Not Neo But New

Early One Morning at the Whitechapel Gallery and the question of the 'new' sculpture...

Turmoil and anxiety in the financial markets, environmental degradation, the ever-present fear of terrorism and extremism abroad, paranoia over immigration, globalisation, and any number of unspecified threats to personal safety and social stability. These are just some of the dreary themes of contemporary life that were entirely absent from Early One Morning, the Whitechapel Gallery’s upbeat summer show of sculpture by a new wave of British artists.

Heralding a return to the abandoned realms of abstraction and material form, Early One Morning tentatively took its cue from the Whitechapel’s New Generation shows of the mid ‘sixties, and coincided with Tate Britain’s presentation of New Generation works by the likes of Michael Bolus, Tim Scott, William Tucker, and of course Anthony Caro, whose landmark work of 1962 provided the show’s title. Formalism, it seems, is back.

The comparison with the swansong of Anglo-American formalism is interesting, but not because younger artists have made a coherent rediscovery of the interrupted trajectory of late modernism that the New Generation sculptors came to symbolise. Whilst the notion of ‘rediscoveries’ and ‘returns’ to an earlier historical moment may be comforting to conservative critics looking for a sense of re-established tradition and continuity, Early One Morning in reality showcased a very contemporary problem afflicting the status of gallery aesthetics and its relation to the wider culture. Talk of a return to abstraction, to formal and material considerations in recent art has gathered pace in the last few years; Shows such as the Arnolfini’s recent Shimmering Substance, and the Mead Gallery’s Vivid, are just some of the more recent attempts at acknowledging a putative return to material specificity and abstract form. Amongst a certain group of younger artists working within the context of gallery presentation, there is clearly a move away from more direct forms of figuration, and a parallel increase in the attention paid to the concrete qualities of the object itself. What’s striking about this is that it occurs at a time when much other artistic practice addresses itself to the representation of institutional, cultural, social and political import, and with a level of mainstream interest that is without recent precedent. So a celebration of the dissociated pleasures of material form might seem at best perverse, at worst reactionary, and indeed a throwback to the bankrupt ideals of late modernism. But this re-emergence of formal attention, evacuated of critical complexity or agenda, is nevertheless rooted in the some very contemporary pressures that bear on both the critical and institutional circumstances of art presentation in general. It reflects particularly a current contradiction between the expansion of critical discourse that seeks to assimilate art to broader concerns, against the dogged persistence of art’s institutional forms and limits.

That an enthusiasm for radically separate and self-justifying formal concerns can occur now is to do with the mismatch between critical concerns that supersede the tradition of gallery-based art, and the market’s ongoing appetite for work that conforms to that context. In a sense, the spectre of disinterested formal aesthetics that haunts Early One Morning is the result of how the scene of gallery art has largely been abandoned by those critical discourses that previously inhabited it. If the shifts in contemporary art since minimalism can be seen as a step-by-step working through of the contextual contingencies that formalism had previously repressed- questions of political engagement, cultural division and subjective identity- those developments were nevertheless articulated in relationship to the residual context of art’s venue of presentation, and inflected the persistence of its traditional forms. The unresolved tension inherent in the post-minimalist practices of the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties, at least with regards to formal questions and the art gallery context, turned on how to address critical demands antithetical to formalist orthodoxy, whilst maintaining an uneasy stand-off with the material and institutional conditions that produced formalism in the first place.

Such a compromise, between the proliferation of critical perspectives and their assimilation into persistently conservative gallery modes of presentation, underpins the impasse that critical practice had reached by the end of the ‘80s regarding the material, commodity object of art. In Britain, the evacuation of critical discourse was most immediately apparent in the explosion of ‘young British art’, which, in its formal conservatism and indulgence in everything anti-critical and populist, did most to retrieve a viable, marketable model for gallery art, a turn which was richly rewarded by the rapid growth both of the commercial market and the public status of art in the ‘Nineties. But this expansion of art has not solely benefited the more spectacular forms of artistic presentation. Paradoxically, whilst the critical traditions that were partially articulated in gallery art were quickly eclipsed in the turn to the pop-conservatism of the early 90s, the latter half of the decade has seen previously marginal critical perspectives quickly gain attention and prominence. The expansion of public attention towards art, and an increasingly hospitable institutional and policy culture towards art that is engaged with the wider world, means that once previously marginal radical perspectives in art are more visible than ever. From Artangel’s commission of political spectacles such as Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Michael Landy’s Breakdown, to the Turner Prize nomination of the socio-historical speculations of Liam Gillick, to name but a few, activities that would have once been found in the radical margin of art practice are now endorsed as mainstream.

Consequently, the relationship between critical discourse and the institutional forms through which they are articulated is now quite different to what it would have been two or three decades ago. Critical artistic practice, once set in opposition to the hegemony of formal aesthetics, and its implicitly hierarchical cultural divisions, now finds itself able to achieve an undreamt-of level of cultural prominence, in part due to the final collapse of conservative aesthetic discourse as a significant cultural force. The demise of both of traditional aesthetic criteria, and the limitation of critical discourse through its compromises with traditional formal categories, underwrites what yBa so conclusively demonstrated through its commercial success, and what the new formations of critical practice can now exploit via the new opportunities for dissemination that result from art’s broadened public status.

The relative removal of critical perspectives from formal, gallery-bound art practice to other forms of presentation, coupled with the absence of any seriously defended aesthetic criteria within it, and the irrepressible market demand for more art objects partly explain the ebullient return of material preoccupations in recent commercial art. Having relieved itself of both critical and aesthetic accountability, young gallery-oriented art in the ‘nineties flirted heavily with the non-art content of popular culture and, once that had been assimilated, further turned to the non-art potential of technique and materials. In a further development on yBa, the work of the later 90s saw the reinvention of popular or ‘amateur’ idioms, the return of the handmade and of the craft aesthetic. The Saatchi Gallery’s ‘New Neurotic Realism’ was only the most visible attempt to define this new tendency, but it was a development that came out of a broad community of diverging interests. The use of informal materials and amateur techniques could in one place signify an allegiance to popular culture, elsewhere a resistance to the professional conventions of institutionalised art, or a critique of the process of aesthetic judgement and evaluation, or a desire to make artwork more authentic and resistant to a depersonalised and media-saturated culture.

In this regard, the shift towards idiosyncratic manufacture, and the allure of material presence, represents a particular kind of investment in art-making amongst a generation of artists who continue to work with the terms of the commercial art object. Whilst many commercial dealers saw the attraction of the ‘neo-naïve’ in new art, with its hip appropriation of pop culture and its hobbyist’s refusal to put any one technique or form above another, the motivation amongst artists was equally one of defining what was viable within the continued terms of art-making, once the more grandiose claims of the previous decades had run aground. Whilst the rediscovery of materials and technique is full of contradictions, it can also be seen as a response to the slavish desire to access the attentions of the public and the media through which yBa had first staked its ground. For younger artists in the late ‘90s, the field had already been opened up, and there was less at stake in pandering to the expectations of the mainstream.

From here, the further turn away from figuration becomes question of contemporary context; old fogey critic Richard Dorment, reviewing Early One Morning, declares with breathless excitement that the exhibition ‘is all the more remarkable… because it features abstract art at a time when abstraction is out of favour with young artists.[i] Dorment should have been paying more attention because abstraction, or rather the withdrawal from figuration, and the concomitant emphasis on materials, has been on the cards for a while amongst the younger generation that Early One Morning represents. It’s a move epitomized, for example, in Alexis Harding’s disintegrating oil-on-enamel grids on show in Shimmering Substance. Old-school conservatives such as Dorment will no doubt have a great time with Early One Morning, as it offers them the nostalgic misrecognition of modernist certainty in an epoch of post-modern heterogeneity; hilariously, he insists on comparing Shahin Afrassiabi’s intelligent arrangements of DIY goods to the underlying logic of Cézanne’s essential forms.

But what makes this new move to abstraction and material form different from its modernist precursor is that whereas mid-century formalism, á la Greenberg was an attempt to justify the validity of certain categories of art-making through an appeal to an essentialist or idealized account of what was irreducible within those forms, the new work offers doesn’t stem from any such programmatic agenda. Rather, what it reveals, by practical accident rather than the rationalised appeal to an ideal, are the actual conditions of presentation that formalism sought to mystify as essential to the object, rather than the context of its presentation. As Hal Foster notes in ‘The Crux of Minimalism’, ‘…the stake of Anglo-American formalism is the autonomous art object only to the degree that it supports the autonomous art subject, defined in aesthetic judgment and refined through aesthetic taste.’[ii] What the new formalism discovers is not the ideal of the autonomous object of formalism, but the conditional persistence of the terms of aesthetic experience, as it might be encountered within the secure conditions of the art gallery. The new formalism, if that’s even an adequate term, doesn’t rediscover formalism as much as it discovers, for the first time, that the terms of encounter with objects in a gallery tend towards certain practical aesthetic resolutions.

The shape these resolutions take may appear to reiterate earlier terms, but they do so only inasmuch as they articulate the contemporary aesthetic and institutional possibilities and limitations of gallery art; the ambiguity towards reference and representation, the hallucinatory excess of material form, and the syntax that develops between elements once they are placed in relation to one another, all echo the past, but are discovered because these aspects are ‘default values’, so to speak, the pragmatic reality of what was once mistaken for an essential. Representation, when no longer hooked to one or other critical framework- realism, or psychoanalysis, or whatever- tends in Early One Morning towards an atmospheric, idiosyncratic and allusive form of figuration. Not quite representation, but neither abstract in the old sense, the works of Clare Barclay, Eva Rothschild and Jim Lambie take the figurative qualities of objects, and through various mutations and manipulations, remove any too-insistent reference, balancing precariously between the object’s literal identity and its capacity for suggestion, feeding off the after-image of mass culture whilst reprocessing it within the formal terms of the work. Gary Webb’s sensibility best represents the wildly hypertrophic celebration of materials that also underpins the abstract; Abstract elements of Perspex, day-glo, fibreglass, hand-blown glass, marble, aluminium and wood, not to mention hi-fi equipment, are whirled into gabbling constellations, each element subordinate to the whole, each individually pointing to the high-vulgar seduction of surfaces of the consumer world. Webb’s arrangements retain the afterimage of formalist syntax, but seem more committed to short-circuiting any resolution of that syntax through the endless accretion of destabilising details and unexpected disarticulations. Shahin Afrassiabi by contrast, arranges his DIY store elements- aluminium section, flooring tiles, tube lights, cardboard- with a sobriety and earnestness that further explores the relational language of objects placed in arrangement, discrete material parts whose identity is transformed through their visual relation to each other.

These developments are not part of a determined reclamation of a systematic aesthetic, but what is uncanny is that they reinvent many of the formal resources of modernist form, and yet do so without the need for an essentialising account of aesthetic resolution. For younger artists seeking to find viable terms for a material practice after the epoch of post-modern critique, and reconciled to the exigencies of the market, the reinvention of non-figurative form allows for an art that is idiosyncratic and resistant to assimilation into other forms of visual culture. That this resistance might be seen as an assertion of cultural separation or independence by the artist, nevertheless provokes the criticism that such a resistance might also be conducive to the market’s desire for objects that do not too much involve themselves in the world outside, but instead focus on the luxury and excess of the aesthetic moment within the confines of the gallery. This again suggests that the rationalised terms of formalism were only ever an effect of these conditions, conditions that appear to reassert themselves now that critical impulses in art practice have relocated elsewhere. But the terms of formalism anyway always contradictory; prone to the rarifying and sequestrating impulse of elite taste, formalism nevertheless attempt to attest to common affective potential of aesthetic experience. That it’s attempt turned in on itself by attempting to idealise not only form, but the context of presentation in which that form occurred, was the failure that led to much of what came after.

This is not a mistake that the new formalism could make a second time, even if it wanted to. Pragmatic and often cynical, for sure, and conservatively reconciled to the commercial locus of the unique object, the work that Early One Morning heralds is nevertheless involved in discovering the formal potential that might be articulated within the terms of that context, not as an attempted return to modernist certainties, but as one of the plurality of practices in which questions of form, experience and context may once more be negotiated. This is not a ‘return’ of history, but the reinvestment of certain conditions that persist in art practice today, conditions that result from the critical and institutional dead-end of the previous decade. The artists of Early One Morning may be a ‘new generation’, but there is no ancestry to be traced. The cultural limits and potentials of the experience of form are being invented on today’s terms, and whilst the conclusions may appear similar, they are being constructed from the ground up, in a landscape uncluttered by the relics of history. What ideas and commitments that experience might be made to express, and to what ends, remains to be seen.

Early One Morning, Whitechapel Gallery 6th July – 8th September

Tra-la-la:British Sculpture in the Sixties, Tate Britain 25th March - 27th August

Shimmering Substance, Arnolfini Bristol 27th April – 23rd June

Vivid, Mead Gallery Coventry 27th April - 28th June

[i] Richard Dorment, Telegraph 17 July 2002

[ii] Hal Foster, ‘The Crux of Minimalism’, endnotes, p245, in The Return of the Real, MIT, 1996



First published in Art Monthly no259, September 2002 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated