April 9 – June 29 2008
Since abstraction was introduced into Western European art at the beginning of the twentieth century, art history has defined it as an artistic language that freed itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content; that content was an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object from the real world. When Tomma Abts’ paintings first came to public attention at the turn of this new millennium, abstraction was not widely found among young artists practicing in centers like London, Berlin, or New York. Painting of a decidedly narrative kind, with roots equally in old master paintings and vernacular illustration, was the focus. In this climate, Abts’ paintings delivered a shock to the eye, as well as to the prevailing taste; small in size, subdued in palette, they were, and are, profoundly nonrepresentational. This exhibition, the first solo show of the artist’s work in the U.S., consists of fourteen works painted over the past eight years. All of them are exemplary of Abts’ remarkably consistent method and stylistic language.
A hallmark of Abts’ work is that it is composed of forms painstakingly assembled into compositions that are as complex as they are contradictory. Her paintings display balance without symmetry, movement and depth without optical tricks, and luminosity without the harshness of bright color. Abts is one of the few contemporary nonobjective painters who don’t paint pictures of forms, however unidentifiable. Freed from all reference to nature or to the world at large, Abts’ works are not pictures of something, but rather create something albeit unnamable and inchoate. This distinction between paintings of things and paintings that are things in themselves is not merely visual; it represents an almost ideological split between a kind of art that concerns itself with reflecting the world, and one that strives to add to it, or even remake it.
The idea that the artistic act can be empowered in such a way hasn’t been a part of the mainstream contemporary painting discussion for at least a decade, but it seems peculiarly pertinent for our uncertain times. There is no doubt that the dawn of the new millennium did not conjure Abts’ paintings, but their anxious beauty could not be more appropriate for the moment we are living in.
The exhibition is organized by Laura Hoptman, Kraus Family Senior Curator.