I am an abstract painter. I do not usually paint to "re-present" existing people or objects. I believe that works of art, or works in a series, are not imitations, or tricks, and should not simply stand in for another (worthier) object, the painting of the golden bowl a simple study in skill. The painting is, itself, the thing.
My husband and I, who generally agree on things artistic, have these discussions. I have always thought that art should be about "something," that there must be a subject matter; most of my painting heroes argue along these same lines: Motherwell created the Spanish Civil War series, and Agnes Martin, the "perfect space." Painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell have been too easily dismissed because critics said that their work was not about anything, that it was too lyrical, too beautiful.... A shudder dismisses the work and then passes through all of us. We all approach the studio with an idea, I believe.
But Charley says that art can be, simply, beautiful, gestural, with no "three o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Taos," even in an abstract vein, about it. Rothko, he says, may have believed that certain of his works were violent, but it would be difficult to convince viewers -- who see the colors floating on the canvas -- to find that same intended violence. Art is about the way the piece itself meets its viewer, ultimately. And Charley has some pretty impressive artists who would appear to be on his side; isn't Pollock's work largely "about" the painting itself? Picasso was loathe to release the work from his studio because then it was out of his control. And Bruce Nauman wrote somewhere that "whatever I was doing in the studio must be art." (That's WHATEVER, equalling art).
So, today, when I was reading in Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, by Julian Bell (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2010) I saw this amazing photograph of two paired screens by Ogata Korin, called "Red and White Plum Trees," from about 1712. Bell writes that the artist, here, "touches on ancient themes of seasonal transience and complementary opposites" but also "cancels them out flamboyantly." The work's "dazzling flatness seems to declare that painting can simply be decorative, simply a demonstration of exquisite taste and perfect poise without further significance. At least, such was the rhetoric that gathered around its painter. Korin himself was a dashing bourgeois dilettante...." (265). Here is a photo of the work:
So I would say, the painter is delineating the tree branches perfectly (what Bell refers to as demonstrating "seasonal opulence"), yet he then gives us a pattern, in what seems to be an anticipation of Klimt, to show us the flow of the river, then he allows an entirely abstracted gold-leaf ground to stand ... itself signifying "nothing." So we have the full movement from representation to abstraction, from intentional rule and role-playing to throwing over all the rules.
Charley and I would agree, I suspect, that the gold here is the stunner. The complete expanse of (Nauman's) "whatever" takes the breath away. But... there's still that about/not about thing....
So then Bell talks about Dong Qichang, from China. Dong had argued that a painter named Ni Zan, who painted, he said, "merely to sketch the exceptional exhilaration in my breast" (139) could be seen as perfectly right in his (oh-so-loosely-representational) idealism, which, Bell writes, meant that Ni Zan, in Dong's theory, "kept a judicious, culturally well-informed distance from the crude imprint of the immediately visible" (266). I love that sentence of Bell's. Wow. The "crude imprint of the the immediately visible." It's pretty tempting to leap right into that, but I can't, really.
I think it takes a lot for an artist to to get the viewer to the "immediately visible." And I think it means that yes, that "visible" stuff can be pretty, or violent, or "nothing." But there still, for me, is a subject matter, even if that subject matter is "the crude imprint," the subject matter being, itself, the subject. "How to paint this" is, to me, a huge subject to articulate on canvas. But we will talk more....