New Painting Forms 1986-1995
Mark Dagley, Max Estenger, Michael Scott, Li Trincere.
25/9 – 28/10 2021
Curated | Paul Corio
Pazo Fine Art | Kensington | Maryland
In the second half of the 1980’s, Li Trincere, Michael Scott, Max Estenger, and Mark Dagley were all making geometrically-derived abstractions and exhibiting in NYC galleries. It’s therefore easy and tempting to classify each under the umbrella of Neo-Geo, the contrarian and highly intellectualized heir apparent to Modernist hard-edged painting. But the reality is not that simple, and some historical perspective is in order.
Neo-Geo occupies a somewhat shadowy place in the canon of 20th century art movements. Pop, Minimalism, and Abstract Expressionism are, along with a broad variety of other period styles, far easier to define in terms of motifs, objectives, chronological borders, and membership. There is some debate as to the whether or not Neo-Geo was an art movement at all. If it was, it was certainly among the last – the very idea of the art movement was effectively abolished by Post-Modernism in the waning years of the last century. There are, however, some things that can be said about Neo-Geo with confidence.
The term first appears in connection with a 1986 exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery which featured four young artists who would all go on to great acclaim: Jeff Koons, Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, and Peter Halley. All were interested in pursuing a critique of consumer culture in late modernity, but the fast track that each of these artists rode to stardom cast some suspicion on the sincerity of that critique. Halley, the oldest of the group at 33, was the only one to strictly use geometry in his work (indeed, there are few people today who would count Koons or Bickerton as exponents of the style). Other names for this new movement were considered, including Post-Conceptualism, Post-Abstract Abstraction and Simulationism.
All this begs certain questions: Was Neo-Geo a visual style, or merely or a set of critical objectives? If the latter, why was geometry considered an integral part, particularly in light of the fact that some of the artists associated with the style didn’t actually use geometry? Halley, who in retrospect is considered the key figure of the movement, provides some guidance in an article entitled “The Crisis in Geometry,” first published in Arts Magazine in June of 1984:
The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did with the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed. To some extent, the viability of these formalist ideas has atrophied with time. They have also been distorted and bent to conform to the bourgeois idealism of generations of academically-minded geometric classicists.
Post-war French philosophy (Baudrillard, Foucault) takes center stage in Halley’s argument, and what he refers to as the obsession with geometry in western culture is essentially recast as a methodology for Foucauldian notions of power, control, and surveillance. In describing his own work in the same essay, Halley confirms that he uses techniques adopted from hard-edge and color-field painting, but explains his true motive in terms of Baudrillardian simulacrum: “Nostalgia, the fantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains.”
There are, however, contemporaries of Halley who would take issue with his somewhat grim formulation of geometry as an ironical phantasm, and Li Trincere is chief among them. She pursues no line of critique. She does not see geometry as an exhausted motif, and has been methodically exploring its nuanced possibilities in paintings and works on paper for the better part of forty years. Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that she feels no special allegiance to Neo-Geo and counts herself among those who viewed it with a certain level of mistrust based on the speed with which it became commercialized, even as it claimed to critique commercialism. Trincere has reverence for the hard-edged styles that preceded her (Russian Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, Reinhardt, Kelly) and sees her own work as an unbroken part of that long lineage.
Trincere’s motifs are highly distilled and her canvases are often shaped, hinting at sculptural objecthood. But even under these conditions, she maintains that figure/ground is still a primary issue, as it was in essentially all painting trailing back to the old masters. In her own work, she subtly redefines the figure/ground relationship as the dominant and subdominant. Trincere’s Untitled from 1990 is 6’x 6,’ and takes the form of two nested L-shapes with a cut-out in the upper right. The majority of Trincere’s shaped canvases constitute discreet forms (refer to the hourglass-shaped canvas, also in this exhibition). In this particular painting, however, the cutout suggests an absence, which accounts for one quarter of the 6’ square that is strongly implied by the canvas. The fully saturated primary red is the more active color, and is supported and framed by the black, suggesting red’s visual dominance – but the red “L” is considerably smaller than the black, and a visual balance is thus maintained between the supporting neutral and the more energetic primary. Further, the cutout suggests a white square (providing the painting hangs on a white wall) and this illusory square in turn finds itself in a dominant position (as if seated on a throne). But here again, the more visually active red together with the reality that the square is an optical phantom insures balance.
As a young painter in New York in the early 1980’s, Michael Scott witnessed the birth and rapid proliferation of Neo-Expressionism. While not entirely dismissive of the style, there was always one nagging issue on his mind: each of these artists was seeking to express emotions of a very personal nature, yet in the overall din they seemed, in Scott’s view, to be expressing the same thing. His antidote to this contradiction was to make works in which the author, along with the author’s emotional state, was absent. Scott sought to make paintings that established a relationship solely between the viewer and the particular work being viewed, and his approach entailed removing all traces of autobiography – aesthetic decisions made in real time were replaced by predetermined schema, and painterly touch was suppressed in favor of a cool application of materials, bordering on the industrial.
It would be easy to infer from the above that Scott was seeking to make work that was self-consciously un-aesthetic. This would be wrong; the varying systems he devised over time produced arresting images, and while he does not consider himself an Op artist, the eye-catching and sometimes dizzying strobe effect so common to many of his black and white works is an integral part of his presentation. Scott has employed a variety of systems over time to generate images. In (Untitled) L27 from 1992, two opposing sets of notations are at work, all determined in advance and recorded on the surface without amendment. One system governs the width of the stripe and a second the number of stripes, and the overlap of these two systems creates the dazzling, highly charged image. The surface swells and contracts as the clusters of stripes change width. The central column of stripes appears to lift from the two flanking columns, creating an unmistakable illusion of figure and ground – in spite of the fact that there is no hierarchy of scale or color or tonal value that would explain that illusion. All of this visual razzle-dazzle is not the result of artistic intention or invention, but simply the product of a faithful transcription of strings of numbers recorded in a notebook with an understanding of what the result would be.
Max Estenger’s work from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s constitutes an immanent critique of painting, but not in the Modernist sense; Greenberg’s critique as adapted from Kant distilled the pictorial aspects of painting, but Estenger, taking a cue from Marx, critiqued the material conditions of painting; not just paint and image, but painting surface, stretcher bars, and methods of production. He referred to his project as critical abstract painting, something he saw as being initiated by Reinhardt and brought to fruition by Ryman. In Estenger’s view, the 1980’s was a crisis point for painting, but also an opportunity to do something new:
The moment dictated only a few possible options: give up painting altogether (as Judd had done earlier); retreat into a self-canceling illusionism by the precarious balance of pictorial space through color advancement and recession (Noland, Stella); or simply start over again with the bare essentials of painting – brush, paint, canvas – and develop a highly critical and historically aware involvement with the material practices of painting (Ryman).
Estenger’s OSHA paintings are not merely architectonic, but constructed in a quasi-architectural manner – discreet panels are assembled separately and bolted together. OSHA Green and Orange from 1994 bears more than a passing resemblance to an unfinished façade of a home, complete with exposed framing and a window, which, instead of looking out on the world, looks in at the wall on which the painting hangs. Despite its frank materiality and playful suggestion of a job site, it isn’t an object – it’s very much a picture, and hints at Newman, an artist who Estenger greatly admires. The use of raw canvas as one of the painting’s multiple surfaces is a nod to the Washington Color painters, especially Morris Louis – another artist whom Estenger holds in great esteem. All of this is to say that the sensuous aspects of painting are not, for Estenger, completely swallowed by the activity of critique.
In Mark Dagley’s estimation, the term Neo-Geo was erroneously applied to a small group of artists for whom it wasn’t a natural fit, and who, apart from Halley himself, weren’t especially interested in membership. This opinion is borne out by the fact that more recent critical histories have emphasized that these artists’ conceptual leanings far outstrip any interest in geometry. For Dagley, this constitutes a missed opportunity – he believes Neo-Geo actually describes the wide range of geometric work being made in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s which had freed itself from the overly restrictive rhetoric of Greenbergian Modernism. Seen in this light, a varied and lively roster emerges: Thornton Willis, Ted Stamm, John Armleder, Steven Parrino, Alan Uglow, Mary Heilman, and others, including the artists in this exhibition. In this broader view, Neo-Geo freely borrows artists from other contemporaneous camps: Radical Painting (Olivier Mosset), French Postmodernism (Mosset again, also Daniel Buren), and Neo-Op (Peter Schuyff).
Hero from 1987 was featured in Dagley’s first solo exhibition at Shafrazi Gallery in Soho. In certain aspects, it is very much a product of that particular moment in time. The slick surface suggests industrial production rather than artistic touch. The eight-bit depiction of a jack-o’-lantern unmistakably calls to mind the video games of that era, which in turn nods toward the 1980’s version of Pop: Warhol returned to prominence in that decade (and died in the same year as Dagley’s Shafrazi show) and Kenny Scharf was creating an avalanche of day-glo cartoons which were immensely popular. But after the preceding connections are made, something doesn’t quite compute. The colors used in Hero, and the pattern which contains them, doesn’t speak about the 1980’s at all – it talks more about Dagley’s reverence for abstract painting. The palette is quite lyrical: primaries and secondaries are played against autumnal colors and delicately tinted greys. Dagley grew up in the DC area and admires the Washington Color School; the colors in Hero carry an echo of that influence. The diamond pattern strongly suggests the harlequin, here presented horizontally – a clear reference to Picasso. Further, the pattern does not have a specific relationship to the outer edges of the support, hinting at disjuncture between the old and the new, between Picasso and Pac-Man, even as they co-exist on the same canvas.
For Dagley, the fact that this exhibition is taking place in the DC area is quite significant. As mentioned above, he grew up here, and the Washington Color School painters were a formative influence. Greenberg championed DC as a scene quite distinct from New York, putting his full weight behind painters like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. But even more important to Dagley are the regional artists who deviated from the Greenberg agenda while still using geometry and vibrant color – Gene Davis being the most notable example of this latter group. In Dagley’s view, this is the earliest precursor to Neo-Geo, the true New Geometry, and coming back to the place where the style first took root seems a fine location to introduce a new understanding of the work.
In my various conversations with the artists in this exhibition, several common themes emerged. The respect and affection they felt for one another was easy to see, along with the admiration they held for the larger artistic community within which they found themselves at the time – I heard the same names mentioned again and again. Their art historical influences had much in common, but perhaps more importantly, they were very much interested in the work of their peers and immediate predecessors – they were a generation seeking to make art that was genuinely new and germane to their moment in time. After the apparent wreckage of Modernism and the complete assimilation of Minimalism, these artists perceived themselves to be on the precipice of a future that would (and must) look different, and they embraced this challenge with vigor and optimism. This, ultimately, seems to be the key to understanding the underlying theme of this exhibition; that it’s about something larger and more profound than a shared interest in geometric shapes.