If I had a spirit animal, it would probably be a toaster. So the cloud of spiritual incense that floats around in Stephen Mueller’s paintings has always prevented me from enjoying them. My mind wanders when religious imagery demands to be acknowledged.
I gained a new appreciation of Mueller’s work when I visited his current show at Lennon Weinberg, a survey of paintings made from 1988 to 2011, the year he died, too young, at age 63. The show charts a progression from a calligraphic yet earthy abstract illusionism to something very different: brightly colored plaids and gradients with flat shapes like fans and clouds slapped in front of them. What I love about his last paintings is their Pearl River Department Store-ness. I’m not talking about kitsch or a kind of coded Asian-ness. I’m talking about a sense of wonder that one can only experience if one can reimagine history such that European Modernism happened but never conquered, and therefore flat things can float, optical tricks are a respectable artistic strategy, ornament has not been repressed, and items like cocktail parasols, origami cranes, paper poppies and painted fans are things not to be judged but to be wondered at, and desired. Mueller made paintings loaded with optical tricks and references to new age and ancient spirituality that are full of beauty, painterly logic and internal tension.
My earlier mistake, I understood when I took in this survey of his work, was to think of Mueller as singular, an anomaly among his 90s peers, abstract painters like Gary Stephan, Ross Bleckner, Shirley Kaneda, Jonathan Lasker, Bill Komoski, Andrea Belag, Karen Davie, John Zinsser, James Nares, Lydia Dona, Fabienne Marcaccio and David Reed. It is tempting to think of all of these painters as singular, but they had shared interests. They often created flotation by placing a flat shape in front of a blur or a stain. They tended to avoid the grandiose gesture in favor of modesty, looking for influence to Arthur Dove and other quiet examples among abstract modernists. They schematized gesture in more willful and intuitive ways than were de rigueur on the campaign trails of the formal painters of the ’70s. Styles and artists that had been condemned to death— Abstract Illusionism, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons—were granted parole by the ’90s abstractionists; Roy Lichtenstein’s brushstroke became a mascot for Team Painting. ’90s abstraction didn’t wrestle with the demons of conceptualism; it preferred to play with those demons and back off if things got too rough, and out of that wise approach came flashes of brilliance, and beauty. Looking past the new age imagery, Mueller’s work wasn’t idiosyncratic; it was very much of its moment.
Today, Mueller’s use of painting as a series of special effects looks prescient, a foreshadowing of the virtual representation of depth in computer rendering and animation. I recommend spending time with these paintings. Take Rising Sign, from 2003: What is it? It’s a floating aggregate of intersecting rings with grey, eye-like circles hovering in front of a blurry plaid field. Our animal brains tell us that two dots in a circle is a face. But when two dots are not in a circle, they are just dots. That’s good enough for me.
I remember the nihilism of the late ’80s art world. End-game gestures crinkled into each other like a ten-car pileup on an L.A. freeway. It was a cheerful nihilism; there were parties. In the ’90s, people started to care about things again, as it finally dawned on the art world that death was swooping through New York like something out of an Arnold Böcklin painting. The prosaic idea of the death of painting, an idea I still enjoy, just couldn’t seriously exist alongside its non-theoretical and non-imaginary friend. So I was very interested to see the paintings of the artist duo Claire Fontaine at Metro Pictures recently, because they exist in that imaginary world where someone has painted the last painting and ended the game. Claire Fontaine is named after a French notebook company; even their name suggests a blank slate.
These monochromes, some of them multi-paneled, are painted with ‘anticlimb’ paint, paint that apparently does not dry and is used on walls and fences for the prevention of trespassers. Like Brice Marden monochromes drained of pleasure, they come with virtual coffin nails. There is a beauty to their conceptual clarity as well as to their cruelty. The other conceptual implications are also intriguing: paintings that are their own security systems; paintings with the potential to mark the viewer; paintings that echo the fact that there are very old paintings hanging in museums that are not dry, their chemical instability standing in sharp contrast to their historical solidity. Like all good endgame gestures, their meaning conceptually self-replicates and mutates.
Then a miracle happened. A miracle is a funny thing. It isn’t always God bringing the Bill of Rights on tablets to the dinosaurs. It can be the experience of something so wonderful or absurd that it sticks in your mind and replaces other things that seemed more important; it can alter the course of your mental life. A miracle isn’t always wisdom. It can be a moment of metaphoric and visual perfection. For instance, I can’t remember the difference between Hobbes and Locke, which I was reading for college at the time I saw Liza Minnelli climb out of a limo in Soho wearing a giant green sweatshirt with a puffy painted turtle on it and head into the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Like this moment, a miracle is a gift.
The miracle Of Claire Fontaine: The exhibition also contained sculptural objects. In the room with the eternally drying paintings there was a Cady Nolandesque sculpture of a bike rack with two chains hanging from it. Enter two women. With complete ease, they tossed their handbags under the sculpture and threw their coats on it. They proceeded to take selfies in front of the paintings. Like any good miracle, I had a friend with me to substantiate and document the moment.
These women were wearing camel and black, the basic color schemes of the paintings. They were breaching security by disturbing the sculpture, yet nobody was there to stop them, not even the paintings, with their metaphoric connection to our state of surveillance and security. These women, so perfectly living simultaneously in the present and in posterity, hung in a moment of visual and moral perfection. I felt that the paintings themselves had generated this miracle for me and so I will always remember them fondly, and with gratitude. Like Liza in her turtle sweatshirt, this miracle will replace something else in my head, maybe the birthday of a family member or the first time I threw up alcohol; something will have to make room for it.
Claire Fontaine, “Stop Seeking Approval” ran from February 26 to April 4, 2015 at Metro Pictures. Stephen Mueller, “A Selection of Paintings, 1988-2011,” is at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., through April 11, 2015.
Matthew Weinstein is an artist living in New York.