If the world is in fact ending at some point today, then now is as good a time as any to talk about guilty pleasures. Even if the end isn’t here, it’s probably near. Thus, in the spirit of pre-apocalyptic abandon, this post is about Kesha, abstract painting, and aesthetic rapture.
Returning readers may have already noted that I don’t read from a very wide breadth of material, so I’m talking again about Simon Reynolds, and specifically about a recent piece he published in the New York Times, no less, about the divisive, mid-20s pop star. “Whether you find her trashy antics annoying or refreshing in a pop era of anodyne glamour,” he writes, “there’s no denying that Kesha’s music caught the mood of embattled hedonism in post-crash America.” Reynolds points to Kesha as a one of the forerunners of the now prevalent pop music trend of #YOLO, marking her as one of the first to verbalize, as well as synthesize, the “sense of ‘no future’ related to the financial crash and economic precariousness.” Together, her lyrics about living now and her overtly-Auto-Tuned voice produce perfect pop specimens with a manufactured and stilted sound that, for better or for worse, typifies the contemporary feeling of life in a late capitalist economic downturn: both controlling and uncontrollable, and impossible to stop long enough to make sense of.
Reynolds calls this mood “apocalyptic desperation,” but I don’t think “desperation” is the right word. I like “abandon” better: it’s a word that more correctly conjures the feeling of freedom and even rapture that a loss of future can produce. After all, the rapture, in Christian theology, refers to the end-times event just prior to the end of the world, when true believers are saved and the rest are left behind. Some might remember that Harold Camping predicted this event would take place on May 21, 2011. While it’s largely accepted that this was not the case, perhaps it is actually that we, the unbelievers, were simply not privy to its occurrence, and have since been left here to wait in Tribulation. In light of recent, horrible events and a consequent controversy around Kesha’s recent single, “Die Young,” I should clarify that I’m not talking necessarily about death here, but about life, lived in full anticipation of its impending end. This is the kind of paradoxical immortality that painting possesses, declared dead so many times yet always “not dead yet.” Kesha and her fellow pop stars also possess it, content to “keep on dancing till the world ends,” in the words of Britney Spears’s hit from March 2011, which Kesha had a hand in writing.
Dancing, at least as it might happen in a club to the tune of Kesha’s songs, is a kind of ecstatic yet responsive expression, the physical enactment of an internal reaction to an external stimulus. Something similar might be said of abstract painting, both in regard to the process of making it and to the process of viewing it, both of which can be emotional and even rapturous. In thinking about the relationship between pop music’s fascination with end times and life in post-crash America, I couldn’t help thinking about the a similar rise in visibility of abstract work concurrent with pop music’s “apocalyptic abandon.” In the past two years, several critics attempted to theorize practices in this very broad vein, most prominently Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler, whose respective terms of “Provisional Painting” and “The New Casualists” focus on the unfinished appearance of such work. Butler describes this tendency as “calculated tentativeness,” but I would like to propose the opposite: what if we think of such work not as trying to look incomplete, but as rejecting completion as a contemporarily relevant state in a late capitalist society where instability and precariousness reign? Here, even perfection won’t help you get a job, and it certainly won’t save you from getting laid off. In this view, we might think of contemporary abstract painting more like music, and particularly dance music: remixed and faded into the tracks before and after it such that it never ends and becomes instead a perpetual experience of the present.
Abstract painting and music have a long history together, dating back to Wassily Kandinsky and his early-20th-century “compositions.” In these contests between form and color, the artist sought to achieve what he called “pure painting,” experimenting with his theories connecting color and tone in the attempt to produce visual art that could achieve the same emotional impact as a piece of music. Since then, music has remained a prominent source of both inspiration and aspiration. Artists such as Mondrian and Stuart Davis pursued the free flow of jazz, while more recently, painters like Christopher Wool and Chris Martin have drawn on the raw energy of punk. The period in between saw a range of non-representational practices that have since been aptly termed, whether formally or informally, as “Lyrical Abstraction.” In fact, these practices provide much of the painterly vocabulary for today’s abstract artists, functioning like so many instruments that one can play alone or in concert.
More specifically, the post-war period also gave rise to Jackson Pollock’s orchestral “Autumn Rhythm” of 1950, its swirls and drips recording the artist’s dancer-like movements over the unprimed, unstretched canvas as it was laid out on the floor. Twelve years later, Andy Warhol deftly parodied these choreographic traces with his “Dance Diagrams,” turning Harold Rosenberg’s masculine “Action Painting” into a movement that was rote instead of expressive. As diagrams hovering between representation and abstraction, these works were one of painting’s last gasping breaths before its first of many deaths, when later that year, Warhol gave up painting entirely in favor of the silkscreen. A few years later, in 1965, he gave up the canvas entirely in favor or film.
Then again, in the next decade, Warhol’s works found a new association with dance in the form of disco. In fact, disco is the only other cultural phenomenon I can think of that has died as many deaths as painting has. Maligned by critics of good taste yet celebrated, whether presently or nostalgically, by those just looking to have a good time, disco holds a special honor as the epitome of music-for-dancing’s-sake. Its musical movement is designed to inspire physical movement that, while not necessarily imitative, depends on a shared cultural—or perhaps subcultural—experience.
In doing research for this post, I came across an essay by the painter John Kissick titled “From Disco to Death Switch: Tales from Contemporary Abstraction” (read it online here). In this piece, Kissick pursues the idea “that dance music provides a reasonable and workable model for much of today’s serious abstract painting,” coming to a feeling he calls “enthusiastic ennui” that shares much with my “apocalyptic abandion.” His ideas stem from Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. I haven’t read the book, but the artist describes how Barker and Taylor’s understand the cultural appeal of disco as predicated on a replacement of the singular artist, the “me,” with, in his words, “the ‘us’ of the event.” In making this shift, disco rendered cultural concerns about authenticity, so prevalent in punk music, if not irrelevant, then at least arelevant. The necessity of distinguishing between real and fake—between abstract painting and “abstract painting,” as Kissick terms it—is no longer necessary when everyone drops their pretensions and just gets out on the dance floor.
Born in 1962, Kissick belongs to a generation more familiar with KC and the Sunshine Band than with Kesha. Yet his connection between dance music and abstract painting bears relevance, and perhaps even stronger relevance, for the present moment. As Barker and Taylor argue, disco provided a “meaningful and politically viable cultural counterpoint to prevailing tastes” that served as an example of “collective escape and sexual emancipation,” two goals that resonate with the club-set, hook-up culture both of Kesha’s lyrics and the majority of her audience. Escape from responsibility—familial, professional, and even physical—in favor of the immediate moment is the thread that runs throughout these songs, such as “C’Mon,” off her recent album Warrior, in which she whines, ”I don’t wanna go to sleep, I wanna stay up all night, I wanna just screw around/I don’t wanna think about what’s gonna be after this, I wanna just live right now.” Then again, maybe pining escape is just a defense mechanism against the realization that it is one’s only option, when there is no future, only a present of indeterminate length.
Thus to bring us back full circle, maybe in a love train, to the pressing issue at hand—that being the threat of total destruction–it’s perhaps no coincidence that another one of Kandinsky’s preoccupations was the apocalypse. Early works such as Blue Mountain (1908-09), explicitly feature the four horsemen of the apocalypse; in the years that followed, the Revelation of St. John the Divine continued to serve as a literary source for his increasingly abstract compositions. As Nancy Spector points out, Kandinsky’s paintings from this period can often be read as “apocalyptic narratives,” progressing from destruction on one side to salvation on the other. This space and period in between, a kind of purgatory between death and rebirth, is the only space in which the artist’s “pure paintings” can exist, refusing as they do to ever fully release their grip on their representational sources. Contemporary abstract painting, as Kissick describes, occupies a similar middle space, “[hovering], both critically and aesthetically, never really dead, if on the other hand, never quite alive or engaged either.”
This is not to say that contemporary abstract painting is in any way “apocalyptic” in subject matter or motif. It might more accurately be thought of as “pre-apocalyptic,” art of tribulation that is best enjoyed in a state of aesthetic resignation that can only come when one releases one’s hope for the future. This is a different kind of liberation than Malevich’s “spiritual freedom,” which Butler aligns with the New Casualist ethos. It’s a freedom that comes not from transcendence, but from abandon.
Lane Relyea recently explored this connection between what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello called “the new spirit of capitalism” in an insightful piece about what he calls “D.I.Y. Abstraction.” Relyea advances his interpretation of contemporary abstract painting against those of Butler and Rubinstein, even as he acknowledges that his selection of artists is in at least some ways distinct. Certainly there are many facets within this extremely general trend, and some might be better described as “provisional” or “casual” than others. But Rubinstein and Butler’s pieces, from May 2009 and June 2011, respectively, also date from earlier points in a continuous economic decline. Even as numbers may look better, it’s this very spirit Relyea invokes that is the real problem for the current generation of young adults, Kesha and many recent MFA grads included. Abstract painting belongs to a history of romanticized individual agency that mirrors the feeling of freedom and capability that once came with a college degree. Yet in a culture that “[advances] risk, flexibility and short-term speculation over the social contract’s promises of long-term security”—and moreover, one mired in an economic swamp—such agency has become largely illusionary, if not delusionary. Thus, beneath all the unbashed lyrics and bright colors, and hidden within the danceable rhythms and gestural recklessness, is what Relyea describes as the “sad resignation that artists now share the same exploited fate as new-economy working stiffs across the board.”
Rubinstein and Butler are also talking about work from slightly earlier than our very contemporary moment, while Relyea—and I—are looking at work we’ve seen in the past year and even the past few months. I’ve seen so many examples that I can barely recall any names; a lot of it is in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, not a surprise considering that such galleries tend to show younger artists. Some of it’s really good in a way that I rarely understand why, but that’s because it doesn’t look familiar as much as it sounds familiar: it resonates.. The canvas becomes a respite not unlike the dance floor, the studio a place of escape like the club. Each painting, like a song, is a reminder of one’s ability to move, perhaps one of the few modes of agency we have left.
Here it is worth noting that some of the most successful adherents to this live-for-now mentatlity are female. In music, it’s Kesha, Britney, and a spate of other women I don’t feel qualified to name. As Reynolds points out via Robin James, a professor at UNC Charlotte, this sense of release, troubling as it is, also has a potential of empowerment for women, who are often saddled with the task of maintaining stability while men are free “to behave badly.” Kesha upsets stereotypes by objectifying the men that would try to objectify her, throwing their promiscuity back in their faces by pursuing and rejecting suitors of her own free will. She raps in her songs, deliberately and sincerely, while still letting you think she can’t be serious; as she tells Reynolds, “You must realize by this point that I’m in on the joke. I know I sound like a jackass half the time. I do it on purpose.” Such an attitude finds its corollary in the practices of artists like Meghan Petras, Trudy Benson, and Tatiana Berg. These artists venture into the traditionally masculine realm of abstract painting and emerge victorious. They do not relinquish their femininity, but rather redefine it, drawing on the freedom of apocalyptic abandon as an opportunity for a kind of aesthetic hedonism historically reserved for men.
I hesitate briefly here at the risk of offending any of these artists by comparing them to Kesha; certainly I mean in no way to conflate their work with partying or irresponsibility. But abstract painting is unavoidably hedonistic, and thus, as accomplished as it might become, their work, like Kesha’s music, has the quality of a guilty pleasure. It’s enjoyable and fun, maybe when no one’s looking, and any sincere attempts to justify it—perhaps like this one—can’t entirely shed the veneer of speciousness. And of course, it’s not at all good. Some of Kesha’s songs are unlistenable, and that’s to say nothing of her less-accomplished imitators. As far as painting goes, most of the work that falls into this category, admittedly, is just good enough to look at but not good enough to remember. The reason isn’t apathy, but perhaps a lack of motivation. After all, as Relyea addresses this relation between abstract painting and late capitalism, he doesn’t see it as a positive development. “Falling progressively into ruin,” he writes, “this is a scene that belongs not to romance but to tragedy.” Apocalyptic abandon exists in concert with “sad resignation,” and artists parse the split differently. Relyea sees the artists he’s addressing, such as Adam Henry and Jeffrey Scott Matthews, as artistic laborers, trapped in a Sisyphean feedback loop “with no other further objective in sight.” Most of currently trendy abstract painting, I would argue, fits this category, whether intentionally or not.
With regard to the female artists mentioned above, their success may owe itself, at least in part, to the unique experience of apocalyptic abandon to which they, as women, are privy. It’s an experience that mixes opportunity and desperation, gains and losses. After all, strength can also mask vulnerability. “Thinking of You,” another song on Kesha’s new album, sounds on the surface like a rejection of an unfaithful lover who has now come crawling back, drawn to the singer’s newfound fame. Yet as the song switches from one first-person to another as it goes from verse to chorus, identity becomes confused. “I’m over it so suck my dick,” she sings, and then a few seconds later, launches into the chorus: “I hear our song on the radio/And I see your face everywhere I go/I thought I’d call just to let you know/I’ve been thinking of you.” When, in the next lines, it’s Kesha’s song that’s now playing, her call to her ex sounds like a simple act of rubbing what he’s lost in his face. But there’s also a buried sense of vulnerability, where the call is a drunk dial late at night by a girl that wants to assert her power but also just wants to talk to someone.
Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO clearly demonstrates how self-awareness can serve as a defense mechanism. As a result, trying to parse it in regards to authenticity and irony—trying to distinguish between Kesha and Rebecca Black, between finished and unfinished—becomes a worthless enterprise. Where does self-awareness start and end? I propose that instead, perhaps the more interesting question is: where might self-awareness start anew? While it might seem a cop out that I’m going into few specifics here, and little to no real looking at these paintings, I am proposing this piece as a perspective rather than an analysis. Furthermore, although my framework focuses on a narrow set of artists defined by age and “generation,” I argue that its general tenets might also be applied to contemporary abstract painting more broadly, even by artists working today who have been at it for decades. That’s because to see such work as a symptom, rather than an explicit response, changes the stakes of the vexing question of authenticity.
The press release for Berg’s current show with Evan Nesbit at Storefront Bushwick states how these artists, by taking the medium of painting as their subject, “prove it remains audaciously alive.” To that I would say that painting is going to die anyway—we all are. The more interesting question is what it could mean if we just let it happen and give in to apocalyptic abandon. Working on the model of dance music rather than art provides a chance to think about circulation instead of intention. Maybe then we could stop worrying about painting’s death, rebirth, or zombie existence. Maybe then abstract painting, like disco, might more closely approach its potential to work as a “meaningful and politically viable cultural counterpoint to prevailing tastes,” rather than their complicit confirmation.
This, I suggest, is one way to think about the unavoidable question of quality in this work. A major critique that has been leveled against “Provisional Painting” and “The New Casualists” is that to celebrate painting that intentionally fails is simply misguided. Moreover, it sets a pretty low bar for what qualifies as “art,” a condition that perhaps accounts for the ubiquity of contemporary abstract painting in the past year or so. But maybe it’s not an issue of ease; not to say that we shouldn’t look to the artists themselves, but that the socio-economic setting in which their work has appeared is worth looking at as well. Abstract painting, in a contemporary perspective, occupies a position not dissimiliar from that of found assemblage sculpture, which is that it is art whether it’s ready to be so or not. We, as viewers, have so few criteria left with which to assess this kind of work that it becomes impossible to tell whether it’s finished or unfinished, and as a result, the point ceases to matter. Then again, with no end in sight, there is no beginning either. Issues like hesitancy and reluctance, on one end, and overworking and overindulgence on the other, no longer come into play. Abstract painting is a dance party that never ends, a night that goes on forever, till the world ends.