Dr. Grant Vetter
Reprinted here from the ARTSBEACON
MALA BREUER: A Retrospective Review in Four Parts.
"My painting is about being formed from formlessness building spontaneously intuitively metaphorically within a given structure of linear tension abstracted from everything implicating everything in my vision."
"Nothing in and of itself, the formless has only an operational existence..."
PART I: Abstract Painting and the Gift of Giving Form to the Formless.
There are a number of ways to begin thinking about the small survey of works by Mala Breuer currently on exhibit at Bentley Gallery in downtown phoenix. The first would be in terms of regionalism, as the subtitle of the show is from "New York to Santa Fe". Of course, Breuer studied in California as a student, making her influences something of a cross-country affair, even though New York style Ab-Ex painting and the earthy pallet of the Southwest play a vital role in different periods of her artistic production. A second way to begin thinking about Breuer's art is in terms of time, and especially, the times Breuer exhibited in. Over the course of many decades, one can say that Breuer's aesthetic was influenced by abstraction and minimalism in equal measure. Thus, Breuer's paintings are all about the timing of marks, the time of absorption, and intimations of a timeless sense of presence and light.
These kinds of considerations are of paramount importance when reflecting on Breuer's accomplishments as an artist because the notion of temporality can never be separated from the idea of place or space. More than any single thematic interest, school of thought, program or manifesto, it is these enduring pictorial concerns that provide us with an entre into thinking about how Breuer's career traced a path across America that was evidenced not just in her pieces, but also, in the all-over composition of her life.
Breuer's journey from coast to coast, which eventually landed in something of an in-between place, can be best summed up in three discrete acts. First, there is the undeniable influence of Breuer's teacher, Clifford Still, which shows itself in the way Breuer handles paint as well as her approach to dividing up the canvass into an active field of contrasts, considerations and intuitive responses. Next came a distinct period of development in New York where Breuer was sure to have seen some of the landmark shows of her day, shows which surely shifted her aesthetic into a more urban register, mixing exuberant color choices with an almost gothic weightiness. Finally, Breuer retired from the Big Apple only to strike up a personal friendship with Agnes Martin in Santa Fe. In this later period Breuer adopted a slightly different methodology that included a more nuanced relationship to shifting gradations and the proliferation of lyrically painted striations.
And yet, over the course of her many transitions, which really consisted of so many passage works, or works that were about painting a passage of time, Breuer never abandoned any of the lessons of her past. Breuer's was a path of constant integration driven by inclination. A deft touch, dedication to the concept of the all-over composition, and a haptic sense of animated tactility continued to define Breuer's art practice for more than seventy years. But in terms of the change of scenery from New York to Santa Fe, Breuer surely gained more time to work, to discover a different pace of intention, and a new relation to Art Informal, or the making of a certain kind of formlessness that was even more melodic than the linear works of late De Kooning and which cultivated a sense of atmospheric repose that was on par with Olitski's best pieces. Thus, it was in the Southwest that Breuer's art really entered into a period of condensation and maturation.
Consequently, we can say that the idea of locale, of transit, and of negotiating a place for the eye to rest amidst thoughtfully activated figure and ground relations was what the journey from New York to Santa Fe was all about. This is true inasmuch as we find evidence of dynamic and changing relationships throughout Breuer's work and life, a life dedicated to the notion of organic unity, which was the hallmark of the abstract impulse, and which Breuer made a rather heady contribution too.
Part II: What In-forms the Conditions of Art Informal as an Art Practice?
But all of these observations are the obvious trappings of any good read of Breuer's oeuvre, and they are certainly not without their merits. Such ideas provide us with a wealth of factual information about the paintings on display, albeit, without saying much as to why we should be interested in Breuer's project. In order to do this we have to place the work not only within the larger context of issues in abstract art but we also have to situate it alongside the prejudices of the cultural milieu Breuer inhabited. To overlook such questions is to miss the fact that abstraction, from the first generation up to the present, has been a bit of a boys club to say the least. Thus, working with, and against the reigning ethos of times - which had its own set of gendered biases - was as integral to navigating the field of cultural production for a female artist as having to find opportunities to make and exhibit work.
As such, the kinds of formal decisions that defined Breuer's career can never really be disentangled from another set of issues, issues which concern her place in the artworld as a women. And yet, taking this into account makes it possible to cast a new light on her aesthetic choices at a time when developing a signature style was what defined the New York School of Action Painters. Newman's zip's, Pollock's drips, Kline's contrasts, Hoffman's push and pull, everyone had to stake out an iconic claim of sorts, and defend it! This was avant-gardism as a type of militarism, the kind that played at 'king of the hill', rather than being an advanced scooting troop. Despite the many claims about innovation, rupture and breaking with the past, what really took hold during the years of 'high modernism' was often less of an exploratory attitude toward painting and more of an entrenched set of commitments.
During this period, being in the trenches meant critics followed, drove and helped to define the teleological thrust of painting toward its supposed historical development, like soldiers in lock-step formation barking orders about so many competing diatribes. There was the supposed value of essentialism, the rather contagious idea of valorizing of the 'truth to materials', and the ever-present rhetoric of purity. So when we see an artist like Breuer sampling different styles, making marks that play with Newman's Zips, like "Untitled" from 1979, or adopting Still's graphic designs in pieces like "Line Up" from 1983, it is important to note that this type of open-ended appropriation just wasn't done at the time, or at least, it wasn't really back in vogue until neo-expressionism and neo-geo took hold in the late 80's. Thus, we can say that during Breuer's early period, not only was it not 'ok' to sample and riff off another artist's stylistic inflections, it was actively derided as being derivative, démodé, or simply uninspired.
Of course, none of this was lost on Breuer, nor was the idea of a certain machismo or a heroic attitude toward painting, only Breuer choose to acknowledge it with slightly tongue and cheek titles like "Olympics" and "As Good as Gold". There is even a hint that Breuer understood that the militaristic attitude of the New York School had replaced the idea of modern art as an experimental enterprise by instituting and institutionalizing a call to Action --- Painting! Afterall, this type of painting was set to defeat the Parisian avant-garde, and Breuer's hidden critique of such warring factions was present not only in pieces like "line up" - which could easily be substituted for the admonition to 'stand at attention' - but in her eventual abandonment of the New York scene altogether and her substitution of figurative titles with non-descript ways of labeling the work, like simply using the date of completion for instance. Afterall, both of these gestures signal a desire to be 'at-ease' with regard to the dominant discourses of formalist art. One might even go so far as to say that easement is the modus operandi of Breuer's project if we take it to mean a type of protection derived from weathering the contest between dueling art capitals caught up in a petit-bourgeois game of 'capture the flag'.
It goes without saying that all of these trumped up polemics are rather hard to imagine in our post-historical culture of hybridity and sampling. In Breuer's day, however, it was quite the opposite. To challenge the normative prescriptions that issued from the gatekeepers of the critical establishment was to fall into error, or worst yet, total irrelevance. It was anathema to having abandoned not only the spirit of the times, but the very idea of modern art as a model of 'progress' toward flatness, embodied experience and aesthetic absolutism. What is even more interesting perhaps is how Breuer embraced techniques of pastiche and some might even say the occasional parody - however unknowingly - in the volumes of studies she made throughout her life. In some small way, Breuer's work always straddled a line between being what one would call a 'true' modernist and a defacto post-modernist, although Breuer herself would never claim any affinity for the later.
PART III: Painting Through a Time-of-Crisis, Conflict, and Contradiction.
The real conflict however, and perhaps the real interest in Breuer's career, could be seen as revolving around the following set of contests. First, her practice as an artist was wholly dialogic, yet the results were highly personal and even idiosyncratic at times. Second, while she did not try to 'brand' her look, or develop an iconic style, Breuer did work out the improvisational look of her paintings beforehand through collages, watercolors, and drawings that exhibited an uncommon degree of finish. In other words, she was after the feeling of radical reductionism and commitment to the act of painting, without making it into a mere affect of style. Breuer genuinely wanted to rehearse and respond to what was happening in the act of making while avoiding any sense of being an autodidact. Thus, Breuer's type of essentialism was never one that was easily codified. This was a rare achievement at a time when one can say that most, if not all of the first and second generation abstract expressionists, met this very fate. And finally, while her paintings show the influence of artists like Still and early Stella, Breuer was also in dialogue with the female artists of her day too. Not only is there a connection to well-known figures like her close friend Agnes Martin, but there is also a degree of resonance, if not outright resemblance to the dashy application of paint by figures like Joan Mitchell, or the more conservative compositions of Helen Frankenthaler, not to mention the collage aesthetic of Lee Krasner.
Taken together, the idea that Breuer's heroicism was to be found in her titles and the mutability of her pieces, but not in the reification of her own style as an end-in- itself; that she was an absolutist about the act of painting, but not looking for an absolute solution to the questions of painting; that she was as much in conversation with the work of male painters as she was with that of women, but without ever needing to associate her aesthetic with gendered 'norms' --- all of this is what allows us to say that Breuer achieved something truly unique and often unrecognized by many of her contemporaries. She stayed in the work, and never industrialized her own mode of artistic production. She never abandoned investigating new possibilities that could have been seen as undermining the market value of her work in the long run. In short, Breuer never pursued 'purity' of form at the cost of content, nor did she abandon the real meaning of the word avant-garde, which is that of assessing advanced interests in a new field of inquiry, or rather, in new and dangerous territory. Without exaggeration or too much trumped up posturing, we can say that this is a claim that few artists of Breuer's generation can make wholeheartedly.
PART IV: Mala Breuer and Time of Painting Reclaimed.
Taking this into account, how do we understand Breuer's work now, looking back at this small survey of select pieces? On the one hand, Breuer's artistic concerns all seem to circle around the pole of geometry, which structures her compositions, and on the other hand, she always courted a degree of spontaneity, which gave her paintings their assured execution. Breuer seems to insist, quite emphatically, on the measured ability of the artists' hand and a certain sense of touch to move us, in either big bold gestures or a minor vocabulary of extreme delicacy and precision. Breuer's work depends on creating a certain level of captivation given over to us through the consideration of bodily relations, where scale and the size of the mark are as important as the choice of color and form. What is perhaps most evident about Breuer's oeuvre however, are the many ways in which she wants the viewer to know that she's still exploring, that she's still present in the act of making, and that she hasn't gone into auto-pilot or become subservient to any one set of prescriptive measures. As such, Breuer's poetics are nothing less than a sensorial poetry of time, touch and temperament, organized vis-à-vis painterly transmission.
Beyond these achievements we can only say that Breuer didn't bother getting married the way Lee Krasner did, she didn't identify with the impressionism of Monet the way Joan Mitchel did, she didn't follow Morris Louis into color field painting the way Frankenthaler did, she didn't really even adopt a minimalist ethic the way Agnes Martin did, who would have been the obvious person she 'followed', or really, fell in with, later in life. Instead, Breuer remained in dialog with the affective qualities of her surrounding environment, while quietly cultivating a language of intuitive mark making rather than an unconscious form of automatic writing.
Above all else, this is what separates her work from that of her contemporaries. Breuer labored to achieve a perfect marriage of gesture, scale and proportion, where chromatic opulence slowly transformed into optical elegance in the journey from New York to Santa Fe. Breuer never wanted to make works that were monuments, or which were overly imposing, but which still asked for your whole attention nonetheless. And she did this in the age where an obsession with cinematic scale and the experience of the sublime was not just the demand of the day, it was a prerequisite for financial and critical success. Despite this fact, or rather in spite of it, Breuer choose to define success around another set of terms, terms which didn't always have to do with the size, or shall we say, with a certain need to overcompensate for a lack of content.
And for this, perhaps, many years from now, historians will appreciate the place of Mala Breuer in the story of twentieth century painting a bit more that they do today. Without irony, she helped to open the door for artists like Mary Heilmann and Amy Sillman to gain wider recognition; without losing a sense of organic integration she embraced much of the systems painting that took place during minimalism; and without making her work an overt vehicle for politics she still managed to address some of the disparities and challenges of working in an almost all male profession. But what's most amazing is that Breuer did this using the vehicle of painting, and abstract painting at that! In this way, we can say that Breuer was always fighting an uphill battle, one that was far steeper, and against worse odds, than many artists would care to imagine. She was a member of an advanced guard of one, an avant-gardist in the singular, long before the age of pluralism or the rather haughty debates about the death and the return of painting.
Thus, the gift of Breuer's work is that of unlimited permissions without succumbing to a kind of abandonment without reserve. Her pallet, which ranges from the brightest primaries to the most subdued pastels, always continued to reflect her surroundings. Breuer's pieces entreat us to be present with her in the act of making, hiding little behind her hand unless it is a scumbled effect staged for dramatic punch or a change in tempo. If anything, her works ask us to pay attention to how we encounter our world, to be beholden to the space in which we reside, to appreciate the light cast not only across the surface of her various series, but to notice that Breuer's art is not so much about seriality as it is the reality of being engaged with the times you live in and the nature of the creative act. For having maintained this rare balance, and for the amazing strength to have gone it alone, not necessarily against the tide, but surfing the tunnel of the wave from the inside, Breuer's work deserves not just a second look but genuine recognition. There are few rare authentic voices such as Mala Breuer and it's worth the opportunity to see this selective look back at what she achieved, not only in New York, but here in the Southwest, a place that Breuer still calls home.
Mala Breuer: From New York to Santa Fe, is on view at the Bentley Gallery in Downtown phoenix from April 23rd through May 30th. The Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 9:30 am to 5:30pm. For more information about the exhibition call Bentley at (480) 946-6060.