Thursday, July 28, 2011


A demonstration 

Imagine that one day, as you're in the middle of painting yet another of the realistic pictures you're known for and are good at, you suddenly stop, put down your brush, and say:
Enough! I've had enough of this! Why must I go on endlessly depicting what I see? Music doesn't have to tell a story or imitate familiar sounds - why shouldn't I too break free from representation? 

So you take some blank canvases and papers and boards and paints and solvents and you start exploring ways of creating a visual art which doesn't describe or interpret known objects but is  its own reality. 
Immediately you become aware that certain options are open to you. Gradually, depending on your tastes, moods, influences and the random effects which the materials themselves provide, you choose to pursue one or more of those options. Having put aside the figurative content which previously dominated your attention, you now focus on process, invention and concept. 

Links below are to relevant works by some of the innumerable abstract painters who created personal styles out of some or all of these eight modes. The processes often fuse or overlap, but I found it useful to single them out.
Free-flowing, transparent or dense, indeterminately-edged, ethereal. Bissier, Frankenthaler, Still

with informal blocks of interlocked shapes, creating perspectiveless depth by colour and texture.
De Stael, Hodgkin, Diebenkorn

with brush, charcoal, fingers, etc. A spontaneous calligraphic means of creating form.
Kline, Blow, Hitchens

Devising and obeying invented rules, proportions, concepts, hard-edged, rigorous. Mondrian, Nicholson, Malevich
Over-all, edgeless, whether patiently drawn or made by controlling random processes. Pollock, Tobey  Davie
fragments of imagination and chance. Shapes invented or loosely based on remembered objects. Mirò, Gorky, Friedlaender
Linear signs, perhaps words or hieroglyphs, on smooth or rough surfaces, coloured or plain. Klee, Twombly, Tàpies
Large empty fields of intense colour, atmospheric, enveloping. Rothko, Olitski, Newman

That's my over-simplified but fairly accurate summing-up of some of the paths taken by any painter who sets out on a journey away from representation. 'Art for art's sake' makes sense when perceived as a desire to escape from the prison of the seen - or rather, the scene - in order to paint something other. How do you get to that otherness and still remain a painter? The eight processes shown above are possible ways to get there which have been explored and elaborated by most of the abstract and semi-abstract painters of our time.
However, they are not exclusive to modern times or to abstract art. If you isolate details from well-known figurative paintings of any period, it's very clear that those modes crop up everywhere and that they play a role in shaping the styles of individual artists, whatever their subject. What was new about some modern abstract art is that it made process become the master, the subject, rather than remaining merely technique, the servant. 

But ABSTRACT versus FIGURATIVE  is a false dichotomy. Great figurative art of any period never re-presents reality as we know it  so it's already abstraction. But it does offer startling new ways to see the familiar and, sometimes, shows us things that are completely unfamiliar.

The fragments I've selected merely show examples of the eight abstract modes in the handling of paint or the composition of these particular figurative paintings. I don't mean to imply that these artists' work can be categorised under such labels.
Links to the full pictures from which the details are taken:

1. Watteau
2. El Greco
3. John Singer Sargent
4. Vermeer
5. Klimt
6. Bruegel
7. Rembrandt
8. De La Tour



vivien said...

I totally agree - to paint on a 2D surface from a 3D subject already involves abstraction, decisions about colour and mark making.

Looking at a Rembrandt painting close up is wonderful - slashes and dribbles of paint and such incredibly free mark making in lace cuffs and such, that from a distance coalesce into the lace.

Abstract painting that is merely about pattern is, for me, rather empty and purely about being decorative - it still needs a concept behind it. Rothko, Gillian Ayres, Therese Oulton - all have ideas and thoughts and depth going on, not mere pattern making.

You have to dig deeper to create a meaningful totally abstract work as little is a 'given' as with seeing something in fron of you and interpreting it.

I'm not often a purely abstract painter, though I do occasionally work that way. One project was for an exhibition to link with the local Comedy Festival with the theme of Slapstick.

The way I approached it was to research Harlequin and the Commedia del Arte, finding out about how the costume evolved from shabby outfits with genuine patches and repairs. The abstracts I created were based on the patches, the glow of the candles lighting the stage on fabric etc - but non-figurative. Still, a concept behind the paintings, a raison d'etre.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Vivien, thank you - I wholly agree with all you said. Are there some photos of your paintings on your site? I must go and find it!

Sorry for my late response - I haven't got used to the comment moderation system yet and didn't know until just now that I had any comments!