Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest
Alex Bacon is a scholar, curator, and critic who has defended some of those abstract painters celebrated by collectors and maligned by critics—a loose group of young “sensations” called everything from “flip artists,” “crapstractionists,” “opportunists,” to “zombie formalists.” Bacon’s understanding of abstraction is historically grounded, finishing a dissertation on Frank Stella at Princeton, and with the Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ad Reinhardt Foundations—co-editing with Barbara Rose the recent “Ad Reinhardt Centennial 1913-2013.” He has published long interviews with some of the artists in question, including Jacob Kassay, Sam Moyer, and David Ostrowski. He recently spoke with friend, and crapstraction detractor, Jarrett Earnest about the specific formal qualities of these paintings and the discourses that produce them.
I want to begin by saying that, while the market certainly plays a significant role in the way contemporary abstract painting has been exhibited, distributed, and received, we must understand that the art and artists are not simply made for and by the market. It is important to separate the formal and intellectual activity of abstract work from the economic activity of a particular segment of the art market, even if we may debate the level to which both are presently imbricated. A few years ago, when many of these artists began working, like most young artists, it was independently of any notion that their work would be shown, let alone bought. It’s crazy to remember that this new speculative market has only existed for the past few years, and that it likely has not yet reached a peak. Further, there are numerous very interesting artists working abstractly today who have not been picked up by the market and, for better or worse, may never be, and this indicates nothing about their relative quality vis-à-vis those who have.
In many cases the market selected a certain kind of work, somewhat arbitrarily based on a limited number of largely superficial formal and practical reasons that we don’t need to dwell on too much. Though to my eye many of these selections have been more canny than those that typically emerge from a commercial system. The reasons for the market’s interest in this kind of work include the age-old portability of the easel picture, the open-ended genericism that abstraction has always been charged with, deserved or not, the art historical seal of approval abstract modes have acquired, and tired notions of artistic gesture and authorship, which have been, as I will discuss, largely displaced onto the artist’s conceptual ideas and the labor associated with his or her process. It is also perhaps not surprising, though it should be in 2014, that of the many and diverse artists working abstractly, those who have been picked up by the market are overwhelmingly, though certainly not exclusively, white, straight, and male. This said, the fact that two of the most visible artists in this nexus of abstraction and the market, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo, are young men of color is itself a very interesting case.
People like to speak today as if it is the market that paints these paintings, or at least that the artists must be in collusion, or opportunists, when in fact they often have no control or input in the initial decision by a small cabal of wealthy and influential people to speculate on their work. I’m not saying that the artists don’t make money from this system, but that, as with most such systems, it is far less than what is being made off of their creative labor by a select few. Yet the artists are then lambasted as if they were themselves agents of the market, and are stuck with managing, or finding people to help them manage, a fickle and unstable demand of which they themselves are not able to be full participants in, or beneficiaries of. This is not only an unfair double bind, but has obvious relations to larger social and political issues surrounding agency, labor, and access in contemporary Western society.
The next thing to note is that, to truly understand what is happening today, in the broadest way possible, we must be able to deftly move between considerations of the work’s formal and conceptual operations, to a consideration of why the market might have seized upon work that manifests these characteristics, and then to a consideration of how this in turn might affect the production of such work. Of course all are intertwined and occurring simultaneously but, as the one-dimensional nature of most criticism to date indicates, temporarily establishing these fictive distinctions is the only way to prevent the sociology of the market situation from overriding and totally distorting our ability to understand anything of what this kind of work might be trying to achieve in its own formal and intellectual terms.
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