Karen Green Recor (b. 1946) is a contemporary Abstract Expressionist artist (neo-AbEx); her work spans decades, and her most recent pieces are lucid and intellectually diaphanous reflecting-reflections of the state of world. Unassuming and cyclonic, She’s a wave in a well. Over our five conversations she kept a whimsical lightness–art as an elixir of a kind of youthful maturity–her voice is thin, vivacious belying her seven and so decades around the sun. Yet, during our sixth Skype call, speaking a week after the January 6th fascist attack on the US Capitol, from the winter cold turning of the Northern Hemisphere, latitude 41.2882° N bisecting her home in Clinton, Connecticut, her voice is infused with an anxious almost hot fury; both heated by the hope of the coming, now passed, presidential inauguration and the fact that around half her country is palpably dangerous. A week after that she publicly displayed a disturbing, haunting illumination called Sedition. An apposite response to the events of the shaking United States. My immediate response, given that I have examined Green Recor’s work for over three months now, was that this is a definitely a new trajectory: the compositional teleos is toward agitation and disruption, encompassing a seditious force at the heart of her nation; the fact that white supremacists would rather burn down democracy than have any semblance of an equitable society is not lost on Green Recor. Do not be fooled that the woman who takes photos of the beach facing the Long Island Sound, the illusion that this fairy-like alchemist of small-town New England is only a demur, retiring mystic; she is also–when need be–fierce, cyclonic.
If as Briony Fer remarks in her seminal lecture The Oldness of Abstraction (or Can Abstract Art Be New?), Abstract art (and AbEx) can as Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) averred “be the savior of art,” then the paradoxical contemporary fact that it is often viewed as self-referential, hermetic and even irrelevant to the larger social and political issues of the times, a quaint practice of decoration, or worse merely a financial investment, its project is doomed to be no more than fungible wallpaper for the wealthy. However, Ad Reinhardt, a committed leftist, one member of the second wave of Abstraction, made a cartoon, in the year of Green Recor’s birth, for Newsweek showing the opposite. And this revolutionary aspect of Abstract art, of abstraction in general, is re-emerging with artists from Mayowa Nwadike (b. 1998) and Green Recor.
Green Recor says, in her very sweet, reserved yet firm manner, “My work is a response, in many ways, to the current events, to what is happening now in the United States, the last four years of the Trump administration reeking havoc, and it also comes from another place; I think it comes from … well, all art might well do … an unconscious place, a place where experiences are remembered by the mind but not brought to the surface until later, and for me that happens on the canvas. I paint with the canvas on the floor, rarely, if ever, using an [easel] … I like to scrape, chip, taper, move and then leave the piece to come back to in a day or two. During that day or two I am away from the canvas, like most people, I am receiving news about contemporary events and that works its way into the deeper layers that come from my life experiences.”
Briony Fer poses an all too relevant question that is not easily remedied, “What could be more serious or ethical than saving art from impoverishment and complicity? And Reinhardt had good reason to believe in the potential of Abstract painting … He was committed to the radical project that he thought Abstract painting was. It is easy to forget, it seems to have been forgotten, that sense that Abstraction could be the savior of art … If Reinhardt thought art was threatened by the inequities of the market, then what of the global scale of the market now?” If Abstract art being a radical project seems now to be merely a mystical hermetic mirage practiced for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, sealed off from ‘the real world,’ then its relevancy, nay its very haecceity and by extension its potency are neutralized. However, fortunately for the sake of art itself, Green Recor is making Abstract art that finds, perhaps unconsciously, purchase in its leftist and even revolutionary roots.
Boris Groys (2013) notes in his essay, Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevich (1879-1936),
would argue that if Malevich’s Black Square was not an active revolutionary gesture in the sense that it criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution, it was revolutionary in a much deeper sense. After all, what is revolution? It is not the process of building a new society—this is the goal of the post-revolutionary period. Rather, revolution is the radical destruction of the existing society. However, to accept this revolutionary destruction is not an easy psychological operation. We tend to resist the radical forces of destruction, we tend to be compassionate and nostalgic toward our past—and maybe even more so toward our endangered present. The Russian avant-garde—and the early European avant-garde in general—was the strongest possible medicine against any kind of compassion or nostalgia. It accepted the total destruction of all the traditions of European and Russian culture—traditions that were dear not only to the educated classes but also to the general population.”
This rupture with assumed notions, mores and norms can also be applied in the US American context to the work of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Jack Whitten (1939-2018) and, of course, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and many more in the AbEx second wave. Green Recor’s work turns back to be forward; it eschews the decorative kitsch that has come to invade AbEx; she is not afraid of striking polemical gestures paired with compositional restraint. Straight vertical columns like silos contain otherwise wet liquid drabs, stationary in an otherwise watery world of transgression. Like the ink of a squid, some of the works seem made in the non-linear language of the octopus-esque extraterrestrials from Denis Villeneuve’s (2016) film Arrival.
Unlike Agnes Martin, the main figure in Briony Fer’s lecture, who painted “with her back to the world,” Green Recor paints, literally, with her face to the ground. The present is not easy; it requires a burrowing into the ground, a literal lock-down; and the gestural, psychical-physical practice of painting a canvas horizontal, laid out, bare on the floor is a posture prepared for precariousness. The existing social and political arrangements cannot hold, they are spinning off in every direction under institutional failures because these institutions were failures before the pandemic. Racism, xenophobia, hostile nationalism, sexism, queerphobia, anti-intellectualism all act synergistically in structures that must be, for a lack of better words, torn down. Viewing a sampling of Green Recor’s painting reminds, as I noted, one of the film Arrival, where the main character played by Amy Adams, a linguist, must confront alien forces and then, gradually, move beyond binaries of past/future, linear/circular, etc. Green Recor’s works elicit a sense of something beyond this; or rather, they speak in subtle cries about worlds–dimensions–beyond our common ‘agreed’ perceptions. It is as if an otherworldly levitating squid enters her studio after she leaves; their tentacles hovering over these canvases leaving squidistical inky detritus.
The compositional framework and line in The Blue Hole reminds of Barnett Newman’s Onement VI, made 60 years earlier, along with his other works that feature his distinctive white line/s. These are negations that both separate and connect, creating a kind of trompe-l’œil wherein both Onement VI and The Blue Note seem to be (and in the case of the latter are) two canvases conjoined, a diptych. However, where Newman’s Color Field paintings are mostly devoid of explicit gestural movement, Green Recor’s have a type of ocular cellular debris, visual floaters; the paired down, even End of Art (per Reinhardt’s theory) works of Newman and Reinhardt, evacuating all but subtlest of movements, relying purely on the Color Field, a combination of brilliantly self-assured and selfsame nervousness that infused the late modern period, from art to architecture, from post-war economics that accommodated to the fullest cis gender heterosexual white male ‘sensibilities’ and ‘needs,’ is effectively revolutionized some sixty years later by a superficially ‘unassuming’ yet thoroughgoing, fiercely exhaustive insurgency experienced on Green Recor’s picture planes.
In the work of Green Recor, a quote by Barry Schwabsky on Eva Hesse and her sadly truncated–she died at 34–oeuvre comes to mind, “you can look at these things, these materials, these shapes, and feel the shudder of an unnamable nanosensation, or you can let your eye pass by them without reaction; maybe you can do both at once.” Great art requires an admixture of eros, pathos and craft, and this unassuming yet fierce fay of Connecticut is proving the that Abstraction remains relevant.
Splatters, marks, chipping, all of these seam together to unify fields of representation, and although highly abstract, the piece Golden Light exudes the energy of a bright, sunny day. The white distortion on the left of the painting reflects a double, digital layer as though the viewer is seeing two moments: one eye simple (which is never really simple, but rather without photo-enhancement) and the other, the ‘white glare’ that comes from holding a mobile phone camera, full exposure, to an unobscured summer’s sun at its zenith. The darkness that invades from the top is not so much an indication of a sunset, but rather a noon-day darkness, in the mystical, psychological and biblical 1 2 3 senses, and in the natural retraction of the ocular pupil to the bright rays. The dark (soot) smudge at the top, also can be read as how does an artist, a citizen, a society, change the change of its vector, and it is representational of a hot, hotter and hottest days as the Anthropocene burning of fossil fuels suffocates its own carbon liberators.
Green Recor is a direct successor to Malevich, yet this connection is an abstruse, recherché meandering entanglement. Returning to Groys’ essay above,
A good example of Malevich’s own anti-nostalgic attitude can be found in his short but important text “On the Museum,” from 1919. At that time, the new Soviet government feared that the old Russian museums and art collections would be destroyed by civil war and the general collapse of state institutions and the economy. The Communist Party responded by trying to save these collections. In his text, Malevich protested against this pro-museum policy by calling on the state to not intervene on behalf of the old art collections, since their destruction could open the path to true, living art. He wrote:
Life knows what it is doing, and if it is striving to destroy, one must not interfere, since by hindering we are blocking the path to a new conception of life that is born within us. In burning a corpse we obtain one gram of powder: accordingly, thousands of graveyards could be accommodated on a single chemist’s shelf. We can make a concession to conservatives by offering that they burn all past epochs, since they are dead, and set up one pharmacy.
Later, Malevich gives a concrete example of what he means:
The aim [of this pharmacy] will be the same, even if people will examine the powder from Rubens and all his art—a mass of ideas will arise in people, and will be often more alive than actual representation (and take up less room).1
Thus, Malevich proposes not to keep, not to save things that have to go, but to let them go without sentimentality or remorse. To let the dead bury their dead. At first glance, this radical acceptance of the destructive work of traditions time seems to be nihilistic. Malevich himself described his art as being based on nothingness.”
"At the core of this unsentimental attitude toward the art of the past lies faith in the indestructible character of art. The avant-garde of the first wave allowed things—including the things of art—to fade away because it believed that something always remained. And it looked for the things that remain beyond any human attempt at conservation.
The avant-garde is often associated with the notion of progress—especially technological progress. However, the avant-garde posed the following question: How can art continue amidst the permanent destruction of cultural tradition and the known world—conditions that are characteristic of the modern age, with its technological, political, and social revolutions? Or, to put it in different terms: How does one resist the destructiveness of progress? How does one make art that can escape permanent change—art that is atemporal, transhistorical? The avant-garde did not want to create the art of the future—it wanted to create transtemporal art for all time. Again and again one hears and reads that we need change, that our goal as a society—also our goal in art—should be to change the status quo. But change is our status quo. Permanent change is our only reality. We live in the prison of permanent change. To change the status quo, we have to change the change."
With Green Recor’s Incan series something seems to falter, the signified does not match the signifier; is this another piece of touristic voyeurism by liberal white Americans traveling to Machu Picchu taking with them a grab-bag of superficial cultural flotsam to be turned into intellectual fodder in a middle-class New England studio? I directly put this question to Green Recor, and she responded that “The work is not intended, in any way, to be taken offensively; I have a great deal of respect for the Incan culture; my husband and I spent two weeks in Peru, visiting the museums and when I returned, I was inspired to make this series.” Fair enough. The work being abstract really does rely on inspiration and not figurative exploitation; in this way it could be compared to Piet Mondrian’s (1872-1944) late (1942-1944, last?) painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, which notably was inspired by Manhattan and African-American Blues music that Mondrian admired 1 . Whilst I am a severe critic of white Euro-American contemporary artists using ‘exotic peoples’ as their ‘inspiration,’ I do not think that Green Recor’s Incan series falls on the irredeemable end of this most unsavory spectrum. The work itself Incan IX reveals a sensitivity that is inherent in all of Green Recor’s work; the gold is explicitly a reference to the Spanish conquistadors and their mammonism; the colonizing terror of Imperial Spain’s ruthless search for auriferous lands. The surface is marred, wounded and yet the perennial space of white and black, that inky magic remains intact above an abrupt horizon line.
Green Recor’s ‘Kinda Blue’ (Miles Davis) is conceived of something closer to home, and it is not difficult to imagine the impact that Miles Davis’s music had on someone who lived through the second half of the 20th century in the United States. A certain melancholy permeates the paired down Color Fields; the murky brown to gilt colored ‘instrumental’ cross-bar is a clear reference to Davis’s signature mute on his trumpet, and the trumpet itself. The turbulent almost cumulonimbus formations reflective of a life of great raging destiny. As a diptych, ‘Kinda Blue’ (Miles Davis) requires a continuity that shows excellent execution of painterly craft-making; the use of a crumpled, sculptural figure emblamatizes, or rather is the trumpet, the iconic extension of the man himself.
Before Olufar Eliasson famously recovered and brought ice from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to London’s Tate Modern in 2018, Green Recor’s Ice Flow, I, II from 2012 was already reflecting a heating world. National Geographic reported in 2013 that,
Temperatures across the continental United States soared in 2012 to an all-time high, making last year the warmest year on record for the country by a wide margin, scientists say.
To put that difference in perspective, said NOAA’s Crouch, consider that the entire range of temperature increase between the coldest year on record, which occurred in 1917, and the previous hottest year in 1998 was just 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2.3 degrees Celsius).
“2012 is now more than one degree above the top of that. So we’re talking about well above the pack in terms of all the years we have data for the U.S.,” he added.
2012 was also the 15th driest year on record for the nation: The average precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 26.57 inches (67.5 centimeters), 2.57 inches (6.5 centimeters) below average.
Moreover, every single one of the lower 48 states had above average temperatures. Nineteen states had their warmest year on record and an additional 26 states experienced one of their top ten warmest years on record.
2012 was unusual in another way for the nation, according to the NOAA report. Last year was the second most extreme year on record for the U.S., with 11 natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and a widespread drought that each cost at least a billion dollars in losses.
Ice Flow, I, II is a clear response to the ever accelerating destructive forces of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions intrinsically intertwined–built in–to the obsession with ‘growth’ in industrial and post-industrial economies. The inky black is no longer squid-made but petroleum invading–released–onto a melting flow of ice. Sinking the habitable regions of the planet, another genocide–an ecocide and climate crisis hitting the most vulnerable and least responsible–ties in with Green Recor’s response to the European colonialist destruction of America’s Indigenous cultures she has visited throughout her long lifetime.
Green Recor’s work is not redemptive; it is not quaint; it is not decorative wallpaper; it is a return, even with some mistakes of signifier not matching signified (I would have titled Incan as Spain’s Attempted Destruction of the Incans for clarity, but this is a matter of textual and contextual preference), to the most radical roots of abstraction, to Malevich’s nihilating (not nihilistic) obliteration of hypocritical conventions. And with an obliteration of hypocrisy, the artist opens herself to criticism and praise in equal measure, although she has earned far more of the latter than the former.
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