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by Charlie Finch
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Are there two more mediocre apostles of abstract painting than Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter? Let’s test this hypothesis with but four paintings, those that tickled the hammer for a combined 110 million samoleans at Sotheby’s New York two weeks ago.

In one corner, we have 1949-A-No. 1 and 1947-4-No. 2 by Still. In the opposite corner, Abstrakes-BGD and Gudrun by Richter. These paintings initially fail the test of abstracto-singularity (standing alone like Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five or Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis or the alleged Pollock/Tony Smith collaboratiom Blue Poles), because they are so redundantly expressive of each artist’s repetitive methods.

Richter’s pink squeegee mark in Abstraktes Bild is nauseating to behold, while the two Stills reverberate with the lame figure/ground expression, first you see it this way, then you see it that way, which imprisoned Still throughout his painting life. Any work by Arshile Gorky, contrasted, reveals this pictorial limit in Still.

Next question: are these paintings really abstractions? Newman, who blew hot and cold over Still for decades (probably because he was afraid of him), loved to tweak Clyfford as a representational artist. Why? Because, to Newman’s jocular eye, Still had appropriated one image, lightning, and regurgitated it, bolt by bolt, in his work and its copies, until the paint would fall off.

Richter (who is a far worse abstract painter than James Brooks, Giorgio Cavallon, Joop Sanders but not Helen Frankenthaler) lazily settles for any figurative association that might pop into your mind. Wave to the school crossing guard tomorrow morning, with her reflective orange vest and you have seen Gudrun.

What Still and Richter exhibit is a contempt for abstract painting, turning it into a process in which a seamless apparition of sameness lulls the viewer into an acceptance of lesser creative visions and, if you are an emir building an abstract-painting museum, forking over your wallet. As a test, compare any Still or Richter abstract to a classic Franz Kline, black and white, or, even better, the colored Klines, which Willem de Kooning borrowed from for his best paintings in the 1950s, such as Merritt Parkway.

With Kline the stroke is all, it grabs and holds you, without falling apart in your fingers like Still or wetting your pants like Richter. But there are 100 paintings by a Brooks or an Esteban Vincente that are more authoritative to the eye than the dull parade of Still and Richter. Even Joan Mitchell, always schizophrenic in her brush-handling and destroying promising patches of color with kibble from the dumpster, has more true variety in her work than Still or Richter.

The big numbers for Still and Richter (and I yield to no one in my admiration for Richter’s photo-based work: once you see it, there is no reason to ever look at Andreas Gursky) demonstrate the perils of auction branding to abstract painting in particular. With dollar signs in your eyes and a big name on the wall, all the pretty colors melt together without distinction.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).