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Industrial Abstraction? or Not so Rustbelt afterall   07.02.15

A long chat with William E. Busta is an excellent way to clear away any simplistic notions about the art of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. My own simplistic notions revolved around the idea that the art of Cleveland was going to be "post-industrial." I assumed that art being produced here would be thick with the materials of heavy industry and the imagery of the Rust Belt in one way or another.

A few minutes into a discussion with Mr. Busta he said to me, essentially, "it doesn't work that way." Not that such art hasn't been produced and isn't still being produced here. But it is far from the dominant look. Instead of trying to find post-industrialism on the surface of art made in Cleveland, let's look at the question from a different angle, Busta suggested. Let's not think about artists making art that simply looks, in some kind of one-to-one correspondence, like the surrounding environment. Instead, let's consider that culture works in subtler ways.

Busta then let me in on a fascinating little observation. The artists in the Cleveland area more or less skipped over Abstract Expressionism and went right to Geometric Abstraction (in its second, post-Ab-Ex manifestation). Now, what's a possible reason for this historical jump? Maybe it's that the culture of Cleveland, broadly speaking, preferred the hard edges and the clean lines of Geometric Abstraction versus the "sloppiness" and splatters of the Ab-Ex crowd.

And that does bring us back to the industrial and commercial heart of Cleveland. It has been suggested by many, and even by Jackson Pollock himself, that the busyness and energy of the drip paintings had something to do with the pace and movement to be found on the streets of New York City. Pollock was, at least partly, "painting" the buzz of Manhattan city life. He needed an active and "all-over-the-place" painting style in order to be able to do that. Looking at those paintings, the people of New York were seeing something to which they could immediately respond.

But the style had no such resonance for the people, and artists, of Cleveland. A more pragmatic aesthetic was, maybe, at play in this town. That aesthetic was influenced by industrial design, by the work of the printers and the textile makers. Plenty of the artists making fine art in Cleveland throughout the 20th century were commercial designers and illustrators as a day job. Geometric Abstraction, with its clean lines, sober sense of space, and blocks of color, was closer to the natural sensibility of the city. The art collectors and curators might have felt the same way, even without ever formulating the thought explicitly. It was just embedded in their Cleveland DNA, as it were.

That's the theory anyway. It may be too broad, too far sweeping. It shouldn't be taken for more than it is. But it does intrigue. It helps to explain, maybe, why various forms of Geometric Abstraction are still being practiced in Northeast Ohio and why a show about its ongoing relevance is happening at the Akron Art Museum (curated by Theresa Bembnister) later this year. It is fascinating to me to consider that Cleveland's industrial identity might be sitting there right in front of your eyes as you look at a vibrating canvas of shifting colors by Julian Stanczak. You'd never know it if you didn't know it.

Beth Kelly, drawing from MDR at SPACES
Beth Kelly, drawing from MDR at SPACES

Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
Category: Art Writer in Residence

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