by Keith J. Varadi
Dealing with the immensity of Joshua Abelow’s multi-faceted practice is like being sat down for a history lesson. Abelow is often adroitly referencing art history in order to conflate personal history; the result is a constantly updated and revised metaphorical textbook. Therefore, it is important to highlight the word ‘dealing’ here, as that is exactly what is required. The viewer must deal with the work, contend with it. It is an endeavor to engage with the factory-like output that is Joshua Abelow’s work.
Although the artist’s reputation is currently growing, the true immensity of Abelow’s work may still be difficult to grasp for the art-viewing public at large. Still, in the past three years, he has had no less than eight solo exhibitions and his work has been included in more than thirty group exhibitions worldwide. If one were to step inside his studio, he or she would see stacks of packaged paintings and drawings from floor to ceiling and staggering groups of paintings in progress, each one an extension of the last.
Though, the work is not limited to paintings and drawings. It has expanded into writing, photography, blogging, and organizing collaborative exhibitions. Abelow approaches these activities by balancing cryptic criticality and splayed socialism. Abelow doesn’t merely engage with the ‘hip,’ the ‘outsider,’ the ‘academic,’ or any other vague faction of the art world, but rather democratizes aesthetics and concepts in a way that continuously keeps viewers slightly off balance.
Abelow is capable of producing dozens of paintings every week, often with slight variations—substituting a Lemon Yellow for a Cadmium Yellow in one painting, reversing a pattern of triangles and squares in another, adding a stick man in a top hat or a pair of breasts atop another abstract motif. Abelow also makes line drawings, executed with precision in a matter of minutes with no erasing. The drawings, often darkly comical and cartoonish, depict devils, nude women, salivating dogs, and dufus alter-ego versions of Abelow, himself, usually with a giant erection.
This subliminal passage of sardonic humor sometimes overtly enters Abelow’s painting practice, and both are reflective of his now notorious blog, ART BLOG ART BLOG. His obsessive commitment to traditional studio work runs alongside his more recent obsessive compulsion to permeate the web. Much like the way he keeps viewers guessing as to what new imagery will enter his paintings or drawings, his blog posts are equally mysterious. In one day, a viewer might find curious paintings, obscure songs, photos of the artist with his dog or girlfriend, and announcements for shows even he will never get to see in person. The result is an uncanny and eerie onslaught of text, sound, and imagery.
Unlike many early bloggers, he has not used it in a traditional diaristic manner. Nor has Abelow attempted to contribute “thoughtful takes” on anything. Instead, he pummels his blog with information, asking the audience to endure, but also seemingly providing an earnest generosity—one that mirrors his painting practice. Viewers get an immediate, unadulterated entry into the artist’s mind. This creates a certain sense of intimacy, or at least the illusion of it, not unlike his Call Me Abstract paintings, which depict the artist’s cell phone number atop simple geometric patterns.
Much like his ‘studio’ work, there are familiar moves paired alongside much appreciated surprises. Abelow repeatedly posts artworks by Gene Beery, songs by Ariel Pink, and poetry by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski. But on any given day, a viewer (anywhere in the world) is likely to find out about some worthwhile opening he or she may have been unaware of until visiting Abelow’s blog. Artists, curators, collectors, and dealers might come across the work of talented painters such as his friends Gina Beavers or Van Hanos (both of whom Abelow asked to curate ART BLOG ART BLOG exhibitions at Gallery Diet in Miami), sister Tisch Abelow (who co-curated an ART BLOG ART BLOG exhibition in New York), or even his eighty-nine year-old grandmother Paula Brunner Abelow (who was recently exhibited alongside Abelow in the 6th Prague Biennale, in the city where she was born). This continual mix of the personal contextualized with the social is the blog’s underlying structure.
By only occasionally allowing new imagery or text to creep into his work, Abelow further maintains the mystery in his practice. He combines high-taste abstraction with crass illustration. Lately, for example, he has even begun to insert smiley faces into his paintings with phrases like “BLOG ME,” “BLOGALOW,” or “THE INTERNET” above or below them.
Abelow’s irreverence might seem irrational, but there is precedence—his factory-style forefathers had their ways with poor taste and production, but even before artists like Warhol, LeWitt, and Koons, there were a multitude of forebears thumbing their noses at art society and undermining expectations of the artist. Marcel Duchamp was, of course, creating his cross-dressing alter ego Rrose Sélavy and focusing on chess. Kurt Schwitters was diversifying and developing a versatile practice far beyond that of many of his contemporaries, creating sound poems, and he is now often credited as one of the originators of installation art. Schwitters’ publication Merz and his space interventions could be seen as precursors to ART BLOG ART BLOG.
Abelow has made an effort to balance skepticism with asceticism. Systems of logic are evident in the work, yet at the same time, he undermines this logic at every opportunity and in various ways. Despite the fact that there are instructions on the back of many of his paintings, it would be extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for anyone but the artist to execute an Abelow, making the work deeply personal, albeit in a calculated method.
For these reasons, Peter Halley offers an interesting lens through which to understand Abelow’s work. Halley’s work is often misunderstood, despite the fact that he himself did most of the legwork to contextualize it. It is rooted in a deep sense of alienation within the contemporary urban environment and this is certainly a connection to Abelow’s own practice. Abelow uses repeated compositions and structures almost as a rote exercise to create new ideas or contradict immediate ones, much like having weekly routines in the city that one consciously chooses to break at some point. Abelow seems to thrive on these routines in order to set constructs to crumble every time he unveils a new character or motif. Unlike Halley, Abelow has not made exclusively geometric paintings and his writing is far more pared down and personal. Halley made a career out of geometric paintings and also wrote extensively about geometry: “The Crisis in Geometry,” “The Deployment of the Geometric,” and “Geometry and the Social,” among others.
This fixation on geometry is something Abelow shares. But Abelow employs the most basic elements of geometric form and the understood historical implications of abstraction to anchor his idiosyncratic position as an artist who makes paintings and drawings yet remains deeply self-critical. His interest in color, shape, and composition are far more insular than Halley’s attempt at a more pedantic discourse.
Perhaps the most interesting lesson Abelow has taken from Halley is a willingness to create self-placed contextualization. Abelow has repeatedly stated that he started his blog in 2010 in order to place his own work alongside artworks and texts by other interesting and established voices. At the time, Abelow was 33-years-old, had no gallery representation and, in fact, was living with his mother and stepfather in Frederick, Maryland, where he grew up. He had no local community, no studios to visit, and no one to visit his studio…ART BLOG ART BLOG became more or less his virtual studio. His first blog post, dated Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 is “Work #470” by Martin Creed, which is a short essay about loneliness. After a few months, his new “studio” became frequently visited.
In his writing, Halley pledged allegiance to Foucault and aligned himself with other intellectual artists/writers such as Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. Abelow has done very much the same with ART BLOG ART BLOG by placing his paintings and drawings alongside Halley, Judd, and Smithson, as well as his own chosen company, including Brian Belott, Ella Kruglanskaya, and Keith Mayerson, among many others. By plucking from various eras and leaving the time and date of each post visible and available, it’s as if he is attempting to collapse time, while also publicly and permanently marking it.
By proactively making these pre-emptive connections (as opposed to letting curators and critics do it for them), Halley and Abelow have manipulated the interpretation of their work to the best of their ability. In Abelow’s case, the Internet provides a forum for the artist to communicate with a potential audience at any time, day or night. This compulsion of the artist to consistently ‘log in’ is reflective of and the result of a larger societal complex, spawned by a generation that can’t remember life without technology. Having graduated from RISD the same year You’ve Got Mail was released in theaters, Abelow unlike many artists now coming to prominence both remembers what life was like before Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and realizes the extent to which the Internet can and will impact the art world.
Oil on canvas, 30 x 24
Almost every piece of writing about Abelow has made mention of his former job—the only significant job of his adult life—working as the assistant for the painter, Ross Bleckner. But honestly, how could this bit of personal history be avoided?
Abelow began working for Bleckner in 1999 at the age of twenty-two. Four years earlier, when Abelow was a sophomore in college, the Guggenheim presented a major retrospective of Bleckner’s work. The extensive catalog for this show was, in fact, what initially made an impact on Abelow while he was still in school.
When Abelow was nearing graduation, he wrote Bleckner a handwritten letter (before people really e-mailed or used cell phones), expressing admiration for the artist’s work. Bleckner responded with an announcement to his upcoming solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery with his phone number scrawled on the back. Abelow called the number when he moved to Brooklyn and was offered a low-level position at the studio, stretching canvas and running errands. Throughout this period of his life, Abelow kept handwritten daily journals (a textual preamble to his now daily posts on ART BLOG ART BLOG). In 2011, Abelow published a self-aggrandizing, yet endearing memoir titled Painter’s Journal, which chronicles his life (mostly the wrenching anxieties and sexual exploits of a young artist) in New York during this period, which comprises the first six journals. Abelow says he wrote more than thirty, but only the first six were interesting.
Peter Halley wrote about Bleckner’s paintings in an essay titled “Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History,” first published in Arts Magazine, Vol. 56, No. 9, May 1981. Halley claimed, “Modernism expresses itself as irony and doubt, as humor and play.” Considering young Abelow wrote Bleckner in the first place, I’m sure he had read this essay at some point early on in their relationship; and although in hindsight, Bleckner’s work doesn’t seem very ironic, humorous, or playful, Abelow managed to transform his own work into all of those things. So perhaps Halley, the indirectly more apt influence, was onto something.
After these eight years in New York, working for Bleckner and experimenting with various ways to make paintings, Abelow left for graduate school in Michigan. It was in the fall of 2006 that Abelow arrived in the first of three fairly isolated periods of his life, all of which informed and continue to inform his current practice as much as his exuberantly youthful New York years. He spent two years at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in a wealthy suburb of the recently depressed city of Detroit, known as Bloomfield Hills. After having spent most of his twenties living in Tribeca and attending Chelsea openings celebrating other artists’ work at the height of the art market and right before the now infamous subsequent crash, this juxtaposition of have and have-not could be perceived to be a metaphor for the feelings of the artist at the time.
Would it not be considered an unorthodox choice for an artist who just turned thirty to leave New York at the ultimate point of the market boom so he could attend graduate school in the Midwest? But it was there, free of the hustle and grind of New York City, that his work started to shift, becoming much darker (yet also more comical) and more palpably personal—for example, in numerous self-portraits from these two years his dog, Georgia, sits on top of his head, while in others, a gun is pointed at his temple.
From 1999-2006, Abelow was focused on the short-term while dreaming about the long-term. He remained an outsider within the bubble of the market-driven art world. Abelow did not have a solo show in New York and only participated in a few group exhibitions. He watched many of his peers achieve commercial, critical, and financial success. A deep skepticism, which was there all along, began to need an outlet. He became highly critical of himself and the art world, and was in the perfect environment (600 miles away from New York) to explore these dark feelings and thoughts. What once might have been occasional dissatisfaction began to turn to disdain and the paintings and drawings took a dramatic shift at this time.
Missing his former life and struggling to comprehend the success and proliferation of many of the young artists out of reach to him, Abelow began getting as direct as possible with his painting practice. He threw away the filter he may have once had back in New York and started to develop a newly pointed conceptual agenda, deeply influenced by Bruce Nauman and other non-painters from the 60’s. Text became much more prevalent and crucial to his work. The simpler the phrase, the more complex it seemed to be.
Abelow used phrases such as “DUMB & EASY,” “DEEPER DEEPER,” and “I MISS YOU BITCH,” to insert both artistic and sexual frustration into the work. With “I LOVE MICHIGAN,” Abelow complicated the mood of the Suicide paintings, where he depicted himself, limp-wristed, finger on trigger. Other text paintings from this period include phrases such as “HANG ME” or “HARDER / FASTER,” which Abelow used to create a large, gridded single work composed of 72 paintings titled “Mystic Truths,” an obvious nod to the well-known Bruce Nauman neon wall work “The True Artist Helps The World By Revealing Mystic Truths.” These paintings have now been shown in a variety of contexts, morphing their meaning each time they’re displayed, from Abelow’s original listless and lonely place of disorienting introspection and transformation, to a sinister and vacuous place of multi-leveled removal, where the words are now more like advertisements or identity branding for “the artist.”
After graduation, Abelow decided to forego the perhaps obvious decision of moving directly back to New York. By this time, the economy was tanking, George W. Bush was still president, and Americans were anxious and disillusioned, especially recent graduates, particularly those in the humanities. Abelow chose to set up shop in Berlin instead. He spent a lot of time reading Henry Miller novels and writing terse poems. It was also during this time that he revisited his journals and transcribed each one onto his laptop.
During the winter of 2009, toward the end of his yearlong stint in Berlin, Abelow started making small gold paintings. He had recently read a book titled The Coming Economic Collapse: How You Can Thrive When Oil Costs $200 a Barrel. The book’s author, Stephen Leeb, talks at length about gold being one of the few solid investments in difficult economic times, so Abelow figured he ought to make gold paintings. After a solitary winter living and working in the same room, colorful or overtly personal paintings no longer felt acceptable to him. There was and is something distant and detached about the gold paintings, despite their obvious tongue-in-cheek premise. The United States seemed uncertain about its future and reading about it from across the Atlantic, Abelow seemed uncertain about his own.
Nonetheless, he decided to return to the States in the spring of 2009. Once again, he opted to avoid New York and settled in Frederick, Maryland, where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. Abelow began to introduce new vibrant colors into his palette and in more perplexing combinations. It was also during this time that he began to work on burlap rather than linen or canvas. Soon, there were more and more colors, more and more combinations, and more and more paintings. The drawings also became candidly sexual and more severe in their critique of the “male heroic painter.”
This is the crossroads at which he now stands. After four years of building a practice and a persona, he is a mini-brand. His journals have become published. His paintings have been turned into t-shirts. His blog has become a must-view daily experience for many people, much like The Huffington Post, Gothamist, Gawker, or Contemporary Art Daily; in the summer of 2011, it became a real life viewing experience with a series of guest-curated shows in New York. And after solo shows at James Fuentes, Sorry We’re Closed, and Brand New Gallery, plus a staggering salon-style solo presentation at Fuentes’ booth at Frieze New York in 2012, he is now an international name. With his second show at Fuentes and his first monograph being published by Karma this October, it makes sense that the once chain-smoking, excessively aroused “FAMOUS ARTIST” persona has put on a top hat, pointy shoes, and black gloves. But it remains to be seen whether the paintings themselves will get dressed up, or if any remnants of their original grit will prevail.
Oil on burlap on canvas, 30 x 24