136 Jeffrey Abt

Kansas City, MO, 1949 / BA and MFA, Drake University, Des Moines, IA / Lives in Huntington Woods, MI

From 1951 to 1985, Jeffrey Abt’s father worked as a traveling salesman dealing in costume jewelry. With sample cases packed, he traversed a sales region that encompassed south Nebraska, Kansas, north Oklahoma, and east Colorado. Abt accompanied him on occasion, allowing insight into what is routinely a salesman’s solitary life on the road. His father’s absence at home instilled a sense of rootlessness in Abt, compounded by the knowledge of the displacement that his parents experienced as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II.

For Abt, this provisional notion of home nurtured a skepticism toward permanence, which manifests as a central paradox in his work; although his paintings display a sustained formal precision and an exactitude of craft, any sense of order and stability emerges as illusory. This underlying disorder of things is visible in The Museum of Absence (1992), a painted relief with miniature vitrines, windows, doors, floorplans, frames, fences, railroad tracks, and small paintings that project from its surface. In a conceptual nod to Marcel Duchamp’s La Boîte-en-valise (1935-1941), wherein the artist produced portable reproductions of his work within a small case, Abt has created an exploded survey of the work he made prior to his relocation to Detroit from Chicago, in 1989. He excavates shards of imagery, placing them into new amalgamations, thereby recontextualizing his older body of work. His move from one city to another necessitated a psychic re-sorting in which the stability of previous propositions was now in question.

In the painting Removed (2002), Abt depicts, with meticulous realism, a museum wall from which a work of art has been removed. What remains is the discolored area that had been unexposed to light for long periods of time, the hooks that once supported the frame, and a set of labels signaling the presence of what is now absent. There is a deadpan humor here, a liminal absurdity in the attention given to empty space, the cropping of a second visible painting so that it remains stubbornly out of view, and the evocation of a frame that is not a frame, but merely a stain. Abt has consistently utilized the museum, what he terms a “machine for viewing,” as a space where framing devices establish epistemological permanence. In the museum, structures are employed to firm up narratives, but he reveals these as an artifice that obscures the circumstantial nature of history. 

Rather than pursuing an institutional critique of the museum, Abt transforms it into a metaphorical vehicle to portray a crisis of faith in what we believe to be true. This is evidenced in his Wandering Gallery project (2006-2018), which proposes fugitive spaces that facilitate their own movement. Each work is a portable container that, when unfolded, reveals strictly delineated spaces comprised of rooms and chambers. These interiors appear abandoned, with the occasional chair or table left behind as remnants of some ambiguous prior use. Balanced between specificity and vagueness, the spaces invite psychological projection: the empty chair in WGp (lignumarium) (2016) becomes a stand-in for an indistinct figure, intensifying a sense of surveilled solitude. In these works, Abt employs a somber, monochromatic palette that establishes a sense of light that is both dense and thin, equal parts illumination and erasure. The rooms in WGp (void) (2014) and WGp (subliminalarium) (2015) conjure interrogation chambers or cells, carefully constructed and yet scrubbed of character. The instability of the space, its transient nature, flirts with the edge of nothingness and challenges the exactitude of its own construction. The surface materiality of WGp (preparator) (2018) conveys impermanence with signs of continual revision. Abt emphasizes its provisionality by referencing Jasper Johns’ use of a ruler to scrape across his paintings—a maneuver that erases part of the image while also defining a new visual path.

The small painting Migrating Homeland II (2019) is the result of a personal inquiry for Abt: What visual patterns are indigenous to Jewish culture? The historical displacement of Jews meant that there was an absence of the “indigenous” in their arts and crafts. Rather, markings and motifs were pieced together during the migratory experience—a stylistic compilation from one land to the next. Migrating Homeland II gives poetic form to the idea of an accumulation of traces, documented by a migrant. The piece is framed by four flaps that fold inward and transform the work into an object—an envelope to be closed and secured. Its scale suggests that it could be placed into a pocket and taken along on one’s journey as a memento of being—a miniature, personal history, however impermanent this history may be.

Ryan Standfest, Feb 2020

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