Giorgio Morandi was possibly the greatest abstract painter of all time, albeit, he didn’t know it. Morandi focused on nature. If something was observable, it was knowable (insofar its form), and therefore an “accurate,” or interpretive rendering could be executed. The level of interpretation of how the eye perceives form, or discards it altogether, subjectively delineates realism from abstraction. Looking at Morandi’s paintings, it can be reasonably argued that he strove for realism. He admired Cézanne who was focused on form and structure as well as color. However, Cézanne was flattening the space between foreground and background allowing form to nudge closer toward yet unnamed Cubism.
Morandi painted the same bottles and vases in different compositional arrangements again and again, day after day. Whereas Cézanne’s paintings exploded in color, Morandi’s limited palette only added to the poetry. The fact that Morandi focused on the physical world and strove to depict the essence of its true nature (and form) precludes him from being a true abstract painter. He wasn’t looking to eliminate form for emotive color or the dissolution of formal rules for explosive or interpretive brushwork. However, Morandi is the forebear of much innovational figurative and abstract painting seen today. Some of the most interesting contemporary painters seek to unify form with an emotional, sensorial inner life—marrying imagination to nature—departing from figuration as the only descriptor of realism toward what I’d call, Compression Abstraction.
Compressive abstraction doesn’t seek to destroy or negate the physical world, as say a monochrome might. Moreover, lyricism and geometry aren’t central to the execution of these paintings even if elements of both are present. Luc Tuymans roomful of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2016, is an example of how the figure is used as an armature to break up the picture plane. These portraits are a continuation of what has become for many painters a moribund fascination with provisionality in painting.
It was shocking, circa 2005, to see a bleached out, cropped close-up portrait of Condoleezza Rice at MoMA. Then secretary of state Rice looks out, past the viewer into the distance toward yet unknowable wars. We can surmise the scenario because Rice had just left her position as national security advisor to replace Colin Powell for the new position within the Bush administration. Tuymans also says of his work, “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.” MoMA’s description of Tuymans’ Rice is worth repeating. “Rice’s likeness is heavily cropped and faded in color, as if she has already been relegated to history, but her physical presence is undiminished.” Tuymans isn’t interested in the psychological underpinnings of his subjects, he is interested in the presence of paint; lines that excavate recognizable mammalian ancestry serving to demarcate and compress subject and object toward a structural fusion with plasticity.
To further the logic of structural compression, Michael Krebber resists stylized brushwork, instead he focuses on form, and “research,” to evince compositional reduction and further negate depth of field. The fact that Krebber is firmly grounded in the world make his marks so important. Devoid of effete brush marks that plague so much of the Williamsburg scene, Krebber carves knowing into seeing, which curtails unnecessary detail. As a student of Markus Lüpertz and assistant to Georg Baselitz and the late Martin Kippenberger, Krebber throws cold water on much of the hot headedness found in his teacher’s over emotive contentions. Almost calligraphic, Krebber’s marks fill in as much as they leave out. Stops, starts, and negations are his modus operandi. While there is underlying cynicism, Krebber resists the temptation to be enveloped by its repudiation.
Remarkably, Sergej Jensen’s paintings couldn’t have been painted (or constructed) just fifteen years ago. They are read through a digital lens that is ubiquitous to our experience. Born in 1973, Jensen is old enough to have been born prior to the Internet, but its pervasiveness almost certainly impacted the type of images he creates. Almost pixilated, lines are suffused with sewn offcuts from past works, reapplied to canvas, linen, jute, or other interesting materials such as moneybags. While his titles give meaning to those in search of linguistic anchors, it is far more interesting to examine his cool, calculated, oftentimes unfettered placement of line in relation to ground. Unlike Krebber, who still hints at depth and the recession of space, Jensen brings the viewer to the surface of his textured, bleached, bucolic paintings. It’s hard to call them paintings as they act more like placements. Fabric, paint, and line placed jaggedly, pointedly, haltingly, with trepidation, to bring to the surface the destruction of illusion, replaced instead with human interaction.