‘With a speed that still seems amazing’, wrote Clement Greenberg some sixty years ago, ‘one of the most epochal transformations in the history of art was accomplished’: the arrival of abstract art. This was, in the eyes of Greenberg and many others, not simply one new possibility added to the rest, but the one that would inevitably come to dominate: an art uniquely answerable to ‘the underlying tendencies of the age’. Today, the transformation seems less epochal. Artists, critics and theorists are more likely to point to Marcel Duchamp’s discovery of the readymade than to the advent of abstraction as the really amazing transformative leap in art in the early twentieth century. Good abstract painting and sculpture is still being produced, it might be conceded, but only in the same way that, for Greenberg, ‘good landscapes, still lifes and torsos will still be turned out’ under the reign of abstraction. Step into the contemporary wing of any museum and you will see far more representational art, in the form of photographs, videos and installations—or even more or less traditional representational painting—than you will abstraction.
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