Aaron and I attended the Tomma Abts opening at David Zwirner last week. It was our second big opening of the night, the first show at Pace being somewhat of a disappointment. I failed at researching the Zwirner show ahead of time, a point that I will circle back to later, so I had no idea what to expect.
We walked into the gallery on 19th street and both immediately drew back in complete retreat. It was bizarre. The Zwirner space is a huge, grand box with ceilings that stretch two stories high and white that goes on forever. And while this isn't at all uncommon for Chelsea, it must be stated that the Zwirner space is big. Bigger than most Chelsea galleries. So when you walk into a huge white box and see ten or so small, meager canvases hanging at eye level with over eight feet between each one, you pretty much lose your balance. The white starts caving in on you and the paintings look like they're going to get eaten by the void. Bizarre. Again... even for Chelsea.
We both crinkled our noses in confusion, made some agreeable comments on how the paintings looked forced (we're really into labeling paintings 'forced' or 'felt' these days) and how they seemed to be stuck in 1992. Yuck, we stated with confidence. Don't like it.
So we moved into the adjoining gallery space housing a very handsome photography exhibit, grateful to be away from the 'uncomfortable painting show.' We had a beer and chatted photography with my publisher and another work colleague whom we had happened to run into. Did you like the Abts show? asked Susan, c'ette work colleague. Ummm... no, we both answered. Susan nodded in understanding, stating that most people either love it or hate it. She completely valued our honest dislike. But still she hesitated. Susan, turns out, loves Abts. Of this I was suddenly interested.
Susan gave a very brief history of Abts and her work, including the highly regarded Turner prize. Also that each painting took over a year to complete. Her loving tone and protective statements were extremely refreshing... but still confusing. After all, the paintings were bad. Aaron and I listened, nodding along, but remained in the nice photography room for a while longer, preferring the comfort of the symmetric and thoughtfully planned narrative C-prints to Abts's random little paintings that were getting eaten by white in the next room over.
But before we left, we told ourselves to reconsider and to look at Abts's paintings again, post-Susan. If Susan, with her articulate thoughts and impeccable taste likes the show... lets try to like it too. So we stood once again in the big white room and looked at a few pieces. We discussed their merit and payed closer attention to color. We squinted up close and breathed a few steps back, noting the shapes. We tilted our heads with our hands on our hips in what has become the Chelsea mudra and reevaluated the placement. And then both decided, once again, that we hated them. I believe that the word 'blechk' was used more than once.
However. Being me, I've been thinking about this show. A lot. Its been bothering me that I couldn't see whatever it was that Susan saw. I've become obsessed with reading Abts articles and viewing her work online, trying to pinpoint what it is that makes this artist tick. Turns out... I love her too.
Abts proves my strong convictions about art in context. Its almost embarrassing how much she proves this. I should have known that David Zwirner and those pretentious Tate officials aren't idiots. I should have been the one telling myself to read-up before I make any snap judgments, especially at a gallery of this caliber. I should have known.
I am of the (old-) school of thought that honors artists' statements and press releases. Reading, looking, considering... so very important. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Oh, please. This is contemporary art...what does beauty have to do with it? There is good art and bad art, there just is. Its not up to the viewer to decide. Opinions absolutely count, but its like arguing with someone about their taste in food. If you don't like peach pie it, you don't like peach pie. It still might be good pie.
Zak Smith once said that the biggest misconception of the art world is that it is has anything to do with those outside of it. Translation: if you don't get it, its not intended for you. My not-for-profit art friends are going to hate that statement, but I actually agree with him. We must put in some effort. Do some reading, spend time with the piece, draw a few conclusions... that's what its all about. That's what its for.
Tomma Abts starts with a blank canvas. Okay, I know, doesn't everyone? Well, yes, but Abts actually doesn't have a plan before she starts painting. She doesn't sketch or even envision. She purposefully starts with a mark and goes from there. Its completely felt, completely fluid (which throws my earlier conclusions back in my face) and the final image is one of profound process. Its a map of her working mind.
Her paintings do take years to finish and she works tirelessly until she suddenly feels their completion. She says that when a painting done, she can sense it immediately, like the painting is at once floating and existing on its own, as a new entity completely separate from her part in creating it.
The final product includes the ghosts of the underpainting. We can see the shapes that Abts painted then later covered up with a flat color. This is important and part of it, she says. And she doesn't paint shapes, she paints the space around the shapes, making hers a negative process. Interesting. Her colors pop, ebb, and flow, aiding in their sudden independence from artist. The color helps each painting and each shape within that painting stand on its own.
Knowing this, we can find these random little paintings worthwhile. Beautiful, even. I can see why Susan spoke of them with such grace. We can't help but begin to cherish these works as Abts so clearly did while creating them. They turn into jewel boxes, into memories. We suddenly feel privileged to be in their presence.
The idea of taking time to understand a work of art is so obviously transferable into every aspect of life and learning. That is my lesson for the day. Conversations with paintings can and do exist, and you don't have to be an 'art person' to do so. And as Clare Danes so eloquently speaks of art in a lovely scene of a lovely movie... its there for you. You just have to want to see it.