrayal.

Needless to say, that would not happen today. The distinction between abstraction and images is not so ideologically fraught. But that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. On the contrary, the fact that so many painters today are working along the broad and very porous border between abstraction and images is a sign that this boundary is, in itself, an object of great fascination. It’s as if the potential for transition had become more urgent than identification with a fixed position. Mobility trumps rigor. More than in images or abstraction per se, there is a tremendous interest today in what the art historian Dario Gamboni has called 'potential images', that is, 'those established—in the realm of the virtual — by the artist but dependent on the beholder for their realization, and their property is to make the beholder aware — either painfully or enjoyably — of the active, subjective, nature of seeing.' That is, seeing one thing rather than another is not a given; it is a commitment — and a form of painting that lays emphasis on this latent state of the image (which is also a latent state of abstraction) is one that throws back on the viewer the question of his or her own choice or predisposition in determining what to see. In particular, the whole phenomenon of 'painterliness' has a different value today than it did in the past. It functions less as a signifier of the individual artist’s stylistic signature or as the trace of emotional expression or of the labor of making that would have been concealed by a smoothed-over high finish — though it can still be all of those — than as a way of allowing the painting to linger in the condition in which things are still unsettled, metamorphic, in transition.

Barry Schwabsky, 2010