Some Roads Yet Untraveled in Abstraction

Between the Color

Installation view of Between the Color. Courtesy Site:Brooklyn

What’s left of abstraction? Not long ago we were told—most famously by some rambling and snobbish essays of Clement Greenberg’s—that only art which consciously pursued formal innovation could save culture from drowning in mass-market kitsch. As movement gave way to movement, Greenberg insisted, art moved toward increasing abstraction. Artists responded to the past by shucking off more and more unnecessary baggage—figuration, perspective, even shape—in the pursuit of ever purer explorations of the medium itself.

But soon artists began to turn away from this supposed trajectory, rejecting first the abstract ideal and then painting as the master-discipline entirely for a new succession of forms: conceptualism, performance, multimedia installations. Whether one considers these bold innovations or gimmicks by which to impress the art market, they had nothing to do with abstraction as such, with that ruthless subtractive process of whittling images down to their roots which so obsessed critics like Greenberg that they put it at the center of their story of what modern art even is.

The basic gambit of Site:Brooklyn’s carefully curated show Between the Color is that a renewed engagement with color will allow abstract art to escape the flatness to which it has been confined. For all these artists—half of them painters, the rest object-makers highly informed by abstract painting’s heyday—color is a way of creating and manipulating a sense of visual space. Without reverting to representation, the works on display use their palettes to suggest—indirectly, as if by allusion—perspective, distance, even motion. The results are mixed, but often promising.

Consider the painters for instance. Hovey Brock’s misty landscapes of purple and red have a gradient of lighter and darker patches which provide the illusion of depth. Emily Berger’s ridged shell-like shapes, by contrast, create a visual language where color and shading stand not for depth but texture.

Karen Nielson-Fried paints shapes whose edges are often drawn each as if from a different perspective, like in Cubist paintings. She then contrasts these to a background which looks unfinished in order to give them heft. This technique is most successful in Let Everything Happen, where wavy lines become amoeba-like objects layered atop each other with a compelling depth-of-field effect, as if we were looking into a petri dish crawling with strange microorganisms.

One way of escaping flatness, naturally, is to literally move into three dimensions. But even the show’s more sculptural assemblages—hanging from walls, made of an assortment of objects smushed flat against some backing—seem to be responding to the painterly tradition. (The sole exception is Miriam Ancis’s bright and playful freestanding sculptures, made of acrylic-painted steel bars that gently arch and swoop and fall back upon themselves. These somewhat decorative structures—with their bright primary colors and little steel disks hanging along the bars, resembled nothing so much as those abacus-like children’s toys one finds in dentists’ offices. They were pleasing enough to the eye, but seemed to have little to do with the conversation taking place in the rest of the exhibition.)

Coming into the show, I had thought Fred Bendheim’s pieces would be the most impressive. Made sometimes of gouache on paper and sometimes of acrylic-painted PVC, his works are most attractive as digitized images because of their visual complexity and the way they play with the idea that one color placed semi-transparently over another changes the hue of the one underneath. But in person his work is less impressive—closer inspection reveals his colored shapes to be somewhat carelessly wrought, with rough edges that feel more sloppy than intentional.

Installation view of Between the Color. Courtesy Site:Brooklyn

But for me, the real discovery of the exhibit was Wendy Letven.

Letven makes her works out of colored paper cut by lasers according to computer-made designs, then puts them together into remarkably complex but precise assemblages. These tend to resemble something halfway between a machine’s inner workings and snapshots of the various stages of an explosion. Each of the colored paper components is attached to or threaded through one or several of the others. Their shapes—fractals, loops, webs, hexagons—evoke associations with a number of natural and artificial patterns: gears, piping, circuitry, and metal grilles, but also snowflakes, molds, crystals, string, mushrooms, shells, corals, and sponges.

Her best piece is Spin Out, which makes a radical rejection of abstraction’s typical flatness its central concern. The piece consists of a bunch of looping and spring-like shapes “inside” or perhaps behind a set of flat pink strips laid out to look like they compose a misshapen box. Formally it’s almost entirely flat, with its various component shapes packed tightly against one another and the glass, but creates the illusion that these strange loops are taking up three-dimensional space within a box. The multidimensional illusion is only magnified by the way all the components cast a mysterious shadow on the wall upon which the assemblage is mounted.

Of all the Site:Brooklyn artists, it’s Letven who comes closest to charting a viable new path for abstraction. Light and heavy, flat and full all at once, her work uses color not just to imitate space but to play with the very idea of it, to marvelous effect.

But it was her laser-precise paper cut-outs which left me thinking hardest. By consciously juxtaposing patterns drawn from technology and nature against each other in a highly stylized manner, all while employing high-tech implements, Letven seems to be interrogating humanity’s relationship to the world from which it sprang, discovering forms which blur the distinction we tend to make between ourselves and our ecology. Maybe the trouble with abstraction was never its flatness, but rather its refusal to engage with the world we live in and the questions we are forced, in living, to confront.


John Michael Colón

JOHN MICHAEL COLÓN is a poet, journalist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He has published work in Prelude, In These Times, and elsewhere.