In his preface to Abstract Art: A Global History—arriving this month from Thames & Hudson—Joseph Low (“Pepe”) Karmel, a professor of art history at New York University, writes that the goal of the book is “to demonstrate different ways of looking at abstraction and to encourage readers to respond to a wider range of abstract art.” A simple idea in theory, it proves a massive undertaking in practice, demanding a complete rethinking of long-established narratives. With Abstract Art, Karmel approaches the field not as a steady tunneling toward nothingness, as figures and other discernible objects fell away, but as something more dynamic—and much less white, Western, and male. There is no such thing as pure form, he insists; abstract art has always been “rooted in experience of the real world,” wherever and whenever it was made. He identifies five major categories of subject matter—bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, and signs and patterns, tracing each theme over 100 years, from 1915 to 2015—and works to consider the perspectives of women and artists of color not generally included in the discourse. (A work by the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint claims the cover; while the Indian-born artist Zarina provides the frontispiece and Wosene Worke Kosrof, an Ethopian painter, the back cover.)
Here, Karmel discusses the book, some of his greatest mentors, and the particular challenges (and pleasures) of teaching art right now.
First, I’d love to know how you came to study art—what it was that turned you onto the field, and to contemporary art in particular.
I was an aimless, young college student who thought that I might be a novelist, because my dad was a novelist. So I finished college and I was writing a really, really bad novel that, fortunately for everyone involved, never got published. Meanwhile, I’d been collecting photography, and a friend of mine, an art critic, said, “Hey, you should write about photography for Art in America.” I was like, I have no credentials! I’ve never taken an art course! And he was like, “It doesn’t matter.” So I started writing about photography for Art in America, [and later] about painting and sculpture. Then I got a gig teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and after a couple of years, it kind of crept up on me that I liked this art history thing, and if I was going to do it for a career, I should probably learn something about it. So I went to graduate school at the Institute of Fine Arts, where I had just amazing teachers—I studied with Kirk Varnedoe and William Rubin from MoMA, who was the most powerful man in the art world from the early 1970s until sometime around 1998. He later asked me to help organize the Cubism exhibition at the museum in 1989. And then I really intended to teach, so I got a part-time job teaching when I finished my Ph.D in ’93. Later, Kirk was chief curator at MoMA, and I had the amazing experience of working with him on the Jackson Pollock retrospective that opened in ’98. When that was over, I got the job that I have now, teaching at NYU. That was, like, 20 years ago.
Can you recall any really meaningful early experiences with abstraction?
I can think of three. When I was in college, there was an exhibition of Morris Louis, maybe Morris Louis and Kenneth Nolan—those late color field paintings—at the Museum of Fine Arts. I was just thrilled by it. I mean, I didn’t think about it as something I would be involved with professionally. I just remember being knocked over by how beautiful it was. And then a few years later, I was in Paris for the summer and there was a Robert Delaunay exhibition at the Pompidou or someplace, and I had a similar [reaction] of, This is awesome. I went back to the apartment where I was staying and pulled out my notebook, in which I was supposedly writing my really terrible novel, and I wrote like 10 pages about Delaunay that might’ve tipped me off that God meant me to be an art historian. The third one is when I worked with Kirk on the Pollock retrospective. I mean, that was—quite a few people told me it was one of the greatest exhibitions they ever saw. Kirk had a brilliant vision of what he wanted the show to be, and I had my two cents. It was like a chapel of what abstract art could be. I remember the day we finished hanging the paintings, I turned to Kirk and I said, “With the possible exception of the main gallery at the Frick museum, this is the most beautiful room in New York.” And Kurt said, “Fuck the Frick.”
And why did you decide to put this book together?
In many ways, this book is the conversation I would have loved to have with Kirk over 10 years—that’s why the book is dedicated to him. It was really hard to figure out how to do [this project] without trotting through, “There’s De Stijl, there’s Kandinsky, and then there’s Constructivism and Suprematism, and then there’s Circle and Square, then there’s kind of a dull spot in the late ’30s when everyone feels that abstraction is over, and then it kind of reboots in the later ’40s with Abstract Expressionism, and then there’s Minimalism, and then it all kind of seems to fade away after 1970, but then in the ’90s, everyone goes, Hey, we can still make abstract art!” That might be the historical record, but it’s really a totally incoherent story. Rather than retracing that, which is what is in the existing literature, I thought, There’s gotta be some new way to come at this. And as I researched, I was realizing how often paintings and sculptures had similar forms, and that it was possible to group them together. The basis of the similarity often had something to do with the real world—if there’s a long horizontal running through it, it might just have something to do with landscape. If there’re lots of little dots, and particularly if they’re connected by lines, that probably has to do with the night sky, and stuff like that. So I started making lists of these things, and boiled them down to about five categories. The writing of the book probably only took three years, but first there were seven years of accumulating material and trying to make sense of it. I mean, I must’ve had 10,000 scans of images.
What did you feel like people were seeing but maybe not quite understanding about abstract art?
In a funny way, I feel they were reading instead of seeing. There has been this critical narrative that says abstraction is a kind of Hegelian evolution, where there’s a thesis and antithesis and synthesis and that becomes a new thesis, and therefore it moves forward according to its own inner logic, which is purely formal and philosophical. That’s why people thought abstraction had ended in 1970; the Hegelian cycle had come to its end, and there was nothing left to do. But my favorite mistaken comment of the 1990s came from Arthur Danto, who said that it was simply not possible to make historically significant abstraction anymore. Like, if it doesn’t fit into that conceptual sequence of burrowing toward absolute flatness and minimal nothingness, then it doesn’t matter. And I thought he was just so wrong about this.
Was writing the book more a matter of revisiting artists that you already knew, or actively investigating new voices? Because you are taking a wider view than most people do when they talk about abstraction.
It started as the former and became the latter. I started by trying to make sense of what I already knew, and then once I came up with this new framework, I thought, This makes it possible to think about other things. I was teaching global contemporary art, and I started to write about global art back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for the Times. So I thought, Well, I need to look for global abstraction. Why should it be limited to a round-up the usual suspects? So I started just systematically looking at books like Lü Peng’s history of Chinese art—which is overwhelmingly figurative, but there’s some abstract painting in it—and basically catalogues of art from any place I could get my hands on; Australia, South America, Africa, you name it.
How has your approach to teaching art changed over the years? And what areas are your students especially responsive to?
It’s really a bitch trying to teach this—sorry for the language—because you need an organizing framework, not just for abstraction but for modern art in general. As with the book, I’m caught between the way I learned it from William Rubin—the old school—and all this new stuff I’ve learned that I’m incredibly eager to tell my students about. It is hard to come up with a new narrative. Right now, I’m teaching a course called “Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art,” but at least half the material wasn’t in it when I started teaching this course 15 or 20 years ago.
NYU attracts students from all over the place. Some of my students are Zooming in from Italy and Switzerland and East Asia. So they’re a very global bunch of students, and they’re very excited to have this global perspective. The book and my teaching in general are trying to highlight the contributions of women and artists of color, and this is a generation that gets that; they don’t want to hear about a bunch of dead, white men exclusively. They want to bring different people into the narrative. I had a student a few years back in a seminar, and when I got to art from Hong Kong, he said out loud—he was from Hong Kong— “This is so great. I didn’t think when I came to NYU, I would be sitting in a class learning about art from Hong Kong.” In the end, I’m doing it because I think it’s really interesting, but it also seems to be giving the students what they want.
This interview has been edited and condensed.