Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2007
Mark A. Cheetham Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure Since the 60s New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 192 pp.; 8 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $98.00 (0521842069)

Abstraction is ailing. Ever since Clement Greenberg stopped making the rounds and writing reviews, its health has been on one long, slow decline. Yet as Mark Cheetham insists in his most recent book, this patient simply refuses to die. Cheetham, professor of art history and director of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto, introduces us to a robust cache of artists (and there are, as he well admits, many more among their ranks), who for the last forty years have insisted on making this presumably terminal pictorial mode their chief idiom.

Abstract Art Against Autonomy extends the project Cheetham initiated with The Rhetoric of Purity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), in which he offered a history of the pervasive modernist invocation of purity with the aim of exposing its particular philosophical basis and ultimately self-defeating lacunae. By virtue of its exclusion of the impure, what this rhetoric engendered was instead anything but the absolute and universal. Cheetham’s subsequent projects focus on practices that deliberately unearth this “aesthetic ideology” and, he argues, “preserve the possibility of artistic discourse itself” (The Rhetoric of Purity, xvi.). With his latest book, he turns his attention to the current condition of abstraction and its future possibilities. In the long twilight of modernism, what are we to make of this resistant strain of monochromes and mirrors?

The opening chapter, “Past to Present: A Diagnosis of Recent Abstraction,” offers the following answer, one that the remaining sections of the book reiterate with a ballooning array of examples culled from neo-avant-garde and contemporary practices: as a modernist “genre,” abstraction promised purity and appeared to be art’s best hope for autonomy. From the very beginnings of abstraction, certain artistic practices challenged these ambitions, of which Kazimir Malevich’s pedagogical theory regarding the “additional” or “supplemental element” provides the historical foundation for Cheetham’s particular study. While artists creating abstract art today may still engage a rhetoric of purity and insist on an autonomous aesthetic, by the end of the 1960s, such a project was largely discredited, and abstraction, as its traditionally chief instrument, appeared doomed. To explain the persistence of this formal mode, particularly in the 1990s, Cheetham suggests we turn our attention to select artists who instead engaged abstraction to serve a radically different, even antithetical, end. Of the host of alternatives to the (arguable) hegemony of transcendent or formalist models of abstraction, he articulates what he regards was an “inevitable ongoing epidemiological discourse of infection and cure” (2).

Why this discourse is “inevitable” is never fully explained, but one clue comes from the clearest statement of what this book is about:

The structuring argument is that abstract art, though certainly contested as a leading genre in the 1970s and 1980s, has reinvented itself through a series of metamorphoses that I examine using the theme of impurity and the rhetorics of infection. Recent abstraction thus overturns what I have claimed is its paradigm from the early part of the 20th century: purity. But we do not witness a simple dialectical reversal. Pure abstraction and the many discourses that supported it suppressed rather than eradicated intrinsic and extrinsic elements of impurity. (25)

What we are dealing with here is a fateful return of the repressed. Or to continue in the vein of the book’s structuring metaphor, we are analyzing the behaviour of a pure/impure genotype, whereby the recessive gene “impurity,” once previously masked, has mutated into visibility in the work of a diverse group of contemporary artists.

Cheetham considers his analysis in tandem with what Yve-Alain Bois has analyzed as the “endgame” of painting in response to others, notably Arthur Danto, who wring their hands over its “death.” Abstraction has always been rehearsing its own end, testing its limits to the extent that its very existence becomes an argument against its own future possibility. While Cheetham acknowledges a debt to this model, one that allows him to argue for abstraction’s ongoing vivacity in the first place, he is primarily concerned with those abstract practices that “test positive,” that he claims are not enmeshed in the productive negative dialectics of an “endgame” but instead adopt a “‘social’ view of non-representational art” (4).

This abandonment of the kind of ongoing dialectical work that engenders the very possibility of future abstraction accounts for my main problems with the claims this book makes. I was prepared to accept the potential usefulness of Cheetham’s “epidemiological” analogy in helping to devise overdue critical approaches to abstract art of the last twenty years, but I do not feel as if I ever got the chance, especially as he often slips dangerously from a medicinal analogy into the guarantee of the artist’s body as some kind of first cause (e.g., Malevich really did have brushes with TB, members of General Idea really did perish from AIDS-related complications). And while his fleeting comments about the work of supposed “purist” artists like Ellsworth Kelly maintain unproductive caricatures of their projects, I did not object to his choices for exemplary contemporary artists: indeed, the catholic range of practices, the sheer number of examples, and the creative, unpredictable juxtaposition of diverse strategies alone should convince readers that abstraction is a vibrant rather than an obsolete device. Cheetham is at pains to make his readers aware that it is not his intention to provide an encyclopaedic compendium of contemporary abstraction and that certain equally worthy artists receive no mention, yet he need not have worried. For the names I missed were not those of particular artists, but rather of a host of thinkers who have likewise pondered the ongoing critical efficacy of abstraction—in short, a methodological tradition that this book ought to at least have acknowledged, if only to present an argument against why its author chose to leave it from his account in the first place.

By the conclusion of this book, Cheetham has reverted to a dichotomy between “autonomy” and “purity” on the one hand, and “social,” “political,” or “engaged” artistic practice on the other. This oppositional structure stems from a misplaced, yet ultimately superficial, emphasis on Clement Greenberg, who, with his particular understanding of Kantian aesthetics, functions as the chief avatar of artistic autonomy enlisting abstraction as its standard-bearer. It is not enough, by way of a detour through Danto, to expose Greenberg as a “Hegelian” (20)—indeed, we have not been given enough analysis to know what this might mean or why it is important, save for the fact that “Hegel” (here standing for “history”) somehow contaminates a critic we took to be a kind of “Kantian” (read: “purist”) border policeman. All Cheetham’s arguments against autonomy are made as a response to a specific reading of Greenberg (or Kant via Greenberg), which he developed in his Kant, Art, and Art History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) but here remains too sketchy. In doing so, he fails to grapple with other, infinitely more complex articulations of the trope of autonomy and even its potential usefulness. I kept thinking of Theodor Adorno, whose argument for precisely the social significance of aesthetic autonomy should have been an obvious (and far more engaging) one for Cheetham to take on in order to articulate his position, but which is completely missing from his text.

Indeed, at the start of the book, in the context of his account of Malevich’s theory of the “additional element,” Cheetham conceives matters less according to a tidy (and tired) opposition between “committed” and “pure” abstraction, and consequently to much greater effect. He states that “disease keeps abstraction alive” (9): rather than eradicate the “germ” of the “additional element” to make art “healthy” again, Malevich isolated it and put it to work. In other words, what does not kill you only makes you stronger. The idea that the truth content of an aesthetic norm can be renewed by that which would seem external or even threatening to it ought to have guided Cheetham’s own subsequent arguments diagnosing autonomy itself: rather than simply repudiate it as a hackneyed concept woefully inadequate for the realities of contemporary practice, how does it actually continue to function productively in the work of the artists he discusses?

Instead Cheetham adds Yves Klein to Malevich as his other foundational figure for an alternative, “contaminated” history of abstraction; he does so with a lengthy discussion of the artist’s judo practice: “The monochrome, rosicrucianism, and judo, plus many other initiatives and quirks, combined and mutated in Klein to form an ‘impure’ but somehow consistent life as artwork” (42). I do not deny that Klein could be a powerful model for much contemporary work, but this is more likely the result of the ability of his posturing to arouse suspicion and bristle our critical faculties rather than in any naive embrace of his “life is life” hucksterism. (And here I quote one of the many deadpan slogans of Laibach, a group affiliated with NSK [Neue Slowenische Kunst], which Cheetham himself briefly mentions among contemporary practices that appropriate the monochrome but which, more pertinently, radically extends Klein’s capacity to counterfeit authenticity and scramble its codes. See and Aleksi Monroe, Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.)

Cheetham’s analysis of abstract contemporary visual art would have been far more significant had it kept in mind the work of writers who have already considerably complicated Greenberg’s legacy. This is most evident in his belated and insufficient attention to the problem of abstraction’s historically fraught relation to photography, a problem of paramount importance for contemporary art and one that subtends every example Cheetham provides in the book (though he never says so explicitly):

. . . the message here [in Gerhard Richter’s mirrored monochromes] could be that sight isn’t exclusively optical but involves other senses. By analogy but also materially, neither is painting literally just painting. Here it is at least a mixture of painting, photography, and readymade mirror. These elements relate to one another . . . in terms of circulation and recontextualization rather than priority. (85)

Cheetham actually prolongs Greenberg’s notorious amnesia with respect to the function of abstraction within various Dada practices, thereby eliding a wealth of work devoted to just this profanation of the abstract through the photographic, which would have done more to further his project than his particular recourse to Klein. Had he not proceeded as if Rosalind Krauss’s The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994) or The Picasso Papers (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999) had never been written (a scholar to whom he makes but one marginal reference), he could have gone on to unpack what he shows signs here of recognizing to be the major guarantor of abstraction’s current relevance: it is in its productive wrestling with both the photograph and the readymade that abstraction finds new life.

Megan R. Luke
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California