“Towards Abstraction” Day Four

I started to do two things; work on Myfanwy’s suggestions, and my own idea of combining cubist and hard edged techniques.

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Isolated section of a cubist study meets masking tape.

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Blockier colours meet cubist isolation.

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Here I started playing around with Myfanwy’s idea of changing the line colour, in this case to white. I also used the masking tape. 

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Carrying out the same idea with yellow.

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And indeed blue. I was going to fill in the gaps with colour but the constructions, especially the white, were a little too pleasing already.

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Isolating an area of my larger Cubist study from last week. Limiting colour palette more now.

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And then adding the colour change. A non-artist friend said the blocks of colour were really pleasing to the eye, that the whole thing was pleasing in general. This in itself was pleasing.

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Same with this one. I like the little studies. My friend also compared these studies to mechanical devices which I liked, quite a link to the cubism they are derived from.

20161018_091140_picmonkeyedThis I think is the first part of what I’d like to do next, dispense with line completely leaving only planes of colour. I realised I would need to work on a larger scale.

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).

“Towards Abstraction” Day Three

I continued mostly to experiment with the masking tape making hard edged constructions. This was to reach the end of that single idea before combining it with my other Cubistic work. I wanted to work out what the best processes for making these purely abstract planes of colour would be.

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“Fifth Study”

I found immediately that switching to acrylic paint was the best course of action. It is much easier to manipulate for one thing (and much easier to clean, ho ho), but more importantly when layering up the paper with masking tape constantly the work needs to dry quickly before adding the next shape.

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“Sixth Study”

I also found that pure, unmixed colour looks much better on the page. This is a theme in the work of various hard edge American painters, for instance Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

Some of Frank Stella’s early monochrome paintings.

Frank Stella presumably driving himself completely insane with concentration while working on one of his famous Black Paintings.

Anyway I’ll do some other post about all that history.

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“Seventh Study”- here I tried superimposing planes of colour over one another.

My other findings were colour and paint based. I noticed that very simple colour combinations work best, like black and blue, or white and yellow. When colour is so pure it starts to strain the eyes when there are lots of combinations.

I noticed also that certain paints work better with the masking tape. My blue and black acrylics tend to leak slightly through the tape, whereas the white and yellow paints leave brilliantly clean lines. I’m sure this has something to do with the consistency of the paint; furthermore, there must be some way of changing the consistency of other colours to match this. If I could find that out I might be able to use any colour which would be fantastical.

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“Eighth Study”- both a painting and a useful study. Notice how the white has clean edges and a weirdly pleasing tactile textural aspect. The ripples of paint…

“Towards Abstraction” Day Two

A very productive day for this project. I started off by continuing work on my Cubistic study, hoping something would eventually happen.

Work on this eventually petered out, forcing me to think of something else. I decided to experiment with harder edges and playing around with masking tape. This was the result:

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“Fourth Study”

This is the piece I am most pleased with so far. It is still very derivative of Suprematism but I really like the minimal result, especially the white on white. Using the masking tape to create straight lines was really pleasing, and I like how the actual paintwork is quite textured within the boundaries, rather like in the work of Sean Scully. I like the idea of abstract paintings being paired down to the bare essentials, pure colours and straight lines.

Sean Scully- Four Days

 

Anyway I think this picture was quite a breakthrough. What I think would be a great next step is combining the masking tape method with the multi-perspective process of Cubism; these are my two favourite things so far and I think combining them could create something new, a kind of hard edge Cubism.

I showed my work to Myfanwy who gave me some great ideas. She suggested I make some more Cubist observational studies and then play around with removing the black lines or changing the colour. She also suggested working on a different substrate with my more abstract colour pieces to play with the idea of negative space; previously the white of the paper has been the negative space (very convenient). Isolating sections of my Cubist studies and making pieces from the segments was another suggestion which I will definitely do next week.

Some works in progress.

Thus I headed back to the studio and continued experimenting in the Cubist and hard edge Suprematist styles, and will attempt to combine them later on when I have more material. I am planning to then investigate the ideas that Myfanwy came up with.

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Another quick study.

12.10.16

 

Project Number Five: “Towards Abstraction”

The brief this time is to investigate abstract painting, in particular the process of moving towards abstract art and painting techniques in general. As a device paintings are to be made of objects submerged in a jar full of water; this distorts them and encourages an abstracted approach.

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Simplified forms, multiple perspectives, planes of pure colour? Crazy old Cezanne should have know this would never catch on… wait.

It’s great to start painting properly again as I’ve had something of a lull, focusing on drawing and photography more intensively for about six months. Learning more about painting techniques and improving painting was one of the main reasons I decided to do a foundation course.

I’ve already learned some important new techniques. Firstly when using oils on paper the paper must be primed with gesso or vinyl matt emulsion. Secondly when using watercolour or watery acrylic it is a good idea to stretch paper over a board. I did both of these things last night with some sheets of A2 thin card.

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Mondrian’s handy how-to guide to becoming a crazy spiritual abstract artist. 

This morning I started right away. I began as ever by looking to the work of previous artists and finding the work I admired, and more specifically and importantly why I liked it, and even more importantly how I could steal from these artists in a non superficial way.

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Picasso 1910- Portrait of Ambroise Vollard. Figure still notably present.

I focused in particular on transitional artists between figurative and abstract painting. I looked at Cezanne’s late works and the transitional Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque when forms began to be abstracted to the point of obscurity. These Cubist works are some of my favourite pieces ever, but I should probably move swiftly on. Mondrian was another artist who I felt typified the progression towards abstraction, with his works neatly moving on from one another to the point of pure abstraction. Malevich and other geometric abstract artists like Bridget Riley were my favourite purely abstract artists.

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Picasso 1911-12- Ma Jolie. There’s a woman in there somewhere.

We were set the task of making quick studies so I decided to launch into an investigation of processes and experimentation with different styles. From my research I think I much prefer geometric abstraction, or very very organised looser abstract pieces.

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Malevich- Suprematist Composition 1916.

I experimented with some very geometric Suprematist style constructions and then focused on making Cubist constructions. I simplified the forms in the water, moved them around into geometric constructions, and then did a study in the vein of the 1911 paintings of Picasso and Braque, moving the jar around and painting the different perspectives. It seems to me that the process of painting multiple perspectives was one of the main routes to pure abstraction.

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Some very clear influence here… Malevich, El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy etc.

Weirdly I seem to have worked backwards throughout the day, beginning with very simplified forms and then gradually complicating the constructions.

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Moving into Cubism, reconstituting and simplifying the forms. Some influence of the American Stuart Davis here.

It was great to work in oils, with which I have only made two paintings in the past. I realised the medium was much less daunting and more forgiving than I had previously thought. Mixing the colours in particular was great fun, as I only used tubes of red, blue, yellow, black and white. Tomorrow I think I’ll have a go with some acrylics.

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Working in the classical Cubist style of 1911-12, Braque and Picasso. Trying to decode the processes and methods of the two artists and move towards something original. “Three Studies for a Still Life with Pound, Blue, Cannon and Champagne Cork”.

While I think these studies (and they are only studies) are ultimately very derivative, I think creating derivative works is an essential part of the artistic process, and is essential to moving towards creating something original, which I hope will happen later in the project. All great artists to my knowledge have had a derivative phase, especially the abstract artists I researched for this project.

Last but not least the jar itself, firmly planted in good old material reality.

11.10.16