Thumbing through my dog-eared dictionary (site of too many tongue-tied beginnings), abstraction is firstly a “duality of dealing with ideas rather than events” and secondly, probably in some ways more accurately for our purposes, “freedom from representational qualities in art.” Just like “modern” gets handily replaced by “contemporary” even if they sort of mean the same thing, “abstraction” gets knocked out by “conceptualism,” even if, through at least one definition, they also mean sort of the same thing, that ideas have become central to the making of art. Though we can’t neglect the other meaning either, and though a lack of figuration underlines Abstract: Now and Then at the Berkeley Art Museum, so does the other kind, works not only defined by their second dimension splashes, lines, whorls and surfaces but by the ideas that birthed them.
The Berkeley Art Museum was built with money (and a hefty donation of paintings) from legendary teacher and abstract painter Hans Hofmann, so it’s no surprise that when the museum delves into its collection, abstraction weaves in and out of the work, regularly reinterpreted and misinterpreted by each successive generation. With work on view elsewhere in the museum, Hofmann’s teacherly “push-pull” painting method marked (some like Mike Kelley might say damaged) a generation of student-painters, but his take on abstraction, no matter how fiercely defended, is merely one part of a ranging history.
Entering the gallery, I first encountered Robert Irwin’s Untitled, 1969, a suspended, lacquered disk subject to the kind of disconcerting light and shadow play that suggests an all-seeing eye, an eye which I am now convinced is following me.
Mercifully, it was placed opposite Eleanor Antin’s charming photo-series 100 Boots, 1971-73. The boots were apparently not bothered by Irwin’s all-seeing disk. They were nonchalantly buying flowers, jaywalking, visiting the beach, feeding the ducks, and generally going about their lives. I was relieved.
The show is divided into two parts: the vast gallery dedicated to “Abstract Then” covers work beginning with some fantastic examples of postwar Abstract Expressionism, up through the mid-80s, with works wending their way through the century with stopovers in Surrealism (Duchamp), Minimalism (Carl Andre, Donald Judd) and Conceptualism (Dieter Roth, Antin). Rinder stressed what he called “the latency of images” and seen this way, the “Now” and “Then” galleries illustrate a sort of progression from exploration in surface and form to plays against figuration, the body, and the metaphysical.
The poetry of the layout creates a palpable dynamic between the works. On the back wall, a cluster of small expressionist works seem to be having a conversation. The thick black lines of Pierre Soulages’ Untitled, 1957, call out for one of their own over the color and noise of signature pieces by Pollock, Fautrier, and Asger Jorn. Philip Guston’s August, 1965, quivers in reply, the energy of the shapes on the brink of emerging as figures.
Helen Frankenthaler, Before the Caves, 1958, oil on canvas. Courtesy BAM/PFA.
On the adjacent walls, enormous, latex-dipped canvases of Eva Hesse’s Aught, 1968, hang like huge sheets of human skin, facing the equally enormous canvases of Helen Frankenthaler’s Before the Caves, 1958, and Jay DeFeo’s Origin, 1956—two examples of quintessential American postwar abstraction (in art, as in life, you can tell it’s American by the size). I envisioned a triumvirate in the suggestive play of primodial, cerebral, and corporeal. These are, of course, entirely personal and subjective reactions, but that’s what makes abstract art compelling. Though one can take history and intentionality into consideration, many post-war abstractionists declined interpretation of their works, leaving it to only purely what you saw.
Dave Muller, Sgt. Pepper Chopped & Screwed, 2009, acrylic on paper (four sheets) Photo: Ben Blackwell / Berkeley Art Museum
The relatively tiny space that houses the “Abstract Now“ portion is less conducive to that synergy, but many pieces were nonetheless exciting. Dave Muller’s giant, four-part painting Sgt. Pepper (Chopped & Screwed), 2009, is mounted at an angle that imbues the confetti-like pieces of a once-whole Beatles record the gentle movement of motion-picture snow. Close by, Morph Traits, 2007-2010, a series of 44 drawings between Daniel Higgs and Kyle Ransom form a protracted visual dialogue conducted by mail between the artists over several years. Individually, the drawings resemble the absent doodles of a skilled illustrator, but taken as a whole, it is literally a picture of a conversation, and a much more direct one than could ever be suggested in the previous gallery. I look around, but the other works are of little help.
The “Now” is a problem, but now is always a problem. The telescope of history allows us to shape it into neat movements and poetic narratives, drawing from the direction of a collection of a moment, and the purchases since then attempting to fill in perceived gaps. But the now is just blind immersion in historical process. Now is frankly baffling to me.
Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1969; acrylic lacquer on shaped acrylic plastic disc; 53 1/4 in. diameter; museum purchase. Courtesy the artist and BAM/PFA.