An Eminent Art Historian Says Thanks for Nothing

When someone who was once at the helm of MoMA promises to confront our uncertainties about the last five decades of nonrepresentational art, it’s worth taking notice. But despite the clear and perceptive intelligence of author Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock doesn’t quite answer its own bald-faced query: “What is abstract art good for?”

As chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1989 to 2001, Varnedoe didn’t shy away from controversy. Raised eyebrows greeted his reshuffling of the permanent collection, when he broke with the linearity favored by his predecessors and acknowledged (rightly) that history is messy, multifaceted and prone to surprising crosscurrents.

The first exhibition he mounted as MoMA’s director, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990), curated with Adam Gopnik, drew criticism from all corners of the art world. The New York Times worried about MoMA’s fate under Varnedoe’s governance. His lot improved with the retrospectives he helped organize, including those devoted to Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock.

After heading MoMA, Varnedoe accepted a post as professor of art history at Princeton University. Two years later, he was invited to give the A.W. Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art. The six essays in Pictures of Nothing are transcriptions of those largely improvisatory talks. Varnedoe was unable to polish them up for publication: He died of cancer three months after the last lecture.

The title of the book is lifted from William Hazlitt, the 19th-century British essayist. Writing about the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, Hazlitt records a viewer’s response to the artist’s signature conflagrations of light and atmosphere: “Pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Museum audiences have since grown accustomed to such pictures—abstraction is recognized, if not always unconditionally, as a legitimate artistic phenomenon. Varnedoe glances upon its initial stirrings and subsequent development, with mentions of Picasso, Matisse, Russian Constructivism, de Stijl and Abstract Expressionism, and grace notes sent along the way to Islamic tile work and John Constable.

Why begin the main discussion at mid-century? “Our starting point … seems simultaneously to present a new form of abstraction and a new resistance to its premises,” Varnedoe writes. “This contradictory development is what I want to document and explore.”

He examines the influence of Marcel Duchamp on two young Americans, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and questions whether their work really brought about the “great divide between the world of, say, Henri Matisse and Picasso and that of contemporary art.”

He approvingly paraphrases Mr. Rauschenberg’s famed dictum about working in “the space between art and life.” But maintaining the space between art and life is necessary to art’s very existence: Once the gap is bridged, everything becomes art and, as a consequence, nothing is art. Varnedoe neglects to square that logic. And he surely knew of Duchamp’s disdain for those who followed in his wake. Neo-Dada was, in the master’s words, “an easy way out.” Still, Varnedoe writes unconvincingly that Mr. Johns’ White Flag (1955) “transmutes Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made into something new.”

In this way, he dismisses the rift between modernism and postmodernism, writing that he doesn’t “put much stock in either—or any—‘ism’ … works of art in their quirkiness tend to resist generalities.” His advocacy for “experience first” is commendable: “Given one minute more to either parse critical theory or stammer toward the qualities of the individual work of art, I will use the time for the latter.”

But Varnedoe’s history—from Johns and Rauschenberg to Pop, Minimalism, Process Art, Earthworks and the postmodernism put to bed earlier—trades in the generalities and theories of boilerplate art history. The usual suspects shuffle in, tip their hats and dutifully leave their marks: Frank Stella, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, et cetera and ho hum.

Somewhere in there, Varnedoe makes the claim that “the poet of the morbidity of our time”—that would be Andy Warhol—offered vital contributions to the history of abstract paint­ing. That would have surprised Andy. He goes on to com­pare the Pop Guru with Goya. It’s ama­zing what intelligent people can talk themselves into.

Elsewhere, he im­­plies that knowledge of New York City’s overheated real-estate market can account for the preciousness of Walter De Maria’s Dia installation, The Broken Kilometer (1979). He comes down firmly on the side of “intentionally dumb and banal” Minimalism, as if its strident literalism and unapologetic authoritarianism hadn’t damaged the way several generations of artists think about art. He writes of “mere aesthetic pleasure” as if it were a gnat buzzing around our heads.

Varnedoe’s nods to West Coast artists—Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, (amazingly, he omits Richard Diebenkorn and John McLaughlin)—come as welcome breaks in this Manhattan-centric survey. His elegance and wit offer some recompense for the predictability of his narrative. He valuably and decisively pooh-poohs the notion that the New York School was a tool of the C.I.A. during the Cold War, and he aptly sums up the Tilted Arc brouhaha as “one of the low points … in the history of abstraction’s encounter with society.” Still, one pines for something different and more.

The book ends with an appreciation of Richard Serra. Mr. Serra is a sculptor of undeniable gifts and achievement, but there’s something so blah about the choice. What if Varnedoe had ended the book with a painter like Thomas Nozkowski, Bill Jensen or Shirley Jaffe, or sculptors like Anne Truitt, Christopher Wilmarth and Martin Puryear? That is to say, figures whose expansive visions refute the “millennial pessimism” that is our culture’s ball-and-chain. What an unconventional book that would be.

Alas, it seems as if the aim of these lectures was mostly to rubber-stamp the status quo. Many of Varnedoe’s endeavors as curator and historian will provide a worthy legacy. Pictures of Nothing isn’t one of them. An Eminent Art Historian Says Thanks for Nothing