Thursday, March 1, 2007

Hop on Op

Gilbert Hsaio (the subject of an earlier post) recently pointed out to me the surprising number of Op painting shows that are either up or opening soon: in San Jose, two shows in New York (at the Pratt Manhatttan Gallery and Jacobson Howard), in Columbus, Frankfurt, and Philadelphia (Gilbert also provides details on his Op blog). Besides feeling happy, relieved, and excited to see as many as I can, I'm really interested in why this is happening. Abstract painting has been pretty marginal for quite some time, and Op was arguably the most marginal subset.

I think there are several factors at play here. First of all and most simply, Op presaged computer-generated imagery by decades, and in retrospect it looks like these painters had a crystal ball. I think the best art of any given era is very much in sync with the way that people see, which is a different thing than depicted subjects (the "how" as opposed to the "what"). Right now, cg imagery is clearly leading the way in terms of how people see and consume man-made imagery.

But there are some more subtle factors at play. I think that a bunch of concepts that have been thoroughly vilified in the fine arts are poised to make a comeback: like quality, rigor, and craft. In the hands of the most conscientious prosecutors of critique-oriented art, the idea of quality was (and is) challenged as a fictional construct of a patriarchal hegemony. In the hands of many others, critique is a fig-leaf for underdeveloped art. This isn't a particularly new story; both Ab Ex and Pop were dragged down by the fact that these were relatively easy styles to replicate in a superficial way, and boatloads of mediocre artists eagerly entered the ranks.

I went to the Armory Show this past weekend (the only New York mega-fair that I checked out). It was like the world's biggest MFA show: a small number of really great things, a fair number of decent things and a whole lot of really bad art. And aside from a few discernible threads (like a surprising number of Gerhard Richter copies), it was all over the aesthetic map.

Present-day art exists in a kind of chaos; there is no dominant style or school, and anything goes (and goes for a lot of money). In art, as in politics, there is always a backlash. After this period of such little cohesion or rigor, maybe the idea of a smartly conceived and nicely executed abstract painting doesn't seem so bad after all.

I'm sort of optimistic.