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David Ryan opens his introduction to Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters with the inquiry, “How do we connect the contemporary condition of abstract painting with its history? He sees the question as necessarily posing two further ones: What do we mean by abstraction? Talking Painting sets out to explore these issues by juxtaposing Ryan’s interviews of twelve abstract painters with each artist’s choice of a critical text about his or her own work.The essays are primarily reprinted from journals and catalogues, and the interviews took place mainly between 19.
Combined with questions concerning theoretical and philosophical issues relating to contemporary painting, Ryan’s interviews are both insightful and provocative, and, for the most part, his questions solicit a wide array of critical responses.
Ryan’s introduction sets up the context for the essays and conversations with some useful summaries of the issues that he claims are relevant as background to abstract painting today: the notion of modernist autonomy framed as reductive; relationships of parts to whole; and the importance of language to the practice of painting.
While Colpitt and Ryan seem to want to hold onto abstraction as the key term for painting, we are reminded by Crimp’s essay of the impact of questions posed about the medium that cannot necessarily be reduced to claims of abstraction.
Like Crimp’s, Nodelman’s essay from 1978 recognizes the challenges posed to painting by different practices explored during the 1960s by works that use “actual” space: sculpture, installation, photography, and performance.
In addition, there are not enough reproductions of artworks included in the book to support specific references in the essays and interviews.
In many ways, Frances Colpitt’s edited volume, Abstract Painting in the Late Twentieth Century, provides some of the critical and historical contexts for approaching Ryan’s collection of interviews and essays.Ryan’s reading of each of these concerns is informed by the writings of Gilles Deleuze, so autonomy becomes a case of addition (“ands”) as opposed to negation (“nots”); wholeness is transformed into a matter of fragments and multiples folded into another kind of unity; and linguistic analogies are productive to abstract painting so long as they do not deplete the visual potency of painting, something Gilbert-Rolfe’s own introductory essay to the volume also warns against.Unfortunately, the argument outlined in Ryan’s introduction is seldom explored in his interviews or in the essays chosen by each of the artists, even if the selections do begin to elaborate critical contexts that help situate each painter’s work.The contributors and artists in Ryan’s volume include Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, who offers a further introductory essay, and texts by Andrew Wilson on Ian Davenport, David Moos on Lydia Dona, Max Wechsler on Günther Förg, Guy Tosatto on Bernard Frize, David Joselit on Mary Heilmann, Andrew Benjamin on Shirley Kaneda, Joseph Masheck on Jonathan Lasker, Carlos Basualdo on Fabian Marcaccio, Peter Schjeldahl on Thomas Nozkowski, Arthur C.Danto on David Reed, Robert Pincus-Witten on Gary Stephan, and Jennifer Higgie on Jessica Stockholder.All of the artists came to prominence in the mid- to late-1980s.As an abstract painter himself, Ryan offers with his conversations many insights into the processes and techniques that inform each artist’s work, and the book is a valuable resource for this reason alone.Douglas Crimp’s “The End of Painting” from 1983 interrogates the relevance of all painting, not simply abstraction, to society; Hal Foster’s ”Signs Taken for Wonders” raises the question of the relationship between financial capital and abstract painting; Gilbert-Rolfe’s “The Current State of Nonrepresentation” insists on the potential of abstract painting to continue as a viable practice when understood as “nonrepresentation,” opening a counterhistorical form of painting that is concerned with the objectness of the artwork, understood in terms of a Derridean discourse of deferral; Donald Kuspit’s “The Abstract Self-Object” investigates abstract painting in terms of its psychological implications; and David Pagel’s “Once Removed from What?” takes up questions of the definition and contemporary situation of abstraction in relation to feminism and formalism.Colpitt’s claim for “late-modern” abstraction is that its evolution comes to a halt or completion and enters a different kind of developmental phase in the postwar years, with specific emphasis placed on the paintings of Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella.In this light, Philip Leider’s “Literalism and Abstraction: Frank Stella’s Retrospective at the Modern” takes us back to the crucial debate between abstraction and literalism as it was mounted from the reception of Jackson Pollock through to Stella’s Protractor series from 1967.