There was a time when abstract painting was all the rage. Perhaps never quite de rigueur, but in a more compelling way, it was the language of avant-garde European and American artists who made works that gave abstraction a potent edge. A notion gained widespread acceptance, that representational art had naturally succumbed to this more rarefied mode of painting, as crystallised by Clement Greenberg in his attempt to justify abstraction as the fulfilment of an inevitable historical tendency. Yet this belief was wrong. We see now that abstraction was not the end of the story. Far from it; abstraction has somewhat returned to the sidelines, and might even be regarded as an outmoded choice for today’s artists. A trace of controversy still lingers around this marginalised art form, with some quarters still failing to find merit in pictures that are not representations of “things”, but this is really nothing more than a sort of threadbare priggishness. In short, Abstraction has lost its clout.
For this reason, one could argue that to make abstract paintings today is to make a deliberate choice against the grain. What I enjoyed about Rita Gabrowska’s exhibition, False Warnings, is that it chooses abstraction and makes it vital again. It is rare to see an exhibition of paintings that so strongly reiterates the concerns of a previous generation of artists. Thus, one finds something of the excitement that must have accompanied the early abstractionists in their expectant belief in the new method – groups such as the Der Blaue Reiter, the Constructivists and the Suprematists. A new science perhaps, a collection of undecided fundamentals in the discipline of pure colour and form.
It is true: the experiments of the first wave of abstract painters were considered by their advocates as movement towards purification. The old style of representational, “objective” painting made use of real objects merely to serve as the pictorial framework of formal elements; line, colour, composition, etc. Abstraction was thus seen as a final liberation from the obligation to represent. Artists could now deal with the simple building blocks of art, which indeed was taken as the proper consequence of all artistic adventure, then and previously.
The pleasure of Gabrowska’s work is that it is free of any brouhaha. There is no grandiose commotion, no surplus digression. Only exploration of the singular theme, forgoing the glib allure of mark-making for a practised distribution of tightly painted elements. A marination of shapes in a grey fog. Hushed, clenched, austere, even a touch grave. There is no baroque ornamentation here, no discursive fawning over extraneous concerns. There is only play in the distribution of components in space, in the contrast between vertical and horizontal, in the elemental interruption of space by shape, and in the rhythmic cadences of formal relations.
Gabrowska’s paintings show a painterly talent that is intelligent and skilled. The one difficulty of judging these works (why judge?) is that, for me, they so decisively recall works of previous schools. To my mind they recall artists from the Suprematist movement such as Kazimir Malevich and Ilya Chashnik, the Constructivist El Lissitzky, as well as some of the later work of Kandinsky and Klee. These painters defined themselves through doctrines and manifestos that speak so clearly of a unique cultural and social milieu. As such, their paintings persist not only as works of expression, but also as remnants of a certain historical moment, a meeting place of different social and cultural forces consolidated into individual objects. The difficulty, then, is how to look at Gabrowska’s paintings other than through the categories through these artists operated. To be more precise, how do Gabrowska’s paintings become contemporary?