Abstraction is dead. At least, that’s what David Hockney believes, according to a column he wrote for The Art Newspaper. ‘Abstraction in art has run its course’ is the very definitive, wholly final, and entirely self-assured headline that accompanies the piece.
And Hockney is in a good position to pass judgement: he is, after all, one of the true living giants of contemporary painting. But is he right? Is abstraction really dead?
Hockney’s main argument is that abstraction’s job ‘was to take away the shadows that had dominated European art for centuries’. He’s referring to the move away from the dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro of pre-1840s painting towards the bright, shadow-less art of the impressionists. He sees abstraction as the last logical step in the de-shadowfication of painting. But in the same breath, he’s also saying that abstraction’s job was to shake off the shackles of centuries of art rules, and that its mission has been accomplished. He’s saying that abstraction isn’t necessary anymore because it did it, it took away those shadows, it destroyed the rule book and now we can all just get on with the task of starting again.
I mean, obviously, abstraction has created its own new set of rules (or shadows) for people to follow. But the old rules are still being torn down in new ways, and abstraction is as alive as it's ever been.
Post-pandemic, there is a thirst for painting unlike any we’ve seen for decades. Frieze, Art Basel, and the majority of the world’s best contemporary art galleries are full of works on canvas. A big chunk of those paintings will be abstract.
Just look at ‘Mixing It Up: Painting Today’, the Hayward Gallery’s major autumn show, dedicated to painters working today. Among them, you’ll find Oscar Murillo, Rachel Jones and Samara Scott, artists pushing abstraction in totally new directions.
Murillo politicises it, creating huge, daunting, oil stick images on sackcloth used for global trade. Rachel Jones uses it to explore ideas of the black body, through enormous, kaleidoscopic canvases. Samara Scott fills tubs of coloured liquid with plastic bags and phone chargers, twisting them into flowing compositions, like abstract portraits of everyday life. All of these artists are trading on the history of abstraction, but pushing it and morphing it.
And they’re doing well. Really well. According to data from Wondeur, Samara Scott ranks in the top 4.56% of artists with the highest institutional recognition worldwide and is in the top 1.9% established artists with the fastest career growth worldwide, with 45% growth in the last 5 years in her career.
Rachel Jones, meanwhile, ranks in the top 8.89% of artists with the highest institutional recognition worldwide and is in the top 3.41% established artists with the fastest career growth worldwide. Her career has seen 255% growth in the last 5 years,
And Oscar Murillo (1986) ranks in the top 0.94% of artists with the highest institutional recognition worldwide. Oscar Murillo is in the top 10.9% star artists with the fastest career growth worldwide.
During that time, Oscar Murillo had 21 solo shows and 65 group shows at places like MoMA PS1, Haus der Kunst and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet among others.
And those three artists are just examples from one exhibition. Abstraction is everywhere. When you entered the Frieze tent this year, what were the first things you saw, right there in front of you? Abstracts, by Jennifer Guidi at Gagosian, a whole booth of them. And to your left? More abstracts by Lucy Bull at David Kordansky.
And all this is even before we consider the world of digital abstraction, where artists like Zach Lieberman are using algorithms and neural networks to create wholly abstract images from a totally new perspective. There is so much abstraction out there, doing so many interesting, new things.
‘Many critics used to say Piet Mondrian was the last of them. Perhaps it did go on a bit longer in the US. Frank Stella in his show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2015-16) seemed to be saying this’, Hockney says in his article. For him, abstraction ended - at a push - with the minimalists. But abstraction didn’t run its course then, and it hasn’t run its course now, you just have to look around you and you’ll see it, absolutely everywhere.
By Eddy Frankel, ARTE Generali author