Once Again, Painting’s Invincibility: American Painting: The Eighties Revisited Cincinnati Art Museum, March 12–July 11, 2021 Cynthia M. Kukla

March 27th, 2021  |  Published in *, March 2021

Installation View

Every past era offers us a view of the cultural riches deemed significant in its time.  Looking back on an era gives us a glimpse into the thinking of the era’s makers and those who evaluate the makers, and gives us a chance to brush off our knowledge and our recollections of the times.

American Painting: The Eighties exhibition attempts to do just that through the lens of a pre-eminent art critic of the time, Barbara Rose, whose criticism and scholarship focused on twentieth-century American art with a special focus on Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism and of the gift of the intrepid art collectors Ronnie Levinson Shore and John Shore who purchased almost the entire collection of paintings after it was exhibited. The Cincinnati Art Museum has been gifted by them and now has in its collection forty of the forty-one paintings from the original American Painting: The Eighties exhibition that premiered at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. They are on view in their totality on the third floor of the museum, the famous Duveneck Gallery.

Since this is the only gallery on the third floor, this space provides for a reflective and uninterrupted viewing of a cache of paintings mostly made between 1975-1979. Julie Aronson, the museum’s painting curator, who worked with DAAP’s  Kate Bonasinga on this exhibition, had said the exhibition presented a selection of the work of forty young painters to watch in the decade to come. It was about looking forward to what was envisioned to be the future of art in the 1980s, hence the title. This exhibition of forty-one evocative paintings1 by young unknowns sparked an art world commotion in the late 1970s. Now, a careful reconstruction of the exhibition is here at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Brush off your contemporary art lectures! Exhibition curator Barbara Rose was attempting to counter the prevailing trends that in the 60’s and 70’s moved away from painting.  Painting is so last-century, so last-many many centuries. As if, as if, wealthy people gave up their couches and dining room tables where in the past magnificent paintings hung on the walls of these grand spaces. No, collectors wanted a piece of Earth Art or Performance Art (photo documentation anyone? Or a shred of plastic from the performance placed in a vitrine such as (later) Matthew Barney might do?) Some of Joseph Beuys big slabs of fat such as were ‘recreated’ for his stunning exhibition at the Guggenheim? You see, people always, always want paintings. And this exhibit provides wonderful research especially in the wall plaques to contextualize the specific artists in the exhibit, especially offering up direct and illuminating quotes from the artists.

Sam Gilliam, Tequila. acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

The first piece you see upon climbing the stairs to the third floor is a moderate-sized Sam Gilliam painting. Gilliam at eighty-seven is famous and still very actively creating and exhibiting his art works. In American Painting: The Eighties, Barbara Rose chose one of his paintings, Tequila, that is stretched over wood canvas bars, a departure from Gilliam’s standard, looser way of working. Since the late sixties, Gilliam explored the use of canvas off stretcher.  He is famous for draping huge swaths of beautifully colored canvas on walls and ceilings. He did not prime his canvases so they remained supple and the acrylic paint colors soaked into the fibers of the canvas. In the museum’s Gallery 231 you can see one of Gilliam’s draped paintings titled Arch.

Interestingly, his painting Tequila, all soothing earth tones of wheat-yellow, landscape greens, creamy whites and hints of alizarin crimson, at the entrance to the show, is made up from fragments from his various draped pieces. So it is a painting and it is a collage and it is a record of Gilliam’s process of working with canvas and not being willing to waste paint nor canvas.

Yet this is not a scavenged piece. Look carefully to see that the sides of the wooden stretcher bars are beveled.  Gilliam was quite intentional in using leftover pieces and wanted this collage painting to have a very formal authority. By this I mean he was very specific that if he were to use stretcher bars, he would use them in very specific ways, in this case beveled.  This created a framing edge to the painting without the painting actually being framed. Gilliam stated at the time: “I see the most critical issue in painting today as one of continual renewal without repetition or imitation.”

Elizabeth Murray, Flesh, Earth and Sky, 1979, oil on canvas.

Immediately to the left of the entrance we are treated to two also now famous artists, Elizabeth Murray, who died in 2007 and Susan Rothenberg who is still painting today. Murray’s painting Flesh, Earth and Sky is one of her signature shaped canvases.  Like Gilliam, Elizabeth Murray was pushing the boundaries of painting and over the decades of her magnificent career, her shaped canvases became increasingly bold and complex.  In Flesh, Earth and Sky, Murray shows us her powerful color sensibility and exquisite deployment of color vis -a -vis composition. A wow-carmine red leaps diagonally across the parallogram-shaped canvas. A forest green shape lies below it.  A purple disk the same dark value as the green touches both.  Squint and the green and violet bounce back and forth as if one disjointed shape. These exaggerated amoeboid shapes writhe on a sonorous yellow and pulsing orange field. A very sly sliver of light blue edges its way around two sides of the painting. It starts with a sexy blue notch in the upper right corner of the parallelogram and ends at lower left with the notch morphing to a deep maroon that reads as a black, yet is not black.

Susan Rothenberg is represented by a drawing and in fact is the only drawing in the exhibit.  It is one of her early signature running horse images. The image is in graphite and the horse is the focal point with quick gestural lines radiating out from it. Regretfully, I cannot email Barbara Rose to ask about this inclusion of only one drawing because  Rose died on Christmas Day, 2020. We have now lost two seminal women art critics, Rose just months ago and Linda Nochlin in 2017. (As a prominent feminist art historian, Nochlin became well known for her pioneering 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published by ARTnews and later the seminal exhibition of women artists, largely painters, spanning five centuries. These two women, Barbara Rose and Linda Nochlin, were critical to their unwavering support of painters and of painting.  A charming synopsis of the issue of famous women artists is at: https://hyperallergic.com/377975/an-illustrated-guide-to-linda-nochlins-why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/).

Another interesting painter in this exhibition is Vered Lieb who is a painter, curator and writer. When collector and art patron John Shore contacted her to say he bought the whole American Paintings” The Eighties exhibit Lieb wrote back to him: “I would venture to say that you have one of the most important collections of our times.  I do not know why America has not produced many art critics and art historians with the ability to place this work in context…. I see painting coming back strongly on the college campuses by students that are thirsty for the information that their teachers are not giving them. They are discovering in painting a profound means of expression.”  Drink that in.

Vered Lieb, No Illusions, 1976, acrylic on canvas.

Vered Lieb’s No Illusions is a sly title to her color field painting – loose cadmium red and blue-green rectangles appear on a cobalt blue field.  While not shimmering with nuance and countless layers like a legendary Mark Rothko painting, it nonetheless gives a chromatic punch.  Upon closer inspection, just as in the Elizabeth Murray painting, here is a subtle edge of blue under the blue green. This painting is built up of numerous layers of deftly applied acrylic paint.  Further, and more importantly, the loose rectangles were originally quite proper. They have been slyly bitten off with a similar cobalt blue as the background.  What is this all saying?  To my mind, it is saying: “Rush by if you wish but if you look closer I invite you in to see how I faced this canvas, played with it, adjusted it, painted over parts but not too much.  I wanted to share this journey and process with you.” That is actually after all, what the best of paintings do.

All photos taken by author.

–Cynthia Kukla

1 Artists included in the original exhibition: Carl Apfelschnitt, Dennis Ashbaugh, Frances Barth, Anna Bialobroda, Louisa Chase, William Conlon, Leonard Contino, Sue Crile, Carol Engelson, Rachelle Epstein, Robert Feero, Hermine Ford, Sam Gilliam, Nancy Graves, Richard Hennessey, Stuart Hitch, Bill Jensen, Vered Lieb, Joanna Mayor, Meredith Johnson, Mark Lancaster, Elaine Lustig-Cohen, Elizabeth Murray, Robert Moskowitz, George Noel, Peter Omlor, Peter Pinchbeck, William Ridenhour, Susan Rothenberg, Mark Schlesinger, Steve Slowman, Gary Stephan, Suzanna Tanger, Catharine Warren Thorton Willis, Edward Youkilis

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