The challenge of abstraction
by Alec Clayton

“The big artist keeps a sharp eye on Nature and steals her tools. …then he’s got a canoe of his own, smaller than Nature’s but big enough for every purpose. …With this canoe he can sail parallel to Nature’s sailing.” – Thomas Eakins[1]

“I am nature.” Jackson Pollock[2]

Throughout the twentieth century the big tug-of-war among contemporary artists was between abstract art and figurative art. Many artists vacillated between the two. Leading figurative artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Phillip Pearlstein started out as abstract painters (and Pearlstein always maintained that even his photo-realistic figures were really abstract paintings). And Richard Diebenkorn, who was just beginning to become known as a major figure painter, switched to abstraction and became even more famous ¾ while Fairfield Porter and Edward Hopper, two of the greatest painters at mid-century, were unfairly cast in the role of minor painters because they refused to jump on the abstraction bandwagon; and Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, the leading abstract painters at the time, were accused of betraying the modernist movement when they introduced figurative elements into their work.

Painters came to blows over the war between figuration and abstraction. And many people in the general public were bewildered by abstraction. Statements such as “a six-year-old child could do that” became common, because people could not see in abstraction a way to judge what was good and what wasn’t.

Abstract art first reared its head at the beginning of the 20th century, and even at the end of the century many people were still bewildered by it. In 1999, I was invited to do a show at the Henderson House Museum in Tumwater, Washington. The museum director asked me if I would write a brief statement on my paintings that would offer guidance to people who were not familiar with abstract art. This is what I wrote:

Wassily Kandinsky is generally credited with making the first abstract paintings at the beginning of the twentieth century. Kandinsky spoke of his paintings as being symbolic and as relating to music: symbolic in that colors and shapes have inherent associations (red associated with fire, passion, etc.; blue associated with cool water and summer skies) and musical in the use of rhythm, harmony and accent.

The problem with “understanding” such art often comes from the very attempt to understand. People faced with abstract art are often put off because they fear if they can't understand what it means they will appear dumb. But interesting shapes and beautiful colors can be enjoyed for what they are in and of themselves without having to puzzle out what they might mean. We all have the ability to look at the soft dreaminess of cloud patterns and be swept up by their beauty. We all have the ability to appreciate the brilliant colors and intricate markings in a flower without having to ask what the flower means. We should be able to do the same with abstract paintings, without feeling we have to understand the deeper underlying meaning ¾ often there is none.

Kandinsky's reference to music is helpful. A song with lyrics may tell a story or express emotions with which we can easily relate. But beyond the lyrics, we can feel the emotions and enjoy the abstract elements of music: rhythm, harmony, the unexpected accent that delights, the range of a singer's voice, the power of the drummer's beat. By way of analogy, instrumental music is like abstract art. In art we can “listen” to the rhythms of repetitive shapes. We can “hear” the harmony of blended colors and feel the power of a deep red next to a velvety black. An abstract painting is visual music without lyrics.

My paintings are informed by nature. If you study them carefully you will see fish and birds and flowers and human figures, but these figures are never obvious. I don't want to paint a bird that looks like a bird, because then the viewer will be looking at the bird instead of the paint. Finding the bird or the face can be fun ¾ like searching for Waldo ¾ but the images are not what the paintings are about. What the paintings are about is rhythm, texture, contrast and harmony, color, shape and pattern. These are the things viewers should look for in order to get the most out of them. Look to see how this line over here leads the eye to that shape over there, how a pattern on one side is repeated with slight variations on the other side, how a dull color in one place makes the brighter color next to it look even brighter, how contrasting elements are kept from clashing due to the way they seem to weave in and out in space and fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Ultimately, my paintings are about resolving conflicts ... just like a story, but the “characters” are color, line, shape, etc.

The lure of the figure continues to be irresistible to many artists, but I suspect that for some that seduction is more erotic than aesthetic. For others, I suspect that the lure of the figure is that it offers them a chance to prove their ability in ways that are indisputable (a way to demonstrate how convincingly realistic they can depict a beautiful woman or a statue of a warrior on a rearing horse).
The lure of abstraction is equally seductive because of its purity. It is art for art’s sake. Only through abstract art, some argue, can you reach down to the pure essence of art.

Much of art of the modern era has been a synthesis between abstraction and figuration. The word abstract originally meant to take from something concrete or distill it to find its essence, and although the word is now more commonly used to describe art with no recognizable subject matter, most modern or contemporary art is abstract in that original sense of abstracting from nature.
When reviewing art that is abstract but with references to nature, I have observed an interesting phenomenon: the more abstract it is, the better it tends to be. A painter may base her painting on recognizable subject matter, for example, but if she gets too caught up with the challenge of making a bird look like a bird, she loses her spontaneity and loses sight of the overall composition. It is as if subject matter has a natural capacity to corrupt form. But the problem may not be with the subject matter. It may simply be that an artist must not lose sight of what the work is about whether it is abstract or figurative or something in between.

[1] Quoted by Robert Hughes in Nothing if Not Critical.
[2] Pollock’s reply to Hans Hoffman when Hoffman said he needed the inspiration of nature.

copyright © Alec Clayton 1999

"Alec Clayton has the integrity to point out when the art is superficial, as well as to show
when the art transcends the ordinary. His reviews, and The Weekly Volcano, make significant
contributions to the visibility and merits of the arts in our area". - Read his Visual Edge column every week in the Weekly Volcano. - Ron Hinson, artist


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