Ever since I discovered that, during the cold war, the CIA played an active role in the promotion of abstract expressionist art around the world, I have unfailingly applied what I call the CIA test whenever I encounter a fresh example of American abstraction. It’s a simple procedure. You just stand in front of the picture and ask yourself: what is this picture telling me about America?
The CIA supported abstract expressionism because artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko appeared, in the 1950s, to represent values that the commies could never hope to understand: a man’s right to paint whatever he wants, whenever he wants, in whatever style he chooses. The reality was, of course, more complicated. While nobody can deny that the abstract expressionists were expressing themselves, the things they were expressing were troublesome and dark. Rothko committed suicide. Pollock killed himself in a drunken car crash. Newman and Franz Kline died from heart attacks and crummy lifestyles. All of them were neurotic and plagued. In all their cases, abstraction was the quickest route to the huge lake of dark stuff slopping around inside their battered American psyches.
If the CIA knew as much about alienation as it knew about propaganda, it would certainly have thought twice about promoting abstract expressionism as democracy’s house style. But the bigger point here, and the one that gets us to the disappointing show that has opened at the Saatchi Gallery, is that abstraction depicts its world as accurately as figuration. When you look at a writhing Pollock worm pit, you immediately sense the restlessness and disorder of post-war America. And if the KGB was really smart, it, too, would have promoted Pollock’s art around the globe. I can see the poster now: “Comrade, is this really your dream?”
Saatchi’s show gathers together a squad of painters and sculptors who are supposed to represent the new wave of American abstraction. The catalogue spouts some annoying guff about them embodying an uncertain mood that has entered the American psyche since 9/11 – “America has shifted beyond anyone’s wildest preconceptions” – but the truth is that this bunch was fully formed long before 9/11. Most are in their thirties and forties; only a few qualify as spring chickens. These are Reagan babies. And the default atmosphere here is not one of national remembrance or cultural reassessment, but the same old American mood of gimme more. Applying the CIA test to them, I unhappily conclude that American art has regressed to the nursery stage.
Some of the art here is so stupid, it doesn’t even know it is not abstract. The artist who calls himself, so pretentiously, Carter, and just Carter, fills his pictures with heads: scores of them, crudely scrawled in black on white, one crammed above another, some in profile, some full on, some with eyes, some with ears. Heads, heads everywhere. Carter, my boy, since you are now 39, it is time you learnt a terrible truth about life. Heads are not abstract.
Jonas Wood is even less abstract than Carter. Whichever way you tip his carefully detailed street scene of a typical small-town suburb, it remains a carefully detailed street scene of a typical small-town suburb. I suppose what is intended is a return visit to that bleak middle America that so fascinated Edward Hopper. But where Hopper found lassitude and ennui clogging the arteries of the American dream, Wood finds nothing. Zero. Nada. His art has the emotional depth of a cornflakes packet.
The sculptors dotted about the display are usually as guilty as the painters of not being abstractionists. Matt Johnson gives us a life-sized Beethoven banging away at a grand piano, created, origami-style, by carefully folding up a lurid blue tarpaulin. It’s clever enough and fun, but it does show a man at a piano. Johnson, one of the livelier presences in the show, has also carved a realistic-looking apple that seems from a distance to have had large chunks bitten out of it. Only when you peer carefully do you notice the mysterious staircase spiralling up around the core and leading to the centre of the pomme. Weird.
So much of the imagery here is so blatantly figurative that my advice to you it is to forget entirely the fact that the show is called Abstract America and to view it instead as a random gathering of fresh-to-the-market American artists who took Charles Saatchi’s fancy. Seeing it that way does not make it a better exhibition, but at least every step of the journey will cease to test your glottochronological grasp of English. The point is, if this selection is in any way an accurate representation of the current state of American art, American art is in deep cultural doo-doo. An inability to differentiate between abstraction and figuration is the least of its problems.
More serious than any lexical shortcomings is a truly tragic slippage of seriousness and purpose. As a baby-boomer myself, I fully understand the urge to bring some youthful buoyancy to the making of art. Among Picasso’s greatest lessons was his superb disregard for piety. But being youthful and being uneducated, slackerish, unfocused, dumb, disjointed, casual, derivative, facile and crude are not the same thing. The lack of joined-up thinking here is scary.
Kirsten Stoltmann, in the crassest of nonabstract visual puns, shows us a naked woman spraying her pubic hair red, next to a piece of tumbleweed that has been painted silver, in an artwork called, yes, Spray Bush. Stephen G Rhodes gives us a sculpture entitled Ssspecific Object, which consists of a rubber snake that has swallowed a box. Chris Martin paints some large black blobs that vaguely resemble vinyl LPs on a wall, and calls his picture In Memory of James Brown “Godfather of Soul”.
One thing the exhibition is right about is the overwhelming influence of the digital age on these immature probings. The days when American artists were instinctively in touch with the hugeness and variety of their homeland are so long gone. Has anyone here stepped away from their computer in recent years? These are viewpoints shaped entirely by Twitter updates and a Wiki-education. The entire show resounds to the click, click, click of cutting and pasting. The lack of original insights, the flatness of textures and interests, the absence of meaningful narratives and purposeful compositions – all of it points to a world-view that has been sampled rather than experienced.
In the 13 galleries of relentless American twitter, only two and a half presences stand out. The half is Amy Sillman, who gets a huge gallery to herself and duly looks stretched. As with many of these exhibitors, Sillman’s territory is the no man’s land between abstraction and figuration. The initial belief that you are looking at pale and sensitive abstract painting gives way to the suspicion of sampling as you notice a familiar figure here, a resonant seascape there. Sillman has actually been borrowing her examples from other artists – notably Philip Guston – and her art can therefore be understood as a reworking of a reworking of a copy.
Among the sculptors, Peter Coffin impresses, just as he did in the regrettable Tate Triennial, where the brilliant light-shows he created around the Tate’s own holdings managed to turn old masters into new ones: who ever imagined there was such a thing as a 21st-century Hogarth? In this show, Coffin’s prodigious powers of reinvention are memorably displayed in an extra-large spiral staircase shaped into a never-ending circle; and a huge hand, banged together from chicken wire and two-by-twos, which has crossed its fingers to form a particularly rickety version of the Lotto logo. With good luck like this, who needs bad luck?
The other stand-out exhibitor is our old friend Kristin Baker, who has already been presented to us as a young American of note in the Saatchi Gallery’s last selection of new American art, in 2006. I liked her then, I like her now. Baker’s father was an amateur Nascar driver, and his daughter grew up with the howl of V8s in her ear and the flash of rushing logos on her retina. These noisy teenage excitements are what she still wishes to share with us. Unusually, though, among younger American artists, she also appears to have a decent grounding in art history, and her paintings are inescapably reminiscent of Italian futurism. Filled with flashing light effects and tangible sensations of speed, her art seems to lift you up and dip you in the Nascar experience. Her more recent works are gentler and more poetic in mood, but the final impression remains that you are gazing at something very exciting through very delicate crystal glasses.