What can abstract painting do today? Can it revive modernism’s emancipatory aspirations or materialize its radical potential in new contexts? Can it make evident abstraction’s “blind spots” or the ideologically inspired limitations that arguably thwarted its own revolutionary mission? Can it lay claim to contemporary self-reflexive criticality by disclosing the paradoxes embedded in its own histories?
R. H. Quaytman, born in Boston in 1961, poses these questions in a practice framed by a recurrent set of ground rules performed in different institutional and cultural settings. Since 2001, the artist has been making paintings whose proportions follow the golden ratio and come in ten sizes of nesting proportions, plywood panels with beveled edges and a gesso ground, layered with hand-painted images, photograph-based silk screens, or patterns. The oeuvre is configured like a book, with evolving “chapters” that are specifically conceived for each exhibition site and often take the form of installations. Certain elements from each chapter migrate to the next, connecting threads between narratives.
In this systematic grammar, repetition and reproduction appear as the conditions of possibility for a new constellation, while at the same time, each painting is situated as both a singular “phrase” and an unrepeatable “event.” Quaytman performs a double operation—a reiterated history and an original speech act—upon the language of painterly abstraction. Shifting through fragments of a history of painting that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century to contest a modernity in the making, Quaytman also filters this through contemporary materials and techniques of mass reproducibility, and current constraints of vision and embodiment.
In Kassel, Quaytman presents הקק, Chapter 29, Part 2, which grew out of her fascination with Paul Klee’s famous Angelus Novus (1920). Previously, in Part 1 (2015), the monoprint was the basis for the artist to explore the friendship between philosophers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, and the vexed relationship between materialism and mysticism at the crux of modernism. The current iteration emerged on discovering that Klee’s Angel was mounted on top of a nineteenth-century reproduction of a portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder. In Athens, Quaytman’s paintings relate to the myths of the Amazons, Persians, and Giants, as well as the Oracle of Delphi, bound to permutate and accumulate meaning in future chapters. Indeed, if painting still has power to create a social imaginary, then Quaytman’s practice suggests that its primary task is to continue propagating abstraction’s heterogeneity in a still-unfolding actuality.