‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’

‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’, North & South Galleries, White Cube Bermondsey

25 November 2015 – 24 January 2016

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 1

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

There are many reasons to put on a group show. It could be to draw attention to a common style, to address a unifying theme, or perhaps the artists, if they are peers, feel a straightforward connection, so why not show together? For new art school graduates there can be strength in numbers. If the show is curated, there may be a conceptual brief. In the latter case however the artists would typically produce work with the concept in mind. Tightrope Walk; Painted Images after Abstraction, is one of those rarer breeds of group show where the individual contributors necessarily play second fiddle to the concept. Barry Schwabsky and White Cube have assembled a concept exhibition featuring some big hitters in painting; both alive and dead. I say featuring, in the knowledge that this word could be misleading. Nobody really features in this show. In fact, to discuss the individual merits of this or that painting in the show would seem to me to be like asking what breed Schrödinger’s cat was. Notwithstanding the fact that I am a huge fan of the paintwork of Picasso, Katz, Tal R and Morandi, amongst other artists in the show, it is hard to imagine an exhibition in which solidly impressive works by these artists seem almost hard to find; such is the homogenising power of the concept behind the show and the way it has been hung.

And that concept is about as big as they get.  The press release speaks of an effort to “…illuminate how the act of making a representational painting became redefined over the past century, following the emergence of abstraction as a competing proposition.” A sizeable selection of “representational painting” has been gathered and hung in such a way that it frustrates (perhaps intentionally) any attempt at comparison between individual works, and also discourages the viewer’s natural instinct to categorise the works according to any hierarchy based on quality, painterly virtuosity, renown or notoriety of the artist, or even based on unmediated visual pleasure. It is difficult to simply sit back and enjoy the painting. And why should we expect to? Clement Greenberg lamented the “laziness” of the public when confronted with what he called “advanced” art and “difficult” artists. (1) In this case it would seem to represent a missed opportunity as much as laziness not to address the concept of the show but to just sit back and admire the paintwork.

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 3

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)


The tightrope of the show’s title is taken from a quote by the painter Francis Bacon. As a metaphor it suggests the potential for artwork to fall definitively into one of two distinct territories; representation or abstraction. It also implies a narrow space which is almost uninhabitable; at the very least a space in which it requires the greatest level of skill and concentration to remain. Let’s not squeeze Bacon’s observation too tightly however. He was speaking about his own work very specifically and as an image with which we might seek to represent the central concept of this show, it tells us about as much as a ringtone does about the caller. By announcing its concerns to be abstraction and representation the show raises several interesting questions. If there is a space between abstraction and representation, was it always there just waiting to be noticed? If representation and abstraction are indeed two distinct territories, has the latter wrested territory from the former, and if so, is that territory lost forever to abstraction. Is abstraction an improvement on representation? And perhaps most difficult of all; what do we mean by abstraction?

By way of example, with regard to difficulty, let’s take a brief look at just one assessment of the theoretical minefield that is the territory of abstraction. Andrew Benjamin discusses abstraction via Clement Greenberg, who was averse to lyrical obfuscation when it came to interpreting artworks. As Benjamin notes, Greenberg’s reading of abstraction, albeit mainly limited to Abstract Expressionism, took as its starting point this type of painting’s immediacy to the viewer. The question of temporality was critical to Greenberg’s opinion of what constitutes an abstract painting. “The time of viewing is linked to the object maintaining and thus containing a single temporality, a temporality that would be united in the act of sheer presentation.” (2)  In other words, we no longer have to spend time, even seconds, chasing a narrative or a reference to something external to the painting itself. According to Benjamin, for the viewer “The interpretive consequence…is that there is no need to interpret painting from within the framework of representation.” (3) The point of this kind of abstract painting is “…the object’s own work.” (4) Greenberg focused on the evidence of the medium in front of the viewer. By this measure, when we look at an abstract painting we are looking solely at the object that is there in front of us, an object freed “…from the necessity of having to be the negation of representation.” (5) So abstraction is not just the opposite of representation. It has something to say in its own right, which doesn’t depend on comparisons to representational art for legitimacy. Or does it?

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 2

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

It is easy to see some of the difficulties inherent in abstract art when we look back over the Twentieth Century and the claims that have attached themselves to it in all its forms. It’s hard to love something that turn’s its back to us. Writing about Robert Ryman’s painting Yves Alain Bois speaks of “…ineffable silence.” (6) This apparent silence has meant that throughout the Twentieth Century abstract art has been used in the service of a great many movements, ideologies and social experiments. Its malleability as mute, immediate form has allowed it to be taken up time and again in different contexts. At times the vocabulary employed has verged on the hysterical or the religious. Its apparent refusal to articulate a recognisable narrative has led to the idea that abstraction either has nothing to say or that it is saying all things at once, depending on our reading of it. The liberation of painted forms from “…extrinsic conventions…” of narrative, description and depiction meant that “…abstract painting…(could)…tell the final truth and thereby terminate its course.” (7) Without the “extrinsic conventions” of representational painting, abstract art it seems will necessarily make itself redundant. This redundancy has been re-enacted time and time again since the early Twentieth Century.

Despite the efforts of critics such as Greenberg to attribute a voice to abstraction, it remains difficult to talk about abstract painting in terms of the object in and of itself. We are constantly drawn back to the language of representation, if only to draw distinctions between the two. Representation it seems can be spoken of without referring to abstraction, but not the other way around. The language employed to put shape on abstraction so often reverts to the familiar vocabulary of representation. For Bois, Rymans paintings “…(cut) short any attempt at associative readings…” (8) These are works which “…suggest their own commentary,..define their own discursive terrain…” (9) I tend to believe that some of the best work being produced today which could be called abstract, admits more than a token amount of commentary. By this I mean that it looks abstract but often makes reference to recognisable sources, and in fact embraces “associative readings.” Patricia Treib would be one example.

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 5

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

It could be seen as anachronistic to put on a show nowadays based on such a binary division as the one between representation and abstraction. For quite some time now the general assumption has been that we have moved on from seeing painting as either one or the other exclusively. I was surprised to see so much work which was determinedly representational and so little that really seemed to be consciously trying to operate within the narrow space between the representational and the abstract. Of all the work in the show I would wager that many of the artists had decided to retreat altogether from any debate about the space between the two territories. Again I was struck by the feeling that so much of the work on display was being mobilised to help illustrate a concept which is far more complex than the evidence of these paintings on their own could do justice to. Given the central idea behind the show; to assemble representational painting which has been made “in cognisance of abstraction”, I wonder whether a more homogenous grouping of artists would have made for a more coherent argument.


  • Clement Greenberg: Hans Hofmann,(1961) essay: Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1961
  • Andrew Benjamin. 1996. What is Abstraction? London: Academy Editions.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Yves-Alain Bois. 1993. Painting as Model. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.




Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in Madrid

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