Why is the New New Taboo?

Moffett's Artletter, 2013

The New York art world is so colossal in size, so overwhelmingly pluralistic in outlook, that it is inconceivable that a whole category of artwork would be excluded.  Yet this is in fact the case.  A 30 year old, international movement, now consisting of over 25 figures, sometimes called the New New Painters, have yet to find a place at the table in New York City. 

Today’s version of the 19th century French salon are the auction viewings of contemporary art held at Southeby’s and Christies twice a year.  Here we see, spread out, the work which is considered the “high” or “important” art of our time.  The New New Painting corresponds to the Salon des Refusés: the ignored and rejected.  Their work never appears at the auction viewings or in any of the prominent commercial galleries in New York City. 

I first met most of the painters who later became the N.N.P. when I was Curator of Contemporary Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1970’s.  They came to see the exhibitions I was doing there of the work of the Color Field Painters whose work inspired them.  First called “The Boston Painters and Sculptors”, the original New New Painters were Lucy Baker, Steve Brent, Joseph Drapell, John Gittins, Roy Lerner, Bill Gruters, Marjorie Minkin, Graham Peacock, Bruce Piermarini, and Jerald Webster.  Stylistically, the N.N.P. is a fusion of Color Field painting, Abstract Expressionism plus the purely visual qualities of Pop Art with its glitzy, glossy, gaudy, “Kitsch” effects.

The N.N.P. has been well received in Europe and Canada as well as in the U.S.  in venues outside of New York City.  Writers like Hermann Amann, Ken Carpenter, David Carrier, John Henry III, Milan Knizak, Donald Kuspit, Werner Meyer, Marcel Paquet, Arlene Raven, Sue Scott, Natalie Sykorova, and Tomas Vlcek have written enthusiastically about their work.  The group has had large shows at the Musee d`art contemporaine in Nice, the National Museum in Prague, the Hôtel de Ville in Brussels, the Institute of Art in Flint, Michigan and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.  In the last decade, there have been many memorable shows of their work at the Museum of New New Painting in Toronto. The Belgian philosopher Marcel Paquet is currently writing a book about them and earlier this year there was an exhibition “Abstract Expressionism and After” at the Flint Institute of Art which featured their work.  But, in New York City, it has been a very different story.  It is as if New Yorkers have turned a blind eye, or are in denial, when it comes to the N.N.P

The group did have one New York gallery show.  It was held at the now defunct and infamous Salander O’Reilly Gallery in 1994.  The show occupied only one floor of the gallery, which had been rented by the visionary French art dealer, Gerald Piltzer.  I found it a poor presentation of the group’s work, not well selected, and not well shown.  It seemed cramped and confusing.  Above all, by confining the show to only one floor of the gallery, it sent the wrong message.  Also, the show was seriously over hung.  But as in every N.N.P. show, there were some phenomenal pictures.

Two years before, Piltzer had staged a wonderful show at his Paris gallery.  At that time, he also published a book on the N.N.P. written by Marcel Paquet and myself.  It popularized the name “New New”.  Piltzer was also the impetus for subsequent museum shows in France, Germany and Belgium.  Next he arranged the New York show.  He had some momentum.  But, at that point, he suddenly had lost focus.  The day after the opening, he flew to the Bahamas, and made no effort to publicize or sell the works.  Roberta Smith from the New York Times wanted to interview him but he was gone.  It was as if he wanted to fail or was afraid to succeed.  Add to this, the staff of the Salander Gallery, as well as Larry Salander himself, all influenced by the circle around Jules Oilitski and Larry Poons, were derisive about the show.  I thought the lack of critical and commercial response was due to these circumstances.

I only came to see how aligned against the N.N.P. New York really was in 2000, when I organized a very large show there at the 69th Regiment Armory.  I had 42,000 square feet to work with.  All total, there were over 200 pictures hanging.  Each painter had what amounted to a one person show.  Here I thought New Yorkers would see how amazing the work was.  Some did, like Andre Emmerich, Bill Agee, Richard Rubin, Tony Goldman, and a few others.  I was at the show every day and called everyone I knew in the art world, but few came.  That it rained every single day didn’t help.

The established art press, on the other hand, did come in force.  Milton Esterow of “Art News”, Roberta Smith of the “New York Times”, Jerry Salz, then of “The Village Voice”, David Ebony and Richard Vine of “Art in America”, Karen Wilkin of “The New Criterion”, all came, but not one would even so much as mention the show in their publications!  Roberta Smith and Jerry Salz came together and spent only 6 minutes at the show and never once stopped walking, talking, and laughing.  They came to scoff, and to be able to say they’d seen it, and never stopped to look.

There was one great review by an Ed McCormack, which appeared in ‘Gallery and Studio”, a small give away publication which McCormack wrote with his wife Jeannie.  I reproduce that review at the end of this essay in Addendum No. 2.

Piri Halasz, who writes a small newsletter for those who are still devoted to the crowd around the older Color Field Painters, was angry and dismissive, labeling it a “vanity show” (?).  She conceded nothing, ignored the ambition of the artists and the show, and was altogether mean spirited about it.
The other New York critic who remains a devoted to Color Field, Karen Wilkin, came twice but didn’t do much looking, and wouldn’t write about it.  She did though correctly call it “full throttle painting.”  Later, in 2002, Wilkin wrote a short, three-paragraph piece for Roy Lerner’s show at the National Arts Club in New York.  Her last paragraph, one third of the total piece, read so:

“Lerner has often exhibited internationally with a group of artists who, according to some commentators, are making modernist abstraction new by their rejection of the presumed norms of American Abstract Painting of the 1960’s and ‘70s – read “flatness” – in favor of a celebration of “contemporary” color – read “the brilliant hues of the mass media” – and of “new” materials – read “the latest formulations of acrylic paint with all the additives that make it thick or thin, translucent or opaque, crusty or iridescent.”  (Eccentric shaping sometimes comes into it was well.)  If that was all that was going on in Lerner’s pictures, they probably wouldn’t be worth paying attention to…”

Wilkin here clearly thinks she is doing Lerner a favor by contemptuously dismissing his friends and colleagues.  Normally, she is a clear writer and serious scholar, but here she becomes awkward and opaque (and with phony quotes).  She can’t even bring herself to name the N.N.P. or me.  And like Piri Halasz, she refuses to consider that the N.N.P. have something new to say. 

Another case is the well-known, New York critic, Donald Kuspit.  In a 1996 essay for a catalogue of an N.N.P. show, he lauded their work as reinvigorating Modernism after the “cold, sterile, impersonality of Post Painterly Abstraction” by which he means Color Field painting; he mentions Poons, Olitski and Frankenthaler.  The latter he characterizes as “materialistic optimists”, “merely sensual” and “emotionally empty”.  The N.N.P., on the other hand, “breaks out of this cul de sac and restore emotion, subjectivity, human meaning and the oddly mystical.”  Yet in a 2004 survey book, entitled “The End of Art”, Kuspit makes no mention of the N.N.P. at all! The book is mostly negative and bleak in outlook.  But, as if prodded by his editors, he adds a positive “Postscript” in which he brings forward a list of “New Old Masters”, who will save us and triumph over decadence.  His new, old masters, aside from Odd Nerdrum, turn out to be a mostly lame and tired group of representational painters.  He makes no mention of the N.N.P. in the entire book.  Eight years before he hailed them as saving Modernism!  How could he have so little respect for his own opinions?  It’s hard to explain, but it does fit the pattern which I am pointing to here: the denial or blind spot of the New York artworld when it comes to the N.N.P.

Still another instance is James Penero, art critic and editor for the “New Criterion.”  He came out to see my collection.  We spent several hours talking and looking.  He was animated.  Later he sent a polite note saying that the works of the N.N.P. were “more sculpture than painting”, which seemed to me exactly wrong.  N.N.P. work always reads more as painting, however three dimensional the surface.  Penero did get that the new acrylic gels afford a bigger range of sculptural surface.  But I guess he didn’t see this as a positive.  He too wrote nothing in his magazine about the work or his visit.  Vicky Perry’s recent book on abstract painting, while reproducing several works by New New Painters, can’t bring herself to name the group either.  Charles Cowles, the well-known dealer, told me that “no one in New York will ever show them”.  One .Manhattan dealer recently told one of the N.N.P. that she wanted him to take home his N.N.P. books and catalogues, which he had shown her, because she didn’t want them around during the show.  She said that the N.N.P. are a “very unpopular group”, a toxic brand as it were.  But then she added that they are “very good” and “will eventually be recognized, just not now.”

The denial of the New New also extends to many of the older generation of painters who originally inspired the N.N.P.:  Jules Olitski, Walter Darby Bannard, Larry Poons and Kenneth Noland.  When the N.N.P. first emerged in the mid 80’s and I wrote about it in my “Moffett’s Artletter”, I received an angry letter from Darby Bannard.  In 1992, when the book I co-authored on the N.N.P. was published, I received an angry letter from Larry Poons.  When I organized the big show at the Armory in 2000, most of the older figures wouldn’t show with them (an exception was the great Dutch painter Bram Bogart).  All of this mind you, without really knowing the work of the N.N.P.  The same is true for the circle of lesser figures around the Color Field painters – artists, and dealers, and critics – who still see themselves as Modernists.  These folks have been out of touch with the most exciting new painting for almost 30 years!  The same can be said of other self-proclaimed modernists like John Elderfield, Hilton Kramer and Michael Fried.

Why this refusal to look?  Above all, the N.N.P. creates cognitive dissonance for Postmodernists with their governing narrative of the dematerialization of the art object.  According to this view, Postmodernism initiated by Warhol and the Pop artists, replaced Pollock and Modernism. Art was now “conceptual”, it could now be anything or even nothing.  Here was total freedom.  But what is also true, yet hard for the Artworld to process, is that Modernist painting and sculpture has continued unabated, and is as alive today as ever.  (This is just as true of Modernist architecture, but that doesn’t seem to create the same cognitive dissonance.) The influential curator and director of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, Bonnie Clearwater, said to me that she would never show the N.N.P. because their work is not “conceptually based” (as if there were no such thing as visual ideas, as if the only true ideas were verbal ones).  The central and overriding reason for the rejection of the N.N.P. then, is the same reason that the Color Field generation has been so marginalized.  Modernism and anything associated with Modernism’s chief spokesman, Clement Greenberg, is taken to be utterly passé.

This triumph of Postmodernism in the market place has meant that the Color Field Painters, like Olitski and Poons, have been left far behind their contemporaries like Warhol and Stella.  Consequently they have felt neglected and denied.  To them, the N.N.P. were not a validation and confirmation but an unwelcome distraction and competition.  So it is fairly easy to explain the internal, generational rejection:  petty competitiveness.  Olitski is undoubtedly the main culprit here.  He liked works by Lucy Baker, Roy Lerner, Marge Minkin, and Steve Brent when he actually saw them, but later, as his own work took the same path, partly under their influence, he became more and more vehement in rejecting them.

In addition, many of the painters, critics, collectors and dealers of Color Field got all too used to its relatively classical, high impassiveness.  To see New New required developing a taste for a raw aggressiveness and seeming tastelessness (see my essay “?berkitsch and Abstract Painting”).  That so many of the Color Field crowd couldn’t take this step is testimony to the newness of New New.

The rejection of the N.N.P. by the New York artworld has other reasons too.  None of these painters live or work in New York City and most of them are based very far away.  Most are not at all good at promoting their own works or pursuing worldly success.  Most have a day job or other sources of income.  Now in their 50’s and 60’s, the N.N.P. have a New York reputation, but no visibility there.  Sanford Smith, who helped me organize the large exhibition at the Armory in New York City, called the N.N.P. “a cult without a following”.  Of course this could have been said about many of the great avant garde movements of the past, and especially the Abstract Expressionists, who, at first, painted mostly for themselves and each other.  This is what made their work so authentic.  And so it is with the N.N.P.  But the Abstract Expressionists were taken up relatively quickly.  The N.N.P. has been effectively blacklisted in New York for well over 20 years.  This may account for their unprecedented cohesion, extraordinary consistency, and steady development, despite some attrition, over this period.

Further N.N.P. work can’t really be seen in reproduction.  Many of the most effective visual features of their work do not reproduce at all.

Finally, another cause for New York’s rejection of the N.N.P. was perhaps the main messenger, myself.  I had became a pariah in New York ever since the 60’s and 70’s when I turned down curatorial positions at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.  Both Tom Messer, Director of the Guggenheim, and Bill Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA, who had proffered these positions, were angry and both told me I had “ruined my career.”  In 1982, I resigned my tenured professorship at Wellesley College, which may have added to my image as an outliner.  After 13 years, I was let go from my position as Curator of Contemporary Art at The Museum of Fine Art in Boston, supposedly because of my rigid, narrow taste and because I was considered a slavish follower of Clement Greenberg.  Next, I championed the N.N.P., among whom was my then wife Lucy Baker.  In the 1980’s, Clem Greenberg, with whom I had a falling out, and who, in any event, wasn’t getting around much anymore, had fixated solely on Olitski and taken to call me “temporarily insane”.  Jules Olitski wholeheartedly agreed.  Both were angry that I was championing the N.N.P.  Thus I had become an apostate with the Greenberg-Olitski crowd, just as I was a pariah in the New York artworld as a whole. 

Moreover, in my earlier presentations, I may have stressed too much the N.N.P.’s exploitation of the new acrylic paints.  Those who read sympathetically could see that I was careful to say that it was not the paint technology that made their works successful, and that the expressive need had developed before the technology.  Nonetheless, critics like Karen Wilkin, Donald Kuspit and others have criticized me for stressing the importance of acrylics.  So in my later writing I have stressed the spiritual side of N.N.P.  But both sides were there in everything I wrote.

Perhaps another mistake I made was not to stress more the Pop, “Kitsch” character of the N.N.P.  They are Modernist who have assimilated Postmodernism, or at least its purely visual qualities.  Again, I stated this, but may not have emphasized it enough. 

Lastly, let the reader note that none of the above has anything whatsoever to do with art as art.  I repeat here my claim that the N.N.P., have produced, and are producing, a body of work which is fully as exciting, distinct, and original, as the work of the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field Painters before them. 

Today, the N.N.P. sensibility is larger, more widespread, and more global, than ever before.  Despite the blackout in New York, it continues to develop and expand worldwide.  There is Zino Pece in Wales, Declan O’Mahoney in Ireland, Gerard Pairé in France, Peter Zimmermann in Germany, Bill Kort in China, Christina Popovici in Melbourne, Australia, Ben Wolfitt and Dan Solomon in Toronto, Richard Heinsohn in Nashville, Walter Darby Bannard in Miami, Jim and Anne Walsh, as well as Holdon Rower and  Gordon Terry, in New York.  Then there is Jules Olitski’s daughter, Lauren, who is an innovative painter in her own right.  There are Susan Roth, in Syracuse and Clay Ellis in Edmonton, both of whom have done at least some strong, distinct New New-type work. Doubtless there are others who I’m not aware of or not current with.  And why not this growth and expansion of New New sensibility?  Why wouldn’t an ambitious artist want to fully use the new and ever expanding range of materials and visual effects presently available to express his or her unique self at this unique moment?  Indeed some of the work of today’s salon stars could pass for New New:  Gerard Richter who, in his abstractions, doubtless unconsciously, imitates acrylics with oils (and thereby foregoes greater luminosity), David Reed, Jason Martin, Anselm Reyle, Steven Parrino, and others would fit right in, in a New New show.

Addendum No. 1

Many have disliked the name New New.  It wasn’t my coinage.  Its originators, John Gittins and Graham Peacock, say they meant it ironically.  Some have found it naïve or presumptuous or too trendy sounding.

In any event, the name stuck.  I accept it in that it underlines the new look and feel of plastic gel and the other synthetic materials like epoxy, vinyl, resins etc., as well as all of the new visual effects that these materials make available to the artist.  There is no other name for the post 1980’s generation or wave, whose work is so palpably different from its immediate predecessor, the Color Field generation.  I have sometimes used the name, “The New Acrylic Painting”.  It might also be called the third wave of Abstract Expressionism.  But, whatever we call it,  it is certainly distinctive enough to have its own name.  This was crystal clear at the recent exhibition, “Abstract Expressionism, Then and Now”, held at the Flint Institute of Art, which showed the N.N.P. side by side with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting