Questioning the State of Abstract Painting

Bob Nickas, Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanley Whitney. Photo by Roger Kamholz, the Jewish Museum

A capacity crowd packed Scheuer Auditorium Thursday, October 23, for the Museum’s latest Dialogue and Discourse panel, “What’s at Stake for Abstract Painting Today – and Where Do We Go from Here?” Prompted by the inquisitive title, moderator Bob Nickas led a searching and at times acerbic discussion among artists Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanley Whitney that aired frustrations with an art world afflicted by money and its influences, as well as what they felt was a related and dismaying trend toward “unrealized” contemporary abstract painting. 

Nickas prefaced the talk by invoking artist John Miller’s critical assessment of painting as “a service industry” and went on to characterize much of the abstract painting he sees today as repetitive, quick to appropriate from other artists’ work, and presumed successful so long as it reflects some “conceptual” underpinnings or process. He noted that a visit to any of the current parade of money-driven international art fairs would serve to confirm that so much painting made now – rather than divining what the culture needs – answers to the forces of the market.

To stress how the art world has changed in recent years and has created an atmosphere for this kind of work, Nickas brought up the example of Marcel Duchamp, who promptly abandoned his Nude Descending a Staircase series once the paintings became world famous. Would an artist today be so quick to walk away from such a winning idea?

Greenbaum remarked on how artists are showing their work in galleries at much younger ages compared to when she was embarking on her own career. “I had many years to develop my work,” Greenbaum said, before she felt ready to show it. “Art is a lifetime.” Whitney, too, saw this rush to exhibit as problematic for a young artist. “The way you get knowledge from painting is a very special, very slow thing,” he said. Greenbaum then went on to recall a peculiar recent visit to an art school where, upon entering a classroom, she found no traces of any artwork; all the students instead wanted to show her their “ideas” on laptop screens. The experience left her wondering if today’s art students are undergoing “a de-skilling” with respect to artistic technique.

The evening’s barbs weren’t only pointed at artists and art schools. Returning to the question of Where do we go from here?, Nickas also faulted critics and curators (of which he is both), as well as museums, for giving credence to contemporary work that lacked artistic maturity and appeared obedient. He said that reacting against and contesting the status quo is often the motor driving art forward. For his fellow curators and critics, he had the following parting advice: “I would like to see more positions taken.”

Watch the video of the panel here: