Albers, de Kooning, Hoffman, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock: Though many of these artists' works are nearly 100 years old, they are still quite often misunderstood and even more often disliked. Still, older works as well as many contemporary examples of abstract art are the focus of a major exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Extreme Abstraction.
In some ways, abstraction is already extreme.
Consider, for example, a large aluminum-piped machine hooked up to a computer programmed to make a painting of up to 80 layers of paint. You could say, "Any monkey could paint that." But in this case it's no monkey; it's artist Roxy Paine's PMU [Painting Manufacture Unit] --- a sculptural object consisting of aluminum, stainless steel, a computer, electronics, relays, custom software, servo motors, valves, pumps, glass, rubber, and, of course, white acrylic paint. It's programmed to "come alive" about every two hours and spurt paint across a suspended canvas. It then "rests" while the paint becomes tacky so the next layer has something to stick to.
So far, two new paintings have been made during the exhibition and one is in progress. They are all different, though they share a geologic, topographical quality.
Elsewhere in this very large exhibition, Tom Sachs uses gaffers tape to reproduce the surging, intersecting red, yellow, blue lines of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie. In our own time, materials of the everyday, like various kinds of vinyl tape, become almost natural in how they lend themselves to making modern art. Just ask Jim Lambie. His site-specific installation, Zobop Stairs, is little more than colored strips of vinyl tape outlining the steps leading from one gallery into the next. This is art you can walk on.
It is also here where contemporary abstraction becomes what that of the early 20th century was not intended to be --- decorative.
Decoration is not bad; we all decorate. Just look at the patterns on an ancient vase, the bold geometry of a Marimekko print, or Liam Gillick's Stacked Revision Structure on the museum's lawn. It's a large metal cube made of brightly colored aluminum slats. While you approach (or especially descend) the staircase of the museum's neoclassical façade, the cube sits squarely in your line of sight. Although momentarily jarring, it is really quite a beautiful juxtaposition.
This is not the only instance of where the physicality of the museum is consciously affected by artwork. There are several site-specific installations throughout the exhibition. Not only do we get to interact with the art on the walls and floors, but the outside space is brought in as well, forcing you to consider the architecture like never before.
For example, if you're perusing the gallery walls, maybe getting a little glazed over from so much to look at, you might miss Leo Villareal's Light Matrix. A small label detailing the piece is positioned on the wall next to a window in between the Sol LeWitt and another Liam Gillick. At first glance, you might think the flickering spots of light --- sort of like radioactive fire flies --- on the dark glass of the modern Bunshaft building across the way are some sort of fleeting reflection and that you're the only one seeing it, much less thinking about it. But then you get it. Part of the whole point of this piece is that the 25 super bright white LEDs sequencing off and on don't intrude on the architecture, nor does the façade of the old, neoclassical building reflected in the modern one. It's beautiful and ephemeral.
Clearly, the boundaries of what is or isn't art have stretched, becoming increasingly more fluid. Abstraction can make us more aware of our surroundings, as we recognize how strangely unfamiliar the ordinary becomes. Walls, chairs, a crumpled up piece of paper all become significant.
In his site-specific installation, Deposit, Todd Brandt filled over 30,000 coffee creamer cups with different colored paints and then laid them out to cover approximately 430 square feet of gallery floor. As you look into the individual gallery space, the scene on the elevated floor is reminiscent of a pointillist painting.
You might wonder why he bothered. While Georges Seurat's tiny painted dots ultimately come together as one recognizable image, Brandt's cups remain as cups filled with (now dried) paint. Of course, we can also ask why transform anything. Why paint representationally at all if a camera can realistically, faithfully "fix" an image?
This exhibition is very popular with children. Children don't usually ask whether this or that is art but just experience things in a particular moment. Maybe this should be a lesson to all of us, to consider the more than 200 artworks as experiences to be encountered and grappled with, as objects that exist in the world with us.
Extreme Abstraction, through October 2 (works in the Bunshaft building remain on view through October 16), at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, 1285 Elmwood Avenue. 716-882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org. Gallery hours: Wednesday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10, $8 for students and seniors, and free admission every Friday from 3 to 10 p.m.