Abstract Painting

From working on the “Towards Abstraction” project I’ve come up with some ideas, or reached some conclusions, on abstract painting.  These are quite simple observations which have been said better, but I thought this blog would be a good place to at least just note them down.

The history of abstract painting has already been written a thousand times.

Not this bloke again… talk about disregarding posterity eh? EH?

Anyway I’ve seen lots of abstract art in galleries and reproduction, and I think my main idea is that once subject matter has been smashed up, what remains has to be structured massively in order to still work as a painting.

Theo van Doesburg- Cow

My favourite abstract periods are the early modernist era and the hard edge 60s period. I really like geometric abstraction.

“Me Too!” – Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

The painters who are now called modernist, and variously have been grouped into Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism etc., seemed to have a great sense of structure. I think this is because they all began with abstraction rather than fully abstract work, and this abstraction started with being trained academically. The resulting paintings are amazing reflections of a newly mechanistic world.

Braque- Houses at L’Estaque. Seems familiar.

Picasso- Ma Jolie. Start drawing things from different perspectives and you end up on a rollercoaster ride of revolutionary artistic fun.

Teacups by Juan Gris. These pictures are some of my favourite ever done.

Or perhaps I’m being too art critic, maybe the artists themselves never intended to do anything of the sort. But by leaving the world of conventional representation behind they were reacting to something. Robert Hughes, who I constantly return to, used the statues of cars as the example. “How to depict the modern world without becoming a machine illustrator?”.

And in works by artists like Fernand Leger the subject is clear. This is the machine world.

Or Futurism as in this piece by Umberto Boccioni. These strange Italian artists were convinced by the beauty of the automobile, they loved loud sounds and fast movement. They wanted to be machines.

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian. He apparently painted this having been up the Empire State Building… just saying.

Maybe, and I am speaking massively pretentiously here, paintings exist in the same way that Barthes described books; maybe we should study them as objects themselves, rather than as works by artists, as blank spaces that the real world inevitably intervenes in! I don’t like to go towards either extreme. We should look at pictures in multiple different ways, what the artist thought, what other people thought, what we think, with context and without context. Then we might understand better.

“Composition” by the UK’s own Wyndham Lewis. His work has an amazing sense of mechanical energy, and something different from the Cubism from which it is derived. Definitely one to steal from.

“A Canadian Gun Pit” also by Wyndham Lewis. This probably gives a better idea where abstract art started from, and why.

In a lot of ways this is probably still the ultimate abstract work. The end of some cul-de-sac. Oh it’s Malevich’s Black Square by the way. 

I saw lots of Abstract Expressionism on a trip to New York this year. To me this is split into two halves. Some has dated massively and now appears to be totally unstructured and not much fun to look at. While I’m sure this was radical and interesting at the time, it now feels much less appealing (to me anyway).

“Zone” by Philip Guston. Frank Stella thought that the problem with Abstract Expressionist works like this was that all of the energy was put into one central gesture, leaving the edges as a kind of half hearted filled in area at the end; he felt painters had begun to get caught in the corners.

Some of the work on the other hand has an amazing quality, which is a higher sense of order. This stuff will last a good while I reckon.

One: Number 31 by Jackson Pollock. This is probably one of the outermost edges of abstract painting. You get the sense that Pollock knew exactly where each of the drips of paint should go.

The same could be said of some of Joan Mitchell’s paintings. The brushstrokes here are loose but at the same time feel calculated. There is a higher sense of structure here beyond geometry.

Then after all this loopy expression and mad chaos, order seems to have become fashionable again. “Hard edge” and “Colour Field”, however briefly, reigned supreme for a time during the sixties.

A young Frank Stella at work on his legendary black paintings. Stella spoke very eloquently, and his work was a reaction to the excesses of late abstract expressionism. He brought geometry back and very balanced compositions with only one colour.

Josef Albers- Homage to the Square 1951. In some ways Albers’ work is the missing link between early and later geometric abstraction. He began as the colour theory export at the Bauhaus and then moved to Black Mountain College in the USA during the war, influencing a whole generation of American artists.

Bridget Riley- To A Summers Day 2. Bridget Riley seems to me is by far the best of these artists. Robert Hughes wrote brilliantly about her work, and how despite it being cannibalised by the fashion world, seeing one of her pictures in the flesh is an incredible experience. I think he was right; in person I can’t think of work by many other recent artists that pulls the viewer in so effectively. You can sit in front of these things for hours, and there is a genuine physical effect, the strange blurring on the eye. Amazing!

Structure came back into abstract art and the results were fairly dazzling, at least to me.

I mean Ad Reinhardt was pretty nuts, but look at this stuff! It’s perfect, the lines are so incredibly straight and the colours so incredibly flat! I disagree with Reinhardt’s view that abstract art was the be-all, end-all thing, but his work is a great cul-de-sac.

Anyway I think all this is why it’s so important to learn to draw figuratively and to study old master paintings even when working in abstraction, otherwise the sense of structure and the business of the eye seems to disappear. And surely it is the business of the eye that is now the focus of these pictures?

JMW Turner- Seascape with Distant Coast. Yeah, right.  

Abstract art has some amazing strengths to me.

For one thing this idea of structure can be used to create quite perfect constructions. Beautiful pure colour and straight lines are quite alright in this field.

Ellsworth Kelly- Spectrum II

Secondly I think abstract art in many instances is one of the better reflections of our contemporary surroundings. Obviously it is newer and so feels more relevant, but there’s something I’m not good enough at writing to say properly which is present in abstract art which I think is more suited to our world. Not that figurative art can’t do the same.

Something like this piece by Morris Louis does feel very modern, very… new. Ironically it’s now decades old.

David Hockney- Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. These late 60s Hockney pieces are also still relevant for me. Maybe it’s the sense of tranquility I relate to in his work and a lot of these abstract pieces. It looks to me a little like Hockney was also influenced by abstract art, look how clearly the composition is divided into big blocks of colour.

Thirdly I like the contemplative nature of some abstract art. The comparison between abstract paintings and music is pretty laboured but still holds true. To me these pictures make a sound, maybe something like one of Brian Eno’s albums. Alternatively they can create a mental cacophony that I think would sound something like a chainsaw ripping through the fabric of the universe.

Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Source of the aforementioned colossal chainsaw sound. BRRRRRRRRR.

Lastly while I think Clement Greenberg’s ideas should be taken with a pinch of salt he is nearly impossible to ignore. And it is true that abstract art does really use the strengths of the medium of painting. In a really exceptional work I do think some kind of wordless connection between artist and viewer is made, like so;

Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas. Robert Hughes saw this as one of the greatest achievements of Abstract Expressionism. This does things that a photograph or a book can’t. A piece of music maybe, but I can’t think of one.

Alternatively it’s not as though abstract art is the only form of painting that can have this quality. Francis Bacon made a quite convincing criticism of Pollock and the like that the works were really just beautiful patterns and that’s all. Bacon’s ideas are perhaps a better point of entry for young artists.

Anyway the new challenge for painters to me is how exactly to update abstract painting to our current surroundings, because I do think that abstract art probably isn’t the super religious isolated medium critics like Clement Greenberg have claimed.

I mean why paint like this?

Could it be because it looks like this outside?

Or even this?

And this sort of thing just doesn’t cut it anymore? I mean it just doesn’t seem possible not to be influenced in some way by the outside world. Side note; Abstract Expressionism was also an obscure part of the Cold War, promoted by the US government as proof of the superior cultural achievements of the capitalist system. But the artists were allowed to do as they pleased.

Or maybe the question is whether or not abstract art still has a place or function at all.

This photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans seems incredibly contemporary to me. But photography is pretty flawed too as Hockney has spent about 20 years saying. This blog post is rapidly spinning out of control…

It could be that after the Black Square and a few decades of Ad Reinhardt extremism, there really is nowhere left to turn for fully abstract painting. Or it could be that we’ve become lazy and there are unexplored possibilities, maybe in terms of scale or medium.

Good old Stella has moved on quite a bit from his monochrome days, making more and more energetic works that still excite up to this very MINUTE.

Bridget Riley is also still in rude health and cranking out great pieces.

My uncle is a big fan of minimalists like Donald Judd who seem to have followed the abstract curve but dispensed with painting. I think he has a point though personally I find these works very difficult to like. 

Jasper Johns also seems like an interesting starting point. His work could be called abstract, but fits into no school or field. In some ways he even expands upon abstract art, or links it back to cubism via American painting.

In fact thinking about it maybe these are the best abstract artists. This post is becoming a little freeform, but perhaps the individualists are the people we should look at when thinking about how to continue on the abstract path. I always seem to reach this same conclusion in art. The era of schools does seem to be rapidly declining, and most of the later artists I’ve mentioned really have their own individual styles. Post 1960s is this what the art world looks like?

Yves Klein is another favourite, a big outlier who can’t quite fit into any school, even the Nouveaux Realisme he had a big blue hand in creating.

Or indeed the great Cy Twombly. His stuff is all about Romans and Greeks!

Abstraction also still seems to have legs on it, at least to me. For me personally the idea that each individual comes up with their own individual form of representation, and hence abstraction, derived from their own individual way of seeing, has endless possibilities.

“Hello chaps”- a self portrait by Frank Auerbach.

In any case I think the starting point will be learning to draw figuratively.

Sources: Robert Hughes- The Mechanical Paradise, Clement Greenberg- Towards a New Laocoon, John Berger- Ways of Seeing, Jonathan Cullen- Barthes. I read this lot over the past few years, then discovered that in practice their ideas often hold true. And just often turn out to be rubbish.

(This blog post became a bit of a monster but it’s quite an easy subject to get obsessed by).


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