Cold Days

Hamza Walker, 1999

In 1959 and 1960 Clement Greenberg wrote two of his most famous essays on abstract art, “The Case for Abstract Art” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and “Modernist Painting” which was produced as both a pamphlet and a national radio broadcast for Voice of America. As a critic who played a major part in Abstract Expressionism’s museum and marketplace success, Greenberg’s arguments regarding the importance of Abstract Expressionism had been vigorously articulated throughout the 40s and 50s. But Greenberg took these opportunities to be more explicit, emphatic even, about his position. Written in succession, “The Case for Abstract Art” and “Modernist Painting” appeared in venues that confirmed the notoriety and critical success Abstract Expressionism had achieved since the emergence of the New York school in the mid to late 1940s. Greenberg chose to reconfirm that success with an appeal to tradition. He linked modernist painting practices to previous periods using an evolutionary model of art history in which the goal of all artforms was to become autonomous; more accountable to their own internal logic as artforms rather than to representing reality. In the case of painting, this involved an “unraveling,” not dismantling of its tradition. Painting’s illustrious history laid the groundwork for it to become more “self-critical,” to develop a rigor- ous philosophy of itself out of which would come its autonomy or “purity” as an artform. Evolution did not mean that modernist art was qualitatively better than the art of other epochs. Greenberg was the first to admit that Abstract Expressionism’s formal achievements in and of themselves were hardly worthy of being exalted over any other period. What made Abstract Expressionism revolutionary was its quest for properties unique to painting. By maintaining an integrity to those elements, it, more than any other movement, secured for painting the status of timeless convention.

Greenberg had conviction. Too much, many have argued. He was fearless in accepting the implications of his arguments despite ambiguity as to how Abstract Expressionism is interpreted within his model of history. Characterizing the history of modernist painting as an evolution towards its own self truth allowed Greenberg to suggest that “Modernist art belongs to the same specific cultural tendency as modern science.” This is a conspicuous parallel for a cold war critic well aware of what happens when such absolutes are entertained. Having arrived at its atom splitting essence, what next for painting? Was Abstract Expressionism as Greenberg had historicized it, a grand conclusion and a very uncertain beginning for painting, or a very uncertain conclusion and a grand beginning for painting? Greenberg would have it either way. Implicit in his statement that “modernist art wherever it may end up will never cease being intelligible in terms of the past,” was also its corollary; the past will never cease being intelligible through modernist art. Whether or not painting’s evolution concluded with the avant-garde of his generation hardly mattered. Having made substantial gains towards its purity and autonomy, in addition to being about strictly looking, modernist painting would also serve as a lens through which to look back. In Greenberg’s evolutionary model of art history, the avant-garde as it resided with painting was a radically conservative force responsible for the maintenance of a tradition built on the pleasure and primacy of the viewing experience, an experience for which pigment applied to a stretched canvas was specifically invented.

Were Judy Ledgerwood as dogmatic about high modernism as Greenberg, she would perhaps have chosen a title like Painting Degree Zero instead of the more sober and welcoming title Cold Days. But Ledgerwood is less interested in high modernism as a timeless convention and more interested in exploring it as a convention of comfort. Toward that end she has made high modernism a downright user-friendly viewing experience. In championing the autonomy of an artform, a high modernist experience, is above all else, sensual. The contextual and the cognitive are subordinated to the perceptual. Cold Days consists of five new paintings and ten drawings. Like a row of cadets, these generously scaled paintings, each 8’ x 9’, offer up a full disclosure of their contents. But the paintings do not give themselves over to the eyes as much as the eyes must give themselves over to the paintings. The pale palette, muted contrast and dissolving dot motif make them seem fragile. It is, however, our experience of the paintings and not the paintings themselves that is fragile. Ledgerwood is gently forcing an attenuation of vision. Any references outside the realm of perception, whether contextual or conceptual, including the title of the exhibition and the title of individual paintings is secondary if not extraneous to the unabashed act of looking. These paintings may look chilly but that is simply a ruse for a good, slow, visual burn.

With respect to painting, the high modernist experience does not simply reside in its adherence to the visual but its adherence to the visual in a manner unique to painting. Opticality was the term that Greenberg, and later Michael Fried, used to describe such phenomena. Since painting’s most overwhelming trait is that it is two dimensional, opticality involved the construction of a space that maintained an integrity to the picture plane. Needless to say, for Greenberg, flatness was the quality par excellence of what he termed “advanced painting.” Modeling of form and references to illusionistic space, traits of sculpture and architecture, were considered taboo and the modern painters whom Greenberg championed used shape, color and methods of applying paint that worked on as much as within the picture. Ledgerwood is clearly an advanced painter. Any space in her paintings is flat space. It is constructed through the complex play of color rather than value (light and dark), through the uneven application of paint rather than the modeling of form, and through compositional devices related to the edge of the picture plane rather than perspective. One does not look through any of these paintings, only at them.

The installation of the exhibition is extremely important for its reiteration of this experience. Consisting of a lone wall, Cold Days is a flat viewing experience laid bare. There are no corridors through which to peer or wander. The only movement consists in an effort to better perceive the paintings. In changing one’s angle or distance of viewing, the body is responding to a gaze already severed from cognition. In this respect, Ledgerwood’s paintings demand a literal giving over of one’s self to the act of seeing, not as a means of knowing since there are no recognizable forms, but seeing strictly as an end in itself. Implied in a quest for the autonomy of artforms is also a quest for an autonomy of the senses. In short, Ledgerwood has constructed a chilly chapel to high modernism in which the viewer is literally a slave to the gaze.

Appearing as though it were carbonated by its light source, Freddy is the most forthright painting of the group and a great example of opticality. Each of its elements - the white, vertical band, the metallic plane combed with beaded zips, and the pastel negative forms - is clearly articulated. Together they create a very complex space whose elements always defer to the picture plane. This is certainly the case with the imposing band of white that asserts itself as an extension of the wall. Its soft, slightly bowed edge, however, undermines its architectural authority making it a stoic rather than stern framing device, one mildly suggestive of a curtain’s gentle swagger. Its stoicism is literally a foil to the unstable flicker of the metallic plane, which can abruptly change from a warm opalescent grey to a brilliant silvery sheen. This sheen is broken by a series of beaded zips whose vertical coordinates are a cue taken from the edges of the painting. The zips, however, form away from the edges, in an area where the stretcher’s taut, rectilinear rule exerts less pressure, allowing the paint to behave as though it were in a lava lamp. But there is still enough pressure from the edges to impose a structure, to force the paint in rows that give the painting a decorative sensibility, one that does not so much rely on symmetry as the play of differences within repetition. Painted loosely with lipstick traces left from the daub of the brush, the zips bask in the beauty of the informel (unformed), a beauty defined by uncertainty, movement, and becoming as the zips continuously precipitate, mutate and redissolve into the flat metallic border. Whereas the metallic zips provide the visual equivalent of champagne bubbles, a tickle as our eyes run over their unevenly aligned ridges, the pastel tones provide the bouquet, a lingering aromatic finish. With their subtle gradation of blue-green and rose-madder, the negative spaces create a sense of indefinite deep space, countering the metallic, surface sheen. This playful exchange animates Freddy, causing this painting to oscillate wildly between a shimmer and a sigh. But in no way do the pastel forms’ role as negative space make their function within the painting subordinate to the zips. In fact, the violent contrast between matte and metallic surfaces makes it ambiguous as to what is a negative or a positive form. In areas where the zips become oppressive, merging back into a field, the curvilinear diamond shapes become heir to the zip’s liberatory function, reveling in painterly gesture and freedom from the frame’s tyranny.

The solemn matte white band would appear indifferent to these sentimental antics were it not for the quadrant of circles conspicuously protruding from its edge. As the most clearly delineated, staunchly flat element in the painting, the circles come forward with enough force to pull the white band in tow, making it shed its passive aggressive stance toward the metallic surface, making it insist firmly upon its right to exist in our space. Although one could not slip a finger behind the space these circles create, it is space all the same; one that cannot be measured in inches or feet, for it is flat space, strictly optical. Despite their independence from the other compositional elements, the circles maintain a visual sympathy with the zips. As confident platonic shapes, the circles are an ideal, in both form and formation that somehow eludes the beaded zips. It is as if four metallic bubbles managed to escape, finding their way to the matte white portion of the painting only to be reborn as idealized flat forms forever bound in a static but stable configuration. Any sympathy between the zips and circles, however, is mediated through the white band and ultimately the wall.

Painting painting on the wall, who is the flattest and therefore fairest of them all? This question is put before Freddy’s reflective sheen come mirror by these four white circles. Historically, the wall has been the reality against which painting worked its magic Since painting remained at the service of illusion for the greater part of its history, the picture plane’s transparency left the wall the unquestioned arbiter of flatness. Greater integrity to the picture plane, however, while it was a step towards painting’s autonomy, was also a step towards blurring the division of labor between painting and wall as painting would begin to challenge the wall’s monopoly on flatness. Without its white circles, Freddy would recapitulate this rivalry. The white band would simply reassert the wall’s flatness as superior to that of the painting. In this respect, the white band is the true heir to Greenberg’s purity. The white band is the strain of the avant-garde that goes beyond unravelling tradition. It negates tradition. It is the vanishing act that has haunted painting throughout this century. It is painting’s curtain call. As such, its presence throws into stark relief Freddy’s flashy, attention-getting tactics, demoting painting to the status of decorative supplement. The circles, are slow, studied, mimetic gestures that restate the painting’s autonomy. They are an encroachment conducted on terms established by Freddy. Once the wall enters Freddy’s space, it idealizes and calcifies the painting’s internal logic, making it unclear as to whether the wall is hosting the painting or the painting is hosting the wall. What was once a rivalry has given way to open envy as wall and painting engage in a relationship that is more symbiotic, if not parasitic, than supplementary. To extend the metaphor that opens this paragraph, the wall starring as Snow White, stares into the painting, which has reconstituted itself as a mirror. If only for a moment, the wall’s purity-based beauty is reflected as a painting’s cultivated charms.

As this analysis indicates, Ledgerwood’s paintings proceed from the phenomenological and formal to the narrative and poetic quite gracefully. Indeed, Ledgerwood executed this body of work with magazine elegance in mind. Freddy may be about competing forms of elegance but no more or less so than flipping through the pages of Vogue where one ad touts the elegance of neo-classical restraint and the next celebrates wild, metropolitan, night-life clamoring for sequins. For Ledgerwood, abstraction is a means of accommodating, not resisting, such associations and she has left a trail of clues a mile long and a snow plow wide. The most conspicuous of these being the exhibition’s title. The pale of winter light, sheets of ice, snow blindness, a baby blue blanket, a page from an almanac charting the waxing and waning of an icy harvest moon, are practically unavoidable associations. In addition, Ledgerwood has named each of the paintings after tracks from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1958 album Kind of Blue, a seminal recording from his “cool period.” Davis’ sensibility from this period, characterized by loosely improvised playing, within a broad, uncomplicated melodic structure, served as a model for these paintings. Like the recording, there is a simplicity, a structural transparency and an underlying mood that permeates this body of work. The palette is restricted to only a few colors in which pale blue-greens and blue-violets play a major part. The forms are limited to circles and dots placed within simple rectilinear compositions that are determined but feel unrehearsed, as if there were no alternate takes. The ease of execution is even more obvious in the repetition of the dot and circle motif where the paint handling is confident but never fussy. Ledgerwood’s use of Miles Davis to corroborate Walter Pater’s statement that all art aspires to the condition of music, however, warrants closer attention.

If Abstract Expressionism had achieved the autonomy accorded it by Greenberg, Cold Days’ nod to music is also a reference to sources within painting’s own historical back yard. The formal parallels between Ledgerwood and Davis’ work, while undeniably present, belongs to a history of parallels drawn between music and painting, making such a connection part of a convention. In this respect, Ledgerwood is referencing the historic use and or abuse of the relationship between jazz and abstract painting; a relationship legitimated through its historical pedigree, one that leads back to Mondrian (Broadway Boogie Woogie); or as a relationship inscribed with the politics of black nationalism e.g. the paintings of the 1970s artist collective Africobra; or as one of painting’s many exhausted tropes as in Albert Oehlen’s gratuitous yet incisive decision to name a series of paintings after Ornette Coleman compositions. But these are extreme examples of association through title. Although titling paintings after musical compositions is a convention that warrants referencing, the bulk of Ledgerwood’s art historical associations are visual. Some, such as Monet’s fog shrouded Rouen Cathedral, Agnes Martin’s delicate determinism, or Rothko’s rectilinear veils, are immediate. While others such as the decadent shimmering ground in which Gustav Klimt’s figures found themselves subsumed in erotic ecstasy, are more indirect. But Ledgerwood’s most sustained engagement with art history is not through reference to any singular artist but through her appeal to the sublime.

“By the sublime in general I mean the most excellent of what is excellent, as the excellent is the best of what is good.” Based on this definition of the sublime, taken from a 1725 essay on the theory of painting by Jonathan Richardson, the elder, Ledgerwood’s desire “to make paintings that are sublime” requires little justification. The sublime, however, has less to do with value judgments attached to aesthetic pleasure and more to do with representation’s role in mediating one’s perception of the world. For this reason, it has a history no less illustrious than painting. The sublime is a subject that recurs in philosophy and writings on art from Longinus, a 1st century literary critic, through to its 18th century revival under the auspices of the Enlightenment, and on into 19th and 20th century aesthetic debates. Since it has to do with perception and the foundation for knowing, understanding and feeling the world, it is a word on which art, beauty, nature, emotion, pleasure and ultimately, subjectivity converge. Historically, the sublime has been defined as a form of pleasure more intense than the delight associated with the beautiful. One of the canonical treatises on the subject, Edmund Burke’s 1759 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, goes so far as to equate the sublime with pain, terror and danger, “these being productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.” At the time Burke wrote this essay, aesthetics was an attempt to understand the source of human emotions or passions as Burke called them and art was an incidental part of this more general inquiry. As such, Burke felt secure in legislating that art should be at the service of nature, an argument that was to become something of a manifesto for Romanticism. “But art can never give the rules that make an art. This I believe, is the reason why artists in general, and poets principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle; they have been the imitators of one another rather than of nature.” Although many of his ideas regarding the sublime would remain intact well beyond Romanticism, his idea that “art can never give the rules that make an art” would ultimately disintegrate as Romanticism would give way to Impressionism and Impressionism would give way to abstraction. Characterized by its freedom from reality, i.e. its autonomy, Abstract Expressionism was an art derived from the rules of art. It is the transition from the Romantic Sublime to the Abstract Sublime that Ledgerwood has attempted to reconstruct not so much in this body of paintings as throughout the course of her career. By enlisting the aid of glamour, Cold Days is an attempt to level the hierarchy that would result from Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime - one as the cultivation of charms, the other as a raw torrent of emotion. But again, Ledgerwood insists on an integrity to high modernism. Although Ledgerwood’s only concession to Burke’s nature-based sublime is in the title of the exhibition, her paintings provide a viewing experience on terms established by Greenberg and the New York School, which is to say terms reserved strictly for painting. Again, our experience of Ledgerwood’s paintings is tenuous. Minor differences in viewing conditions can radically alter what one is allowed to know about these paintings as they continuously solicit our gaze. It is an inability to know these paintings that makes them sublime. Lacking a representational element, Cold Days is an experience of looking for looking’s sake and the only true discovery is simply pleasure; a pleasure left to endlessly question its source and its constitution.

Gazing is far from an innocent pleasure. For many female artists, its meaning is highly charged. This is particularly true when it comes to constructing an experience based on a style of painting whose practitioners were the epitome of 19th century Romantic heroism. But Ledgerwood confronts the convention of painting with a femininity coded in an equally conventional manner. In interviews conducted throughout the past decade, Ledgerwood has referred to her formal choices (palette, mark, motif) as feminine and in the case of Cold Days this translated into her interest in fashion and make-up - Helmut Lang, eyeliner, metallic toe-nail polish etc. Although these formal strategies and references are thought to defuse the male bravura surrounding Abstract Expressionism, they are actually the substitution of one equally coded convention for another. The gesture is then tautological, one in which Greenberg’s radically conservative avant-garde is met with an equally conservative notion of femininity. By substituting stereotypes of the masculine with stereotypes of the feminine Ledgerwood suspends a critique of gender. In place of a critique, Ledgerwood offers a domestication of high modernism. This to the extent that Abstract Expressionism may now be referred to as being beautiful without the least bit of anxiety. This is not to say the paintings are any less sublime. The pleasure to be had in Ledgerwood’s paintings certainly qualifies as sublime. She has not achieved this by going above and beyond the call of beauty, for the sublime is neither above nor beyond beauty. If anything, she has made the sublime beautiful. The sublime may remain a mystery, a sign for the unknowable, but now the depths of subjectivity can be said to have sex appeal.