Thursday, August 8, 2013

Immersed in Abstraction

I've been putting together a new workshop on Abstract Art for Quiltmakers since the beginning of the year - I'm excited to be teaching it for the first time next week.   The poor students who are signed up for the class don't realise that I now have a semester's worth of notes and material for them!!

The more I look at abstract work the more I fall in love with it..though not, of course, those awful chain store "home decor" monstrosities!! Home clutter and ruination is more like! There are many many different kinds of abstraction - I'm hoping it's a subject you can never come to the end of.

I'm beginning to think that abstraction is a perfect fit for the medium of the art quilt.  People look at a painting and expect it to look like something! yes they do!! but they don't expect that of a quilt. With a quilt they're happy to enjoy a harmonious but intriguing balance of shape and color.  Also, in fabric we can bring out so many other nuances - not just color and shape, but texture and stitching, softness and hardness.

Kirk Varnedoe posited the question whether abstract paintings were pictures of nothing.  Actually he wrote a whole book about this! He described how the first abstract artists were hoping to
reveal absolute and universal truths with this new style- they reached for a new spirituality, a Utopia.  But then along came the horror of yet another world war(WWII: 1939-1945) - six long years of terror and misery.

After the war, the new artists interested in abstract art were young Americans with very different goals.  They felt that abstraction was grounded in the unconscious.  Painters like Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Frankenthaler found new ways of getting paint onto the canvas working from instinct and raw emotion. They sought art without words.  Pollock threw and dribbled, flung and sprayed paint forcefully so as to make sure there was no obvious drawing.  "A forceful expression of chance - an anti-composition."  Jasper Johns restricted color but organized his canvasses - very often into quilt like grids - as did Lee Krasner in many of her paintings.  I bet these artists were very familiar with the grid organization of the traditional quilt - and perhaps their unconscious reverted back to childhood memories.  As children we spend a lot of time just Looking and we really See all those details and they're etched deep into memory.  As adults we have very little time to look, and usually we just see that authoritarian "To do List" threatening us!!

Above all, Varnedoe felt that whatever the style, it was important that we relate to it on an elemental level:
“between the vague confusions of individual experiences and the authority of big ideas, sign me up for experience first”. Images that stir memories from the past are more powerful, more intriguing. I think the viewer has to find some relationship to the artwork to really enjoy it.
But what is abstract art  good for? What use to society are pictures of nothing? E H Gombrich in his book Art and Illusion thought that abstract art was understandable as an extension of decorative pattern making. A very close connection to traditional quilts.  “Timeless universal forms”. At the Ringling Art School summer program this year, one professor gave a talk about Roman mosaics - and there were all the traditional quilt designs we know so well!!

Abstract art has been around now for a little over a century and is very very popular with all artists - I notice that even photographers are now discovering ways of making abstract photographs. Since the movement has lasted this long, it has stood the test of time.  It will last. Interestingly, however, it's evident from an examination of abstract art that much art isn’t the result of totally new discoveries or ideas but rather the result of taking something already in existence and adapting , recycling, isolating, recontextualizing, repositioning and recombining to form new possibilities. and that's just what we're going to do in my next week's workshop!  I plan to teach it many more times, both actually and virtually but first I want to enjoy making some more abstract art myself!!
Human beings are wired to make connections, discover resemblances and relationships and also to project meaning onto experience. Gestalt theory - artists use this a lot.  So do advertizers alas!!  And very successfully. (Have you seen those little check marks (US) or ticks (UK) on the tennis stars?  They are grooving right into your brain and your pocket book/purse!

However, abstract art still remains something of a paradox.  Traditional works of art are expressions of feelings, communications.  But what if you what to make a piece that deliberately has no reference?  You can control what is in your mind and intention (to a certain extent anyway - sometimes you need the help of a cognitive behaviour therapist!) but you can’t control what the viewer does and he/she will almost certainly begin to see things into it.  It's difficult to enforce the “abstractness” of abstraction” because of our built in survival instinct to make sense of things, to spot the danger, to recognize the mere outline of the police car behind us!

In talking about one of Cy Twombly’s scribble paintings Varnedoe writes that as we look at it we’ll think of a lot of things it represents but in the end we’ll come back to the thought that the picture is only of itself, “all of the complexity and energy that only it has and that did not exist before”. In Interpreting representational art  one needs to recognize the subject but interpreting abstract art is different, you don’t need to figure out what it is.  While ostensibly rejecting representation, abstract art actually expands its possibilities.  It adds to our visual language by including everything previously considered to be meaningless: drips, stains, blobs, bricks, tiles etc Abstract art actually makes something out of nothing! And in so many different ways!

However because to some extent abstract art is a learned language and is not always easy to understand, it helps to have some knowledge of different artists and different modes.  This can enhance our experience of it.  Many pleasures, says Varnedoe, involve appetites that had to be educated: music, art, sport, books…gourmet cooking. Furthermore, while abstraction might originally have been developed as a way of conveying timelessness or pure expression or spirituality, it is now much more concerned with showing the diversity of individual vision and independent subjectivity.

And - onward to the class!   So, if you have been, thanks for reading!! and do let me know your own personal experiences with abstract art.


Leigh in Portland (we are not burning down) said...

Elizabeth, I'd really like to take your class. I would like to learn more about design principles, and appreciate abstract art more than I do. I mostly feel I don't 'get' it. I tend to feel that if my dog could do it, or I could pick it off the floor of my studio, then the artist isn't trying hard enough. And yet that piece is in a gallery. Or the Pompidou!!! So clearly there is more there. I'd at least like to know more about it and have some context.

Keep us all posted on your classes - I'll keep an eye out for something nearby (pacific NW).

Sharon Robinson said...

Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I spent a couple years fumbling around with different art quilt styles before I realized that abstraction is what I'm truly passionate about. As you mentioned, so many people say they don't "get" abstraction, or they insist on making abstract works look like "something."

I think what I love is the pure design process, the ability to work solely with design, color, form, texture, etc. without having to "be" something. While most of my art quilt contemporaries say they really have to stretch to work abstractly, for me it's the reverse, it frees me up to just compose.

I have found it very hard to find books or even good online references to abstraction, so I'm eager to check out the Kirk Varnedoe book you refer to. Is it "Pictures of Nothing."?

P.S. Leigh - I'm in the PNW as well, would love to know if you hear of abstraction classes in this area!

Elizabeth Barton said...

yes the book is Pictures of Nothing by Kirk Varnedoe, pub 2006.It was based on a series of lectures he gave - alas he died in 2003, a brilliant man.
And yes, Leigh - it does get better as you know more and can sort out the wheat from the chaff!

Anonymous said...

Yikes! Great post! Can't wait!

One of your "poor" students for next week!

See you tomorrow!

Linda G

Elizabeth Barton said...


Jackie said...

Well done! I have created a few abstract pieces but I enjoy paring a subject down and pushing it toward abstraction. The subject is still a thing but reduced more to shapes and shadows and light. I'm coming along and am also eager for the class. I'm going to print out this post, it has so much thought-provoking material in it. thank you!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you, Jackie - there is so much more to the idea of abstraction and to its history than is commonly known. Varnedoe feels that the study of abstraction could be lifelong and describes how deKooning went on making wonderful paintings even when he could no longer talk or communicate in any way...(other than by painting!)

Anonymous said...

Can't wait for your abstract art class to be available online. Do you have any more information about estimated dates, so I can look forward to it?

Elizabeth Barton said...

no dates yet - but will announce on the blog when I do!! but it won't be very soon, I have three more trips to make this year before I can sit down with myself and think!! Thank you for looingforward to it!