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«Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities Honolulu, January 12th-15th, 2007 ABSTRACT ILLUSIONISM: A PERSPECTIVE ABSTRACT FROM THE ...»

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Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

Honolulu, January 12th-15th, 2007





by Dr. Leda Cempellin

South Dakota State University

A by-product of a series of group and thematic exhibitions from the mid-Seventies, it has been

called in several ways, predominantly Abstract Illusionism and Trompe l’Oeil Abstraction, without having being fully historicized yet. My research is currently focused primarily on the artist George Green, whose presence is documented from the first years of development of this stylistic tendency.

Following an early exhibition organized in 1976 at the Paul Mellon Arts Center in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1977 the Rice University in Houston, Texas organized the exhibition Seven New York Artists: Abstract Illusionism.

Fig.1: George D. Green, Untitled #9, 1976 (courtesy the artist) These first exhibitions are mentioned in later catalogs, however it is very hard to find any documentation about them. The first catalog available dates back to 1978, when the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts in Massachussets held an exhibition titled Abstract Illusionism,1 where George Green’s work was exhibited together with those of the American-Yugoslavian Chris Britz, and with the Americans James Havard, Jack Lembeck, Michael Gallagher and Paul KaneIn the catalog’s introduction, Robert Henning admitted the “controversial” nature of these works, which were vaguely and prematurely suggesting a new style or movement, therefore raising a question that could not have any answer at that time: “Why and how it is significant; is it a legitimate ‘style’ or merely an offshoot; in what way are the individual works effective and how do they relate to the general style?”.2 In that same exhibition, the critic Jay Richard DiBiaso dated the antecedents of Abstract Illusionism as far back as the Romans, the Dutch still-lifes of the XVII century, the American tradition of illusionist painting in the XIX century, notably John Haberle, William Harnett, Richard Goodwin, and finally the most recent developments of Op Art, which is generically mentioned in catalogue.3 Fig. 2: George D. Green, Bare-Narious-Ojay, 1979 (courtesy the artist) Of all the paintings exhibited, the works by James Havard and Jack Lembeck seem more ‘classical’, since these artists insert in their delicate abstractions subtle nuances and tonal passages in the best Italian Renaissance tradition of sfumato. On the contrary, George Green’s work shows a major degree of My sincere gratitude to the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Massachussets, and to Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York for their help in getting these first documents.

Robert Henning, Jr, Introduction, in Abstract Illusionism, catalog, Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, Massachussets, September 24th – October 29th, 1978 (also travelling to the Danforth Museum, Framingham, Massachussets, January 17th – March 4th, 1979).

Jay Richard DiBiaso, Abstract Illusionism, Ibid.

appropriation of the American modernist tradition of the hard-edge technique, which has been introduced in the Sixties by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, and later by Al Held.

Soon after that exhibition, Abstract Illusionism has been shown in several occasions within the years 1979-80: at Denver Art Museum in the summer 1979; at the University of Southern California in the fall 1979; at the Honolulu Academy of Art in spring 1980; at the Oakland Museum in the summer 1980; at the Art Museum of the University of Texas at Austin in Fall 1980; finally, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in winter 1980. A grant from the National Endowment for The Arts sponsored the exhibition, and this shows the attention that Abstract Illusionism was given in those early years.

In the catalog of the exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, Donald J. Brewer refers back to Joseph Albers’ research in the optical reversal phenomena, where the surfaces are awkwardly pushed forward or pulled inward by the outlines.4 It is an optical-geometric effect, in a sense similar to Hans Hoffman’s push-pull theories, however by Albers applied to rigorously geometric grids. Therefore, there is an interesting antecedent to the deceptive awkward spaces created by Abstract Illusionists. As Brewer reminds, the link between Abstract Illusionists and Albers has been historically created by the exhibition Abstract Trompe l’Oeil, held in 1965 at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, 5 the same one that seven years later will organize an exhibition that brought the American Photorealism to international attention. In the 1965 exhibition, the trompe l’oeil abstractionists were not considered those artists, such as Green, Havard, Lembeck, Gallagher, etc., that ten years later will be defined by Louis Meisel as Abstract Illusionists, rather the hard-edge post-painterly abstractionists, such as Albers and even the Op artist Vasarely among others. All these definition problems add to the general confusion, which on one side had discouraged distinct and definitive historical labels (corresponding to the truth, since we are not in front of a programmatic artistic movement), on the other side had put such interesting developments on the margins of art history.

In 1980, Edward Lucie-Smith published the book Art in the Seventies: one paragraph, specifically devoted to Abstract Illusionism in painting, mentioned James Havard and Jack Lembeck, including in the tendency even Al Held,6 an artist nowadays more generally classified under the Hard-Edge painting, together with the post-painterly abstractionists Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland.7 Lucie-Smith reminded three fundamental antecedents to Abstract Illusionism: “the Cubist concept of ‘shallow space’”, the Abstract Expressionist gesture and its parody by the American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (Big Painting, 1965, which was actually, in the artist’s intention, more an act of respect and admiration than an act of opposition8); finally, the trompe-l’oeil artists of the late XIX century.9 Starting from the Abstract Expressionists’ brush strokes, which per-se would represent the process of painting, and from their parody by Lichtenstein, the Abstract Illusionists gave them the dignity of subject matter and physical consistency by casting shadows, therefore detaching them from the picture plane, giving them the consistency of threedimensional objects and suggesting their flotation in a three-dimensional space, which contradicts the Donald J. Brewer, Introduction, in Reality of Illusion, exhibition catalogue, Denver Art Museum, July 13 – August 26th, 1979; University of Southern California Art Galleries, October 11th – November 25th, 1979;

Honolulu Academy of Art, April 4th – May 18th, 1980; Oakland Museum, June 17th – July 27th, 1980; University Art Museum, University of Texas, Austin, September 4th – October 19th, 1980; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, November 15th – December 30th, 1980, 16.


Edward Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), 48.

H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004), 531-536.

Lucy R. Lippard, New York Pop, in Lucy R. Lippard, ed., Pop Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 87.

Edward Lucie-Smith, 48.

modernist dogma of a formalistically two-dimensional limit of the canvas, as much as what Lucie-Smith defines as “the ideas that the canvas and what is painted on it must be completely unified”.10 In the catalog of the exhibition organized in October 1983 at California State University in Long Beach, titled Trompe l’Oeil Abstraction, Jane K. Bledsoe has referred back to the 17th century Dutch stilllifes, not just for the high degree of trompe l’oeil fidelity, but for the recently discovered challenges of the gravity laws in some paintings.11 George Green’s paintings of the last Seventies represents a curious synthesis of all these previous artistic developments. In Bare-Narious-Ojay, 1979 (fig.2), the frame conceptually frames the abstract illusion: the historical antecedents are mainly Malcolm Morley’s conceptual denial of illusionistic power to the depicted realism through the introduction of a realistically painted frame in his paintings of the midSixties, as much as Audrey Flack’s push-pull dynamic forces between the frames and the still-lifes depicted in her Gray Border Series of the mid-1970’s.

Ibid., 48.

Jane K. Bledsoe, Centric 9 – Trompe L’Oeil Abstraction, exhibition brochure, The University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, October 11-30th,1983.

–  –  –

Furthermore, as Mia-Comet (fig.3) shows, especially in the left upper side of the painting, the Abstract Expressionist gesture emerges from the canvas, exiting the edges, and therefore adding an element of improvisation and impulsivity to what seems an architecture of geometric shapes, which overlap each other with a push-pull effect which again reminds the abstract work of Hans Hofmann. The gesture will become more and more dominant in the Eighties, so that it will shape the canvas.

Fig. 4: George D. Green, Trouble at Sea, 1985 (courtesy the artist) The Eighties were those years in which several notable artists, including Elizabeth Murray and Tom Wesselmann, were irregularly shaping their canvasses. It is important to point out that, in the specific case of George Green, the shaped canvas is not an already shaped sculptural construction to paint over, on the contrary it constitutes the continuation of the artist’s impulsive painting gesture, whose vibrant energy is emphasized through the use of brilliant colors and a paint thickener applied to the acrylic, in order to give it more thickness and a three-dimensional consistency.

In 1984, an exhibition titled Breaking the Plane occurred at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery, displaying works of Michael Gallagher, George Green, Jorge Stever, James Havard, Tony King and Jack Lembeck.

Between 1984 and 1986, the same exhibition involved also major museums and Academic institutions, such as the Pennsylvania State University Museum of Art, the Jacksonville Art Museum in Florida, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY. As in the 1979-80 exhibition, the German artist Jorge Stever was included once again.

The author of the essay in catalog, Peter Frank, defined Abstract Illusionism in terms of a reaction:

on one side to the proliferation of non-studio art (Land Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Video Art, etc.) between the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s; on the other side, to the prevalent Greenberg’s and Minimalist formalism, diffused at the time of Abstract Expressionism, which reaffirmed “the integrity of the picture plane”: “Thus, all paint ought either to saturate the canvas or lie upon it, and all formal incident should be pushed to the edges of the picture”.12 Frank emphasized the pure artificiality of the term coined to group these artists. Indeed, according to Frank, what distinguishes this style from that of several other American ‘movements’ in the XX century, is that they do not share the general European avant-garde attitude, most of the American ‘movements’ originate spontaneously, and later they get a label which often has a marketing purpose.13 Frank has specified that only Gallagher has specifically acknowledged the influence of Lembeck in his developing the technique, while Green, Havard, King “all came to it independently”14. There is also a consistent geographical variety in these artists: Michael Gallagher comes from California, George Green from Oregon, James Havard from Texas, Tony King from Massachussets, Jack Lembeck from Missouri.

However, speaking more in general of the spontaneous emergence of a new style, rather than a group or movement, the main general characteristics of Abstract Illusionist artworks, with a few exceptions,

have been listed by Frank as being the following:

1. The use of the cast shadows device;

2. The painterly quality of their work;

3. The use of focalised compositions;

4. The lack of reference to the real world;

5. “A serious concern for paradoxical visual situations”.15 In particular, Green’s paradox is defined by Frank as being “purely graphic”, since it involves “discontinuous contours as well as multi-planar paints”.16 Peter Frank, Abstract inflected by Illusion: a Recent History, in Breaking the Plane: Stuart M. Speiser Collection (New York: Louis K. Meisel Gallery, 1984). Clement Greenberg, in the essay Towards a New Laocoon, published in “Partisan Review” in Huly-August 1940, explained his concept of “purity” in art as “willing acceptance of the limitations of the medium of the specific art”, therefore accepting the two-dimensional nature of the painting. Clement Greenberg in Charles Harrison and Grant Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000, and Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing), 2003, 566. It is obvious that a number of artists representing abstract elements illusionistically casting shadows was seen as challenging the then widely accepted theories of Greenberg.

Ibid. The quotation marks in the word „movement“ amphasizes the artificiality of this concept and the inadequacy of the term.



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