Monday, June 13, 2011

AbEx and Disco Balls

(Amy Sillman, Nose, 2010)

The summer issue of Artforum has accessible articles about the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. There are a lot of ideas in there that feel relevant to and for me, so I want to (attempt to) recap some here, probably over the next few posts.

Artist Amy Sillman writes funny. In her “AbEx and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism II,” she notes that the original “school” has been an object of genuine loathing starting with Warhol (and even some AbExers), seen as overly expressive, outmoded or bourgeois. The original period has been boiled down to clichés and specifically gender clichés. For men, the practice is macho (the spurt of the paint), for women, it’s intuitive stroke making. This is obviously simplistic. The actual movement is filled with vagaries and conflicts that go beyond the mythic identity and rhetoric.

But being pushed aside has meant it has become open territory for artists on the margins. Sillman makes many references to Susan Sontag “Notes on Camp.” These are mostly over my head.

AbEx has become appealing to contemporary artists as “an active embrace of the aesthetics of awkwardness, struggle, nonsense, contingency.” You’ll hear talk about “de-skilled” art, but contemporary AbEx artists aren’t focusing on disregarding technique. Rather we’re interested in the terrain of the gestural, messy and physical. And these gestures, this mess, this tactile-ness are also a “technique of the body.” And the body is political: the woman’s body, the transgendered body. AbEx has in this way been reclaimed, and is a way to be promiscuous or anything an artist so chooses. Form and content become one.

The political body talk reminded me a bit of college, but Silman’s essay is quite a bit more nuanced, because (she argues) the body in the AbEx legacy is a body in conversation. It’s not so black and white.

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