In Perpetuity: Abstract Now/Abstract Then at the Berkeley Art Museum

All abstract art has one thing at its core:  the human body.  The existence of abstract art is as old as humankind, as are its attempts to either translate or transcend bodily experience without that pesky figuration getting in the way.  This conflict is even present etymologically:  the word ‘abstract’ boils down to meaning something along the lines of ‘drawn away’ – or ‘separated from material objects or practical matters,’ indicating that there is something immaterial able to be separated in the first place.  Something for us to be – or experience – beyond our body mass.

Dean Smith, Thought Form #11 (2005), image courtesy of the Berkeley Museum of Art

I’ve been watching the conversation surrounding abstraction here in San Francisco out of the corner of my eye for a while now.  In particular, over the last year I’ve seen three great shows that have challenged my understanding of what abstraction can achieve when you insist that it turn against itself and become a full-body experience: Alexander Cheves’s paintings and sculptures of floating geometric house forms at Rowan Morrison, Josh Podoll’s odd (and awe-ing) transcendental, painted meditations between the extremely close and extremely far at Romer Young, and (the icing on the cake) Chris Duncan’s mind-bending Eye Against I at Baer Ridgway.  This is what I wanted out of the Berkeley Art Museum’s bookended pair of shows, Abstract Then and Abstract Now.

Robert Irwin, Untitled (1969), image courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Instead, I got breadth, which I feel silly complaining about, but I’ll get to that in a second.  Despite its claim of featuring work from 1940 – 1985, Abstract Then sneakily kicks off with the Futurists:  the first work in the gallery space is one of Duchamp’s Boites (Series F) (1966), which contains – amongst other things – a small replica of Nude Descending a Staircase (1912).  Jean Tinguely’s disturbingly sexual Black Knight (1964) is worth interacting with; push a button and the mechanized sculpture kicks into gear, pushing and pulling a rod through an eyelet for as long as you feel comfortable allowing it.  Abstract Then is loosely grouped; progenitors of abstract expressionism like Jackson Pollock share one wall, while post-painterly descendants like Helen Frankenthaler occupy another.  Eva Hesse’s series of heavy, flesh-like rectangles, Aught (1968), separates these groups from minimalists and post-minimalists like Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Irwin, whose untitled disk-cum-orb is one of the most outstanding pieces in the show.  Not only does it play with your perceptions, but there’s a strong complement with Chris Duncan’s Untitled (The Painting) (2010), a 7.5’ x 14’ series of painted and collaged concentric ellipses.

Chris Duncan, Untitled (The Painting) (2010), installation view courtesy of Baer Ridgway

And herein lies the beginning of my complaint:  why not Abstract In Perpetuity, instead of Abstract Now and Abstract Then?  There are so many connections to be drawn between works, to keep them separate feels like dismemberment.  Most of the works in Abstract Now – which appears to be the weaker sibling – could have been complicated by juxtaposing them with the works of their predecessors.  Ron Nagle’s beautiful ceramic structures, though much smaller, display an attention to material topography and color that would be interesting paired against Jay DeFeo, or even Ad Reinhardt, while Jim Drain’s anthropomorphic fabric sculpture, Scribble (2007), would make an fun asterisk against Duchamp.  Not only that, but works that fail to hold up in such a setting could have been eliminated.

Jay DeFeo, Origin (1956), image courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum

I’m left thinking of Yves Klein (who was not represented).  In its own unique and counter-intuitive way, Yves Klein’s Le saut dans le vide (1960) might be one of the most abstract works of the 20th-century, providing a powerful visual for the relationship between inescapable materiality and transcendental hope.  In Le saut, Klein captured his attempt to separate himself from the earth (and gravity); his body has just begun its leap, his eyes face upwards.  Klein realized that the body itself was an untapped medium for experiencing the opposing tendencies of abstraction — the transcendent and the material — and I see abstract artists like Cheves, Podoll, and Duncan playing in this tradition.  By allowing its works to co-mingle, instead of keeping them at arm’s length from each other, Abstract Now/Then might have been able to achieve what I think is a truly “now” experience of abstraction, one that insists on full-body immersion.

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