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Back to the Future II: Abstract Art in South Africa: Past & Present



Group Exhibition

25.04.15 – 20.06.15


BACK TO THE FUTURE, Abstract Art in South Africa: Past & Present forms part of an ongoing programme of exhibitions introduced by SMAC to evaluate South African abstraction. The gallery first mounted a series of three survey exhibitions in 2007, 2008 and 2009 with a follow up again in 2011. The original Back to the Future exhibition presented in 2013 was the first to juxtapose the work of the pioneer South African abstractionists against that of their 21st century successors, and explore the ways in which a younger generation of artists are adopting and renewing the visual language of abstraction. Back to the Future II, the second instalment, pursues the same inquiry and includes work by:

Participating Artists
Kevin Atkinson
Kenneth Bakker
Walter Battiss
Jan-Henri Booyens
Christo Coetzee
Ruann Coleman
Trevor Coleman
Barend de Wet
Paul du Toit
Nel Erasmus
Alexandra Karakashian
Erik Laubscher
Turiya Magadlela
Mongezi Ncaphayi

Albert Newall
Tony Nkotsi
Douglas Portway
Helen A. Pritchard
Cecily Sash
Gerda Scheepers
Fred Schimmel
Larry Scully
Themba Shibase
John Skotnes
Simon Stone
Hannatjie van der Wat
Edoardo Villa
Sandile Zulu

The question of why abstraction is enjoying such a surprising resurgence world-wide, demands an historical explanation. When Modernism had completed its trajectory, it was felt that the entire range of styles it had introduced had exhausted their potential. Modernism as a project had come full circle. There was a terminal sense of finality, closure and disorientation. Now that all the –isms (from Fauvism to Futurism – Dadaism, Suprematism to Surrealism) were played out, what new direction could art possibly take?

Although the introduction of new media like performance, photography and video, opened up a range of fresh opportunities, post-modernism denied there was any necessity for a reigning style, such as had always prevailed in the past. The notion of progress was dismissed. An indiscriminate pluralism and the appropriation of any style of any period seemed the only feasible strategies. The arrival of the Internet liberated all art from the trammels of time and history, and made atemporality the basic condition of all art-making. The screen projected all art historical styles into an eternal present where they remained forever current and valid. This post-modernist ‘solution’ of promiscuous eclecticism did not satisfy artists and the intelligentsia for very long, and when it too reached its sell-by date, another crisis arose, and once again the question asked was; where do we go from here?

In Europe and America, abstract art never completely died out and although it became deeply unfashionable during the 80s, 90s and early years of the 20th century, distinguished artists like Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Bridget Riley and Agnes Martin continued to practice it. However attention accrued to figurative artists and a flurry of movements and styles such as Pop, Assemblage, Land Art, Photorealism, Neo-Expressionism, new media and installation ensured that abstraction appeared increasingly passé.

Then just as abstraction appeared to have sunk to its nadir, it enjoyed a massive resurgence amidst artists, dealers, curators, critics, and collectors. Over the past ten years, major exhibitions at museums, their commercial equivalents, the art fairs and biennales all bore testimony to this. South Africa was no exception, as the number of young artists included in this exhibition indicates.

How does abstraction offer a way out of the post-modernist impasse? Both before and after the mid 20th century, abstraction was almost universally regarded as the regnant style of Modernism, the supreme style as it were. It enjoyed this immense prestige as essentially it is far more than a style. Abstraction has always been an alternative approach to art, based on a premise which gives it a range and freedom that no other movement possessed.

Abstraction, or so the theorists insisted, furnishes artists with a means of bypassing the world of appearances, and venturing into realms of intangible feeling, emotion and sensation. By doing away with identifiable subject matter, and reducing the image to shapes, forms, lines and colours, any allusion to the real world is eliminated. Thereby, pure abstraction sidesteps the conscious mind, and conveys far more profound, deep-seated and primal emotions than representational art can access. Bob Nickas, a perceptive American critic, maintains that contemporary abstract painting enables you to transcend what you see, and experience how the world feels, and that it is this, that explains its perennial attraction.

Although South Africa is playing a major part in abstract internationalism, the development of abstraction was historically disadvantaged in this country. As modernist abstraction never originated here, it remained an imported style that merely imitated developments overseas. It was copied without being fully digested, and the results often lacked understanding and insight. Abstraction only started to become assimilated