Abstraction, Words and The World / for Frieze

« The it-pleases-or-displeases-me, which as a feeling
seems so utterly private and non communicative, is actually
rooted in this community sense once it has been transformed by reflection,
which takes all others and their feelings into account.
Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy
In one of the talks at Frieze London for Premium day last October, artist and novelist, author of Generation X Douglas Coupland came together with Emily Segal, co-founder of trend forecasting group K-HOLE, in a conversation called “Energy as Clickbaits”.
If the point was to examine “how we generate personal and interpersonal energy, alone and together”, the speakers focused on a series of recently coined words like normcore, selfie, paradessence, meme, that express a changing reality and that were created to define concepts that did not exist before.
These terms echo contradictory attitudes: the research of specialness, uniqueness, of showing how distinctive we are in a world of 7 billion people and paradoxically, the obliteration of individuality, as this frenetic attempt of originality turns oneself into a product among products. A blatant example is selfie. Also called “égoportrait” in Québec, the selfie was described by Coupland during the talk as “the photo booth of the 1970ies, except that the whole planet is inside the booth now.”
As a French person who does not practice English everyday, I didn’t quite catch everything Coupland and Segal said; yet, exploring the fair and looking at the works selected by the exhibiting galleries, I first wondered if I necessarily needed those new concepts and words to get into the art and see its relationship with the world today. This was particularly true while gazing at abstract painting, pretty well represented at Frieze London 2015.
Words that used to define modernism and postmodernism, such as rupture, revolution, originality, would not be useful either, because what they described is no longer at stake: the relationship between the avant-gardes and traditional forms, revolts against the establishment, constant apologies of change. Therefore, even if artists succeeded to overcome Clement Greenberg’s diktats about abstraction and his ideal of a formal, pure, reflexive art, it would be easy to conclude that nowadays, abstraction has become non-original and that sameness is the new virtue.
Frieze London 2015 showed that abstraction is enjoying a revival on the international art scene, according to the tremendous amount of abstract works in the fair, painting especially, but also sculpture and photography (what Paris Photo 2015 confirmed too) .
About Chinese art, Jennifer Flay, director of FIAC Paris, asked: “does Chinese art still carry ethnic Chinese identity or is its loss the price you pay for global standardization? More and more, as globalization takes hold, everybody starts assuming the same identity. We can’t have everything looking the same .”
So, if abstraction can’t be defined as original but at the same time is not non-original, what is at stake in abstract forms today? and potentially new about them? or, let me put it that way: is abstraction substantial and significant in our world?

It gets me back to an earlier article I wrote “The New Abstraction in the U.S. (and Why It Is New)” (Artpress n°410 march 2015) where I examined the issue of abstract painting and the connection between the artist studio and the outside world.
In the comments about recent abstract painting there have been attempts to resurrect the isms that used to come along also with the 20th century’s various artistic movements and collective positions: while the academy of formalist abstraction seemed to be dead, critics could not help but describe its revival as a “Zombie formalism” . Beyond the idea that abstraction would not belong to the living (and yet would succeed in being only commercial, decorative and flattering collectors’ egos and tastes), the very thing that strikes me in regular conversation is that abstract art is disconnected from the real world. I would rather assume that abstraction is the space for the interactions between social structures and individual sensibilities.
Parts of these social structures are social networks or their influence, which produce new kinds of experiences, of energies and of representations through language. Paradoxically, we are also disconnected from practical experience by spending hours on the internet or checking e-mails every ten minutes. Although I would never have thought about it a decade ago, isn’t it time to reconsider our relation to the notion of experience? Virtuality is part of our everyday life and of our ways to represent ourselves, to live with others, to build stories and make the world; it is reality too.
In abstract art today, the paradox is that creation does not proceed from the energy of artists’ collectives as it once did in modern art, from Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism. Works produced now are parallel even concurrent and converging trajectories, but generally not collective work. No new version of the Studio 35 gave birth to the works we can admire on the galleries or museums walls. Artists may know one another, go around with one another, be close, but they work alone or with assistants, apart in their studios. Moreover, the choice of abstraction can give the illusion art is cut from passing time, because the works “refuse to allow us to define or even meter our time by them”, as the show at MoMA last winter The Forever Now: Contemporary painting in an Atemporal World said.
Meanwhile, we think global, we tend to approach political, environmental, social issues and responsibilities collectively and through social networks. Some exhibitions tend to examine how artistic processes may function according to this model. A good example is Co-workers, Network as Artist on view at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris those last months. The show was a selection of international artists trained during the 2000s whose practices, largely based on networking reflect an organization in which “the user is connected to numerous networks –professional, technical, artistic, cultural – that recognize no geographic boundaries, what sociologist Barry Wellman calls « networked individualism ». ”.
If some practices are based on the systems generated by networks, art as a whole is part of this changing reality. Can new concepts and coined words that reflect aspects of it put a light on contemporary abstraction?
In art as well as in everyday life, multitudes of efforts are made to distinguish oneself, cultivate one’s own singularity – all while belonging to the mainstream and living in our globalized world. In this sense, artists are not heroes. Perhaps, the keywords of understanding what is going on upon those abstract bidimensional surfaces now are somewhere in our concrete world, in its actuality and virtuality. Didn’t Christy Lange, curator of the Frieze Talks program with Gregor Muir, say that they wanted to introduce us “speakers whose practices exemplify the way contemporary art intersects with other parts of our lives: social, economic, political situations”?

From Frieze, October 2015
©DDH 2015