Richard Kalina Curates an Abstract Art Show at DC Moore Gallery
Jul 3, 2019
Richard Kalina is easily one of the most informed experts on contemporary art in America today. He has taught at Fordham University, Yale and Bennington College; is an influential art critic with decades of experience writing for Art in America and other well regarded publications; and he is an accomplished painter whose work is included in the collections of such beloved institutions as the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This summer, Kalina has brought that wealth of experience with him in his role as curator for an exhibition at DC Moore Gallery in New York, titled The Unusual Suspects: A View of Abstraction. The show features work by more than 20 contemporary abstract artists, including younger artists like Paolo Arao and Federico Herrero, mid-career artists like Carrie Moyer, and legends like Barbara Takenaga, Shirley Jaffe, Valerie Jaudon, Joanna Pousette-Dart and Kalina himself. Multiple Modernist and Post Modernist aesthetic positions are referenced in the various works, from Hard Edge Abstraction and Process Art, to Pattern and Decoration, Lyrical Abstraction, Op Art, Minimalism, and beyond. Yet, one of the key points Kalina is trying to make with this exhibition is that such labels as the ones I just offered are no longer relevant. His impetus for curating this exhibition is to shatter the idea of art movements, and instead get us thinking in terms of an expanded field of simultaneous methods and ideas interconnecting in the vibrant realm of contemporary abstract painting.
A Visual Delight
Visually, the curation for The Unusual Suspects offer an assortment of delights. An untitled canvas by Federico Herrero plays with notions of horizon lines and forms in space, stimulating the mind while seeming to reference both contemporary digitization and past Surrealist artists like Miró. A strikingly painterly, recent work by Valerie Jaudon is nuanced and complex, reminding us that the movement with which this artist is associated—Pattern and Decoration—is not only about compositional strategies; it is about personal truths, and the right of artists to be considered in their wholeness. One of the most visually compelling works in the show is “Real Hero,” a painting by 33-year old Amie Cunat. The image compresses visual space at the same time as it expands it, mobilizing color relationships and depth to create a startling, electrified field.
Amie Cunat - Real Hero, 2019. Polyvinyl acrylic, flashe and gouache on canvas. 60 x 48 inches. DC Moore Gallery.
In addition to the purely visual wonders on view, many of the paintings in this exhibition succeed in evoking instant emotional reactions. “Choral Quarrel” (2018), a sewn cotton and canvas work by Philippine artist Paolo Arao, teased my eyes with whimsy as I travelled back and forth across its mystifying bent planes. “The Chinese Mountain” (2004-5) by Shirley Jaffe, who died in 2016 at age 92, encompasses the pure joy she so often imbued in her paintings. “Spiritual Etiquette” (1991), a raucous pink oil painting by Jonathan Lasker, is rife with anxiety and punch. Meanwhile, “Folds (bluegreen) II” (2019) by Barbara Takenaga offers a meditative field where both the eyes and mind might find some respite.
Jonathan Lasker - Spiritual Etiquette, 1991. Oil on linen. 72 x 54 inches. DC Moore Gallery.
Wrong Versus Right
According to Kalina, he assembled this exhibition to offer viewers an entree into the idiosyncratic realm of contemporary abstraction. He clearly states the guiding premise of his curation in the writing that accompanies the show: that the so-called “art movement” is a thing of the past, yet despite no longer fitting in to any preconceived stylistic, methodical, or manifestoed categories, painters—especially abstract painters—have nonetheless persisted in creating new works. To drive home this point, a week after the opening of The Unusual Suspects, the gallery hosted a panel discussion titled Abstract Painting: Wrong Questions, Right Answers? As that name implies, the discussion was rooted in the idea that there are proper and improper ways to talk about contemporary abstraction. Kalina opened the talk by declaring that “across all forms of art making,” and especially with abstract painting, there have been no art movements in the past 30 years. I found this statement and the conceit of the discussion to be curious. Who decides what is wrong and right? And off the top of my head, I can think of three art movements that originated in or around the last 30 years—Pop Surrealism, Social Practice Art and the Mission School in San Francisco. In my notes there are perhaps a dozen more.
Valerie Jaudon - Heart of the Matter, 2005. Oil on canvas over panel. 48 x 48 inches. DC Moore Gallery.
The idea of a past when art history was defined by hierarchical, linear movements compared to a present that is somehow fundamentally different is a myth. Art—and especially abstract painting—has always been a mishmash of some artists who are preferred by the market and beloved by academics, and thus lumped into movements, and other artists who are idiosyncratic, hard to define, or for some reason considered outsiders, who are thus ignored by the taste makers. I realize Kalina is not trying to present this exhibition as a comprehensive overview of everything happening in abstract painting today; rather he is presenting, as he writes, “a synchronic snapshot of a significant portion of abstract art today, a still image of a moving map.” But given his background as historian, professor, critic, and successful artist, and especially given that his own work is included on his “map,” it seems more like this exhibition is an introduction to his own personal tastes. It shines a spotlight on a selection of artists and aesthetic positions that Kalina perceives as relevant to contemporary abstraction. As much as I agree with his choices and delight in the works in this show, I disagree with his premise. I wish he had simply shown the work without confounding it with an incorrect conceit about art movements. Or, if he really wanted to show the true breadth and diversity of the contemporary abstract art field, he perhaps should have waited until he had room to show the hundreds, perhaps thousands of additional unique aesthetic positions of which it consists.
Featured image: Brian O'Doherty - Vaughan’s Circle, 2004. Liquitex on canvas. 6 x 6 feet. DC Moore Gallery.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio