Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

While abstract art has a rich and controversial history locally, South Africa claims no convincing abstract painter in the present tense

The American
painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for his impenetrable black paintings, once wrote
that his were “the last paintings which anyone can make”. Nearly a half-century
after his death, painting persists. In his new book on recent tendencies in
abstract painting, New York critic and curator Bob Nickas shows just how
vibrant this afterlife continues to be.

In his introduction Nickas quotes another statement by Reinhardt: “It is more difficult to write or talk about abstract painting than about any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story, but in the actual painting activity.” This coolly narrated book effortlessly debunks this notion. Not with belligerent intent, mind you, but rather through the knowledgeable explanation of what 80 abstract painters — too many of them
American, unfortunately — have been doing in the past five years. Assidiously designed, the orange cloth cover indicative of the visual zing inside, Nickas lightly structures his book around six themes. Although nominally
each artist is evenly treated, each given a single page biographical
entry and
three pages of images.

No South African is featured, which is unsurprising. While abstract art has a rich and controversial history locally, as is hinted at in a room from the panoramic show currently on at Cape Town’s National
Gallery, this country claims no convincing abstract painter in the
tense. (Zander Blom’s attempts are, at best, tentative indicators of
while Penny Siopis is arguably more abstracted than abstract.) This book won’t answer why we are gripped by an unrelenting, sometimes
bleak national
preoccupation with figuration, but it does — in remarkable entries such
as one the one devoted to Cologne painter Michael
Krebber — quantify what is lost as a result.
Bob Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (Phaidon, 2009), hardcover, 352 pages, 250 colour illustrations, ISBN-13: 9780714849331, R770.

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