The Armand Hammer’s ‘Critiques of Pure Abstraction’ offers the
unique chance for modern-day abstract
artists to judge their
By Kristin Fiore
Evaluating artwork is not solely the job of art critics.
In "Critiques of Pure Abstraction," on view at the Armand Hammer
Museum through March 10, today’s abstractionists evaluate the
techniques and ideas of their predecessors through their own
Early 20th century abstractionists like Wassily Kandinsky,
Jackson Pollack and Piet Mondrian felt that the artform could
achieve a perfect unity and a deep significance through its use of
circles, lines and space. This harmony could transcend and exist
completely outside of the real world. Many artists clinged to these
forms and the ideal vision they represented.
Most of the more recent artists find their predecessors too
idealistic and narrow-minded when it comes to society and how to
represent it. Like today’s younger generation, they want to break
through the old conventions and viewpoints to their vision of raw
The vast majority of the works are from the ’80s and ’90s, which
makes it easier for the viewer to understand the world that
provoked them. Background information is posted for each artist,
offering some insight into the artists’ statements and the reasons
they communicate them the way they do.
Given the esoteric nature of their terms and concepts, however,
many viewers who are even somewhat familiar with abstract art may
still not have a clear notion of the convention an artist is
attacking. Consequently, the viewer can only appreciate the
aesthetic aspects, which are often mediocre or confusing when
isolated from their purpose.
Of course, there are more than a few exceptions. Many works are
vibrant or mysterious and move you before you step forward to read
that little plaque. Only after you absorb their beauty do you
stumble upon that barb of cynicism, wit or defiance that engages
the left side of your brain.
Two of the most beautiful are David Reed’s scroll-like
paintings, simply titled "269" and "276." While most of the
installations are concerned with hard angles and materials, these
sensual works appear to have trapped mysterious swirls of blue,
purple and red fluids behind a sheet of glass.
Awkwardly divided into uneven sections, they, too, defy the
unity and order of abstraction – though, unfortunately for Reed,
the hypnotized viewer may not notice or care.
The exhibit greets you with two equally striking paintings,
simultaneously similar and opposite. David Row’s "Split Infinitive"
and "Untitled #99" embody the main thrust of the artwork of next
In defiance of abstract expressionism’s reverence for unity and
geometric perfection, symbols of idealism and utopia, Row splits
his canvasses into three uneven rectangles. What struggles to
become a circle that would connect them is disrupted and
When thrown down in black and yellow, the gaping spiral suggests
chaos and irresolution. When stenciled in stale shades of white and
gray, however, the missing pieces and edges of the ovals create an
emptiness and dissolution. By the corruption of its most prized
form, Row has revealed the imperfections and hollowness of the old
abstract pretensions and the dreamworld they espouse.
These two artists use the most common technique for getting
their messages across – taking a traditional element or style and
injecting an opposing, new element to destroy its significance or
A few artists don’t incorporate the old styles into their work,
but respond to them. Some attack more general themes the viewer can
identify even without "Cliff’s Notes."
Allan McCollum’s "10 Plaster Surrogates" ridicules the classic
abstract monochrome paintings and the importance and meaning
automatically assigned to them. His 10 completely black paintings
are blandly strung on the wall as though in a police lineup.
Their mass-produced empty look sarcastically suggests that they
mean absolutely nothing (this "nothing" is, of course, not to be
confused with the lofty, nihilistic "Nothing" many of the original
Searching for more profound philosophy, Jonathan Borofsky’s
metallic "Chattering Man" leans dumbly forward toward a "generic"
abstract painting. His motorized mouth and voice box issue a stream
of garbled mutterings, complete with Gregorian chant, that suggest
the pretentious but futile attempts of men to understand abstract
These attempts to knock snooty art and those who dissect it off
their pedestals are matched by some of the female artists, who
strive to bring art closer to their sphere. Instead of altering the
geometry and style, however, they alter the media and subject
matter, incorporating the "traditionally feminine."
Rachel Lachowicz’s "Homage to Carl Andre" recreates one of his
steel checkerboard floor designs in red lipstick and wax. Rosemarie
Trockel’s two untitled knitted wool works keep the geometry and
fluidity of traditional abstracts but use wool and the repetitive
patterns of knitting to bring them new meaning.
Many more works challenge these ideals and the viewers who walk
among them, untangling concepts and mysteries as they go. Some
works will seem frustrating or just downright ugly to some,
illuminating to others – that’s the second rule in the modern art
handbook. The first rule is the works will force you to think.
ART: "Critiques of Pure Abstraction" at UCLA at the Armand
Hammer Museum. TIX: $4.50, $1 UCLA students. Thursday evenings
free. For more info, call (310) 443-7000.
Above: Peter Halley’s "303." Both works are part of the UCLA
Armand Hammer’s new exhibit "Critiques of Pure Abstraction."
Mary Heilmann’s "Peter Young" is one of many works on exhibit
now through March 10 at UCLA’s Armand Hammer.
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