John Walker

I remember when there was a vogue for the work of John Walker. I didn’t like it because at that time he was using the same form over and over, which he called “Alba,” and said was derived from Goya. I thought that was a real failure of invention, and maybe too much a Pop/Conceptual device, like Michael Snow’s Walking Woman, for example. I had the same problem with the “bean” of Claude Viallat, which I saw quite early on at the Ace Gallery in Vancouver, but that’s a topic for a later post.

John Walker, detail of Oceania – My Dilemma 1983

It’s the bent shape at the left in this work. I’m not so critical today, in fact I understand how a shape can be so interesting that one wants to work with it for some time. After all, it’s each particular shape that matters. But what I’ve recently learned about Walker is even better—the pleasure he takes in painting is aural. What matters to him is the sound of the brush on the canvas. I’ve never heard of that before—it’s really interesting and original. Of course the loudest sound, in the studio and out, is the noise inside one’s own head, and Walker’s method turns out to be a great perspective on that, one that benefits the work. My newest collage is in oil paint—was trying the Walker way today, and would extend the method to other sounds, like the clink of a ferrule on a jar of turpentine.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Eisler

John Eisler, Untitled 2016

Posted in Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rozanova’s Career

Olga Rozanova, in her short life, had a very distinguished career, quite apart from the quality of her work, which is high. After the revolution she became a civil functionary, and traveled around the country setting up art schools and workshops. Her main period of abstract work was from 1915—when she started with collages and drawings that looked like they could be collages—until her death in 1918, not long.

Olga Rozanova, Self Portrait 1914

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #2 1915

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #3 1915

Posted in Early Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Space of Collage

A while back I mentioned Briony Fer’s book on abstraction and the special place she gives to collage at the origins of the practice. I picked it up again to refresh my memory and one of the points has to do with a long standing debate about space, or the illusion of space, in a collage. In standard modernist history it’s supposed to affirm the surface, breaking with the fictive unity of oil paint, and the characteristic space of collage is assumed to be the very thin space of one layer of paper on top of another. For Judd, apparently, collage is not very spatial, and neither are the paintings of Malevich, which look like sheets of superimposed paper. That description could apply to the work of many avant-gardists in Russia a hundred years ago. 

Nadezhda Udaltsova, Untitled 1916

Liubov Popova, Painterly Architectonics 1918

Posted in American Modernism, Early Abstraction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


When in the mood I enjoy going on about Stella. I don’t like everything he does, but the funny thing is I usually come around. The Exotic Birds used to seem pretty bad, but now….good. The Brazilian Series used to be beyond the pale for me but now….they’re in. Today I have a hard time with the Bali Series. Who knows if they will also look better one day. No reason why they have to.

Frank Stella, redjang 2009

Posted in American Modernism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Style of Work

What makes Stella so productive (and you have to investigate to find out how much, because most of the work is not widely known) is a two part process. First lots of planning and preparation, then head long improvisation and intense work. He is very impatient and has said many times that his main concern is to get the work finished and done with. Like most artists I’m willing to take whatever time is necessary to get it right; with Stella you can see that sometimes he says to himself “good enough.” But with so much energy to carry him there are no failures, only alternative solutions. The series as a form allows that. It might sound like a rationalization, but it’s really the condition of abstraction itself, for there are no absolute or overriding criteria, and so every new solution accepted is a new possibility opened up. I don’t mean to suggest a lack of rigor—in Stella’s case forward driving energy ensures that rigorous self critique and second guessing doesn’t result in work with a familiar feel. And what sends Stella beyond the chance of failure is the preparation. All those smoke rings are printed out ahead of time and then cut up to be collaged into compositions. Parts are cut out of printer’s proofs, aluminum castings are made in multiple copies, and then over again at different scales. For the reliefs there are cardboard maquettes to guide the casting work but still, left overs, failures and changes of mind must produce a pile of parts in the corner of the studio—later to make other works, even other works in other media, as cast pieces can be inked and printed. Templates and stencils can switch places. The artist at play in a universe of forms.

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail left side)

Posted in American Modernism, Ethics of Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blue Poles

Another contentious late Pollock is Blue Poles. Some people call it an outright failure. I think it was failing, but he saved it the same way he saved an earlier picture, now in the Guggenheim collection in Venice.

Jackson Pollock, Alchemy 1947

Alchemy is one of the very early drip pictures, and it was getting pretty loaded, and pretty formless. The last gesture was a number of thin white lines laid at angles across the top. It was as if he was scratching the whole thing out. Certainly the white lines lack the graphic strength and control usual in the drip pictures. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were knife cuts instead of white paint. But this final, canceling gesture became the solution to an overworked picture that wasn’t coming clear, and I think they work because they are Pollock’s recourse to the typical diagonals of cubism.

Pablo Picasso, The Accordionist 1911

Of course, in this picture the many diagonal lines are integrated fully with the small brush strokes, but they sure pop out as well. All the major analytical cubist figure pictures of Picasso are like that. Greenberg was right, Pollock does not move that far beyond cubism, and the earlier art was on his mind at a difficult moment of transition.

Jackson Pollock, No. 11 1952 (Blue Poles)

Blue Poles was also getting beyond salvage, and like Alchemy it has a lot of silver paint, though I’m not sure that matters. But Pollock pulled it off by remembering the solution to Alchemy, and going about it in a more deliberate, emphatic way. The dancing diagonals, with shreds of something flapping off them in the wind, become a new kind of figuration. Each one of them is a skinny, minimal figure, kind of out Giacometti-ing Giacometti. And at another difficult moment of transition, Pollock remembers the skeleton that supported dissolving, atmospheric cubist matter. The real link to cubism is found in Pollock’s spaces, the interstices of the web, which are his negation and continuation of cubist passage, but these two pictures are so heavy that such a space is difficult to access. By bringing back the supporting scaffold of cubist pictures, the dense matter of his paintings could be conjured into lightness. Maybe. Notice that his method is always to work with the outside or negative of what he is thinking of or striving for.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Portrait and a Dream

Talking about possibilities in late Pollock—he undoubtedly went through difficult periods, as we all do, but to my eyes the work of the mid-fifties shows no slacking off. If he could have lightened up a bit I’m sure he would have found a lot to do. But again, we all, at times, get too heavy and serious. He should have embraced the decorative, light, wallpaperish quality of the drip paintings. Sure I can understand his unwillingness to let his work become mere decoration, and appreciate that he felt he had to dig deeper, but nothing is gained by opposing the work itself, as Pollock, in his better moments, undoubtedly knew. Other dimensions would have opened up, and I see at least two of them in Portrait and a Dream. First of all a bigger space, one in which the work, and his own subjectivity, could be objectified. That happens through the two part structure, and the two different approaches on the same canvas. Very literary.

Jackson Pollock, Portrait and a Dream 1953

Secondly, he could have made a tondo, or let the round configuration sit on a square of blank canvas. Sadly for him, Pollock was not a formalist, so he missed out on the pleasures of development. I think this large piece is very beautiful. Definitely not formalist, but not necessarily “expressionist” either.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Keeping on with the idea of looking at Pollock’s later works as individual pieces, not as members of a series, Convergence is one of the late large abstractions. Standing in front of it at the Albright-Knox the first thing that struck me, after getting lost in the form, is that nothing actually converges in this piece, and in this respect it might anticipate Judd’s reading of Pollock. You could say it merely hangs together. The top layer of coloured splashes sits on a lower layer of black webs. The two levels are not unified. The centre, where one might expect things to converge, is kind of empty, and all the coloured action is peripheral, even centrifugal. And then there’s the white.

Jackson Pollock, Convergence 1952

The late works sometimes give the impression of being overworked. This could be because he was getting into difficulties, and for Pollock the only available way out was to add more. This one looks like a black figurative pieces that’s been painted over and painted out. Be that as it may, I think the late work is a painful and difficult progress toward new possibilities. Overworked or not, I can get lost in tracing the shapes, linking the lines, feeling the depths, joining parts that don’t really join and letting them fall apart again. It’s as hypnotic and engrossing for me as it must have been for Pollock when he made it. I refuse to see it as an overall composition, or non-composition—too busy enjoying the experience to leave and go up to that conceptual level.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


An artist never has no reason not to wait. One has to let the work emerge and why rush it? Time in the ordinary sense, as something to be measured, has no meaning in art, and the value of activity isn’t clear. As George Eliot says: “Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude.” Negative capacity is always greater than skill, although that’s no justification for the dilettante. So things don’t have to get done—in fact nothing actually has to get done. Delay, procrastination, caution, doubt, evasion, waiting, patience, expectation, indifference to deadlines, wool gathering, grammatical convolutions, daydreams, excuses, conversation, holidays, planning, second thoughts, third thoughts, pentimenti—all in the tool box. What will get done will. Just don’t apply that method to ordinary life. I know some artists who try, and it never works out.

VSGaitonde, Untitled 1977

Posted in Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Complex Form

One couldn’t come up with an artist further from the concerns of modern day, formalist inclined abstraction than George Eliot—her novels are all about moral challenges. I can hardly express my esteem for what she did, and who she was. You have a feeling of enormous natural power and presence, and that’s not damaged in any way by her constant moralizing. So…the validity of any aesthetic position is proven by its capacity for contradiction. But one thing that always struck me is the diversity of her works. No two are really alike. I’ve been reading Daniel Deronda, her last novel. One part of it is about the titular hero, brought up as an English gentleman, who gradually realizes he is Jewish. The other part is the story of young Gwendolen Harleth, and her disastrous choice of a husband. The two characters do meet, and their interaction is central to the author’s designs on us, but one can not avoid the impression that the book is jammed together from different and unrelated parts. In addition, though important scenes are dramatized, in the best novelistic way, others are passed right over, and others are presented as flashbacks. I don’t think it’s really improvised, but it appears to be written as the author thought and not really crafted. Again, it doesn’t much suffer for all of that. That an artist would take such a chance probably means that she felt herself the equal of Shakespeare, or that she was at least trying for the same naturalness beyond nature and beyond art. The biggest challenge faced by abstraction is to become more capacious of possibilities, and less unified. Even George Eliot can be an inspiration.

Photograph of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Posted in Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plants and Animals

If some readers are not convinced by my description, in the previous post, of Krasner’s work as ruled by a plant metaphor, I submit these two works, which have titles and colours to match that theme. But it’s interesting that for Krasner the earth mother Gaea is not so green. She’s a lot more of a sexual being than a passive plant.

Lee Krasner, Gaea 1966

But that’s how she should be. Krasner’s typical globes, eggs, faces, genitals (of both sexes), lips, eyes—all curving and rounded shapes—give Gaea an identity as the generator of life, and of forms. At the right hand side I see an allusion to a figure from Cézanne’s large bathers in London’s National Gallery, placed in the same position in that picture.

Paul Cézanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Krasner has given her a de Kooning like mouth—it looks pasted on. But the connection with the great theme of bathers in a landscape, or water nymphs, is really interesting.

Lee Krasner, Portrait in Green 1966

Her work grows as the gestures move, and as it grows it generates the mythological content—which is not really myth but more like the depths of reality, the truth that myth depicts. As for all true animists, her plants are not just alive, but alive as beings we can interact with. She’s a figure painter whose figures have no boundaries.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crisis Moment

Krasner’s unique style is made of strongly drawn circles, arcs and ellipses. She has a kind of compulsion to go around with her arm. In her case it’s not a limitation and more than a habit—it’s an expressive language that she develops a long way. The normal problems of how to fill the surface, imagery, association, colour and line, value, adding and linking of parts etc. are there, but she has a place to start to address all of them, namely her typical rounded gesture. I think it’s a very rich practice, full of possibilities. It hasn’t usually been seen so. I remember telling Arthur Danto that a big piece of hers in the Whitney was the best thing I had seen on a recent visit, and he just snorted in scorn. But people like Arthur Danto stick pretty close to the consensus. Her titles bear consideration, and these two have a certain relation to each other. Plant imagery is a banality in some kinds of abstraction, but important to realize is that the real cornucopia is of invention—an overflow of ideas and a feeling of creative abundance. The theme might be an old Dutch still life, but it’s realized as a swarming tangled vinous life, and that’s her mode.

Lee Krasner, Cornucopia 1958

First thing to notice about the second image is that the crisis didn’t last a moment—the picture took eight years. And if the work is the resolution of a crisis, the form it took is a plant-like exfoliation or growth—but not only that. The driving diagonal energy makes a cross or X that breaks the globular forms apart. And the globular forms are distinctly testicular in appearance, so the picture is both a sexual eruption and a castration. I’m trying to say that her manner is based on growth, specifically a plant like growth that can deliver unexpected kinds of fruit, but there is more of society and human emotion in it than that formula might at first suggest. For Krasner, the life of plants is not serene. 

Lee Krasner, Crisis Moment 1972-80

What the crisis was I don’t know, but interesting that parts of this piece are actually collage. Krasner is an exponent of collage as violence, difficulty and disunity—with a very different feel from Rozanova and the other Russians—a tough job for an artist whose work is so strongly unified by the plant metaphor.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lee Krasner

As I said in an earlier post, Lee Krasner gave Pollock’s Easter and the Totem to the MoMA, and I think that was a measure of her regard for that work, which otherwise is not much celebrated. The conventional wisdom is not up to the standard of Pollock’s later work. In any case, I think this work by Krasner shows a clear influence of that piece.

Lee Krasner, Birth 1956

The title indicates its importance for her, and it’s kind of equivalent to Pollock’s habit of using the title Number 1. It also contains some recollections of Pollock’s early mythological pieces in the way the paint is applied, the way the lines work with the colour and the imagery. But I hope we can get past the problem of seeing Krasner’s identity as Mrs. Pollock as a problem. She was an excellent artist, but as it happened, as for everyone else of her generation, Pollock’s work was a force she had to acknowledge. Her best work came in the late fifties through the seventies, and I want to make posts on certain examples.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Easter and The Totem

I don’t think I can explain why I like this piece. It’s an example of Pollock’s late figurative work, coming after the Black Paintings and after Convergence and Blue Poles, contemporary with The Deep and Portrait and a Dream. I love it. I think it’s a culminating work, and not just because it comes late. It scoops up his early mythological works, the black paintings and abstraction, but the main attraction is its enigma. What is it exactly? Can’t tell. And, of course, it is beautiful and beautifully painted. It also contains some response to Wifredo Lam, who we know Pollock admired. It must have been important for Lee Krasner, for it shows up—to my eyes at least—in her work of the sixties and seventies. She evidently thought it important when she gave it to MoMA, but they don’t show it. Pollock didn’t really work in series. Each piece stands alone, especially the late works, which to me makes them the most interesting. Future topics.

Jackson Pollock, Easter and The Totem 1953

Posted in American Modernism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


Recently read a great article by Boris Groys on Kojève. Never read Kojève myself but I know that he taught Hegel to the surrealists, and I learned a lot about that from a very good book about surrealist objects by my old friend Steve Harris. In any case, Boris is always enlightening. But more than that, I always feel that he sees into my art, even though he’s not talking about it specifically. And what he sees is always at least a little disturbing. Kojève understood art as an expression of emptiness; he also knew about art as repetition, meaning repetition of an empty original. But what most came to me from this account were thoughts about fame and recognition. Does the enormous size of our still growing culture incline one to seek distinction, or to be satisfied with what Kojève calls mere animal life? Back in the day there wasn’t so much competition. But then opportunities were fewer. But then if you got a chance it was more likely to lead somewhere. Who knows if it’s harder to rise today? Certainly there’s more money at the top, but money just means animal life, and for Kojève genuine ambition is not for that. It’s one of the great modern fictions that ordinary life, free from ambition, is as good as art. I think Somerset Maugham, in his novel Of Human Bondage, was one of the best exponents of this charming dream. Kojève thought that the age of striving and ambition was over, and that all we have now is consumption. Look around and it doesn’t seem that way, but what he means is that striving to express emptiness, yet again, is hardly on the level of the highest achievements of the past.

Alexandre Kojève

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Current Affairs, Ethics of Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outside the Border Fence

Following from the previous post, I think it helps a lot to travel, and not just to Miami or Basel. I talk about this in my book. But though you can take your body to different places, it’s hard to get outside one’s habits of mind, meaning inability to see. I mean it really is hard, it’s not a personal failing. I doubt it comes naturally to anyone, especially in an overcrowded and overproducing art world. You also need to know people who have different perspectives. This is why I value certain of my friends, like Francesco Pellizzi and Andreas Neufert. They always remind me of the largeness of the world.

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Current Affairs, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Berger’s Choices

A recent article by Ben Davis about the death of John Berger demanded a reply—sadly comments were not possible. Davis made the point that some of the artists Berger admired were obscure, non-canonical. My answer would be why does Ben Davis, like everyone else, cling to the consensus? We had Barry Schwabsky admit that he missed Carmen Herrera, shouldn’t we just accept that our perspective is always narrower than the reality of art? And if a critic, make an effort to see. To say that Berger’s choices are eccentric or weird is complacency pure and simple. Surrender to the tacit agreement, the conventions of the present. I can go a long way with Neizvestny, who is like a character in a science fiction novel of the nineteen thirties.

Ernst Neizvestny, a modernist Rodin

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Ethics of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repeating Patterns

As in all improvisation, patterns tend to recur. In fact, the more open and free the improv, the more subject it is to repetition. This is something I’ve learned from music, and this is why preparation helps a lot. Art doesn’t come out of nothing. Or say the new never comes out of nothing. Stella’s prints, as you might expect, have recurring patterns. This is a nice, complex piece.

Frank Stella, Fanattia 1995

White network/lattice type forms mark the two upper corners, like two horns. But they really help define the top half of the design as a rectangle, with the green and red curved shapes taking the bottom corners. Then a more rounded agglomeration spills out of that rectangle into the bottom half of the picture. Or you could start at the yellow in the bottom right corner and rectangulate your way through the other bright colors, turning sharp corners and ending up at the red upper right, and say that lower case “n” shape holds the bottom and top together. Color, design, value all working well here to make a complex multi-layered whole. The optional or multi-plex aspect of how the forms join together is what might make it “abstract.” But it’s not hard to see this arrangement repeat to some degree in the next piece.

Frank Stella, Juam 1997

In this case three corners are marked by the same battered beach ball, tipped at a different angle in each case. The three imply four, and make a symmetrical, balanced configuration, but of course Stella messes up the symmetry. The bright red shapes look like they are spinning out of the middle, and the rings on a dark background are spilling into the bottom left corner. The frame within the frame calls for the top corners to be acknowledged, and then he finds two different ways to get to the bottom. Or that’s one way to see it, which doesn’t exhaust the possibilities.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Abstract Order

Following on from the previous post, Stella’s manner in the late prints especially, but also in many of his reliefs, is to be vivid, crazy, overloaded and loud. That’s what puts a lot of viewers off. It’s a style and a feel hard for many to take. I think it’s an attempt to outshout the clamor we have to put up with all the time anyway, certainly in the art world. Can’t blame him for that, since so many other artists do the same. He just found a way to do it with painting, and so embarrasses more timid competitors. But the more I look at the works and the more I’m forced to justify my choices on this blog, the clearer and more straightforward they seem. The first impression is something to see through, but we have to face the truth that in abstraction today there are no standard patterns, or there shouldn’t be, and so the number of possible configurations is very great.

Frank stella, The Pacific 1985-88

All the Wave series of prints have a consistent pattern, which works as a consciously chosen limitation and a support for the viewer. There is the base layer of a Chinese lattice, either rectangular or circular, and that’s placed on a ground more or less worked up. In this case the ground is attractively scuffed and stained off-white paper. Then the other shapes do a dance behind, through and in front of open and broken frames. All the prints have marbling, but here it’s confined to the lattice and the foreground wave/whale shape. There, not so complex is it? In fact it’s quite beautiful. The devices I mentioned are interesting, and appeal to our need for formal matter to get some clarity on what we are looking at. A direct appeal to feeling never works, there has to be something objective and describable to work with. As I mentioned before, the same devices appear in the Moby-Dick Engravings and Domes, though there the lattices are all circular.

Frank Stella, Giufa e la Beretta Rosa 1989

This piece is a little more difficult. It is associated with the Cones and Pillars, some of Stella’s most challenging and in-your-face works. The straight line or stick that runs up at bottom right, and joins with the oval blue-grey shape below to make something that looks like a musical note, is parallel to the edge of a grey shape to its left, and also dances with a similar thin straight section in the top half of the print. The blue-grey oval at bottom brackets the whole composition with a white arc decorated with ovals at the top, and a striped disc sits in between. The blue area on the right joins visually with the blue grey “note” to make a bent shape that fits in very nicely with the arcs and ovals. There are a lot of symmetries and repetitions, but they don’t jump at us right away because the overall busyness distracts. The piece is not as arbitrary or chaotic as it looks at first glance. Or let’s say that it’s not just the color that’s unified and logical, the whole thing is, but it’s not pre-planned. Good arrangements arrived at through improvisation.

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Formal Principle

I’ve been trying to work out exactly what kind of order Stella is aiming for, looking at the prints and late paintings. I think that to avoid an ordering principle is probably, for Stella, a kind of abstraction. The topic becomes compelling to me as I move into large collages. Right now I work with large clear areas, which may overlap, and which dominate smaller areas with lots of detail.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 2016

Stella goes for overload, filling the piece with different kinds of detail to the extent that the main configuration is hard to detect. Maybe not so hard, but it takes sustained attention to find it.

Frank Stella, Libertinia 1995

This print is easier to read than most. The stretched out horizontal proportions demand a sequential or side by side arrangement, or suggest such a thing, and personally I like that. It looks like two rounded off shapes with a transitional area between, but you can also follow the orange diagonal at the right side over and into the middle and see it expand and veer upwards to the left and merge with the left hand group. The punched out red and white area is background. But there’s no real hierarchy of forms, and that’s likely what he considers “abstract.”

Posted in American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time and Change

Many of the things I say on this blog are widely recognized. They are not always expressed the same way. Actually, I don’t know if “widely recognized” is the right phrase—it might be more like conventional wisdom of the past. What was conventional once is now so far beyond the fence that it seems new. But you can’t repeat the past. What was once true and is again has to be rediscovered, reinvented in fact.

Robert Linsley, Gulf 1999

But all freshness comes from art. When it’s right you don’t think about the precedents. Those kind of thoughts are charmed away.

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olga Rozanova

Been looking at great collages by Rozanova. They have that beautiful freshness of beginnings. For her, abstraction was an open future, so she had no idea how to value work like this. It was all an experiment. We can decide which experiments were worthwhile and which ones weren’t, at least for us. For now. And our job is to keep that open ended future open, even if not for us. So this could also be art of our time.

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #5 1915

What attracts me are elements that I use myself—tissue paper, cut-out lines working with patches, mixing drawing with collage, diagonals. This mode of art has a built in comedy, as  suggested in an earlier post, and that may be because of its lightness. Comic always means contemporary, and ordinary, and social. It is figurative, because it has an origin in cubism. But remember, Picasso’s work has a monstrous aspect on occasion, so that must be in here somewhere too, or at least the possibility. Perhaps today we can make something with both sides—the comic/light/optimistic and the monstrous/dark/critical.

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #6 1915

Posted in Early Abstraction, Ethics of Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Art for the Age of Trump

Thinking about constructivist collage—in other words, art of a revolutionary period—makes one wonder what kind of art is right for today. Does my Collage #10 really measure up, or is to too much Kutesy-Klee and Kandinsky-Kute? Are the animal/organic and dark collages better? Probably. This might be a time for the monstrous. The monstrous was always present in abstract expressionism, and for that matter in surrealism, but it reads differently in different periods. Sometimes it just seems ridiculous. Maybe not now. I think of it as an expansion of the resources of figuration. Social monstrosities—like Trump’s cabinet—are not the ones I’m interested in. Zombies and vampires don’t really cut it, in my estimation. Human doctors and genetic engineers can make new monsters, but they will always be trivial. What art can channel is the monstrous form of beings before they actually acquired form. And that could be an art of a revolutionary time.

Robert Linsley, Inside Passage 2008

Monstrous figuration has always been part of what I do. Better than rinky-dink lines and patches. This one is a head, among other things. By the way, if anyone cares, I love Collage #10—just keep staring at it, though have no idea why.

Posted in Abstraction and Society, American Modernism, Current Affairs, Ethics of Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collage at the Beginning

Years ago, in her book on abstraction, Briony Fer suggested that collage was at the origin of the practice. I didn’t know what importance to attach to that idea, but I liked it. Her examples were collages by the Russian avant-gardist Olga Rozanova, so she was talking about a germinal moment in the history of abstraction, and the resemblance of those coloured patches to the planes of Malevich was striking.

Olga Rozanova, from the series Universal War

Today the great collage artist is Frank Stella, and his work has very many filiations with early abstraction—something for an art historian to deal with. But what’s interesting to think about is how certain paintings might as well be collages—and it would also be interesting to try to define exactly which kinds they are. My own approach is experimental not theoretical—shifting back and forth between painting and collage is the way I think about it.

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Current Affairs, Early Abstraction, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two of a Kind

From Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning:

‘By an unfortunate coincidence, his lordship will in a few moments from now be proceeding to the potting shed to confer with Mr. Chichester Clam.’
‘Chichester Clam?’
‘Yes, sir.’
I shook the head.
‘I think the strain to which I have just been subjected must have affected my hearing. You sound to me as if you were saying Chichester Clam.’
‘Yes, sir. Mr. J. Chichester Clam, managing director of the Clam Line.’
‘What on earth’s a clam line?’
‘The shipping line, sir, which, if you remember, is on the eve of being merged with his lordship’s Pink Funnel.’

We all know Duchamp’s schoolboy humour. Maybe schoolboy humour is the best kind anyway.


Posted in Abstraction and Society, Conceptualism and Painting, Early Abstraction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Russian Philosopher

I’m always grateful to Boris Groys, who has opened so many horizons with his wit and penetration. He has also brought attention to lesser known Russian thinkers, and there are a lot of them worth looking into. One that attracted me was Lev Shestov. What makes so many of them likable is that they are not ruled by any sense of decorum or correctness. In intellectual life today there is always a social pressure to take the whole package. For example, if one has a left position on the economy, then one is expected to be pro-abortion, and of course take it for granted that trans-sexualism is a civil rights issue, although the connection between any of these matters is hard to make, and they all deserve careful and very particular thought. It’s probably because every exponent of a single position knows they need allies, and doubts they’ll get them. The rainbow coalition has an element of coercion, although today, with the widespread opposition to Trump, it appears to be coming together in a different way. The Russians seem like free thinkers in contrast, and pleasantly, perversely unassimilable to our categories. Now along comes Alexander Dugin, called “the most dangerous philosopher in the world.” He is undoubtedly a pig, but still says some things worth hearing:

“What he proposes is that there have been three leading political theories that impacted the world in the relatively recent past – liberal capitalism or ‘liberalism’, communism and fascism. According to Dugin, the United States is the world’s leader of liberalism, which offers individual liberty, a rationalist approach and market competition.

Even though liberalism has been the winning ideology so far, triumphing over fascism in 1945, and communism in 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved), Dugin thinks that it is now also experiencing a fatal crisis. He believes liberals themselves would the first to claim that. Dugin regards liberalism nearing a dead end, mired currently in a ‘nihilistic post-modern stage’ because it is trying to liberate itself from rational thought and the oppression of the brain, which to a liberal is ‘something fascist in itself’. Dugin takes this a step further, describing liberalism as now trying to free the organs of the body from the brain’s control, alluding to its acceptance of the LGBT community.”

Liberation from the brain? Wow…besides me, who espouses that? (kidding) He certainly sees something not evident to our political commentators. But further, this time a direct quote from what appears to be his own English:

“The liberalism insists on the freedom and liberation from any form of collective identity. That is the very essence of the liberalism. The liberals have liberated the human being from national identity, religious identity and so on. The last kind of collective identity is gender. So there is time to abolish it making it arbitrary and optional.”

The paradox is that “identity” is collective, as mentioned in an earlier post. Dugin is saying that in the west we are trying to break away from collective identities, the opposite of what identity politics claims. Actually identity politics celebrates a diversity of identities or “communities.” That neo-liberalism is beginning to collapse is clear, and at this moment Dugin’s words remind us of what we haven’t until now dared to say to ourselves—that identity politics will never build a new society. The customized elective identity is a symptom of the dying order.

Alexander Dugin in the Ukraine

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Current Affairs | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collage #10

This largish (48×48″) collage follows the same pattern as #s 5&8—it has a rectangle within the rectangle, a plane within the plane, a picture within the picture. It’s over an old painting in enamel on wood, and I was afraid the glue wouldn’t stick, so I took the paper off and replaced it with either oil or enamel, depending on what was in the studio. It has a dance of straight lines, flat coloured patches, and, in the in-between areas, the kind of scumbling variation of colour and surface you can get with oil paint. Overall inconsistency.

Robert Linsley, Collage #10 2017 (oil and enamel on wood)

Posted in Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Progressive Critique

The following comes from a piece by McKenzie Wark:

“Contemporary art…loves three strategies that portray nothing so much as the forms of accumulation its current or emerging patrons enjoy. Firstly, there is outsourcing, where the art is made by somebody else. Secondly, there in ‘in-sourcing’, where the art is made by its own audience. Here the artwork just furnishes the chatroom and collects the rent. Thirdly, the art disappears entirely into the concept, and the concept disappears entirely into the exchange. The artist is a purveyor of intangible values. Thus the three kinds of art mirror the three kinds of capital: either someone else makes it, we make it for ourselves and still pay for it, or nothing gets made but we pay for it anyway.”

Here a progressive thinker is making a pretty devastating critique of art that usually considers itself progressive. That calls itself progressive. It’s one of the greatest ironies of our time that in the art world painting always takes the blame for collaboration with the 1%. From the same article:

“Contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital. Both financial ‘products’ and these contemporary products of the art economy have no purpose in life other than to valorize themselves. They say nothing, do nothing, make nothing of the excess of the world present.”

But saying nothing and doing nothing are not so bad in themselves. The idea is to be something, not say something. If people like Wark got a wider hearing it might remove some of the smugness of the little Buchlovians, but abstraction will still be criticized for not saying anything to disturb or instruct its patrons. It has more important things to do.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolour collage 2016

This collage looks back to my earlier remake of Klee’s famous angel.

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Conceptualism and Painting, Ethics of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Size and Importance

Further on from the previous post—if Stella was part of a larger, more general response to abstract expressionism, I think the generally accepted understanding of that response has been too limited. We usually hear that it was a reaction against the emotionalism, intensity, anxiety and doubt of the older generation. I see it as a reaction against the limitations of the lyric or subjective mode. An abstract expressionist picture is an enlarged moment. Historically the moment by moment movement of the artist’s mind took the form of a series or succession of small works—think Klee, or even Picasso’s cubist still lifes. To expand the size was a claim for the social importance and value of individual creativity; that was fine, but the content was still slight. And the reaction—the systematic, deliberate, planned work of Judd, Stella, Kelly etc.—didn’t actually do the job. Uninflected surfaces, regular forms and all at once reception were good things, but they kept the singleness of idea and experience of the older art. There was certainly an ethical aspect to that, but it was also just contemporary taste. Everyone was habituated to the artwork as the embodiment of one idea. A large Ellsworth Kelly fundamentally offers the same kind of experience as a small Morandi—thoughtful, deliberated, condensed, hinging on sensibility. One could say that some large scale American painting is just a way to allow intimist work to survive in the post-war consumer environment, which is bigger, busier, blander, more distracted than before, and to find a market for it among people who don’t incline to reflect or meditate or live with art. Against this perspective, Stella’s later work is really something more, and a real expansion of art.

Frank Stella, la Vecchia dell’Orto 1986

Posted in Abstraction and Society, American Modernism, Principles of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment