At the Art Gallery of Ontario, you can experience the closest thing to a time warp as you’re likely to find.
A New Look: 1960s and ’70s Abstract Painting is a clean, minimal display of late abstract painting that follows the long, straight path away from the 1950s apex of Abstract Expressionism, as cut by the day’s leading abstract painting trailblazer, the critic Clement Greenberg.
Kenneth Brummel, the gallery’s recently installed assistant curator of Modern art, looked to Greenberg’s very own travelling exhibition for his source material.
In 1964, Greenberg, the champion of Abstract Expressionism and likely the most influential critic in the world, back when those things meant something, assembled a show of new painting called Post-Painterly Abstraction.
It served as nothing so much as his edict that painting must evolve: that the heavy, gestural AbEx era was finished and painting could only go one way: into ever more austere, reduced realms of colour and form. The show debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), travelled to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis and wound up here, at our very own AGO.
The selection of artists here, which includes Jack Bush, Kenneth Lochhead, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, is faithful both to that show and to a specific moment: when painting fell into a race for art-world intellectual currency with reactive movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism; and Greenberg, with his monastic high-modern teachings, was on the brink of tumbling from art-world papacy into charlatanism.
These are, of course, remarkably broad strokes. But A New Look brings it all home. Each and every piece here is from the AGO’s very own collection. Some have not been seen in decades; several have never been shown here at all. Together, they represent not just one of the last, big, deep breaths of the idealistic notion of purity through abstraction, but the AGO’s notable presence on its front lines. The works here weren’t acquired as a historical project but right at the time they were made.
One, a polygon-shaped canvas from 1966 by Stella — who, don’t forget, is currently in the throes of a 50-year career retrospective at the new Whitney Museum in New York — was sold right out of David Mirvish’s fledgling gallery here in Toronto. Bush, of course, was a Mirvish confederate; and Lochhead, the founder of the Emma Lake school in Saskatchewan, a Canadian post-painterly stalwart. Lochhead’s piece, likely his most famous and his best, was bought out of Greenberg’s original show when it landed here.
Greenberg’s travelling exhibition, in hindsight, could be seen as a final, urgent effort to hang onto an art world a blink away from slipping from his grasp. A young cohort of artists like Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham, fuelled by a social conscious and the radical politics of the day, were eager to bury Greenberg’s monastic formalism and dance on its grave.
New priorities on things like text, performance and monumental public intervention — think of Gordon Matta-Clark’s earnest efforts to carve holes in derelict buildings, or Michael Heizer’s vicious scarring of valley walls in the American Southwest — were beginning to colour, at least among the avant-garde, as fusty and quaint.
In the midst of this, Greenberg stood up to be counted one last time, making his argument as loudly and as clearly as he could. It was his Waterloo and we followed him gamely into battle. Looking at the cool splendour of the work here, it’s hard to imagine a more brilliant defeat.
A New Look: 1960s and ’70s Abstract Painting continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to March 27.