Thursday, May 13, 2010

AFTER reading the Abstract chapter

(Previous post: BEFORE reading the Abstract chapter)

The chapter on abstract art in Frameworks for Modern Art began with an overview of abstract art in general -- Pollock, Rothko, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, etc. Then came a section called "Arguments for abstract art", in which a passage leapt to my attention:

"The evidence is that painting has had progressively to relinquish the task of first-hand depiction in order to survive as an art. The making of pictures does continue, but principally as a kind of craft or as an adjunct to other critical purposes -- usually by some recourse to photographic techniques. As such, picture-making is a useful means of conserving certain skills and a widespread source of pleasure to its producers and consumers alike." (1)

This is a very big put-down of painting. Time will tell if Harrison's claim is right or wrong, but in the meantime I'll go with wrong. First, whether something is an art or a craft is not a useful distinction. Second, there's some spectacular painting being done today, for example by Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Neo Rauch, and hosts of others, including the up-and-coming Trinidadian Che Lovelace. These are the names that spring to mind when I think of contemporary art, rather than installation or video artists (but of course this could be because I'm a painter myself).

Third, as far as Harrison's claim goes, he's brave to make it. There's some evidence that an urge to draw and paint (to make marks) is innate in human beings and if that is true then painting (like the novel) will always be with us.

Harrison goes on to describe Newman's Eve in detail. Everything is significant -- the size of the canvas, the fact that the red paint goes a few centimetres over the edge onto the sides, the fact that minute bits of white ground show through at the join between lighter and darker reds. Some of the analysis relies on writings by Newman himself who was a prolific writer on art with exalted ideas.

I tried hard to understand and to be sympathetic but in the end I was not convinced. Abstract art is fine but I don't think Newman's Eve is representative of abstract art in general.  Maybe some of his other paintings are, I don't know. I was reminded of a saying of Josef Albers: "In musical compositions, so long as we hear merely single tones, we do not hear music."(2). For me, something like that applies to visual art as well.

1. Charles Harrison, in Frameworks for Modern Art, ed. Jason Gaiger, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Open University, 2003, page 115.
2. Josef Albers,
Interaction of Color, Revised and Expanded Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 5

[Edited 28 May 2010]

Related: BEFORE reading the Abstract chapter

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