Anne Appleby|Paintings, catalogue, Greg Kucera Gallery and Gallery Paule Anglim, 2000
by Kenneth Baker
Abstract painting can still give people trouble. Perhaps they resist abstraction merely because it resists them - embarrasses glib response, defies all effort at verbal translation. In any case, whenever I publish favorable comment about a show of abstract work, especially monochrome painting, readers fire off vitriolic rejoinders. Many indicate a refusal even to confront the objects in question.
Painting as spare as Anne Appleby’s does more than confirm the logical silence of the art object. By not telling us what to think about as we look at it, not telling us even whether thinking is called for, it strands us with the noise of our own mentality and tacitly demands that we calm ourselves enough to tolerate any consequent discomfort. Resentment is a likely response to this perceived abandonment. Even that might be fruitful, though, for someone willing to wonder whether resentment - brittle, defensive anxiety - may be the posture to which our culture predisposes us in situations that impose unsought self-awareness.
The tenor of Appleby’s work contains echoes of classic minimalism. The impact of minimal art in its heyday was to heighten the viewer’s sense of responsibility for transactions between themselves and objects, and so, by extension, for what transpires between them and other subjects. Spare and severe in form and detail, early minimal art was often accused of being “empty,” whereas minimal artists were striving to surpass what seemed to them an uncritical sense of content shared by most artists and the public. Early minimalism redirected outward the search for art content, beyond object and subject, toward the art works’ physical and institutional setting and the circumstances of viewers’ encounters with them. The nature and position of the viewer’s own subjectivity was - and remains - the most problematic aspect of this attempted reorientation. (Its easy canonization by museums has proved to be the second most troubling aspect of classic minimalism, as anyone knows who remembers the time when no critic could imagine the word “classic” ever applying to it.)
Minimalism in the early 60s was a gambit favored mainly by sculptors and by painters such as the young Frank Stella, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, who pushed their work as far toward objectivity as possible.
The situation has changed dramatically since then. In the early and mid 60s, minimal sculpture like that of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre seemed to define standpoints outside the ricochet of cross-references that define the culture at large. Painting seemed to be at a disadvantage because, no matter how spare it became, it could never banish echoes of the medium’s long history as a representational vehicle. However, the increasing speed of image circulation in the intervening decades has meant that today we believe no artifact stands outside the culture’s nexus of cross-references. Every picture, whether in the popular or high art sphere, touches off a chain of implicit references to others like it. The consequent “end of originality” is held to be a benchmark of the passage from modernism to postmodernism, whatever the dates we put to it. And with the heightened speed of image traffic has come a de-emphasis of the distinction between things seen firsthand and things seen in mediated form.
In the current context, even fully abstract, minimalistic painting like Appleby’s seems to function allusively. Monochrome painting eliminates imagery but in the current cultural setting it cannot eliminate referentiality, the sense that all paintings connect to other paintings by influence, resemblance and convention. Yet, by dint of its style, abstraction as Appleby practices it has unexpectedly regained some traction. For the very spareness of her work minimizes its apparent quotational aspect. It quiets not only the viewer’s perceptual agitation but also the ambient buzz of cultural cross-references. It also introduces the thought that these two levels of agitation may be in resonance. For these reasons, among others, it is abstract painting more often than sculpture that seems capable now of deepening a viewer’s experience of the present point in time and space. What that depth is, or can be, is presently at issue in work such as Appleby’s.
The tension between abstraction and representation is not what it was even 50 years ago, yet at one level it has survived the cultural transitions of recent years. Paintings that live by imagery, even pictures as idiosyncratic as those of Chardin, Cezanne or Morandi, do not radically upset the common sense of what a picture is or of painting’s function as fictive analysis or dramatization of conscious awareness. (Photography was a major influence on that “common sense,” and digital imaging is likely to alter it in the near future.) To one degree or another, all representational painting flatters us by holding up a mirror to our giddy inner dishevelment that pretends to reflect back a stylishness, expressive freedom, theatrical poise or knowingness that we wish we possessed.
Appleby’s paintings offer us none of that. They do reflect back to us certain of our real subjective capacities: the ability to make fine discriminations among hues, for example. The titles of multi-panel pictures such as “Spruce” and “Summer” evoke the power of memory to sum up manifold experiences in single sensations. The door-like size and proportions of the triptych panels in “Red Willow, Winter Birch, Aspen” stir a bodily impulse to enter into them that only the mind can follow.
Studying an exhibition of Appleby’s work gives one the sense of her work as a highly compressed notation of landscape experiences. Taken that way, her paintings assert that imagery is no longer the means by which such perceptions can be genuinely shared.
Implicit in that viewpoint is a notion of what is genuine or crucial now in observations of the real, and that notion, I believe, rather than her art’s own presence, is what Appleby seeks to objectify by means of abstraction. We begin to grasp the idea as soon as we notice how the colors in a complex work such as “Wild Clematis” seem to change as our attention shifts from one monochrome panel in the array to another. Each color seems to become itself only when - and only as long as - we focus on it.
This internal chromatic ambiguity of Appleby’s paintings is their essence. Rather than represent, they demonstrate an aspect of the real: that quality of it that seems to rise to meet our scrutiny, that confirms perceptually our participation in the world we see.