Thursday, December 11, 2008

Abstract versus representational

A well known and successful artist was heard to say that she didn’t like representational work because it held less of a challenge than abstract work. Abstract work, she felt, forced you to think more about what you were doing.
I love didactic comments like this because they really make you try to figure out what you feel about the particular issue under discussion!

I don’t think abstract or representational work is necessarily harder or easier – you can take a simplistic easy way or a much more thoughtful approach with each one. You could take an image and merely copy it, adding nothing of yourself – your thoughts, feelings, ideas about the piece. You could ignore the viewer’s journey of exploration of the piece – merely blandly representing something. Now that some thing could be a tree (representational) or a pattern you see in a fence (abstract)… what the subject is is secondary to how you’ve addressed it in the work. Great artists can make a great piece about anything whether it’s an abstract pattern derived from mathematics or nature or music, or an impressionistic piece about nature or human endeavour, or a very literal rendition of nature etc. It seems to me that the degree of difficulty isn’t correlated with the subject matter at all.

And, I feel, there is always a subject – I think it would be difficult to make a piece about absolutely nothing. There are highly successful quilt artists who make abstract quilts that are virtuoso expressions of the beauty of an balanced composition of pieces of fabric – as the piece of fabric are built up on the design wall, the artist considers depth, track of movement, balance, proportion, negative vs positive space, use of all elements especially value simultaneously. The quilt is about Beauty – it’s not about nothing – it’s about a total distillation and abstraction of beauty.

Kirk Varnedoe gave a Mellon series of lectures about Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock. (The description “pictures of nothing” was first made by William Hazlitt about J.M.W. Turner’s marvelous watercolours of skies and atmosphere.) Abstract art as we talk about it today really began in the early 20th century. The first abstract artists stated that they were trying to portray universal truths about the changes that had happened in the world secondary to the “War to end all wars” (which, sadly, didn’t).

A second wave of abstraction began after WWII with a different group of artists and a different intent. Their overall aim, according to Varnedoe, was to make work “out of ourselves” with no particular philosophical or social aim in mind. No one was making piece about nothing – there was always some content, however amorphous or abstract, in mind.

Greenberg (one of the leading critics at the time) felt that Pollock with his drip paintings had pushed abstraction to a new goal of “expressing the essential visual qualities of painting without any extraneous literary content”. In fiber, this might translate as demonstrating the visual and tactile qualities of fiber in and of themselves. And you could make a quilt about that. But whatever you’re making a piece about, your piece is always a painting, or a quilt, or a sculpture. It’s not a tree or a flower…. And its success depends on whether as a quilt or a painting or a photograph it conveys in an intriguing way the emotion/information/mood etc that you want it to communicate to the viewer.

Looking at the question whether or not representational work is "easier" from a different angle – whatever you’re making a piece about, and whatever format (representational, impressionistic, abstract etc) that piece is – if you want your piece to be successful, it’s helpful to adhere (somewhat!) to the tried and true guidelines. Whether you do this consciously or unconsciously, or alternating between the two (which I feel is the case with most artists) doesn’t change the fact that you are being guided by those principles. (Unless you are deliberately thwarting them of course, in which case you are still being guided!!).

Furthermore, a case could be made for the absolute opposite of the initial statement! If you look at art quilt shows and catalogues it is evident that more successful abstract quilts have been made than representational ones. How is that, if making a representational piece is easier? Is it because quilts have a strong history of abstract design upon which contemporary quilt makers can build? Is it that it’s easier to nicely judge elements like proportion, balance, harmony etc when one is already working only with shape, line, colour and so on? The representational artist has to translate her/his subject material into the basic elements to make a strong design. The abstract artist already has that step made for them. To discern the elements, to reduce to the essentials, and then balance and arrange them and create the feeling…now that’s hard!

I suppose it could be more of a challenge to convey feeling in abstract work…in that it might seem easy to paint “how I feel about the south western deserts” by painting a south western desert. However being successful with such a simplistic approach is not easy for one runs the risk of being exceeding trite if that is all you do. It is only if you can depict your impressions and feelings about the desert in a more abstract way that you can complete a successful representation that says something new and intriguing to the viewer.
So, you might be able to say that it's easier to make a trite clichéd representational piece than an abstract piece!!!

My conclusion is that neither one is easy if your aim is to push the limits of the medium and make a strong piece that will look better every day. Both could be "easy" if you are simply making a piece for fun - and there's nothing wrong with that either!!

So a big thank you to the artist who made this remark for making me think!! And read some more in Kirk Varnedoe’s book…now for a nice cup of tea and further reading…

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


magsramsay said...

Thanks for another thought provoking post, it's something I've thought about a lot. I admire abstract work (Rothka at the Tate currently)but I'm inspired by landscape which it seems is deeply unfashionable in all areas of the art world. How to interpret the spirit without reproducing every grass blade?
I think the key is simplicity (or the illusion of).Representational textile pieces are often too busy and aiming for photographic reality where people admire them for their construction from teeny pieces rather than their content.Your comments on the influence of materials on abstract art quilts is spot on, if you've got large pieces of fabric, it's easier to simplify. I've long admired your work for striking the balance.

Linda Cline said...

Thank you for another post to make me think.

I've found that abstracted work can sometimes seem more alive than work that is trying so carefully and meticulously to be representational. Nature isn't straight and perfect. And it's easy to get caught up trying to get every little leaf right, and forget the bigger picture.

I admire your use of line in your quilts. They give character and life to your work.

Nutmeg said...

I was moved by your statement that quilts are about beauty, they are not about nothing. I sometimes wonder if I "should" be doing representational mosaics, but what I'm drawn to is abstract.