Just for fun, let’s say that non-objective painting reached its zenith sometime in 1960. That’s the year of Morris Louis’ “Point of Tranquility,” an exquisitely large and luminescent stretch of Magna-stained cotton duck that pretty much sums up the entire abstract project. It’s bold, beautiful, and reaches toward the sublime, even as it fails to grasp it.
Everything since has been a kind of mopping-up operation. A formal and conceptual clearing of foxholes, a consolidation of holdout shapes, rogue colors, and clandestine techniques. After good gestalt gave up its stubborn resistance sometime in the seventies, all that remained was to assimilate the remnants of its opposite: the compositionally bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. Check, check, and check.
Now, twenty-three years into the “new” millennium, there’s little, if any, meat left on those sun-bleached abstract bones. That doesn’t stop artists from trying to find some, though. And every now and then, the better ones manage to suck out some career-sustaining morsel of marrow. But the life-giving substances that once nourished abstraction, the formal novelty, the utopian ideals, the quest for individual expressive freedom set against a backdrop of social conformity and constraint, are all dried up. Interwoven and bound as they were to a specific historical moment that has long since departed.
I feel bad saying that because I love abstract painting. One of the greatest paintings in the history of the Western canon is Willem de Kooning’s “Excavation,” and as Chicagoans, we’re lucky enough to gaze upon it whenever we want. It’s absolutely worth the Art Institute’s confiscatory admission fee to stand before it. I’ve admired it hundreds of times.
I also love the McDouble. Its salty, steaming hot “all beef” patties, gooey American “cheese” and glistening “fresh” golden bun look and taste like food. I genuinely enjoy it, but I am under no illusion that it provides substantive nutritional value. So, while a deep cut by Lee Krasner is like something from Alinea, more often than not, contemporary abstraction is the McDouble. You can still like it, but at some point you’ve got to admit: there’s not much to it.
Which brings me to “Rebecca Morris 2001-2022” at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
I reviewed Morris’ 2022 solo at Corbett vs. Dempsey in these pages last year, describing her works as being “tough to get your head around” and “about probing the outer reaches of painting itself.” In large measure, that short review applies to the entirety of the two decades of creative output this museum retrospective surveys. Disappointing, but not completely surprising.
In order to avoid becoming the McDouble, artists like Morris have had to scour the furthest reaches of abstract terrain for the last vestiges of formal novelty that can be successfully infused into their institutionally scaled canvases. As a lover of abstraction, I’m sympathetic to the quest and the plight. But tragically, this is a search for the promised land with the creative equivalent of the Donner Party. Survival comes at a heavy cost.
The most toothsome limb to be devoured is meaning. As well-curated and arranged as the works in “2001-2022” are, you won’t go home contemplating the profound contradictions of human nature after this show. You probably won’t even be thinking much about any of these colorful and assiduously numbered compositions (no titles) after you’ve stepped foot out of the gallery. And that’s not an HTTP 404, that’s by design.
In the quest to keep non-objective abstraction optically alive, these paintings have had to sacrifice almost everything else a work of art can be. They express little more than the complexities of their own creation and whatever else one decides to project into them. You can ponder the gendered aspects of color selection as you gaze into the shallow red field of “Untitled (#01-22)” but for how long, and to what end? The sociological implications of color field abstraction might be “interesting,” but does that make a painting gripping, dramatic or emotionally moving? Doubtful.
This is no slight against Morris the painter. I’ve never met an artist who didn’t take their work seriously, and viewers owe them some seriousness in kind. It’s simply the logical and necessary outworking of this kind of abstraction. Each piece is informed primarily by the work that precedes it. And because “the work” is both the subject and its object, the results are progressively more insular. In short, it’s a trap.
At first “the shock of the new” will hold our attention rapt, convincing us that there is something significant at hand, because visually there is. But late abstraction’s lifeblood is also its fatal flaw. The new colors, shapes, configurations and techniques upon which it depends inevitably become old, tired and predictable. Eventually we come face to face with peculiar-looking paintings that are about an artist making paintings that look peculiar. We can still enjoy them, but eventually we will have to admit: there’s not much to it.
“Rebecca Morris 2001-2022” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago through April 7, 2024.