6 Questions for Curator Gary Garrels on Contemporary Abstraction’s New Questions and the Artists Leading the Conversation

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Earlier this month, the group exhibition “To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting” opened across both of Gagosian’s Mayfair gallery locations, curated by art historian and curator Gary Garrels. On view through August 25, 2023, over 40 artists’ works are represented—making the show both a testament to Garrels’ curatorial vision as well as an unmissable opportunity to survey the condition of abstraction today. The present exhibition is a continuation of Garrels’ longstanding commitment to highlighting the work of influential contemporary artists; previously, he was a cocurator of “Vija Clemins: To Fix the Image in Memory” (SFMOMA, 2018–19); “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” (MoMA, 2016); and “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective” (Menil Collection, 2012), to name just a few.

Following the current show at Gagosian’s premiere, we reached out to Garrels to learn more about the curatorial underpinnings of the exhibition and what insights he garnered along the way.

Installation view of “To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting” (2023). Photo: Lucy Dawkins. © Gerhard Richter 2023 (13032023) © Stanley Whitney © 2023 Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Can you tell us a bit about what led or inspired you to curate the forthcoming group exhibition with Gagosian?
The gallery invited me to propose an exhibition, and I have always loved abstract painting. In the past few years, I think abstraction has been overlooked in favor of figurative painting, so I thought this would be a good time to take a fresh look at contemporary abstract painting.
How would you describe the primary aims of the show? How is this reflected in its title “To Bend the Ear of the Outer World”?
Abstract painting is engaged in a conversation primarily on its own terms. Issues of surface, color, materials, scale, and light lead us to reconsider the understanding of our vision. By pushing away from external reference, abstraction enables artists to explore the widest variety of visual expression.

Installation view of "To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting" (2023). Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Installation view of “To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting” (2023). Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy of Gagosian.

What was your initial approach to curating this exhibition? Did this approach evolve or change over the course of bringing the show together?
I wanted to work with living artists and to be involved with their thinking and approaches to work being made now. I am very interested in artists who have been working for many years but who still find unresolved challenges in their work and in newer artists who are finding their own fresh ways of reconsidering traditions.
Has anything surprised you? Or did you gain any specific insights that you didn’t have before?
I am still astonished at the variety of approaches to abstract painting being done today. Individual artists have confidence in their own voices and the desire to make works that match the ambition of the best artists of past generations. They are not casting them aside but rather finding ways to forge forward.

Installation view of "To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting" (2023). Photo: Lucy Dawkins. © Oscar Murillo. © Jadé Fadojutimi. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Installation view of “To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting” (2023). Photo: Lucy Dawkins. © Oscar Murillo. © Jadé Fadojutimi. Courtesy of Gagosian.

What do you hope visitors of the exhibition take away with them?
I think abstract painting remains a challenge to many people who want to feel they can adequately describe a painting and its meaning. But for me, the best painting and especially abstract painting resists easy resolution and in fact invites subjective responses. I hope this exhibition may encourage people to allow themselves the pleasure and confidence to trust their own experience with a painting.
Are there any works in the show you’d consider favorites or one you are most excited to see included?
I have to say I am thrilled with the conversations I have had with all the artists and their engagement with the exhibition. Without exception, each of them has offered a painting that is among their best. I love spending time with every painting here.

Charline von Heyl, (2022). Photo: Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

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