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BACK TO THE FUTURE: Abstract Art in South Africa Past and Present



Group Exhibition

17.10.13 - 23.11.13


Back to the Future: Abstract South African Art, Past and Present features works by: Bill Ainslie, Kevin Atkinson, Walter Battiss, Jan-Henri Booyens, Willem Boshoff, Christo Coetzee, Kenneth Bakker, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Trevor Coleman, Barend de Wet, Peter Eastman, Nel Erasmus, Abrie Fourie, Charles Gassner, Georgina Gratrix, David Koloane, Sydney Kumalo, Sidney Goldblatt, Alexandra Karakashian, Eddie Ladan, Erik Laubscher, Speelman Mahlangu, Louis Maqhubela, Maja Maljevic, Samson Mnisi, Kyle Morland, Christian Nerf, Albert Newall, Douglas Portway, Helen A Pritchard, Fred Schimmel, Cecil Skotnes, Larry Scully, Themba Shibase, Simon Stone, Maud Sumner, Strijdom van der Merwe, Vivian van der Merwe, Hannatjie van der Wat, Jaco van Schalkwyk, Edoardo Villa and Sandile Zulu.

Since opening in 2006, SMAC Art Gallery has presented numerous review exhibitions and retrospectives focusing on historical South African abstraction. At that time, it was unimaginable to anticipate the resurgence which abstract art would enjoy both internationally and locally. The global shift towards abstract art can no longer be seen as only a short-term revival. Artists worldwide are re-embracing the visual language of abstraction in all its guises and using it to break new ground. This current phenomena raises as many questions as answers, and critics and observers are providing diverse, often contradictory explanations. As with previous projects, SMAC intends to present a series of exhibitions on the subject (expect the sequel) and is engaging with South African academics and critics who have also identified this trend and are considering its impact.

An important aspect of this exhibition highlights the current ‘re-imagining’ of Modernism. The show allows for interesting and thought-provoking placements of works in dialogue with each other. One example is the positioning of a geometric abstract work from 2013 by South African born, London-based artist Helen A Pritchard (1975-) in conversation with an acrylic, hard-edge geometric painting by Kevin Atkinson (1939-2007) from the 1960s. Pritchard cites early South African abstract art (and her memories thereof) as one of the influences on her art making.

Whilst her work is primarily concerned with issues of excess, waste and consumption, the modernist aesthetic is the artist’s language of choice. On the other hand, Atkinson (the IZIKO South African National Gallery is currently presenting a retrospective of his work) only practiced geometric abstraction for a short period, and this limited body of work represents a formative, experimental phase for the artist. Placing Atkinson in this new milieu makes it almost impossible to determine the date in relation to Pritchard’s work. Two very similar works, underpinned by different concepts and different Zeitgeists, which both (if we judge by appearances) should appeal to the same audiences.

Another interesting comparison comes when a punctured, Spatialist/Tachist canvas from the 1950s by Christo Coetzee (1929-2000) is counterbalanced with a silver, pellet gun-perforated, monochrome work by Barend de Wet (1956-) from the 1990s, and a scorched canvas by Sandile Zulu (1960-) from 2013. In the accompanying publication to the critically received recent exhibition at MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) entitled Destroy the Picture, the renowned critic, curator and academic, Robert Storr, highlights in his essay; Burnt Holes, Black Holes: Art after Catastrophe, the emergence of a particular type of abstraction (especially in Europe and Japan) as a reaction to the destruction of World War II, and the effect of political and social turmoil in the second half of the 20th century as the motivation to later similar forms of abstraction – a very relevant conversation in the South African context. Christo Coetzee, South Africa’s strongest exponent of this radical form of abstraction, exhibited with artists such as Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) and formed a close link to the experimental international Gutai Group in Japan. Through his central role in the European conceptual and abstract movements during the late 1950s, Coetzee anchors South Africa’s role internationally in the era prior to isolation.

The first comprehensive exhibition of South African abstract art was presented at the São Paulo Biennale in 1959 entitled; Non-Figurative South African Art. This Biennale was started in 1950 to build on the post-war Modernist aspirations of Brazil (and Latin America in general) and became a regular and important platform for the ‘golden generation’ of South African abstract artists such as; Edoardo Villa (1915-2011), Douglas Portway (1922-1993), Larry Scully (1922-2002), Albert Newall (1920-1989), Erik Laubscher (1927-2013), Nel Erasmus (1928-) and many others. This link between South Africa and Latin America is often overlooked but the parallels and relevance, both historically and in terms of current artistic trends, cannot be underestimated. If we consider the serious attention given and museum exhibitions dedicated to Modernist art from Latin America such as The Geometry of Hope, featuring the acclaimed Cisneros Collection, and the focus on artists such as Mira Shendel (1919-1988) currently at the Tate Modern, coupled with the rise of contemporary artists strongly influenced by this generation such as Beatriz Milhazes (1960-), we recognise a development which is very exciting for South Africa and shares a similar trajectory.

Abstraction has a special place in the canon of South African art particularly when we consider the work of Bill Ainslie (1954-1989) at the Johannesburg Art Foundation during the 1980s. Ainslie used abstraction as a starting point to instil a spirit of experimentation and freedom into the practice of some of South Africa’s most important young black artists. Ainslie’s approach was initially criticised as irrelevant and a waste of time, due to the political crisis in the country. Today he is being heralded as a visionary for implanting skills and a creative mind-set in his students that would be used by these artists to develop their own authentic voice and style – resulting in some of the most significant political art produced during the protest era.

In the past, abstraction was considered and described in terms of formal characteristics and significance. Despite its formal appearance, contemporary abstraction has a wide range of conceptual and thematic foundations and cannot be restrictively interpreted. Artists seem to be tapping into a historical language and vocabulary to express and capture diverse and fresh ideas. New abstraction could be process-driven, conceptual, intellectual, mystical or emotional, whilst collectively embodying the spirit of the time. Recurring themes and motifs include; environmental issues, branding, design, symbolism, digital media, architecture, urbanisation, ambient art and globalism – to name a few. The scope and scale of new abstraction as a cohesive, universal, contemporary vehicle is potentially unlimited.

There are differing views as to when the first abstract artwork was created and what constitutes the first truly abstract painting; Wassily Kandinksy’s (1866 -1944) purposefully titled, First Abstract Watercolour from 1910 or Kasimir Malevich’s (1879-1935) famous Black Square, 1913-1915. There have been numerous centennial and review exhibitions at major museums recently such as Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 at MoMA which draws attention to the fact that 100 years have now passed since one of the most radical developments in art history. Abstraction has enjoyed a number of revivals and important moments over time, it will be very interesting to gauge how strong this new wave of the 2010s will become.

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