Stories of abstraction.

Greenberg's nightmare

À la fondation
November 16, 2021 - January 22, 2022

With Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, Huguette Caland, N Dash, Adélaïde Fériot, Vidya Gastaldon, Mohamed Hamidi, Loie Hollowell, Seulgi Lee, Ad Minoliti, Ulrike Müller, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Rafaël Rozendaal, Stéphanie Saadé, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané.

Curator : Marjolaine Levy

“Elles font l’abstraction”, “Journeys of Abstraction”, “Living Abstraction”, “Ways of Abstraction”, “Abstraction Singularity”, “Affinities for Abstraction”, “Structural Abstraction”, “Spirituality and Abstraction”, “Ways of Seeing Abstraction”, “Epic Abstraction”, “Abstraction in the Expanded Field”, “Plein Air Abstraction”, “The Shape of Abstraction”, “Queer Abstraction”… Since the beginning of 2020, over a dozen museum exhibitions presented around the world have made abstraction their subject. As diverse as they may be, the common denominator of these exhibitions is that they show the current state of abstraction, while demonstrating that neither contemporary nor historical forms of abstraction can be reduced to the teleological grand narrative built around it by American art historian Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). This narrative dominated thought on abstraction for decades. In an artistic context that rightly never stops challenging the Western-centric, gendered axioms of art history, exhibitions such as these offer a new, plural interpretation of abstraction that distances itself from Greenberg’s theories. Who was Greenburg, for whom these recent exhibitions—and the one coming soon at the Fondation Pernod Ricard in autumn 2021—could constitute a nightmare?

In the Bronx of the 1920s, Clement Greenberg—born of a Lithuanian-Jewish family in which he learned Yiddish and English at the same time In Greenberg’s view, there was but one short step between literary modernity and artistic modernity. In the late 1930s, he attended lectures by German-born American painter Hans Hofmann, a mentor of abstract expressionism, on whom Greenburg wrote abundantly, and whom he considered “the most important teacher of our time… [his] insights into modern art… have gone deeper than those of any other contemporary[4].” In the hall where Hofmann presented his masterful insights into Cézanne, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee, Greenberg met Lee Krasner, whose painting, and that of her future husband Jackson Pollock, would soon grab his attention. During that same period, Greenberg published “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1939) in the American left-wing, anti-Stalinist magazine Partisan Review, an article in which he asserted that the artistic avant-garde, represented by emerging American abstraction, had a duty to produce art whose only concern was itself, in order to escape the entertainment and kitsch industry. In the early 1950s, he gradually distanced himself from abstract expressionism, which he considered too manneristic, in order to explore abstract painting that was more clearly motivated by self-reflexivity and anti-illusionism, particularly that of Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler. Twenty years later, the 1939 text became the first chapter in Greenberg’s famous book Art and Culture[5] (1961). Its thirty-eight essays, written between 1939 and 1960, paved the way for abstraction’s grand modernist fable. This was presented as the end of art’s long “process of self-purification”: “It seems to be a law of modernism […] that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized. […] Painting continues, then, to work out its modernism with unchecked momentum because it still has a relatively long way to go before being reduced to its viable essence”[6]. According to this essentialist logic, pictorial art should stick to its two specific conventions: flatness and the delimitation of flatness, and reject any narrative or external reference. Thanks to abstraction, painting could thus express nothing but itself.

However, despite its power and allurement, this narrative is largely fanciful. The reality of abstraction and its history is entirely different, and this has been the case since its origins. To take the measure of it, one need only look at the theosophical abstractions of Hilma af Klint, begun in 1906, or the erotic and curative drawings of Emma Kuntz in the late 1930s, or the cosmic paintings of the Transcendental Painting Group of Santa Fe (1938-1941). If the multifarious history of the abstract current tends to invalidate Greenberg’s narrative, geography destabilises it just as much. Confronted with the scenes that this narrative ignored (particularly non-Western ones), the almost exclusively French and American history dreamed up by Greenberg loses most of its credibility. Thus in 1971—the year when the second edition of Art and Culture was published and a painting by Hans Hofmann made the cover of the January issue of Artforum—on the other side of the Atlantic in Morocco, a kind of painting that was giving rise to one of the most compelling abstractions of the post-colonial age proved to be totally alien to Greenberg’s narrative. The School of Casablanca, inheriting somewhat from the Bauhaus, connected its abstraction to the ornamental repertoire of the artisanal vernacular[7]. Among the main artists of the school was Mohamed Hamidi, who in the early 1960s had practiced painting similar to that of the Second School of Paris. In 1969, he produced an abstraction teeming with symbols and references, assuming diabolically erotic forms. This is where “Histories of Abstractions, Greenberg’s Nightmare” begins.

While Hamidi was in Morocco painting his erotic icons in the hard-edge style through a gesture with ideological echoes, Lebanese artist Huguette Caland began the pictorial series Bribes de corps (1973-1979), in which abstraction arose from the enlargement of a detail of the female body. These two forms of painting, originating in the Arab world and eroticising abstraction, are presented as historical markers of the exhibition. Highly contemporary art reveals that abstraction’s dealings with narrative, symbols and references—proscribed by Greenberg—are very much alive, as shown by the Fondation Pernod Ricard’s international selection of works by a dozen artists—Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, N Dash, Adélaïde Fériot, Vidya Gastaldon, Loie Hollowell, Seulgi Lee, Ad Minoliti, Ulrike Müller, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Rafaël Rozendaal, Stéphanie Saadé, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané—who, in various ways, challenge Greenberg’s myth of abstraction as a means for painting to express nothing but itself.

From the subtle ceramics of LGBT activist Ulrike Müller to Seulgi Lee’s geometric textile compositions illustrating traditional Korean proverbs, by way of Serge Alain Nitegeka’s low-reliefs evoking the traumas of exile and of his past as a political refugee; from Ad Minoliti’s paintings with powerful feminist messages, to Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s naturalist abstractions, by way of Loie Hollowell’s icons, this exhibition attempts to show abstraction’s current relationship with narrative, with history, and with a worldview. Whether they be political, cosmogonic, ecological or feminist, in their own way, all of these works proclaim the transitive and resolutely contextual dimension of abstraction—precisely what Greenberg’s modernism sought to suppress.


Marjolaine Lévy

[1] Bradford R. Collins, “Le pessimisme politique et la haine de soi juive. Les origines de l’esthétique puriste de Greenberg”, in Clement Greenberg, Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, Centre Pompidou, no. 45-46, autumn-winter, 1993, pp. 61-84.

[2] In 1950, Greenberg published a text dedicated to the British poet and his essay The Function of Criticism (1923).

[3] Greenberg paid close attention to T.S. Eliot’s critical works on literature. He was particularly affected by a passage from “Tradition and Individual Talent” dedicated to the essentialism of the medium in poetry: “[…] the poet has not a ‘personality’ to express but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.”

[4] Clement Greenberg, “Art”, The Nation, vol. 160, no. 16, 21 April 1945, p. 469.

[5] Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston, Beacon Press, 1961.

[6] Clement Greenberg, “American-Type Painting” [1958], Art and Culture, Ibid..

[7] On the School of Casablanca, see Brahim Alaoui and Rajae Benchemsi (dirs.), Farid Belkahia et l’École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, 1962-1974, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Skira / Marrakech, Fondation Farid Belkahia, 2019, and Maud Houssais and Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa (dirs.), C.A.S.A. Casablanca Art School Archives, Dijon, les presses du réel, 2021.


Image : Huguette Caland, Bribes de corps, 1973, Huile sur toile90 x 120 cmDonation © Huguette Caland 

  • From November 16, 2021 to January 22, 2022
  • Fondation Pernod Ricard
    1 cours Paul Ricard
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