Art Insure

cape reviews

Back to the Future of Nostalgia


By M Blackman
17 October - 23 November. 0 Comment(s)

Christo Coetzee
Untitled, 1963. Mixed Media on Canvas 100cm x 81cm.

In a recent essay entitled ‘Form in the Service of the Global’ art historian Joan Kee argued that South Korean artist Yang Haegue’s work has largely rejected art as a metaphor from which we can glean information about the artist’s ethnicity. Yang’s work is, unsurprisingly, non-representational. It is formalist and installation based; at times she even flirts with abstraction.  Her installation at last year’s dOCUMENTA 13, Approaching: Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense, was simple, humorous and engaging. A series of monochromatic Venetian blinds hanging over a section of the unused railway station in Kassel opened and closed themselves repeatedly at seemingly random times. It was, I thought, one of the simplest and most accessible works on dOCUMENTA - one could literally spend hours watching the blinds go.  

art events calendar


buy art prints

Lisa Brice Untitled

edition of 60: R6,000.00

About Editions for ArtThrob

Outstanding prints by top South African artists. Your chance to purchase SA art at affordable prices.

FIND OUT MORE Editions for artthrob
Passing # 1

Alexandra Karakashian
Passing # 1 2013, Oil on Canvas, 125cm x 97cm

Certainly Kee seems right, Yang’s work has no ethnic or racial or gendered undertone, and whatever it is about  - technology, futility, fear, repetition, privacy - it is not about her ethnic identity. In fact, I was surprised to find out that the artist was both a woman and South Korean. If I had had to guess I would have thought male and German. And it is precisely this kind of assumption that Kee rightly finds reductive and I would venture, in the current political climate, unhelpful. What certainly seems true is that there is a growing movement of young artists who are looking to deny that their art should be, or indeed can be, read through the prism of their own cultural identity. Artists should, after all, be entitled to look further than the random strictures of their birth and should not be pigeonholed into expressing ideas purely about their cultural specificity.

Of course, formalism and abstraction have, to a large extent, always laid claim to universal content. Clive Bell, the archetypical formalist theorist, argued that art, from Chinese ceramics to Persian carpets to Cezanne, could be appreciated by anybody, in any age and by any race, due to art's universal formal qualities. Bell famously argued that art contains ‘significant form’ - the ‘combination of lines and colours’ that results in ‘aesthetic emotion’ (that is to say the appreciation of art).

To be sure, perhaps only with the exception of Russian Constructivism and the New York School, formalist and abstract artists have always rejected notions of cultural relativism. This has been no different in South Africa. As Hayden Proud stated in an essay on South African formalism, from the 1960s and 1970s artists ‘sought to defy their geographical isolation from the supposed cultural centres of the First World and become part of a global trend.’1

Of course this desire by artists like Kevin Atkinson, Erik Laubscher, Douglas Portway, David Koloane, Trevor Coleman, Bill Ainslie, Larry Scully and Bettie Cilliers-Barnard from the late fifties into the eighties was largely a retroactive movement, clinging to the coattails of movements that were already dying overseas, if not entirely dead. Perhaps the only two South African artists to have ridden the crest of the wave of abstraction were Ernest Mancoba and Christo Coetzee.

But abstraction is now back in vogue the world over. Go to any art school from London to New York to California to Tokyo to Cape Town and, chances are, most young artists will be playing with abstract forms and techniques. And it is with this in mind that Baylon Sandri at SMAC Gallery in Stellenbosch has put together a survey show of the history of abstraction in South Africa entitled ‘Back to the Future’. Starting with Christo Coetzee’s experimentations with media, and working his way to the Michaelis masters student Alexandra Karakashian’s use of formalism to express certain contemporary concerns, Sandri has juxtaposed the contemporary phenomenon with its local historical practice. And certainly ‘Back to the Future’ goes a long way to uncover something important about abstraction’s current incarnation.


Douglas Portway
Untitled 1974, Oil on Canvas, 130cm x 97cm

But perhaps we have to start at the beginning before we can really unpack what is happening in the current abstract trend. One of the first works in the show is Coetzee’s Untitled (1963). His work is typical of the time - a period when art had turned in on itself and had become as much about the media as about subject matter. But Coetzee’s work is something a little more than that.  With his aggressive cutting of the canvas, his insertion of coins into the paint, a hole cut into the middle and grit rubbed into the surface, it is as much about the media of paint and canvas as it was about a world that was confused by the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear holocaust. Certainly, it would seem that Coetzee’s work was, in a sense, as close to representing a sense of reality as were the works of more representational painters of the time.

But later abstraction’s concerns reverted to more apolitically comfortable, perhaps even more sinister, underpinnings, certainly in South Africa. And this is what ‘Back to the Future’ goes some way to uncovering. For although there is some claim that abstraction can address notions of trauma in its distressed forms, it can also go some way to denying the visible external world – the world of shotguns and sjamboks. And in the case of South Africa this comes close to denial. The fact that one can comfortably walk one’s way through 60 years of art history from Laubscher to Portway to Cilliers-Barnard to Jan-Henri Booyens without encountering anything that references the troubled times of this country is really quite shocking.

Abstract with Figures

Bettie Cilliers-Barnard
Abstract with Figures
Oil on Canvas
150cm x 150cm

Of course this is not to say that the history of abstraction in South Africa is the history of complicity and racial oppression – as has been argued by some.  This is patently not true. For certainly in the case of Bill Ainslie, David Koloane and Douglas Portway (all of whose work forms part of the exhibition) abstraction was a way forward, a common ground, where all races could meet, which they actually did in Ainslie’s workshops. In these men’s hands, the motivation behind the use of abstraction was both decent and honorable and would lead to the Thupelo workshops which were beyond a doubt importantly inclusive, if slightly politically naïve.

Certainly under this guise, abstract art became an expression of the liberal ‘middle way’, and in a sense it was the expression of the settlement that the country finally came to – unity in the face of diversity. Perhaps one could even argue that abstraction was the very apolitical art that Albie Sachs would call for in 1989 in his famous essay ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’. Looking at Portway’s Untitled (1974) with its smooth handling of paint and its perfect structured forms, the work intimates a longed-for utopia. However, whatever this type of art production was seeking to express, it seems hard to fathom just how this engagement was ever going to be at the forefront of political change. 

And there is the other side to this coin. In South Africa, abstraction was also the expression of another sensibility: it was used as testament to apartheid’s progressive social and technological status. Whether intentionally or not, works like Bettie Cilliers-Barnard's Abstract with Figures (1974) became part of a supporting myth of the supposedly culturally-advanced regime. And it could also be argued that they were, with their simple geometric shapes, at the same time an ‘ostrichine’ attempt to bury one's head in the sand - a refusal to look out at the world and reflect its reality.

Untitled - Carrier 2

Helen Pritchard
Untitled - Carrier 2 2013, Oil on Canvas, 140cm x 100cm

But what is also certain is that many of the works on display in ‘Back to The Future’ were simply (and here Cilliers-Barnard is a case in point) a perpetuation of the Romantic myth of the artist-as-genius. That is to say the idea that an artists is a ‘seer’ of an esoteric and numinous world that the rest of humanity are incapable of accessing other than through the works of great genius – an idea that has, thankfully, been put on the funeral pyre of much other Romantic nonsenses.

These are perhaps the legacies that one has to consider when confronting the current batch of young artists who have chosen abstraction as their form of expression. Of course in assessing this one has to also consider the global trend. Certainly the likes of Karakashian and Helen Pritchard come from the new school of abstraction, in that their works are as much about the ‘aesthetic emotion’ of form as they are about the oncoming environmental catastrophe and the disturbing fecundity of capitalism.  

Pritchard, whose work uses sections of corporate motifs, creates work that only looks comfortingly abstract, while at the same time investigating form’s commercial hold on us. Likewise, Karakashian’s Passing 1 & 2 have other, more literal, aims: with their associations with ultrasound imagery and weather patterns, they play with the ideas of personal mortality and creation while referencing the pending mortality of our environment. Just as Kee pointed out in the case of Yang, there seems in these works a steadfast denial of identity politics – an artist's biography is not going to aid you in your reading of their paintings.  

These two artists’ work, in a sense, follows the line of Portway et al in that it seeks to uncover universal values rather than culturally specific ones. And given recent events in the South African art world - which has all too often proved itself to be a disturbingly crazed place, blinkered by race and ethnic identity with its ‘four legs good two legs better’ mentality - these artists' refusal to be identified ethnically or gendered is, one feels, an important political stand in itself. What is more, in a country where somebody’s opinion can simply be dismissed as racist or sexist, not because of its content but as a result of one's race and gender – something which sadly has happened on ArtThrob quite recently – perhaps the obsession with identity in South African art has simply become divisive; a game of petty one-upmanship in a mixed middle-class milieu.


Jan-Henri Booyens
Oil on Canvas
46cm x 61cm


In this climate there is always the pressure to say nothing substantive – perhaps this was even the motivation during apartheid. Certainly the work of Jaco van Schalkwyk and Jan-Henri Booyens seem to capture this feeling of a refusal to engage with the usual politically identifiable ground. Together with Zander Blom (whose work is sadly not on the show) these two have adopted a stance that deliberately denies a reading of their work in any way other than formally. In both their titles and their use of abstraction there are simply no contextualizing analytic intimations on offer. And there is nothing to suggest what year, decade, or even century they were made in. Booyen’s Melkweg and Untitled (2012) could easily be Richter in one of his abstract phases. Schalkwyk’s mixture of hard-edge with post-painterly abstraction could easily be placed somewhere in the 1960s.  

And here there lies a problem, because this reduces any interpretation of their work to something akin to Clive Bell’s outdated and circular formalist theory. That is to say they can only be seen as a ‘combination of lines and colours’ that create in the viewer an ‘aesthetic emotion’ which is created by their ‘significant form’. Well, so far so commonplace. But it is back to Christo Coetzee’s work we must go if we are to unpack the fact that there is something disturbing happening here.
There is no doubt that Coetzee’s work, made in the '50s and '60s, is not beautiful in any sense: it is aggressively, perhaps even at times offensively, ugly. And this should remind us that abstraction was, in its origins, an anti-aesthetic movement, as transgressive as Duchamp’s Fountain or Rodin’s Balzac. It is only now that we recognise abstract works as ‘beautiful’ (or as even art) because for the last 70 years they have become familiar to us as objects displayed in places like the Tate Modern – that it to say we have become conditioned to think of them as beautiful and as art.

With this in mind, surely the argument is (if one sees progression in art as desirable) that young artists must be bringing something new to the table? And surely this is precisely the point that seems to me to be so confusing about some of the current abstract works: if they look like the past 70 years of painting, and offer nothing new in their origins and underpinnings, then is not the new abstract phase just a regressive and conservative amalgam of outdated nostalgic hoohah?

What seems to me to be true is that where abstract artists of the past have been engaged with making works that were motivated by something political and social, some abstract works today seem merely to be about making work that looks like something that is now deemed to be beautiful. And this is something that we have a name for: we call it décor. If there is a final word on this matter then it belongs to Barend de Wet and his sculptural work on the exhibition entitled Objects Made to Look Like Art*. 


1 Proud, H, ‘Formalism in Twentieth-Century South African Art’, in Visual Century vol. 3 p.185, Wits University Press (2011)

*Many thanks to curator Marelize van Zyl for pointing out the title of this work.