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Barnett Newman

I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about irony, particularly its role in art. Many of these are conversations I have been having with parts of myself, but some of them are with friends and cotravelers. This interest was piqued a few weeks ago when a good friend with an exceptionally developed sense of art and its history commented to me about my work with this: “There’s no irony. No appropriation. No erasing of boundaries between high and low. No entertaining riffs and slights-of-hand. Which is okay with me, but how do you feel about it?”

How do I feel about it? I’m still pondering that last query but clear that the absence of irony is intentional. When I mentioned this issue to another friend, her response was, “Maybe you should strive to live your life irony-free, like your paintings!” Yet another way to think about it. Irony is a concept so complex and layered that its many permutations can keep the mind occupied for a long time and never come to a final position.

In a review of the Abstract Expressionism in New York show at the MOMA that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, artist and writer Shane McAdams drew some generational distinctions that I found useful, particularly in the context of irony:

I grew up in a generation that would view claims of painting’s or New York’s supremacy as somewhat chauvinistic and confrontational. Our way has been more polite, less opinionated, and more circumspect, opting for the more slippery strategies of relativity and irony to make our points. The tendency has favored not being wrong over being right. If irony is to state one thing and to mean another, our generation has carved an entire worldview out of not actually meaning anything. This is the legacy of Andy Warhol, the high priest of cool detachment. So it’s not such a leap for the children of Warhol to assume that those AbExers were playing fast and loose with meaning as well, when in fact they meant every word they said.

While viewing AbExNY, I noticed that at least half the spectators were experiencing the paintings through a camera viewfinder, snapping digital photos, saving the experience for later. The younger the viewer, the less likely they were to engage the work directly. Jackson Pollock mediated through an LCD screen seems an apt metaphor for generational detachment given his determination to dissolve the barriers between him and his painting, the exterior and interior universe: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” he declared in 1948. We want distance from the world and our consciousness; Pollock didn’t.

A younger generation of artists who want “distance from the world and our consciousness” do live their lives in stark contrast to the heady AbExers in the late 40s. A pendulum swing or a trend that was just moving through? Who is to say for sure. But I do like McAdams’ move to a larger arc of concern with this closing thought: “When the world looks like it’s falling apart, though, perhaps ironic detachment will begin to look less like an antidote to chauvinism and more like a banal evil, unequipped to fight the pricks of history.”

No answers, and maybe there is no need to look for any. But plenty to ponder.

And thanks to Carl Belz for linking me to McAdams’ review.