Abstract Art Reconsidered
Pictures of things that don’t exist
To paraphrase Albert Camus, the loves we share with a work of art often secret loves.
When a painter makes an abstract painting, there is surely a secret love in the creation. A search for a private feeling. One contemporary abstract artist, Fiona Rae, offered an explanation of her work as “trying to make a picture of something that doesn’t exist”.
Abstract art has that quality about it. It is there in front of us, but also not there at all.
A object’s non-existence maybe philosophically problematic, but for an abstract artist the line between non-existence and existence is only a brushstroke away. It is not surprising that commentators and artists have tended to describe abstract art as a type of self-examining mysticism.
When I was aged 16, my art teacher at school took me aside one day and asked me if I’d ever heard of a painter called Wassily Kandinsky. I never had. My art teacher thought that I might find Kandinsky interesting.
I took his advice and went to the school library where I found a book dedicated to the Russian artist. I had never seen anything quite like it. I saw explosions of colour, shapes and form appearing and disappearing with theatrical suddenness. Great ribbons of black, like pathways over hilltops, encircling highlights of blues and reds and other shades, contours intersecting and combining feverishly. I had the sense of discovering something that I couldn’t put a name to.
Painting, Kandinsky wrote, “can develop the same energies as music.”
From that moment, the artistic field known as abstract art began to fascinate me. And yet, like the painted mists of an abstract work itself, the subject has always remained somewhat unresolved in my mind. Can it be pinned down?
Abstraction is pure nonsense
Does it matter if an abstract painting is hung the wrong way up?
This question is not as facetious as it sounds. There is a story of how Kandinsky once saw, but failed to recognise, one of his own (early figurative) paintings hung on its side. The fresh arrangement of colours impressed him and went on to provide a new inspiration for possibilities of his own trajectory as a painter. Kandinsky, referred to by some as the “Lord of Abstraction”, made good use of this happy accident.
If Kasimir Malevich’s painting Black Square (1915) was hung upside down, it is doubtful that anybody would notice. A black square tends to looks like a black square from any angle.
This much-feted work, fetishized for it’s beguiling simplicity as much as anything else, may well stand as the apogee of the abstract movement. It is so elemental that it is hard to imagine a work of art departing any further from the realm of representation.
Whether Malevich’s rudimentary totem — a roughly hewn blackish square just under a metre in each axis, painted onto a linen canvas just over a metre in size — is a true paragon of artistic achievement remains still a matter of contention. What is for certain is that it stands as a perfect exemplar of what abstraction has come to mean: on the one hand a daring, obscure, and by the connoisseurs at least, deeply revered statement; on the other, an absurdly artificial, perhaps even bogus fantasy.
One might think that abstract art should be a pleasure: an immediate adventure for the eyes, a landscape of shapes, patterns and movement. Yet the form has remained quarantined from wider attention by the lingering suspicion that it is either too obscure to understand or else too easy to be taken seriously. That the cultural elite should hold objects like Black Square in such high regard causes discomfort in the popular consciousness. What seems to sit at the heart of the worry, as captured in the Kandinsky tale, is that abstract art has no rules of gravity or perspective to anchor it; a painting can be hung the wrong way up and still survive.
The critic and abstract-devotee Clement Greenberg certainly admired, even valorised, the technical developments in painting that led eventually to the high-modernism of Abstract Expressionism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis and Barnet Newman proved that Malevich’s Black Square did not represent an exhaustive climax of abstraction.
If Malevich clung to rigid form, painters like Pollock enraptured and enraged audiences with a technical freedom that seemed so loose, so formless, as to be almost destructive. For Greenberg, these testing qualities were the great achievements Modernism, what he saw as the ability of a work of art to be self-critical through the manifest techniques of its creation. If the arc of the technical evolution of abstraction can be traced, it is surely characterised by the freedom and monumentality of the gestural sign. Pollock preferred to drip with a stick. Barnet Newman produced his ‘zips’. On the other side of the Atlantic, painters like John Hoyland and Gillian Ayres continued the tradition with vivid, untrammelled gestural marks that owed little to premeditation and everything to the belief in spontaneous artistic intuition.
Futures for abstraction
The position of abstract art in the contemporary scene is uncertain. Today’s artists working in the strictly abstract mould generally fail to achieve the impact of their predecessors. The free gestural mark has become common currency, having passed through the mangle of post-modernism and now comfortably understood as the orthodox expression of an artist’s spontaneous volition. Somewhat outstripped by the more progressive strategies of recent art-making, abstraction can sometimes feel like a solipsistic cul-de-sac into which a contemporary artist ventures at the peril of their own relevancy.
Still, there are plenty of questions that remain in need of a fresh answers: How does an abstract painting relate to reality? In what way does it’s aesthetics work on the viewer? Can you “read” an abstract artwork?
For me, looking more closely is the key that unlocks the door. Looking helps to guide your eyes, looking that leads to more looking, revealing how shapes define other shapes, colours develop into areas of weight or weightlessness, relations of shapes serving a higher question.
My point is that we should look more closely, and in doing so, leave behind our intellectual expectations. The metaphor of music comes back again and again. For Kandinsky, “working with colour was like playing the piano.” Colours can be “in or out of key”. Jackson Pollock created a “visual symphony.” The contemporary artist Dan Perfect plays “a musical score” as he redrafts his initial drawings into full scale paintings.
The metaphor remains useful even if it is well-trodden. As a tool to pull away the veil of what abstraction does, the music idea helps to clarify because it gives us something to familiar to work with, an uncontroversial starting point to approach the form. Yet it presents difficulties too, because as a package of visual information, an abstract artwork is also able to contribute to the world of visual reality, both through connotation and through its actuality. Questions that music doesn’t have to deal with remain pertinent: does an abstract work signify anything beyond its own form? What are abstract artists trying to show through their works?
Perhaps we’ve forgotten how to look at abstract art. That abstraction is a fictive landscape dealing with content-less forms is the challenge that is tacitly addressed at every moment. This problematic status attests to the ultimate failure of abstract art as a fulfilment of a historical project for a purer art stripped bare of symbols. As history attests, it has achieved a somewhat lesser status through its contribution to the vocabulary of painting, providing a new facet of the visual lexicon, albeit one that whose syntax is difficult to pin down.
My own feelings are that abstract art is itself a metaphor, not for reality, but for the idea of reality. Understanding the metaphor involves looking and seeing — simply enough, an attention to the exact movement and merging of coloured paint, the treatment of surface, the plastic suggestion of depth or layering, stillness or flatness. A metaphor for everything outside the frame. A guide to visual logic. That’s it.