Postmodern Painting in the Mirror of Modernism. How Jonathan Lasker reflects the legacy of Modern Abstraction

Essay, 2017

16 Pages





Ideals and Charakteristics of Modernism

Challenges of Postmodernity

Jonathan Lasker: postmodern Conception



Heavyhanded, blunt, puzzling – these were the words that spontaneously came to mind when I first encountered Jonathan Lasker’s[1] paintings. His works are oddly spellbinding- they have a primal sort of wit. At first glance, the viewer sees little more than a contextless mass of diverse pictorial techniques. Like pieces out of a building block set, black lines, flat and sign-like, are set schematically next to opaque-pastose bulges of color, straight from tube to canvas. Ponderous, painstakingly painted strokes and squiggles spread across a monochromatic background, covered by fat, immovable splotches of color. Not a trace of fleetingness, every shape in the picture sits in its proper spot and yet, none seem to fit quite right.

The viewer gets the feeling of knowing the elements in the picture without being able to truly identify them. This ambivalence is a systematic one: the components in Lasker’s compositions are recurrent of various styles of Modernism. In these paintings, with the artist as a postmodern director, they come together as gaily disguised actors in a colorful, almost dramatic comedy. Stylistic antagonists from abstract painting now seem to be communicating in a controlled, gestural ensemble. Worth noting are the positions of the ‘New York School’ with its Abstract Expressionism, Minimal Art as well as Pop Art – themselves already reactions to the elitist expectations of Classic Modernism. Here and there, elements of Op Art are included. References to artists like Ad Reinhardt, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline are repeatedly found in Lasker’s paintings. In order to elaborate on Lasker’s specific approach and visual language as a postmodern position, we need to examine the socio-political context of Modernism and the aesthetic values and ideals that it has brought to visual art, in order to reconstruct the problems and challenges of the so-called post-modern generation. Lasker’s style of working will be specifically examined in the context of the work “Hidden Identity.”


The terms "modern" and "postmodern" in art and philosophy are constantly being renegotiated, they aren’t a consistent phenomenon, and bear internal divergences[2], I will take a moment to define how they are to be applied and further understood in a broader context:

"Modern" denotes styles of the Avant-Garde that took form in Europe and later in the US during the late 19th century. "Classic Modernism" had Paris as its center and comprises Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and Constructivism. The second Modernist Period takes form from 1945 onwards with the New York School, as discussed above, as the new hotspot of the international art scene in America.

Compared to “modern,” the term "postmodern” is downright vague, as it is more difficult to define and is the subject of ongoing dispute among historians, sociologists and philosophers. Instead of trying to neatly define the term, it is better to focus on descriptive features of the phenomenon of "Postmodernism" in order to approach it. The discussion of this term as an "Anything goes", or as a break from Modernism or its radical continuation after the end of the great narratives shouldn’t be an object of argument. As Jean-François Lyotard has stated:

”Although I do try to understand what 'Post Modernism is… I do not know. Just like with the 'Enlightenment"- the discussion will never come to an end."[3]

Ideals and Charakteristics of Modernism

According to Clement Greenberg[4] in his essay "Modernist Painting" from 1965, the beginning of Modernism lies within the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Greenberg considers Kant to be the first true Modernist.

With his essay “Critique of Pure Reason," Kant counters the 18th century’s perplexing battle for validity between the humanities and natural sciences - the two competing disciplines of Rationalism and Empiricism. In it, he affirms that both reason and perception are legitimate sources for discovery and knowledge, and that they are complementing, influencing and correcting each other in the search for truth: "Without the senses, we wouldn't perceive a single object and without reason none would be thought of. Thoughts without content are empty, views without perceptions are blind."[5] In his transcendental logic, Kant turns reason itself into the object of its own critique and thus defines the limits of logic.

This method of self-critique represents the (decisive) turning point in the transition to Modernism, as Greenberg explains:

”At the core of Modernism […] is the fact that specific methods of a certain discipline are used to critique the discipline itself- not to overturn it but rather to anchor it more deeply within its area of competence."[6]

Over the course of the 19thcentury, bit by bit, all social activities come to confront the need to undergo this ‘critique of self.’ In painting, this means drawing clear boundaries to set the form apart from other artistic disciplines. If it can define itself through its unique processes and techniques, its existence will be secured. Most important, however, is that its genuine characteristics assure its quality and autonomy.[7] In other words painting confronts the historic mission to be what it really is. Which are its original means, its unique features? Quite simply: surface and color. As such they formulate self-reference as the new mandate of the modernistic avant-garde.

Traditional academic art, generating spaces of illusion, camouflages the means of painting thus degrading them, to a degree, while two-dimensional surfaces along with pigments in the form of material paint out of tubes and pots are the basic means that now clearly come to the foreground.[8] The picture as object is now precedent to the effect of illusion. Well established visual standards are drastically relativized by Modernism. Visual content that can be reasonably grasped with certainty loses its primary rank, for within the confines of individual reason, ideas, intellect, and the experience of the picture are limited. The subconscious and unfathomable return as sources of inspiration and force of life to the dialogue of aesthetic inspiration.[9]

This change is reflected in the means of painting as well. The ‘function of color’ broadens from the strict conventions of symbolic color and local color to color of appearance, color of expression and finally to autonomous color. Addressing the problematics of illusionistic space, modernist painters consistently eschew the use of linear-perspectival modalities. The aspiration to an autonomy of image peaks in constructivism: with an extent of abstraction that defies association with anything concrete. In this context, statements from various critics about the effect of modernist painting on the mind and the eye are quite interesting. Greenberg states:

"Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye."[10]

While Lyotard remarks:

"They [the 'modern' painters] have begun to overturn that which is taken for granted, revealing that [sic} the field of vision disguises the unseen, and demand that an image not only form in our eye but in our mind."[11]

Following Lyotard, Wolfgang Welsch concludes:

"Being reflective, the art of Modernism is not only an enterprise of the senses but of the mind and thought. It explicitly turns against the restrictions ofsimply seeing or perceiving with the senses in general."[12]

These quotations - although they represent diverging perceptions of the same basic understanding of art as an aesthetic of the sublime- are equally comprehensive statements on modernist painting. Considered within the context of their own argument, each is ‘true’. This heterogeneous point of view, however, is already a characteristic of postmodern plurality. Lyotard’s point of view might well be read as the continuation of Greenberg’s thought, -it’s the limitations of the eye and word that allow the mind to open up to the feeling of the sublime.[13]

Preliminary conclusion: The anticlassical, explosive force of modernist painting in the late 19thcentury overrules established viewing habits so vehemently that it seems to lead to a break* with the traditions of academic painting. Without getting into further detail on particular modernist styles, the most characteristic aspects of Modernism shall be briefly summarized.

The growing abstraction of modern painting can be described as a teleological process, in which established illusionistic image-function slowly retreats behind the means of painting itself. The open canvas takes its place as a pure object freed from the museum’s heavy framing as an autonomous picture. The contents of image are being subsumed under philosophical programs which are reduced to strict, abstract structures striving to reach perfection through purity of idea. Within the utopia of universally valid values, the ‘new modernist spirit’ aims to keep the forces of the conscious and unconscious in a controlled balance.[14] In times of fundamental economic political change, humanity is caught between alienation and faith in progress. Images aiming to transmit a sense of meaning and wholeness anchor us through their holistic symbols, striving for unity promising salvation.

Challenges of Postmodernity

The totalitarian claims of Enlightenment philosophy that had been reaching well into Modernity slowly exhausted themselves over the course of the 20th century. Although there is an attempt to control the diversity of societal life through monocultural thought systems in order to establish humane conditions, these systems come under fire in the course of globalization and in the wake of Nazism.

Lyotard goes as far as to proclaim the “great narratives” such as the theory of cognition, faith in progress (through technology), or the idea of emancipation of man from hierarchical structures as implausible, failed, even terror-inducing.[15] Postmodernity reacts to the nonfunctioning utopias of the modern, dismissing its foundational obsession: the dream of unity, from the concept of mathesis universalis to the projects of world historical philosophies to the global concepts of social utopias.[16]

Modernism’s claim to prove the truth and articulate it in philosophical concepts brings linguistic philosophical approaches strongly into focus. Instead of creating new models or counter-models to those of Modernism, the post-modern position is skeptical and represents a radical questioning of Modernism.[17] The post-modern discussion is many things: dialectical, implicative, silent, plural, multi-coded, non- interpretative, reflexive, open, citing- it’s everything but homogenous.

Postmodernism is not per se about new contents, but rather a new fundamental position: a new perspective on reality. It’s about plurality within unity. Welsch posits that the modern longing for unity as opposed to the postmodern desire for plurality is the main difference between the two approaches.[18]

According to Lyotard, the fact that the Enlightenment’s goal of a just society has not been accomplished changes the function of knowledge itself. Knowledge does not serve as an enabler to moral action, but instead it has, since the 50’s, increasingly been commoditized, legitimizing itself via economic efficiency. In the process of transformation into a globally networked mass culture, the meta-narratives of monoculturally focused societies generate a contextual narrative knowledge emerging from different, plural rules.[19]

Jonathan Lasker: postmodern Conception

So how is Lasker’s visual language configured as a reaction to Modernism?

The most typical characteristic in Lasker’s paintings is constant: figure, ground, and drawing. These components are set in opposition to each other through dialectically staged heterogeneous textures, shapes, and methods of applying color. Within a single surface the viewer is being confronted with gridded formations standing next to tangled loops of infinite lines creating a clewlike and clustering impression, Geometric order meets organic chaos, control meets intuition, sensual color meet sober surfaces. Simultaneously, construction encounters deconstruction, creating a state of tension and suspense, similar to the effect of optical illusion. Lasker’s paintings prevent a uniform, habitual perception.[20] Consciously using citations of Modernism that are recognizable yet preclusive of each other, he breaks into the conventions of collective memory, mischievously stimulating the viewer’s desire for interpretation.


[1] Lasker, born in New Jersey in 1948, lives and works in New York. He started his artistic career in the 1970s. His works can be classified as conceptual continuations of Minimalism.

[2] cf. Welsch 1993, 79 ff.

[3] Lyotard 1985, 74.

[4] Greenberg (1909-1994) was considered an important art critic from 1930-1970. He had a decisive impact on the US art scene. His art theory is based on innovation in form and technique, rather than social and historical factors.

[5] Kant: AA III, Critique of Pure Reason, page 75 (German edition)

[6] Greenberg, in: Harrison / Wood, 931.

[7] cf. Greenberg, in: Harrison / Wood 2003, 932.

[8] ibid.

[9] cf. Welsch 1993, 81.

[10] Greenberg, in: Harrison / Wood 2003, 935.

[11] Lyotard 1985, 38.

[12] Welsch 1993, 88.

[13] cf. Welsch 1993, 88.
* Many historians, including Clement Greenberg, have demonstrated that the transition to Modernity is not mainly a revolutionary break but rather an organic process of evolution. Rosalind E. Krauss demonstrates how the basic perceptions of Modernity, originality and origin, aren’t truly valid since they are based, in essence, on repetition.

[14] Piet Mondrian in particular addressed these schools of thought in his 1920 essay “Neo-Plasticism”. cf. Mondrian, in: Harrison / Wood, 384 ff.

[15] cf. Lyotard 1982, 113 f.

[16] Welsch 1987, 4 ff.

[17] cf. Welsch 1993, 79. / See Richter 1997, 9 ff.

[18] cf. Welsch 1993, 94 f.

[19] cf. Lyotard, The postmodern condition. A report on knowledge.

[20] cf. Armin Zweite, in: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 2003, 8ff. (German edition)

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Postmodern Painting in the Mirror of Modernism. How Jonathan Lasker reflects the legacy of Modern Abstraction
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Jonathan Lasker, Postmodernism, Abstraction, Minimalism, Painting
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Agara Schymocha (Author)Laura Bauerlein (Translation), 2017, Postmodern Painting in the Mirror of Modernism. How Jonathan Lasker reflects the legacy of Modern Abstraction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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