Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's It All About, Alfie?: On Abstract Art and the Question of Meaning

Here are two paintings from the year 1824. The first is a "Seascape Study with Rain Clouds" by Constable:

This certainly could be an abstract work by a contemporary artist, hanging somewhere in Chelsea. The second is by Caspar David Friedrich, "The Sea of Ice":

Again, if I had not yet seen this, and someone told me that this painting was in a gallery in London, just completed by a young German artist, I would be impressed.  Both of these works are actually likely to have been studies: of light, of form, of the layering of paint. They contribute to each artist's practice, and yet neither is really characteristic of the major works of these men.  I find them moving. And yet, I have friends who belittle abstract art, who, when they are faced with a work by one of our contemporaries that seems as "abstract" as these, laugh, or think of them as "studies" for something more significant, as works with no meaning, as mere decoration. I have seen a sweet little old man point his umbrella towards the center of a huge De Kooning and say "There, there's the lighthouse. And the rock is just over here."

I remember an interview with Robert Motherwell on PBS, where he said, at one point, very slowly and forcefully, that "If the abstraction, the violence, the humanity was valid in Abstract Expressionism, then it cut out the ground from every other kind of painting."  And we look at a Motherwell, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV" from 1953-4, measuring 80 x 100" (think here of scale):

When you have been in a roomful of Motherwells,  it is impossible to deny their "violence" and "humanity." They are not decorative. They are meant to evoke feeling. I knew someone who worked for Motherwell once, who, fresh out of art school and trying to become a famous painter, asked his new teacher a series of questions. And Motherwell, a very articulate and learned person (Stanford, Harvard, Columbia), fed up, said, finally "Don't talk to me about theory.  *#%$  theory. Go home and astound me."  Abstract art may provoke theory, but it isn't made out of it.

It can be easy to walk right past a painting and not even try to take it in: it's too hard, it's too late in the day, it seems a silly exercise, people say. And yet, and yet. Take Mark Rothko.  Here is a work of his from 1954, called "Homage to Matisse" (who had just died that year):

Matisse is right there. Rothko said that "there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing."  He meant, he said, to express "tragedy, ecstasy, doom ..." through his work.  Rothko's work does not reproduce well. It must be seen. He created it through transluscent layering, and, when you stand in front of one, you can see the colors peeking through, the way memories appear, unbidden. The paintings reverberate in real life. There is a DVD called "Rothko's Rooms" which is a pretty powerful introduction to his complexities as a person and to the aims of his art.  Kirk Varnedoe said that "Rothko may make us think anew about the evening sky, but having once thought about the evening sky, we think about Rothko differently."

Josef Albers created a series of works over years, working through the way that colors could show us the way to see.  Art and science were one, for him, and he worked through endless combinations of colors, sometimes with only faintly observable changes from one to the next, all in the same shapes, squares nested inside of squares.  Below is "Study for Homage to the Square" from 1970:

Even in digital reproduction, we can see something happening here.  As I thought through my list of abstract painters, I had no luck finding anyone who painted in the void. I can't think of anyone who didn't have recourse to feeling or meaning as the paintings developed. Not anyone. Albers may have said it best: "Learn to see and to feel life; that is, cultivate imagination, because there are still marvels in the world, because life is a mystery and always will be. But be aware of it."

And so I leave you with one last view, of a Northern California winter sky:

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