With Honours in Prague: A Canadian/American Group Test the Limits of Painting 

Ken Carpenter, Canadian Art 2002

Two Canadian artists, Joseph Drapell and Graham Peacock, have been making a name for themselves abroad as members of an innovative Canadian/American group, the New New Painters. As founding - and senior - members of the group, they have been in a position to help establish its defining ideas and studio practice from the outset. This is almost certainly the first occasion when Canadian artists have been in such a position within a movement of international significance.

The New New Painters are eleven artists from Canada and the northeastern United States who have been loosely associated since the late 1980s when a number of them were included in Kenworth Moffett's New Directions in Abstraction exhibition at the Shippee Gallery in New York (1986). They chose their name as a tongue-in-cheek retort to the excessive demands for novelty and the "far out" that so often vitiate the great displays of contemporary art in the major biennials and other such official venues. The New New Painters have exhibited in a wide range of world centres: Brussels, Denver, New York, Nice, Paris, Seoul, Stuttgart, and numerous others. A substantial monograph has been published on them by Dr. Moffett and Marcel Paquet (1992), and there have also been catalogue essays by such noted critics as David Carrier, Donald Kuspit and Arlene Raven. Last spring the National Gallery of the Czech Republic gave them an enormous survey exhibition of recent work, published a lavish, over-sized catalogue and acquired work by each of the artists.

Not surprisingly then, there has been increasing interest in the group in Canada, with exhibitions at Gallery One in Toronto, Le Galerie d'Arts Contemporains in Montreal, the Vanderleelie Gallery in Edmonton, and - most recently - Le Musée du Bas-St.-Laurent in Rivière du Loup. But they have not yet attracted the attention from Canadian museums that their extensive international exhibition record would warrant, and even in the United States their reception has been mixed.

Just as the Impressionists styled themselves Independents and stood outside the values of the dominant institutions of their day, the New New Painters have courageously rejected many of the prevalent trends in contemporary art practice. As Bruce Piermarini puts it, they are "at odds with post-modernism," which so often "denies the deeper self." They have bypassed all the urgent calls for paraphrasable meaning, cultural criticism, and questions of gender and identity that have held sway in the last few decades. Likewise, feminism is not an issue to the four women members, at least not to them as artists. The New New Painters work with a blithe confidence in the value and relative autonomy of aesthetic experience and the unwavering conviction that the medium of painting is by no means exhausted - that it is, in fact, burgeoning with new possibilities. Many of them assume that those who would argue otherwise exemplify what they take to be an unrecognized decline in aesthetic standards that limits art today every bit as much as it was hindered by the Academy in Paris in the 1860s.

The New New Painters have both a conservative and an advanced side in their approach to art. On the one hand, they maintain faith in the venerable idea of "mainstream art," that concept so central to Hans Hofmann, and in the power of immersion within tradition. Even more unfashionably, the New New Painters have chosen Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Jack Bush as particularly fruitful sources in the generation immediately preceding them, not just because of the quality of the work, but also for the inventiveness of their processes. Both emulating and criticizing their artistic forebears, the New New aim for the devolution of tradition from that generation to theirs, just as the painters they admire mark the progress of the modern tradition from the generation that preceded them, that of Hofmann, Pollock, Motherwell, Gottlieb et al. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot's seminal essay, "Tradition and the Inividual Talent," in which he observes that tradition, with its "indispensable... historical sense" and clear awareness of standards, can only be acquired - and transcended - by "great labour."

On the other hand, the New New Painters mark a decisive break from the apollonian calm and generally neutral handling of the colour field painters. One could never imagine them burnishing the surface of a painting with a floor polisher so as to remove all traces of the hand, as Noland once did. The relatively uninflected paint surfaces of those earlier artists have given way to the sculpted surfaces of the New New, which they build up, sometimes quite extravagantly, with acrylic gel and numerous added elements: styrofoam, marbles, broken glass, and so on. Their art, with its advanced gels and custom-made reflective paints from Sam Golden, was technically impossible fifteen or twenty years ago. On the basis of their insouciant indifference to received ideas about the nature of the medium, Moffett concluded that they "revivify abstraction," and "constitute the most exciting new movement" in painting in twenty-five years.

These technical innovations are especially striking in the case of Graham Peacock. Arriving in Edmonton from London in 1969, just in advance of the heyday of the Edmonton Art Gallery, with its ambitious exhibition programme under Terry Fenton and Karen Wilkin, Peacock was in an excellent position to establish close contacts with leading American artists of that time. By 1981 Peacock had moved well beyond any influences to develope his own highly inventive and personal way of painting: pouring one layer of paint over another, not-quite-cured layer and allowing the top layer to shrink, separate and craze as it dried. The next year he began working with thirty-foot lengths of canvas on the floor, selecting portions to be stretched up in irregular shapes as individual paintings. Peacock had established his own voice as a “process abstractionist” of the “fluid school” associated with Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.

Since then Peacock has continued to develop his technique, building up his surfaces with polyurethane foam, pipe insulation and carpet underlay beneath the canvas and adding collaged elements: glass marbles, plastic reflectors and glitter. The paintings extend so much in front of the wall that he now measures not only their height and width, but also their depth, just as one would for sculpture, and the perimeters of his paintings can be highly irregular, as suggested to him by the organic flow of the paint. Peacock's current work moves towards relief - though perhaps not all the way towards sculpture - and challenges conventional notions of what a painting is. His aim has been, as Miro once said, to “remain within pure painting” while “at the same time going beyond it.”

Marjorie Minkin, Irene Neal and Bruce Piermarini have all had a role in this redefinition of the medium. Minkin paints on molded, translucent industrial plastic, so that light is incorporated directly into the work. Irene Neal, with her jewel-like encrustations and swirling colours reminiscent of semi-precious stones, seems to bring painting closer to the nobler crafts, and in fact she does use her painting techniques to make brooches and earrings. Bruce Piermarini is the boldest of all in amassing the sheer substance of his paintings away from the surface, a method that seems to require the large scale of his work shown in Prague - well over two metres in both height and width.

While Donald Kuspit acknowledged the material innovations and consequent "new expressive possibilities" of the group, he argued in a 1996 catalogue essay that their most vital innovation was to rescue high modernism from a presumed emotional "insensitivity" and even a "neutralization... of self" in the later work of Jules Olitski and Lawrence Poons. Seeing in the New New Painters a very personal and "unembarassed sense of soul," Kuspit celebrated them as modernists with a kind of post-modern intent.

Kuspit's is a persuasive argument, especially as far as Joseph Drapell is concerned. While Drapell launched his career after completing an M.F.A. at the Cranbrooke Academy in 1969 as an abstract painter in a distinctly 1960s mode, by 1973 he had discovered - much to his surprise - distinct suggestions of the landscape in his work, and this led him to one of his most compelling accomplishments, the Great Spirit paintings of 1974. These grand, near-monochromatic canvases, radiating light from above and within, provide both a sense of place - the Georgian Bay that to Drapell is his "spiritual home" - and a suggestion of emptiness and loss consistent with the artist's separation from all his family and childhood haunts after his self-imposed exile from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1965. These splendid paintings - Great Spirit, Manitou, Night Watch - have been overshadowed by his more celebrated Red Paintings, one of which appeared on the cover of Art International in 1978, despite the fact that the artist has done a series of black-and-white photographs of Georgian Bay, remains committed to painting landscapes alongside his better known abstractions, and highlighted a sort of hybrid between landscape and abstraction (the Island Paintings) in a 1988 solo exhibition at the Shippee Gallery in New York. The virtuosity afforded by his invention of a notched paint-spreading device that he has used for some decades now has quite obscured the breadth of his interests and the role that his art plays in his inner life.

Among the younger artists, Roy Lerner's wide-ranging sources include jazz (he sometimes works to the music of Miles Davis), South American tapestries, and his annual summer sojourns near Bancroft in Hastings County with the Canadian branch of his family. There he often draws rocks, trees, and other elements from nature as a warm-up exercise, but they are also a way of "tapping into the frequency of nature" and the rythmical modulations that infuse all life activities. However subliminally, these concerns have worked to the benefit of his large painting in Prague, Dusk Calling (1997).

The working procedures of Drapell, Lerner, and others among the New New Painters suggest that Kuspit has accurately described at least some of them who exemplify David Smith's view that there is no such thing as truly abstract - all art emerges from a life.

But why such an exhibition in Prague? To be sure, Joseph Drapell was born in the old Czechoslovakia, but there are numerous other expatriate Czech artists, and he is only one among eleven. For Tomá? Vl?ek, Director of the modern collection in Prague, it was just that admixture of conservative and advanced elements that was so appealing. To Milan Kni?ák, Director of the Gallery, it was more a matter of the group's new-world othernness. He was first drawn to them through the work of Lucy Baker, and he sees them as marked by "a limitless freedom verging on brazenness, as well as a hefty portion of healthy human self-confidence." Their manifest "forcefulness and affability" appeals to him as a foil for the anxiety and prudence that he argues has been characteristic of Czechs living in the shadow of mightier nations and suffering as they have under both Hitler and Stalin.

However much it may have had to define itself as marginal in relation to such greater centres as Paris or Berlin, Prague has long been an open and highly receptive city. Mozart was a success in Prague well before he enjoyed the same acclaim in the imperial capital, Vienna. Czechs have not only always had their ear to the ground but have also been highly selective in their response to the avant-garde. Visitors to the National Gallery will be startled to see a very considerable collection of works by the great European modernists that Czech institutions and private collectors were acquiring early in the century. No museum in Canada could come close to matching one outstanding room with 19 Picassos, including Standing Woman, which was acquired only two years after it was painted in 1921. And Prague has a highly regarded building by Canadian-born Frank Gehry along the Vltava River, something that Canada is only now planning to acquire.

Prague has also been a dynamic centre of creativity, which the National Gallery acknowledges with a substantial display of work by that early abstractionist, Franz Kupka, although their large collection of his work does not really make the case that he is a major world figure. And Canada has not produced anything like the highly accomplished Czech Surrealists, Toyen (1902-1980) and Jindrich ?tyrsky (1899-1942), both of whom were influential for Drapell in his youth.

Czech sculptors have also been materially and technically inventive to a degree that Canadian sculpture has seldom been. Zden?k Pe?ánek (1896-1965), like the New New Painters, was rooted in his own tradition, powerfully influenced by Gothic architecture, and the crafts, especially organ building. And yet he was quite radical in his techniques, creating the world's first publicly displayed kinetic sculpture for the Edison power station in Prague. He was also the first sculptor to use neon lights - in the 1930s, anticipating later developments by several decades - combining them with plastic, wood, wire, cardboard and paint. He has a place of honour in the National Gallery, which is itself a grand structure designed by the Constructivist architect, Bohuslav Fuchs, in 1925.

The New New Painters clearly appeal to many aspects of the Czech experience and are a natural fit for Prague. But what of the exhibition itself?

There were numerous highly successful works in Prague. Drapell's Four Seasons paintings - enormous works almost three metres high and six or seven metres wide - represent the artist at the height of his powers. The splendid Autumn (2000), however abstract it may be, nonetheless suggests swirling movements of wind, rain and sleet, and plays off that forcefulness with considerable delicacy of handling, - one has the feeling that in places he has barely touched the canvas. In Summer (also 2000) the motility of his sumptuous colour is rendered consistent with a noble repose as all the elements seem to come to rest towards the bottom and centre of the painting. Minkin's Nile (1999), as Sue Scott has observed, appears "more iced than painted," and it simultaneously evokes the human figure, abstracted caryatids, and natural formations sculpted by wind and water. A few of Steve Brent's shimmeringly beautiful paintings would seem to be the work that Poons might have done, had he followed through on all of the openings he created for his art in the 1970s. Peacock's Slapska Dam (2000-2001) is one of a group of powerful paintings, the best of which may be When Buffalo Roam (2000, shown at the Alberta Biennial but not in Prague).

Peacock's work in Prague leaves the impression that it would benefit from more refinement in handling, that forcefulness of colour and matière need to play off against their foils rather more than he is inclined to allow. There is not quite enough of that distinctive feature in Jackson Pollock's poured-and-spattered masterpieces that William Rubin dubbed an "almost Rococo fragility and grace," the very necessary foil to his seeming crudity of application. Perhaps this is because the New New Painters do seem to have a fairly consistent group aesthetic or artistic personality, one that is in keeping with Hofmann's idea that art is, ultimately, joyous, at least in part. Kuspit argued that the New New joys are dialectical: "libido and the death instinct Ñü gloom and glory Ñü fuse." Yet overall, the Prague exhibition, like others they have had recently, is remarkably ebullient. Peacock has asserted that he aligns his art with the Pleasure Principle and is determined that it should be positive, convey joy. Jerald Webster aims to "inspire hope." Lucy Baker, perhaps the most exuberant artistic personality in the exhibition, with her penchant for fluorescent hologrammed glitter, marbles and flamboyant figure-ground dichotomies, might do even better if she were allow herself more ambiguity of feeling in her work. The New New may not be as calculating as Tolstoy claimed to be in What Is Art?, where he enjoined artists to unite their audience in universal, positive feelings, but it easy to get the impression that the New New Painters do sometimes impose on the emotional valence of their work and over-value the "immediate impact" that Piermarini aims for.

But at their best, the New New Painters have the strength of taking inspiration not only from the daily joys and hopes, loves and hates of a lived life, but also from the medium. As Robert Motherwell declared in "Beyond the Aesthetic" (1946),

The most common error among the whole-hearted abstractionists nowadays is to mistake the medium for an end in itself, instead of a means. On the other hand, the Surrealists erred in supposing that one can do without a medium.... What an inspiration the medium is!

At the very moment Prague was showing the New New Painters, the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt - that airline hub through which North Americans travelling to Prague typically pass - had given over a great deal of space to 25 of the vacuous and self-absorbed Date Paintings of the Japanese conceptual artist, On Kawara: unframed, monochromatic, flatly painted, each with the date it was done recorded dead centre according to the conventions for notation of the city in which it had been painted, and with a page from the local newsspaper of that date pasted onto the box in which the painting is to be stored. Mercifully, his daily telegams ("I am still alive.") were not on display. Granted that the Frankfurt Museum exemplifies more than most the debilitating sway of fashion and a distracting fascination for the persona of the artist, that exhibition made any weaknesses of the New New Painters seem almost inconsequential, and their accomplishment all the more persuasive.