More On Mainstream Modernist Painting and The New New

There are already a distinguished group of art professionals who agree that the New New are a distinct and exciting, new movement. The dealer, André Emmerich, the collector Lewis Cabot, and the art historian, William Agee, are three examples. Others include the American critics Donald Kuspit, David Carrier, Arelene Raven; the Canadian critics Ken Carpenter, the Belgian critic Marcel Paquet, as well the museum directors and curators here and abroad who have selected the New New group for exhibition. Three collectors have built large collections of their work.

There are good painters who have not yet been exhibited with the New New but whose work relates to theirs in sensibility, if not yet in focus and consistency: American painters, Gorden Terry and David Reed; the Canadian painters Neil Marshall, Clay Ellis, Bill Kort, and Giuseppe Albi, as well as the Irish painter Declan O’Mahoney. All have been influenced by New New.

There are pictures by Walter Darby Bannard and Dan Christensen, which would also look at home in a New New exhibition. So would Jules Olitski’s paintings done on mirrored plexi, which he did shortly after visiting Lucy Baker’s studio in 1986. Olitski’s recent style follows New New in many respects while retaining his own voice, tonalities, and color. Ann Walsh’s new painted reliefs also have a New New flair about them.

The New New are the most vital and audacious members of a much larger group which might be called the third generation or wave of Color Field painters. All came along since the 70’s. The centers for this work are New York, Syracuse, Toronto, Edmonton, Paris and London. I showed a group of these painters back in 1980, in a exhibition at the André Emmerich Gallery, called “The New Generation”. Aside from the New New, this group has not yet equalled or gone beyond their mentors – Olitski, Noland and Poons – in any fundamental way. Nonetheless, many of them produce, or have produced, some wonderful paintings: Darryl Hughto, Susan Roth, James Walsh, Peter Bradley, Robert Scott, James Hendricks, Sandi Sloan, John Hoyland, John MacLean, John Griefen, Pat Lipsky, Jill Nathenson, Larry Zox, Molly Morris, Stephen Achimore, Scott Bennet, Mark Raush, Olivier Dubre, Jean Miotte, Lauren Olitski, Ronnie Landfield, Sheila Gehrling, Harold Feist, Frank Bowling, Francine Tint, Terry Keller, Mitch Smith, Doug Haynes, Jeremy Down, Kikuo Saito, Jiri Malik, Randi Bloom, Michael Williams, Paula DeLuccia and Joseph Marioni. There are doubtless many others who I am unaware of or am leaving out. Taken together with the New New, this is a very large group. The official New York art world doesn’t yet register it at all, yet it must be called painting’s Modernist Mainsteam.

Very often, Modernism can be described as the creative use of new technologies. One only has to think of Modern Architecture, Modern Sculpture or Modern Music. As regards to painting, the heavier oils (like poppy seed oil), and tube pigments, which came into use in the 19th century, were essential for the Impressionists and Post Impressionists painters. Crucial to the second generation of Color Field painters (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Friedel Dzubas, Jack Bush and others) was acrylic, water based, plastic paint which became commercially available in the late fifties. Pollock and others already had pushed painting beyond the limits of oil paint and had turned to industrial paints, Duco enamels and aluminum paint, to get greater fluidity and more optical effects. The fragility of his pictures today, and those of many members of his generation, is testimony to a frustration with the limits of the oil medium and a search for alternatives. Most of the Color Field painters stained thinned paint into untreated canvas. They did this to neutralize texture and so present pure, optical color as the primary bearer feeling. But oil paint is difficult to thin down, and no matter how thin, it eventually attacks the canvas fibers if stained directly into them. This is why, since the beginning of oil painting in the 16th century, painters prepared the surface of their canvas with a “sizing”, usually of rabbit skin glue, before beginning to paint. Water based acrylic paint automatically solved this problem while, simultaneously, offering a fluid friendly, quick drying medium with an entirely new palette of brilliant colors. It seemed made to order for the Color Field painters. And indeed, the leading manufacturer of the new acrylics, Leonard Bocour and his chemist Sam Golden, worked closely with the painters, beginning with Morris Louis, to develop the new medium.

The New New painters have continued this creative dialogue with the paint chemist, Sam Golden (who died in 1997) and his son Mark. The development of acrylic paint and avant garde painting continue to go hand and hand. The most important invention in the eighties was a completely clarified gel, a thickening and extending agent. This made acrylics a full bodied medium, like oils, but capable of thicker imposto, brighter color and clearer transparency. Gel can also act as a kind of glue or sealer permitting painters to fold additives like plastic foam into the body of their pictures. This has made possible the sculpture punch of the New New. And rather than using acrylics as a more convenient way to achieve effects possible in oils, the New New painters features acrylics’ distinctly plastic look and feel. Also they and other painters have played an essential role in the creation of many new types of paint: metallic paint (gold, silver, copper, aluminum), glitter paint, hologram paint, pearlescent paint, cement like (but lightweight) pumice paint, iridescent, “interference” paint, multi-layered “panspectra” paint, protective varnish for fluorescent paint and more. Although, dramatically increasing painting’s range of effects, many of these are wholly unreproducible. The dazzling newness of the New New is badly compromised in photographs and reproductions.

Of course, none of the above should be taken to mean that oil, enamel, fresco, tempera, or any other painting medium is outdated. But it does mean that acrylics and Pollock-type painting seem uniquely compatible. Most members of Pollock’s own generation quickly switched to acrylics when they became available. This is the biggest change in the medium of painting since the 16th century.

All this demonstrates how very misleading the notion of “Postmodernism” is. Stimulated by new technology, artists create new mediums and revolutionize traditional ones. This process is ongoing and will not stop anytime soon. The worlds most visible architect, Frank Gehry, is a Modernist in this sense and so are our most celebrated sculptors: Richard Serra and Frank Stella. Color Field and New New are not yet celebrated, but they too are Modernist in the above sense, and have been all along.