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.
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!!
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.