Friday, February 17, 2012

Repeatedly Painting Closed Worlds, or Inventing Open Worlds: What is Abstract Art For?

“An original author always invents an original world …. There is no such thing as real life for an author of genius: he must create it himself and then create the consequences.”
 --Vladimir Nabokov on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Nabokov’s observation about one of Austen’s more controversial novels applies to artists as well.  No artist, no author, wishes to produce a work that has already been written or painted; “make it new.” I want to talk for a bit about what this means for abstract artists. For the purposes of playing with “original worlds,” I am going to pare down all the possibilities inherent in abstract art for a moment. I will divide the practice of creating abstract art into a choice of painting either closed or open worlds. Bear with me.

Representational paintings present the viewer with a battle, or a nymph and satyr, or encourage us to linger over the breakfast coffee cups or the delicate pinks of a rose, but the abstract artist is not re-presenting. Abstracts offer forms and colors to us … for the first time. This is the attraction of what I am calling the closed method: these painters draw geometric shapes, straight lines and repeated verticals and horizontals, not coffee cups, not armor, and not even their contours, in order to propose a different space to their audience.  A new space.  Josef Albers said that he felt that “abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I prefer to see with closed eyes.”  Here is an Albers painting, “Homage to the Square: Terra Caliente”:

 There is no organic shape or line here, no delicate shading, and we could even call into question one of the most basic ideas of painting, figure against ground. While there are no straight lines in nature, Gertrude Stein (reputedly) said, Albers has given us several.  The squares reverberate; their colors move. Albers painted many “Homage to the Square” works, always adjusting the color and the squared forms. The titles alone call into question what we think we know; a homage is to …a person, isn’t it?  Agnes Martin said, in “The Untroubled Mind,” in her Writings, that

Then I drew all those rectangles
All the people were like those rectangles
they are just like grass
That’s the way to freedom ….
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world
from wordliness ….
Art re-stimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities
that’s the function of art  (p. 39)

We are to be re-moved, waked up, re-imagined by this art.  Here is a Martin, from 1961, called “The Islands”:

 Paintings by Agnes Martin do not reproduce well in photographs. It isn’t possible, here, to see the careful pencil lines or to trace the slow movement of a brush from the beginning of a line to its end.  Seen in person, close, paintings by Martin are not only about different space, but about time, the time it takes to paint them, the time it takes to take them in. Because the works are so plain, so repetitive, so apparently “easy,” a roomful of Martins is very calming. Agnes Martin had begun her painting life in New York, in the full glare of the Abstract Expressionists. Early works of hers, now mostly destroyed, show her finding her way, but very much in the wake of others. Martin even stopped painting for a long period of time, until she arrived at this new way of painting, a way of working that is hers alone (just as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons belong only to her, or e.e. cummings’ treatment of the poetic line will never, it seems likely, find an heir).  

It isn’t the “shock of the new,” but the “seduction of the new” that pulls painters in. More recently, the Damien Hirst spot paintings -- completed largely by his studio assistants -- are introduced by Hirst this way: “When I first painted them it was this brand new thing and I felt immortal in a way. The time was right. We were fucking dancing on the tables, changing the rules, nothing could stop us …. The spot paintings were definitely conceptual art. There’s an optimism to them which is amazing” (interview with Anthony Haden-Guest, January 10, 2012, Here is a Hirst, “DL-P Chlorophenylalanine Methyl Ester,” 1998:

New … like the dots of Georges Seurat, these dots push and pull.  Hirst’s assistants had been making color and placement choices, “anything not to make a decision,” Hirst says (in the interview with Haden-Guest) but he did eventually take those rights back and planned the works, for maximum impact, one assumes.

The reason that I am describing these works by Albers, Martin and Hirst as “closed” is that there is no more to be done.  Every square is complete and framed, every line is finished, every dot is painted.  There isn’t any erasure, or softening of effect. It’s all there, planned, complete, conceptually perfect.  And there’s a good deal to be said for that -- I like Martin’s work, in particular – but there is a small problem with working this way now.

Rosalind Krauss wrote, in The Originality of the Avant-Gard and Other Modernist Myths, that “Perhaps it is because of this sense of a beginning, a fresh start, a ground zero, that artist after artist has taken up the grid as the medium within which to work, always taking it up as though he were just discovering it as though the origin he has found by peeling back layer after layer of representation to come at last to this schematized reduction … were his origin, and his finding it an act of originality. [And yet] …. The modernist grid is, like the Rodin casts, logically multiple: a system of reproductions without an original” (pp. 160, 162).  So these works are not … new.

What of the other category I have mentioned, the “open” painting? Here, I won’t give you several examples, just one, of a really powerful artist from Ireland: Patrick Graham.  (His solo show is now in San Francisco, at the Meridian Gallery, through April 14, 2012, and then moves to American University in Washington D.C. and will be shown in the fall at the Saint Louis University campus).  We saw the paintings and drawings (installed in the three stories of a beautiful Victorian mansion near Union Square) last week.

I should mention that Graham does -- often -- employ at least one straight line in his work. As a child, “I had a sense of being rooted” in Monaghanstown Bog in County Westmeath, Graham says. “I would look up at the sky with the larks hanging there, and then back down to earth in a great circular sweep …. I used to strip off and lie on the bog, feeling a sensual belonging to it. That meeting of earth and sky -- that horizon appears in all my paintings, locking everything together” (catalogue, p. 15).  Here is my husband’s favorite work from the show, “Deposition: Study 7,” from 2010 (all images are courtesy of The Meridian Gallery, San Francisco):

 There isn’t a straight line here, exactly, just the lining-up of the three central forms and the stretched-out figure of a man creating the sense of line among them.  The space is mostly white, with delicate tracings of pencilled-in forms (a pyramid or roof, something that looks like a table, lines and some scratches that are indeterminate) and phrases, bits of meaning, in two places on the painted board.  In an essay focusing on Graham’s iconography, Jarrett Earnest says that he sees these “tiny graphite specks” as “creating an ominous sense of pestilence or a dense invisible presence, like a ghost” (catalogue, p. 72).  Well, that “ominous sense” is certainly possible, although I did not see this work as prefiguring death or despair. There may be a ghostly presence, as I was certain that I saw a painting underneath, something painted out; this “Deposition” leaves you wondering.  The title is ambiguous, as well; is someone giving evidence (for himself? or against someone?) or is something simply being laid down … to rest? To think?

One of the characteristics of an “open” painting like this is its indeterminacy; interpretations will vary.  Samuel Beckett, in speaking of his novel How It Is,
said that meaning is “a rumour transmissible ad infinitum in either direction.”  And rumour, like meaning, can be rather unreliable -- particularly when it might run in two directions at once.  Earnest has reviewed statements by Graham, and notes that “Graham stresses that all his work is strategically unfinished, that it is left open.  Openness -- to receive, to listen -- is an unfixed state of transition” (catalogue p. 56).  The openness means that the works seem to be “in transit.” They have not arrived at their final stages; we get the feeling that nothing is pre-determined. Unlike the paintings we looked at above, based on the grid, where movement comes from color placement, which tricks the eye, so that a dot of a certain color seems to leap past another, here, the movement must be contemplative. The movement, the sustained interest, must be supplied by the viewer.

“Open” also means imperfect. Graham has stated that he found himself, at a young age, accomplished, “a self-conscious possessor of gifts that focused a kind of attention on me that I simply didn’t know how to deal with” (catalogue, p.80).  He needed to begin again in a world of sturdy shapes; like Matisse, Graham isn’t delicate. His bodies are flattened and not entirely in the frame. Look at  “The Artist, the Woman,” from 1983-4, a painting that is 72 ½ “ square:

The dedication is to David Bomberg, the British painter whose early work was geometric, Cubist, Futurist, but whose time in World War I trenches changed his work completely to expressionist figures and landscapes.   The figures dominate only the upper half of the painting with torso and head and blue veils or clouds; the lower half, here, is the more “open” half.  Why this dedication, here? Why the energetic brushstrokes and bubbles? Is this earth or water? The interesting thing here is that we don’t need to know.  We can simply see the arrested face of the woman, the cancelled-out face of the artist (looking rather like a Francis Bacon).  The horizontal and vertical lines here seem to be holding the figures in, so they don’t simply fly off into space.  Intriguing, and totally open to interpretation.

My favorite of all the works on show is the painting (the title says drawing, but it seems … more than that implies) here, called “The Lark In the Morning: Reworked Drawing, 1994,” and it is 31 7/8 x 44 1/8 inches. This is one of two works with the same title, but this is the one I really love:

 The rose-colored (male? female?) nude on the right seems to be in a calm, quiet space, where the nude (male? female?) on the left is in the midst of scribbling, re-painting, lines, marks (including two x’s) and cliffs or smokestacks… a riot of disparate images.  Or perhaps it is the person on the right who is bereft, and the one on the left in the midst of happy energy. What’s wonderful about this kind of art-making is that it’s still open, like a landscape.

Patrick Graham said: “the landscape has influenced my work right up to the present, particularly the low horizon; and that great vista where you can encounter space, and figures in it, in all kinds of ways….  Silences. No conversations. A looking-in, rather than a lived experience. That ‘looking-in on things’ has stayed with me: a self-contained art” (catalogue p. 44). What Graham has done is to create his own “original world” and the “consequences,” for us, are that we have a new -- truly new – landscape to lose ourselves in.  And we are very grateful.

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