Abstract Art: A Global History by Pepe Karmel. Thames & Hudson, November 2020. 360 p. ill. ISBN 9780500239582 (h/c), $85.00.

Reviewed January 2021
Jason Rovito, Bookseller, ILAB, jason@paperbooks.ca

karmelThere is dual meaning to the subtitle of Pepe Karmel’s most ambitious work to date, Abstract Art: A Global History. Global in the geographic sense; in which Karmel, Associate Professor of Art History at NYU, is committed to expanding the genealogy of abstraction beyond its traditionally Western perspective to include a mix of artists from around the world. At the same time, Karmel’s historiography is global in a non-geographical sense; i.e. as a snow-globe, or as Blake’s grain of sand. “It may be that some kind of real-world experience is required to trigger the making of an abstract painting or sculpture, much as an irritating grain of sand provokes an oyster to produce a pearl” (p. 24).

Thus, working explicitly against the orthodox view that the history of abstract art is an evolution of formal innovation, Karmel chooses to focus on the coherent (global) sphere that made possible the creation and reception of a specific artwork; something like its post-auratic aura. Not only the artwork’s content and form, but also the vicissitudes of its development documented by archival materials. Woven together with snippets from exhibition catalogues, towering manifestos, and the detritus of art history curricula. Stitched even further with biographical data, anecdotes from part-time jobs, arts grants won and lost, military coups experienced, paintings hung upside down. All of this data woven together; for “abstract art is always rooted in an experience of the real world” (p. 7).

Following a thorough introduction, in which Karmel offers his critique of post-Clement Greenberg orthodoxy, he launches into five thematic chapters through which to perform this proposed historiography of abstract art; global as both geographical and epistemological. Not via chronology, but through the comparative structure of themes —of bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, and signs & patterns; each of these themes constructed through the juxtaposition of 248 imaginatively-curated international artworks, frequently presented in stunning double-paged compositions. Karmel’s accompanying prose often approaches Benjamin’s non-didactic ideal of the dialectical image.

There is, however, an underlying tension to this ambitious venture, insofar as Karmel’s prose is almost too persuasive; with his interpretations often presented to the reader as though they were objective facts. Thus his telling anxiety about a post-Greenberg historiography, which risks “being a chronicle rather than a history... a series of encyclopedia articles, valuable but unreadable” (p. 29). Karmel's achievement might better be framed through the lens of the catalogue; a noble, if often overlooked, historiographic form, so germane to his previous roles as curator and critic. In which case, this is a catalogue of the highest order—with global scope, reference-quality images expertly assembled by Nikos Kotsopoulos, invaluable metadata (e.g. measurements, repositories, and provenance), and truly suggestive commentaries. Highly recommended for libraries that support advanced studies in art history and curation.

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