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Daniel Sturgis on Abstract art and The Indiscipline of Painting

Painter and curator Daniel Sturgis discusses the 2011 Tate St Ives Winter exhibition with Rupert White



Is this show most easily thought of as providing an alternative history of post-war abstract art?
One of the big problems for painting is the idea of history. That is the biggest burden painting has, because now if you're an artist you know that history has already been written. It's too late. That history was written by eminent critics in the last century, and artists themselves who said they'd taken painting to an endpoint. This exhibition is about thinking: well if we can't contest those writings, where does that leave us? What can we do, and continue to make work that still has an element of criticality?


Artists as curators seem good at searching out less familiar works, and finding the unexpected...
Curating exhibitions and thinking about how works relate together is fascinating. It's what one does as an artist. Particularly within painting you're drawn to thinking about other paintings and searching out the incongruous work - like for example the Warhol egg paintings (picture right). Also I'm drawn to artists who themselves had had great doubt about what they're doing - so there is an uncertainty, a provisionality, within the paintings themselves.


Many such works tend to lie outside existing narratives or theories. Artists are naturally sceptical about theory anyway...
You're right to be sceptical of everything really. But history is part of what one inherits and needs to do something with - and either ignore or use. By their nature many of these works address the history of modernism because the language of abstraction is so tied to it. Some seem very postmodern, some are more happy in the modernist guise, in their modernist skin.


The term abstract derives from the idea of abstracting forms from nature - as maybe Cezanne might have done. It's a term that's lingered on but now abstract art is actually representational in the sense that it tends to represent other paintings.
There's no doubt that people making paintings that look abstract now are doing it for very different reasons than they were 100 years ago. This exhibition shows the close relationship - a shared language - that formalist painting also has with design. So Alex Hubbard uses a design from Memphis design group within it, and the Tim Head painting has a pattern from the inside of an envelope. They're representational in that sense too.


There's a strong French/Swiss presence in the show.
There are various groupings like that that you can pick out. As well as the modernist history, Clement Greenberg and the others, there are the challenges to that history. One group of artists - Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Niele Toroni - worked collectively in the 60's and coauthored works. They're all represented. Their legacy is also evident in people like John Armleder (picture left), and Francis Baudevin.


In a sense they represent a continental European challenge to that very familiar American modernist art
Yes. A number of the American painters, like Peter Young - an older artist - or David Reed showed in Europe first, in Germany. That's important. And the Conrad Fischer Gallery is important, which had early exhibitions by people like Carl Andre and Bob Law and Richter and Palermo.


Bob Law is the artist with the strongest connection to the St Ives 'school'. Talking of which, there was a strong landscape influence in the work that was made here. It's not really evident in many of the paintings in this show - but your own work has some interesting landscape references...
I have made work that touches on landscape, and has a connection not only with design and schematic landscapes but with a history of abstract painting. And in a British context that certainly came out of landscape painting. But it's far removed.


The distance creates an interesting tension in your work, because its not what you expect, or see straight away.
I like to use the word doubt. You're not sure whether you're meant to be reading it that way. That little element of doubt or uncertainty.


You teach in the art schools in London. Are many  students making abstract paintings?

There are hundreds of people making wonderful paintings. I think that the important thing within any art form is the question of what is at stake: about the criticality in what one is doing. I think one sees that in different connections within a show like this. I think, from teaching at Goldsmiths or Camberwell or the RA, that there are people who are interested in it, but it's not for everyone.


Can you explain the term 'criticality' a bit more?
I think it's about whether a painting is more than just a decorative object. Can it be more than just that or is that enough to be aiming for? It's about the way ideas are held within an object. Painting is the most conceptual art form because it asks you to think about questions of value, of decoration, of the market, of its status as a commodity: all these things are tied within it.


Doesn't that apply to all painting?
Yes, but within abstract painting it is enhanced, because there are these histories that are tied within it. But we should remember: they also give pleasure. And I like the perversity of that.

See 'exhibitions' for installation shots of The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition