Unfinished Business

Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) BY Kirk Varnedoe. edited by Adam Gopnik, Earl A. Powell III. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $45.

Kirk Varnedoe was invited to deliver the Fifty-second A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in the spring of 2003 just months before his death, in mid-August of that year. Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock is, essentially, a transcript of the six lectures, prefaced by his former student Adam Gopnik, staff writer for the New Yorker, edited by Judy Metro, and annotated by Metro and two other former students, Pepe Karmel and Jeffrey Weiss. As such, it is elegiac, in the truest sense of the term: It is the pensive summation of a career undertaken by a man in the last stages of a devastating illness, and it is, too, the posthumous reckoning of his words by his closest friends. But it is not simply the recording of his ideas for posterity; in the vividness of its language—language that is signature Kirk Varnedoe in its baroque eloquence, its risky and freewheeling sentence structure, its descriptive precision—this book is a remarkable trace of its author.

In 2001, Varnedoe left the Museum of Modern Art, where he was chief curator of the department of painting and sculpture, for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, largely for health reasons but also, one gets the sense, because of his growing alienation from the direction MoMA had taken since he had arrived there in 1988: from a bastion of liberal humanism, a place where scholar-curators like Alfred Barr Jr. and William Rubin could write the narrative of modernism, to something more akin to a place where the postmodern rejection of the master narrative had resulted (somewhat perversely) in the museum as free-for-all, where consumers could pick and choose their own stories to tell from among the spectacles on display. (Though this state of affairs only really came to pass with the 2004 reopening of MoMA in its new, Tanaguchi-designed space, the changes were surely in the air during Varnedoe’s tenure.) If this last characterization of the postmodern museum is not quite my opinion, neither was it entirely Varnedoe’s: He did not yearn nostalgically for a moment in which it was still possible to direct museum patrons along a single trajectory through the galleries so that it would be impossible to miss the inexorable march of modernism that would lead, finally, to the triumph of American culture. His reinstallation of the permanent collection in the mid-’90s demonstrated that he was interested in a different construction of modernism and its history.

Likewise, he did not outright reject the (then) new, theoretical turn in his chosen field, though certainly, he was suspicious of it. When he conducted a seminar on postwar American art in 1993 at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, just after his Slade Lectures at Oxford the previous year on the subject of the “crisis of postmodernism in art history,” he was unsettled by the generational shift that had occurred among students (myself included)—so unsettled, in fact, that he vowed never to teach again, happily a decision he reversed in subsequent years. For all our resistance to what we (somewhat too easily) characterized as his reactionary, antitheoretical position, however, what Varnedoe wanted to propose was not simply a reembrace of a teleological model of the triumph of formalist abstraction: Rather, he spoke of the contingency of artistic choice, the way in which certain aesthetic possibilities were made available at a given moment due to the material realities of the studio and the social realities of the outside world. He spoke of Stephen Jay Gould’s neoDarwinism and Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism. He wanted us to recognize that at each moment—both in the creation of an individual work in the studio and in the larger embrace of artistic practices within a given culture—there were choices to be made as to what was important to communicate. He wanted to insist that any art worth looking at had, at least, many stories to tell.

Pictures of Nothing is, as Gopnik points out in his excellent prefatory essay, the culmination of this period of thought, which began in the early 1990s: a proposal about how artistic practice can be thought of as a set of decisions made by an artist after a variety of “perplexing and demanding choices,” some internal to the procedure of making itself, some shaped by the world around. More particularly, it was self-consciously meant by Varnedoe to operate parallel to E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, itself first delivered as a series of Mellon Lectures in 1956. Gombrich’s purpose was to account for Western artists’ penchant for illusionism in painting not as something that just is but as a complicated function of how brains are wired and how we are organized collectively. Wholly aware of the Viennese scholar’s historical precedent, Varnedoe took up the challenge: “I wondered out loud whether there might be an argument for abstraction that was as good as Gombrich’s for illusionism—that is, an argument for abstraction as a legitimate part of both our cognitive process and our nature as a modern liberal society.”

The resulting account of abstraction since AbEx reads as “a map of choices within circumstances, gestures within social givens.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that this is an art history so contingent that Varnedoe doesn’t have an idea of who came out on top: Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Tony Smith over the postwar remnants of Bauhaus design practiced by European émigrés; the varied Minimalisms of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell over Morris Louis’s and Kenneth Noland’s delimited vision of modernism; the work of the so-called post- Minimalists (Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson) over the increasing canonization of hard-edged, sterile, and even courtly Minimalism in the ’60s. But what is striking about Varnedoe’s narrative is, first, the way in which his judgments regarding the enduring qualities of the art he is most interested in are predicated on its generosity, on how it opens out onto the most—and most interesting—conceptual ground, and not necessarily on its simply aesthetic success; and, second, the way in which each step in the chain of being that he proposes is predicated on the individual artist understanding the possibilities opened up by the previous generation rather than on a series of Oedipal rejections of the constraints of what came before. For him, the history of abstraction is not “a line of cumulative gains or cumulative reductions, an inverted pyramidal progression pointing down toward the black square, the ultimate end, the effort to produce the last painting. A better model for abstraction is perhaps the hypertext, where the line between A and B goes out in a million possible and ever more complex directions, where artists along the line from A to B find that A' or A" is a window opening onto an entire universe.” He reminds us that ultimately his is a multifarious history of abstraction that is, at some remove, a set of diverse responses to Pollock’s drips and swirls. This is not Pollock as generative ground for the entirety of postwar art—wherein all roads lead back to his achievement—but rather an assertion about the vast variety of ways in which his artwork could, and did, evolve into practices that we can hardly recognize as related to one another.

The generosity of this conception is meant, I believe, to stand in counterpoint to the limitations imposed by those he believed embraced a too-instrumental view of art’s role in culture—“the [art historical] Left,” a term that embraces (somewhat perversely) both Anna Chave and T. J. Clark— and by “the satirists and ironists” of the ’80s, artists like Sherrie Levine, Allan McCollum, and Peter Halley, and implicitly their various supporters, people like Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who, in Varnedoe’s eyes, seem more interested in strategies of negation and subversion, in narratives of failure and loss. This book is, in effect, a response to those writers. But here I am so sadly aware of the way in which my former teacher deeply misunderstood the stakes of what he characterized broadly as the postmodern turn in art history: When he complains again about Clark’s insistence that Cecil Beaton’s Vogue photo of a model in front of Autumn Rhythm has something to tell us about Pollock, for example, I recognize an insistent misrecognition of the dialectical stakes of Clark’s art history, of the latter’s notion that the recurring failure of the avant-garde project within modern culture is not reducible to a painting’s aesthetic value.

It is ungenerous to carp at these failings, for whatever Pictures of Nothing is, it is hardly the whole story. The last chapter begins with the poignant words “We have come to the last installment, the sixth of six Mellon Lectures. I am so painfully aware of how much has gone unsaid, and how much I would still like to say.” The lecture fills in some of the gaps—Willem de Kooning, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, and so on— and ends with a vivid description of Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses.” Of course, by pointing out these gaps, Varnedoe hardly makes the story whole. On the contrary, he points out the necessarily unfinished nature of a project like his: “Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: you have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.” This, I suppose, is the pragmatist’s assertion of faith. It seems to come with the hope—I think—that what he has done will open a field for thinking about art that is as diverse and multiple as the artworks he admires. That someone—or many someones—will take up his unfinished story, and complete it in a hundred different ways.

Aruna D’Souza is assistant professor of art history at Binghamton University, State University of New York.