Ida Kohlmeyer: Abstraction & Life
By Terrington Calas, NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEW
The remarkable exhibition now at the Newcomb Art Gallery — a retrospective of Ida Kohlmeyer’s painting and sculpture — does much to cement her position among our major artists. Curated by Professor Michael Plante, the show clarifies, especially, Kohlmeyer’s commerce with Abstract Expressionism — her debt to certain of the movement’s pioneers and, notably, her singular protraction of its imperatives. From the richness and refined taste of Mark Rothko-inspired works such as Interplay and Passage #2 — both 1963— to her late multi-cell “compositions,” there is the sense that, despite her admiration for her masters, Kohlmeyer saw her task chiefly as one of invention. Grasping the abstract style and re-creating it. And she did this, it appears, with a rare philosophical optimism. Consider a piece from her last years. Composition 96-29, is a near overload of inventiveness — tightly structured, yet almost antic with eccentric pictographs. At moments, it recalls the linear, menacing imagery of Arshile Gorky. But the approach is different. The calligraphic line is crisper; the figures — like comic denizens of a secret world — are child-like, fresh, exuberant, and presented in a bizarre color system that somehow defines joy. The whole intimates a life affirming sensibility far removed from what we perceive in Abstract Expressionism.
A side from Kohlmeyer’s relationship to the New York School and the independent strength of her own art, this exhibition alerts us to something else. It reminds us of the altering reality she confronted working as an abstractionist over a period of nearly forty years. After she discovered her unique manner, she sought to refine it. And, except for a short diversion, that refining took place within a circumscribed ethos — a completely abstract ethos. At the same time, the contemporary art world wavered; it changed focus and re-changed focus. But, as we see in the Newcomb Gallery spaces, Kohlmeyer sustained her course. The last room, which actually displays the most powerful paintings of her career, settles a question. Those final works persuade us that her chosen mode, when maneuvered by true pictorial intelligence, may be immune to art world caprices.
The 20 century was not dominated by abstract art. But it seemed that way. In critical terms, it was a reign of probably less than thirty years. Still, retrospectively, we think of the first decades largely as part of the build-up, as the groundwork for this style of artistic literalism. Everything we saw — the reverence of color, the primitivist simplicity, the analysis/decimation of form, the pursuit of pictorial universals — led irrevocably to abstraction. And, more significant, once established at mid-century, it left room for little else.
Certainly not figuration. Until the 1980s it was possible to speak of the abstract law and the figurative renegade. There was no question that the critical, aesthetic ideal— the “highest” possible art, the art by which all late modern painting and sculpture should be gauged — was an abstract one and, ultimately, a purist abstract one. Fostered in the 50s by some astonishingly powerful critics, this situation amplified and, by the 60s, resulted in doctrinaire formalism and a (now bewildering) tight exclusivity. The representational tendency, when it was not appraised as hopelessly retrograde, was taken as something of a novel aberration in the face modernist culture. Even clamorous (and brief) movements like Pop and Photo-Realism existed with an abstract paradigm hovering over them.
All of this finally changed. In the 80s, Abstraction’s former hegemony was, suddenly it seemed, held by figurative art — not merely figurative art, but at times the literary variety, the sort of anecdotal picture-making that was long the utter scorn of dogmatic modernism. Whether this turn of event was the consequence of simple changes in taste or the tardy awareness of that formalism was the most myopic aesthetic in the history of art hardly seemed to matter. What did matter was the official shift. Much of the same critical establishment that had declared that myopia as gospel, recanted their position; they saw the new figuration (with labels such as New Image and nee-expressionism) taking hold and adopted its ideology. The result was a climate where, astonishingly, abstraction began to look like the oddity. Before long, an ostensible pluralism held sway, but not without a palpable coolness toward the pure and the abstract.
Such was the atmosphere during Kohlmeyer’s last fifteen years. An interesting question, in this connection, concerns the progress of an artist so committed to abstraction: Could she retain authority in her work, could she retain a discerning audience during a time when the reigning style is dedicated to delivering what her chosen genre patently refused to deliver — meaning, content, narrative? The Newcomb Gallery retrospective would indicate that this was very likely. Seeing these works now, after fifteen years — after countless amalgams and revivals — it seems clear that something as basic and as dateless as the .truths of realist art filters through the surface of certain abstract painting.
Sidney Tillim said, “Representation is an impulse, not a style” and several other conservative critics agree strongly. Their trajectory is that figuration is the most normal artistic response to life experience, and abstraction, of course, is merely a style.This idea is absurd if we, for one moment, consider Kasimir Malevitch or Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still. It is also absurd if we consider some contemporary abstractionists whose art, however obliquely, touches fundamental human concerns. This is so in Kohlmeyer’s work. In a unique way, she provides pictorial analogues for specific life/world realities: the inclination toward order, the inclination toward conflict, and, more broadly, the very nature of living.
Her most daring paintings touch on the latter; they are an affirmation of the potential of sheer paint to evoke life. I say “sheer” paint, underscoring not the usual painted memory of an observed event, but the paint itself. In this instance, that would mean painted dashes, painted scribbles, painted characters — each articulated with a kind of reflexive immediacy. Kohlmeyer seems to engage images like these in searching out essences for her, in translating the pith of some personal attitudes about living.
In this, she follows an early-modem French tradition which began with Manet, was arguably squandered by the Impressionists, was grandly recaptured by Matisse, and was celebrated much later in the art of several New York School painters — painters like de Kooning, Motherwell, and Kline. In the Newcomb survey, this connection is newly apparent. Characteristic examples of he full oeuvre are on view and they disclose, once and for all, the sequence of influences which led, finally, to her signature calligraphic technique.
Kohlmever adopted the tradition of pure-paint-as-metaphor, at least generally, in a way most akin to Matisse. It has to do with manipulating paint and color with such abandon, with such innocence, with such unstudied virtuosity, that they might signify a certain pleasure-taking in life — a joie de vivre or Matisse’s own luxe, calrne, et volupté. Where Matisse used flattened objects and figures and interiors of surprising simplicity, Kohlmeyer garners this life-evocative quality with ingenuous, almost playful, configurations.
Often these are structured within a grid, with each section inevitably autonomous but, at times, somehow, also related to its neighbor. This paradoxical play on regimentation and relationships has the same pull on us as the visual ironies and polarities we saw in Jasper Johns: they suggest our natural proneness to logical structure and emphasize, too, our anxiety in the face of its breakdown.
Kohlmeyer coaxed abstraction into these basic life associations with such insouciance — she seemed always in the midst of free-wheeling experiment — that we see the insouciance first, then, a bit later, see its larger meaning. It is the sort of obliqueness, happily, that we can relish.