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Abts’ Traction

Tomma Abts, New Museum, April 9 - June 29, 2008

Tomma Abts’ paintings seem a natural, even predictable, choice for the inaugural painting exhibition at the putatively forward-looking New Museum. Despite her use of conventional media, Abts’ Turner Prize win in 2006 has paved the way for a hipper assessment of her work than most painting generates in a climate that favors improvisational, site-specific installation projects. To be sure, Abts’ work can be construed as traditional, and deeply indebted to conventional Modernist abstraction. As simple meditations on form and color, her canvases are frequently compared to the easel-sized abstractions popular before Abstract Expressionism emerged, and at first glance they seem unremarkably mundane. Under more searching consideration, however, it transpires that she has used geometric abstraction in a decidedly novel way. Abts’ spare paint handling and resolute edges reveal a disturbing and provocative core of self-abnegation and humility. These singular characteristics of her work lend even greater credence to the New Museum’s choice.

Installation view, Tomma Abts at the New Museum. <i>Photo by Alison Brady.</i>
Installation view, Tomma Abts at the New Museum. Photo by Alison Brady.

For Abts, honesty and sincerity are guiding principles. In a conversation with Peter Doig reprinted in the museum’s exhibition brochure, she unabashedly admits that her process is intuitive, and that she can’t explain why or how she makes decisions as she paints. In an age of hyper-ideation and inflated art rhetoric, in which ideas may be valued more than emotional insight or intuition, Abts’ ingenuous simplicity, like that of Chauncey Gardner in “Being There,” is refreshing. From the beginning, she says candidly, her process is directed towards completing the painting. “I know once a painting is finished, but I never know how to get there.” For Abts, painting is about harnessing her own unconscious, rather than giving visual substance to an external idea or conceptual conceit.

As to paint handling, Abts says that she “tries to define the forms precisely.” In keeping with the implied desire to cut off over-interpretation, and evoking minimalism, she adds that “the forms don’t stand for anything else, they don’t symbolize anything or describe anything outside the painting. They represent themselves.” For the most part, the paintings, all vertically oriented, are spaced evenly around the gallery, and hung at a standard height. Curator Laura Hoptman, to her credit, makes no attempt to force the paintings into a more fashionable context with any sort of coy installation strategy. The curator thus appears to be signaling to the viewer that these paintings, small and traditional though they appear, are discrete entities that can, indeed, speak for themselves.

If Abts’ unpretentious explanation is surprising in this age of overwrought rationalization, so too is the straightforward presentation and unapologetically diminutive size of her work. Each painting is 18-7/8” x 15”. Scale is an important decision for painters: working small is a more personal, less athletic process. Without the backbreaking physical component, painters are free to lavish attention on the smallest brushstrokes. Unlike the broadly brushed surfaces of monumental paintings, those of small paintings often possess charming idiosyncrasies that reveal the artists’ deliberate, focused attention. Larger work is made to be apprehended at a distance, but small work, like a whisper, requires proximity.

Unfortunately, small-scale work generally commands less respect outside working artists’ circles, so ambitious painters attracted to smaller sizes are encouraged to work larger. Those who doggedly continue to work small are less well-known because they don’t get the same exhibition opportunities as artists who scale up. In a recent interview in The Brooklyn Rail, painter Chris Martin suggests that he felt compelled to paint bigger in spite of his native inclination to stay small. “I’ve always made small paintings—I think of them as having a huge inner scale—and then I actually make huge paintings,” he says. “The last three or four years I made a conscious attempt to make paintings that were 4 ft.-6 ft. in dimensions. It was something that I was really afraid of. It had become this blind spot.” Most painters who embrace a smaller scale have at one time or another encountered a sales-conscious dealer or curator—perhaps one with the additional incentive of a large gallery space to fill—who has suggested that they’d like to “see the work bigger.” In such an environment, Abts’ commitment to the small scale signifies a stubborn and principled adherence to a personal vision irrespective of the danger it may have posed early in her career.

In a thoughtful catalog essay, curator Hoptman traces the lineage of Abts’ work from Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupta, and Manzoni, to Kelly and Stella. Hoptman notes that their experimental strategies and systematic distillation of painting practice eventually resulted in “abstraction’s death by a thousand irrelevancies,” leading succeeding generations of painters to repudiate formalism and conclude that the age of content without subject matter was long gone. Indeed, when Abts’ work first garnered public attention in London at the turn of the century, it was because of her unfashionable faith in formalism. While conceptual artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Cornelia Parker, and Tacita Dean engaged the public (in one way or another) with cheeky videos and installations, painters were smitten with large-scale figurative work. Because Abts is neither a conceptualist nor a figurative painter, her work stood brazenly aloof from this dialectic.

Formally, the Abts paintings at the New Museum are austere but inventive. If she is a minimalist, she is a maximal one. The pointy, hard-edged shapes and lines, carefully masked and meticulously painted, are familiarly geometric, but also quirkily unpredictable. The delicate application of colors that are bright and rich, yet not fully saturated, creates shallow illusions of three-dimensional space, as if the painting were depicting a folded piece of jaggedly cut paper, or a metal template from a kit for making stained glass. Experiencing Abts’ work is markedly non-sensual: her smooth, nearly brushless paint handling and use of flat color throughout each panel seems downright stingy. But then, her joy is not in handling the paint; rather, it is in controlling the color and creating order.

Abts describes an additive process in which she begins each piece by thinly painting brightly colored shapes on the primed canvas. Over time, she slowly builds layer upon layer of overlapping, folding shapes, obliterating earlier efforts as she goes. As she winnows multiple shapes down to a few, the color range also becomes condensed and less fanciful. Through the final layer, chalky and opaque, outlines and shapes laid down in earlier versions are visible in relief, and what is left is a small, orderly piece of evidence of the painter’s veiled process. What could be prosaically interpreted as a clinical, impersonal approach actually hints at the artist’s obsessive need to cover up, evincing a distrust of earlier instincts and a stringent form of self-censorship. Viewed in this light, Abts’ achievement is substantial and arguably profound: she makes small-scale geometric abstraction deeply personal and implicitly private, and at the same time lets us in.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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