The Death of Abstraction

Everyone has heard the claim that painting is dead. That’s one idea that deserves to be looked at more closely, and I will do that. Without giving too much of the book away I’ll just say that abstraction has also died, yet survives in much the same way as painting. I take Rachel Harrison as my example, though many others might do—Albert Oehlen for one—but they’re not as good.

Rachel Harrison, Tiger Woods (2006), Al Gore (2007) and Claude Levi-Strauss (part) (2007)

Rachel Harrison, Tiger Woods (2006), Al Gore (2007) and Claude Levi-Strauss (part) (2007)

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A Critique

Recently an article by Laurie Fendrich was circulating on Facebook. It’s worth reading, but this is what I said about it:

I like most of what she says, but object to this:
“Painting contains its own roughly defined rules. The art is flat, rectilinear, and smeared with colored pigments. It differs from the many boundaryless arts born in the late 60s and 70s — installation, conceptual, and performance art — where the creators essentially do what they want. A painter can bend painting’s rules only so far before a painting is no longer a painting.”
There’s the basic conservatism that ruins an otherwise good critique of the art world.

I’m not criticizing her work, which is kind of Kandinskyish in an interesting way.

Laurie Fendrich, Violently in Love 2009

Laurie Fendrich, Violently in Love 2009

My question is, why criticize the nonsense that goes on in the art world, and in art education, if you are not committed to art as an adventure? Of course all art has its limits, and wouldn’t be art without them, but the whole point is to test them, no?

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Globalism and Provinciality

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post images from my book. Here’s one of my favourite comparisons, aboriginal artist Doug Cranmer and the well known Parisian modernist Bram van Velde. Though van Velde had a great interest in the art of Cranmer’s tribe, and it shows in the work illustrated, this chapter is not standard comparative art history. It’s gets to a general truth, and it’s concrete, objective, material and formal—if not formalist.

Doug Cranmer, Untitled painting (abstraction) 1982

Doug Cranmer, Untitled painting (abstraction) 1982

Bram van Velde, Untitled 1962

Bram van Velde, Untitled 1962

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Collage

I was posting images of my new collages about once a week or so, but recently been spending too many hours at the day job. This one went along pretty slowly, but it did move in the right direction: toward a kind of condensation, a feeling of a necessary whole with independently moving life throughout—free but patterned. It’s in the same idiom as the others. The areas of coloured paper give a clear, strong arrangement; the watercolour parts are complex and almost like areas of confusion. I try to fit them so they lose their boundaries and blend in with the rest—like the patch that exhales the pink mushroom cloud, flower, face, whatever it is in the middle.

Robert Linsley, Collage #6 2016 watercolor, spray, acrylic, collage on wood

Robert Linsley, Collage #6 2016 watercolor, spray, acrylic, collage on wood

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The Other Frank

We’re all familiar with the celebrity artist, and lately they are even cropping up in art fairs—it’s a contentious topic in the age of the 1%. Some musicians and actors are actually pretty serious about their painting, and some of them are not bad. Tony Bennett, for example, has made some quite creditable landscapes, but I can’t think of one celebrity hobbyist whose work is really competitive or challenging within the art world. And that applies to the likes of James Franco. That’s why I find some of Frank Sinatra’s work so surprising. Look at the date—a picture like this one belongs to its time in an almost shocking way—meaning that it’s hardly conventional but seems to be very aware of the most sophisticated contemporary thinking. Maybe it lacks something in professional polish or impact, but it could be the work of a very smart student, who had good ideas but couldn’t quite project themselves to the professional level.

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1983

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1983

What keeps me wondering here is why would Sinatra, of all people, want to paint abstractions? And what was going through his head that he came up with something like this? It’s worthy of Mary Heilmann, amazingly enough, as is this next one.

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1987

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1987

Oddball remakes of Ellsworth Kelly fall into the genre of conceptual painting, a topic for the future, but Sinatra actually came up with some genuinely interesting things. In this one the brushy bits are admirably free, but their combination with a grid makes something new—I’ve not seen anything quite like it—and it could be done again.

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1987

Frank Sinatra, Untitled 1987

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Further Losses

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with loss, including the loss of artworks. Every work is the product of one moment, and as such it lives in the here and now. But since an artwork is also a thing it can be lost, damaged or destroyed. In the long run most of them are. Each moment is good just as it is, but some of them turn out to be really special, and when those are lost it’s a shame. The Proustian view is that there’s always plenty more to come, and I fully agree, but still, it’s only human to be attached to things at least a little bit. I guess the loss of my own works is in the back of my mind, and that was probably more upsetting than I admitted to myself at the time.

No work of art will last forever, most of them have already died, and they are so vulnerable it’s amazing that so many are still with us—that just about summarizes it. Needless to say the greatest danger any work of art faces is us. Some years ago the art historian James Beck made a pretty convincing case that the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel was a desecration; worse in fact, a real act of destruction. The strongest points I came away with were first, the utter arrogance of assuming that we, at this moment, have any idea what the work looked like, or was supposed to look like, when it was made. The very concept of “restoration” is flawed. Restore what? The work has a life in time, a history that naturally includes aging, damage, all kinds of changes, and we should accept that. Could you be “restored” to the moment of birth? Not without losing everything. I might even say that it’s the changes in time that keep the initial moment alive, at least for artworks. His second most compelling point was what’s the rush? So the dirt could be cleaned off, and we think we know better how to do that now, but in the future we’ll probably know even better. Again, leave time to its workings.

I like the Sistine Chapel, but I can be a little complacent about what’s been done to it, mainly because I like the Pauline Chapel better, and that’s not in any danger, as it is private. The popularity of certain works, meaning that millions of people want to see them for no real reason, is already a kind of destruction anyway. The works that inspire real love are always lesser known, so I was more upset to hear that the same cleaning crew has gone to work on the Arena Chapel in Padua. That piece has much more importance, aesthetic and historical, than Michelangelo’s tourist attraction in the Vatican, and if Michelangelo himself were here today he would agree. I don’t think it needs any improvement, and if it’s damaged that’s a real heartbreaker.

The nicest donkey in art, uncleaned

The nicest donkey in art, uncleaned

Modern art knows how to protect itself. The overall level is roughly the same. Fewer really special moments, but every moment good.

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Loss

What one strong man could once do, now is done by two or three weaker men or one weaker man and a machine. More generally, what could once be accomplished by one individual with energy and some executive skills now takes a team, usually a team with computers. There’s no point distinguishing between manual labour and other kinds of work, all work has the same fate—or better to say that human capacities are being lost all along the board. That’s why I see nothing to celebrate in the growing digital economy—it’s just one aspect of what could be called biosocial entropy, the inevitable and always more rapid disappearance of human capacities. Excuse my repetition, but I like that phrase—human capacities. They are gained through use, and art has always been an important channel for producing new ones. You might hear an echo of Marx’s notion that art trains the senses. I think that was a great idea, but I’m more interested right now in a parallel one, also probably Marxist—that when one acts on the world, one’s capacity to act on the world and transform it is increased, but we act on the world less and our actions are more mediated everyday. The first part of that last statement will sound counter intuitive to most, but now you’re in the crazy mixed up world of Robert Linsley, where progress is merely breakdown.

Robert Linsley, Flowery Meadows Island 1999

Robert Linsley, Flowery Meadows Island 1999

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Still in the Hold

I’d like to thank Lutz Eitel, who forwarded a sketch for David Bomberg’s In the Hold. It clarifies a lot about the figures and their actions.

David Bomberg, Study for "In the Hold," circa 1914

David Bomberg, Study for “In the Hold,” circa 1914

The open-armed gesture, stretching across the middle of the image in a kind of “W” shape is very beautiful, not only as a bodily gesture, but as a form around which to build a picture. The sailors seem to be handling each other more than handling cargo, especially the large figure on the right with a bent leg on the deck outside the hatch, who looks like he is lifting or bringing down over his head the body of a child, even though his head is so flattened and enlarged (I think) that it is hardly recognizable. In the upper left corner we can see the edge of another hatch, so we might be down in a hold with openings to other, deeper holds. The hands reaching up from below remind me of one of my favourite pictures, Guercino’s Petronilla Altarpiece, which has similar hands coming up out of a grave to receive the saint, and I’ve long wanted to write a post on that, only lacking a decent photo. Bomberg’s picture has subtle but strong motifs of death and even crucifixion. The latter proves that an artist’s ethnicity has no bearing on their ability to access the generic forms of whatever tradition they work in. Bomberg’s later explicitly Jewish themes may then represent a weakening of his art—don’t know, a topic for further investigation.

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In the Hold

This famous piece by David Bomberg really is good. First of all, the subject, namely a ship, is pretty interesting, and more so when we remember how Klee would have done it—with sails on the horizon, a real cliché. Bomberg’s is a cargo ship, so the sailors, who must be there somewhere, are interesting as well. And the view is down into the hold, or abyss if you will.

David Bomberg, In the Hold c.1913-4

David Bomberg, In the Hold c.1913-4

The picture is a grid with diagonals, with selective infilling of colour, so it seems a premonition of Bridget Riley. The thing emerges from a simple basic structure, and that’s always admirable, but Bomberg also adds indications of objects, almost all based on other diagonals. It’s a puzzle, and not easy to read. Next time I’m at the Tate, I hope it’s available, because I suspect that an extended look is necessary to decipher the image. There is what looks like a kind of stanchion and railing in the bottom left corner, and that really makes the space come into view, but the middle area, where the light is strongest, is very complex and obscure. It reminds me of Picabia’s great series of pictures of women at a spring, discussed earlier on this blog. There are some legible supports or pillars angling into the image, but the centre puzzles me.

I wish I could say something definitive, but all I know for sure is that some forms look like they are in front of or behind others, so there is space in the picture. But the action or event depicted eludes me. For now.

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A Normally Sensual Artist

A few years ago I heard the prominent art critic and historian Katy Siegal describe Motherwell as “an intellectual,” meaning to distinguish him from more intuitive or emotional artists—to distinguish him from real artists, in other words. I find this to be the worst kind of drug store psychology: to posit a break between mind and heart, or mind and body; to say that since Motherwell wrote intelligently and had a literary bent that his art could not be as full blooded and human as anyone else’s. Best to look at the work. Does this piece seem particularly intellectual?

Robert Motherwell, Threatening Presence 1976 (studio view)

Robert Motherwell, Threatening Presence 1976 (studio view)

Maybe theatrical. Or vulgar, in the same way that Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” was vulgar. But intellectual? It’s important to realize that words like intellectual, vulgar and theatrical are value free descriptions, neither good nor bad, but we give them value according as our circumstances change over time. The studio view gives a sense of its enormous scale—also sheer size, though that’s not the same thing, nor as important—and scale plays a big role in producing both vulgarity and theatricality. But I don’t see how scale has any relation to the intellect.

Here’s another giant monster, also 15 feet wide, but in this case the monster is more or less hidden in the dark, which might make it more threatening for some.

Robert Motherwell, Face of the Night (for Octavio Paz) 1981

Robert Motherwell, Face of the Night (for Octavio Paz) 1981

If we’re going to accept that abstraction is figurative, why shouldn’t it be monstrous? The real distinction is not between the abstract and the figurative, but between the normally beautiful and the beauty that precedes and transcends the human norm, so well documented in photography and academic painting.

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Domes and Circles

In general you could say that Stella’s prints are where he keeps touch with the normative form of art—two dimensional and bounded by a rectangle. The relief paintings and sculpture break right out of the frame, and the prints are more like traditional paintings. In Moby Dick reliefs like these the Chinese lattice is rendered on top of a metal disk, which is also the support for the wave/whale shapes and other geometric parts.

Frank Stella, The Tail (B9, 2X) 1988

Frank Stella, The Tail (B9, 2X) 1988

Frank Stella, The First Lowering (B-1, 1X—1st. version) 1988

Frank Stella, The First Lowering (B-1, 1X—1st. version) 1988

In the prints the lattice form is just an image, and so the break out from the frame also occurs as an image—I’ve discussed this before. Here’s another Dome print with various shapes floating over the lattice. The broken pieces of the frame within the frame help with the idea of a break-out from the limits of the traditional picture, but of course are just parts of another kind of picture. The white wave/whale shape with heavy black lines is drawn on a yellow floating picture plane that looks like it might have broken loose from the right hand edge, the very small scribbly forms above it are drawn on a piece of another, which looks like it’s fallen out of the top right corner. What we have here are picture planes as images, apparently floating in space, not the same space they themselves contain. Whereas in the reliefs the shapes are cut out and stand or float by themselves, in the prints they are put back into the illusionistic frame of the two dimensional picture, which now is many pictures—pictures within pictures.

Frank Stella, "Jonah Historically Regarded," from Moby Dick Domes

Frank Stella, “Jonah Historically Regarded,” from Moby Dick Domes

The framing bits are the yellow and red strips around the edges, but most interesting is the large green three sided shape on the left. A very similar part is in the print illustrated in the previous post, only there it’s red. Frames within frames allow Stella to play games with trompe l’oeil, which gives projecting spaces; overlapping shapes can make receding spaces. Meanwhile, the blue oval at the bottom with white lines of force resembles some kind of sky map—a touch of the cosmic? The elements are not really new, but the ensemble sure feels fresh.

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Over the Circle

Readers familiar with my blog are probably wondering why I haven’t started in again on Frank Stella. Just waiting. Have many thoughts, and following on the theme of recent posts about Kandinsky there is an opportunity to say something.

Stella has spent some time meditating on the circle. Circles are one of the central motifs in abstraction, and very common in the early days. Popova, Moholy-Nagy, Sonia Delaunay, Kandinsky, Lissitzky—circles were everywhere and back then had cosmic implications. I think Stella is not hostile to the natural way that circles bring to mind worlds, planets, universes and so on, but he doesn’t make a thing out of it. He has been thinking about how a circle can be used as a support to carry an image.

Frank Stella, The Funeral, from Moby Dick engravings 1991

Frank Stella, The Funeral, from Moby Dick engravings 1991

Within the Moby Dick series there are two sets of prints with identical imagery—the Domes and the Engravings. What looks like a white circle superimposed on the design of the Engravings is in the Domes an actual projection of the paper, which rises forward about six inches. You can see the shadow along the underside of the dome-shaped curved paper in this photo of the Dome corresponding to the Engraving illustrated above, as well as the highlight on top.

Frank Stella, "The Funeral" from Moby Dick Domes

Frank Stella, “The Funeral” from Moby Dick Domes

Just to clarify, here is a photo of Stella painting on the raised dome.

stella-dome

The works in these two series all follow the same pattern: 1) a circular base using a Chinese lattice configuration, not usually lined up with the dome itself 2) a composition of wave/whale shapes combined with other circular or curved things layered on top 3) a number of edging pieces that make up a frame within the frame, often a broken frame within the frame, distributed around the sides. That’s less complicated than it sounds. It’s complicated to describe, but worth it because I want to show how much there is to see in a Stella print, and how intelligently they are designed. This will take a couple of posts to develop.

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Stanley Whitney

The last few posts have been circling around an idea that I think is pretty important, grounded as it is in studio practice but with implications for history and even for our understanding of time. I keep thinking about something that Frank Stella said: “In the aftermath of necessary change, progress is slow.” It’s that sense of slow or rapid progress that is so important for our sense of what matters in art. But in a way it’s an illusion. At certain moments, in certain periods, many many options become self evident. It takes time to work through them all, and then we say “what next?” But really those options have only been touched. We can go back to them and find that recognition of the option is not the real work. You have to dwell on the possibility until it gives up what it contains. Everything has to be repeated and redone, not as repetition, but as working with, working through. I’m not the first to say this, but living it is what matters.

Stanley Whitney, Sixteen Songs 1984

Stanley Whitney, Sixteen Songs 1984

This 80s piece by Stanley Whitney does not look promising. Actually, it might today, but you have to think back. It’s really a good example of bad art from a certain period. It’s professionalism, cleanness, facility are all deficits. But Stanley Whitney persevered and found something. The “unpromising” may be the best thing to work on after all.

Stanley Whitney, Goya's Lantern 2012

Stanley Whitney, Goya’s Lantern 2012

But then what do I know? Anyone who follows my blog knows that Whitney’s later work is point for point the opposite of mine. Maybe I should hope that pouring blobs is less promising than grids of colour. I can’t evaluate Stanley Whitney, but I believe that one has to live with art, not just think about it or know it, and if you’re an artist who lives with art, it should change. And as it changes it will become something you never imagined.

Stanley Whitney, TEAM Gallery NYC 2013

Stanley Whitney, TEAM Gallery NYC 2013

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Twisting and Lifting

After two posts on geometry that doesn’t line up I want to mention another deviation from the abstract norm found in Noland’s work. Brittle is hardly a word we associate with Noland. Sensuous is the more usual descriptor. But that very thin, flat paint makes a surface that can twist and lift in unexpected directions. I mean appear to. No matter how much it’s soaked into the canvas, from a certain distance it’s still a skin. The standard reading, supported by the very long stripe pieces, is that one is immersed in fields of colour. But that’s from a particular distance, and I would say a conceptual distance. From a bit closer up we have to recognize all kinds of slippery and fugitive optical effects that come more clearly into focus the more aware we are of material particulars of the surface. These effects were noticed and mentioned quite early on by people Iike Rosalind Krauss. She says that Noland’s stripes have a kind of obliqueness that “..acts as if to lift the picture’s surface off the wall on which it hangs and turn it at an angle to the viewer..” This kind of illusion can be developed by bands of colour with non-parallel or converging edges, ends cut off at an angle (as in Stella’s Irregular Polygons) and angled meetings with the edge of the support.

Kenneth Noland, Half Day 1976

Kenneth Noland, Half Day 1976

The best thinker on these lines today is Shep Steiner, who discovered that Noland’s circles are under a lot of stress from the stretching, or restretching, of the canvas after it was painted, a stress that gives them a twist and a turn. These are hard things to convey in a photograph, maybe impossible. They are experiences, and not easy to register. They need time, persistence and the presence of the object. The illustrated work better meets the requirement “no vertical, no horizontal, no parallel,” but it is also more symmetrical than the works in the previous two posts. Something to work on.

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The Possibilities

Following along with Noland in the previous post, to bear down on what seem like small decisions in the art of the sixties and seventies—they were presented as momentous changes in those days so inevitably began to seem small—is one way to find out what abstraction can be today. People got tired of formalism because they couldn’t connect it with their lives, and eventually they started to laugh at it. But it’s not about formalism or any other abstract category with an ism on the end. It’s about meditating on what you have until you see what it really is and could be—how much expression it carries within itself. This topic came up a couple of posts back with de Staël, and it will come up again. But it’s hard to jiggle things out of place and get them not to line up.

Kenneth Noland, Angle of the Night, 1978

Kenneth Noland, Angle of the Night, 1978

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Unbalanced

A Kenneth Noland piece like this one opens up a space any abstractionist should find attractive to enter, best described in Noland’s own words:

Kenneth Noland, Acute 1977

Kenneth Noland, Acute 1977

“It’s been on my mind—what would something be like if it were unbalanced? It’s been a vexing question for a long time. But it took the experience of working with radical kinds of symmetry, not just a rectangle, but a diamond shape, as well as extreme extrusions of shapes, before I finally came to the idea of everything being unbalanced, nothing vertical, nothing horizontal, nothing parallel. I came to the fact that unbalancing has its own order. In a peculiar way it can still end up feeling symmetrical.”

Start with “nothing vertical, nothing horizontal, nothing parallel” and we have a pretty progressive ambition. I like it. That’s technique, and it’s always refreshing to find a new one. As it happens there’s a good dose of this kind of thing in Stella’s Polish Villages, a topic for another post. For me it fits right in with my aversion to grids and preference for diagonals, but in the context of geometric abstraction—the real kind with ruled lines and measured spaces—it amounts to an opening up from within, a way of letting more life into geometry.

That would be a good place to stop, or get into the studio, but the aesthetic problem is the vexation that comes when the unbalanced becomes yet another balance. Unbalance, dissonance, disunity, awkwardness—you can get ’em but you can’t keep ’em. I’m glad I’m not concerned with aesthetics, that would just be preoccupation with failure. Making the work is hard enough, but a lot more fun.

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Nicolas de Staël

Nicolas de Stael, Paysage Mediterranee 1954

Nicolas de Staël, Paysage Mediterranee 1954

A little while ago I was commenting on the great importance of Paul Klee for global modernism after WWII, a fact not much mentioned in the standard histories. Another artist who was very successful and widely admired and imitated in the fifties was Nicolas de Staël. In his case the silly term “seminal” is probably accurate, because he fathered an entire tribe of abstractionists—unto the umpteenth generation. De Staël’s manner is what we might call today a default—with no particular forms to render the artist falls back on rectangular blocks, often applied with a palette knife, and clustering around the middle of the canvas. It’s success might reduce to the formula of geometric abstraction without a ruled geometry, or a grid that hides behind soft forms and scratchy paint.

Nicolas de Stael, Composition sur Fond Rouge, 1951

Nicolas de Staël, Composition sur Fond Rouge, 1951

I’ve seen it a million times and always forget it. It’s the generic inevitability of the mode that makes it a paradigm for bad abstract art—but that’s not to say that a great artist couldn’t find a way to make it work. This is a topic to come back to—no matter how unpromising any approach may seem, you never know what’s possible. For more recent work in the same mode how about the distinguished British artist Alan Gouk?

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades 2013

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades 2013

I’m not making any claims for Gouk—compared to de Staël his scale is enormous, and that’s kind of interesting—but as with all art, the weakest element is always the one that offers the most potential. In this case it’s the blocks themselves. What makes them so dull in de Staël is that they’re derived from the rectangular support, so have no invention or formal energy. Entropic, as Smithson would say, kind of tired out. De Staël leaves me flat, though I hate to say it, for his suffering was real, as was his sincere effort. But the blocks are also what I called in an earlier post “characterless forms,” and can be used differently. It’s that unconsciously domineering grid that kills.

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Old Age

One of the most pleasantly surprising phenomena of the last year is the spontaneous and unqualified enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders among the young. Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are living proof that age doesn’t really count for much. But then that’s something of a cliché itself, and expressed in a pretty banal sentence too. Corbyn and Sanders are “progressive” politically, but their programs are a return to some common sense positions of New Deal social democracy. Are young people today actually very conservative? Naah, that’s a pointless paradox, they’re just realistic. I might be a Bernie Sanders of abstract art, but I really, really have no dreams of going back to anything.

Paul Cezanne, Vallier The Gardener c.1906

Paul Cézanne, Vallier The Gardener c.1906

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Life and Art

I’m only a little way into this second blog campaign and already beginning to get tired of myself. And no doubt readers will be tired of hearing about Motherwell or Klee. Maybe I’m just an old fogey out of touch with contemporary art. Except my own. Actually that’s not quite the case; life is always in the present but a living art is not always contemporary.

One of the funniest moments in my teaching career was when I told a class of eighty or ninety students that certain paintings by Cézanne were more alive than they were. You should have felt the shock wave in the lecture hall. Wonder why they took it so hard? It’s only true. If your existence is entirely possessed by mass culture norms and the conventional thoughts of the people around you then what’s the point? Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean you’re actually alive.

As it happens I’m getting tired of Klee. Too much cuteness.

Rodney Graham, City Self, Country Self

Rodney Graham, City Self, Country Self

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Black Rain

Thinking about Kandinsky’s disregard for any tight or comprehensive order, I realize that I don’t quite agree. I want an organic kind of closure, if you could call it that. Poussin after nature, as Cézanne described it. Geometry loose, but forms in the right place.

Robert Linsley, Collage #5 spray, watercolour, silkscreen, silkscreen ink, pencil, watercolour pencil, tissue paper collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #5 spray, watercolour, silkscreen, silkscreen ink, pencil, watercolour pencil, tissue paper collage on canvas

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Aesthetically Pleasing

The previous two posts on Kandinsky might draw the objection that his works do have an order, namely beauty or the indefinable feeling of aesthetic quality. That’s a hard point to argue with, but it doesn’t feel like that to me because there are no limits in these works. There could be more lines, or more circles, or more soft shapes or more hard ones. The figures could be grouped in any number of ways, and it wouldn’t really make any difference. This lack of limit or push back is the defining characteristic of the work. I think that beauty cannot be so described. Beauty is ultimately grounded in the human body—in human bodily beauty, or sexual beauty—so its main feature is a sense of rightness. It is nothing other than a limit, but one that we feel before we see or understand. Geometry has no intrinsic limits; beauty is limitation, but that never bothered anyone—except some abstractionists like Kandinsky.

Vassily Kandinsky, On White 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, On White 1923

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Play

Further to the delightful arbitrariness of Kandinsky’s work, this piece offers many small and exemplary decisions. The image looks like a door viewed at an oblique angle. Inside it are a number of what could be small circular doors that swing open onto a black void. The end point of each arc touches the corner of a coloured trapezoid or triangle, but there is no evident reason why—nothing happens to or with or because of the shapes and there is no order in their arrangement or relations. At first glance we might have the impression of an intelligently structured grouping, but a closer look gives us nothing. Kandinsky certainly was intelligent, but he didn’t let that interfere with his work.

Wassily Kandinsky, Development in Brown 1933

Wassily Kandinsky, Development in Brown 1933

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The Liteness of Kandinsky

I’ve always had problems with Kandinsky. One is his scaleless space, but more about that another time. Another, which I’ve only just began to clarify for myself, is the arbitrariness of his arrangements. There’s no reason why they have to be like they are rather than otherwise, and that starts with his early nature and landscape based abstractions. A lot of geometric abstraction—from Popova to Lissitsky to Moholy-Nagy to countless others—teeters on the same brink. It all looks equally good, and equally generic and arbitrary. But lately been looking closer and finding that I appreciate it a lot more.

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

The key is that it’s not just a conceptual arbitrariness, a property of circle, triangle and trapezoid, but the many small details are themselves without any overarching order. They don’t line up. In this piece some of the lines find the centres of the circles, but usually not. But then there’s no reason why they should. An open sided triangle is not really a triangle, because the important point seems to be the vertex. In a composition of circles wouldn’t one of the ends of a protractor have some logical relation to either a centre or an edge of a circle? That kind of relation does exist in this picture, but only just. Or couldn’t the lines be rays? Circles with rays or receding perspective lines are common in the cosmic imagery of early geometric abstraction. I can’t find any consistent relation between the lines and circles here, but there are some almost hits, or suggestions. The picture makes my need for order seem silly. But then as I search for some reason to the design I find myself enjoying more the lack of it. The heading here is Whim, discussed elsewhere on this blog.

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Work

Lately I’ve been making a series of collages, all roughly the same size—22×28″, sometimes a bit smaller or larger—and find it tough going. In abstract art the temptation is always to accept early results, and that question gets more complicated when the method is improvisational and the results organic, like mine. One has to persist until something new or unforseeable appears.

I think my Island paintings hit the perfect balance between stable, focused, complex composition and free, open improvisation, but I didn’t expect that balance to last forever. I can catch it again if the opportunity arises, but it was already beginning to move away around the sphere when I started pouring wet into wet. Right now circumstances limit me to collage, and I’m using it to find yet another balance. That means a lot of work changing, moving, painting, repainting, ripping up, reconsidering everything. No easy solutions. This one is a little more complex than the previous two, but it still has large, readable forms with strong identities. For that matter, the small details are not free—they have a place in the design, as I was lamenting earlier.

Robert Linsley, Collage #4 watercolour, spray, acrylic, pencil, chalk, silkscreen ink collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #4 watercolour, spray, acrylic, pencil, chalk, silkscreen ink collage on canvas

There are a few elements here I’m going to keep working with: the frame within the frame, figuration—as in the large black shape in the middle—and geometry, meaning straight lines—as in the lower left corner. Putting the figuration and the geometry together is what’s interesting.

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Snapshot

Two posts back I mentioned two concepts of the picture. The second one—broken, fugitive, moving, unstable—has a definite relation to the most profound idea in modern photography, the “decisive moment.” You could even connect it to street photography in particular, because it’s objects are always moving away, which is a metaphorical way of saying they are always changing. However, I don’t get it from photography, but from the temporally intense tradition in American painting—Pollock, Frankenthaler, Louis, Smithson. Motherwell is also a relevant figure, especially works like his Lyric Suite. Still, the photographic connection is very interesting.

The conflict is between the established powers of painting, which one would be foolish to oppose, and the modern new; between stable structures and slippery life. The question is whether, in the context of a work of visual art, that second position can be ever be anything other than a metaphor.

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile (collage) 1998 (detail right side)

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile (collage) 1998 (detail right side)

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Artist of Conflict, Artist of Repression

In our time the great artist of conflict is Frank Stella. His over busy and crowded compositions are nothing other than a battle of forms—and to say that doesn’t mean they are not also a dance of forms and a very intimate and loving mingling of forms as well. They behave exactly like the human monkey.

In my book I set up a match between Stella and Richter, although I didn’t actually come up with the idea that they are antagonists. Benjamin Buchloh has to take credit for that. Richter’s scraping technique represses all conflict; no wonder a right wing Jacobin like Buchloh admires his work. A fantasy of the end of all conflict is also a fantasy of absolute power, and something like the dreams of the 1%. No more bothersome monkeys.

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile, 1998, installation at the Whitney Museum, 2015

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile, 1998, installation at the Whitney Museum, 2015

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So Goes the Battle

Life is all conflict, like it or not. Gone are the days when we had to face the world, now it’s always other people who give trouble. With the previous sentence readers may notice how my own need for sovereignty, or freedom, or security, helps to set wars in motion. Is the term war an exaggeration in this context? I’m not really worse than anyone else, but I think it’s useful and accurate to see my private struggles in the light of world politics. Wars are nothing other than petty emotions inflated into mass delusions. In my view art is a kind of enlightenment, meaning freedom from mass delusion. But however much it turns away from the unnecessary violence of the human monkey, art is not exactly a moment of release from conflict—it might seem that way, but it actually includes conflict, allegorized as form. Individual paintings are battles with a humane resolution.

I don’t do any fighting myself, that would be utter failure. In the case of my recent collages, the struggle is between two concepts of the picture. On one side is the stable, integrated whole, and when all the parts join hands they turn as one united organism and face the viewer. On the other side is a process in motion, traveling through the world, that just happens to enter the picture space at a moment when some transformation is underway. It’s heading off somewhere else so has turned or is turning its back. I’m like a referee; I try not to get in the way, and keep the game going until the winner is clear, but I have to admit that the former option is the stronger, and I wish it weren’t quite so. In this collage, and the earlier one, the big battalions have definitely won.

Robert Linsley, Collage #3 2016 watercolour, pencil, spray, enamel, tissue paper collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #3 2016 watercolour, pencil, spray, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel, tissue paper collage on canvas

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Oil Transfer

Seems I was a bit off in my description of Klee’s technique in the previous post. Don’t know where the information comes from, but here is a description from another blog:

“His ‘oil-transfer’ was essentially a home-made tracing system. A sheet of paper coated with black oil paint was, when dry to the touch, laid face down on what would be the host sheet for the image. On top of both was placed a drawing, the lines of which were retraced with an etching needle so as to press the oil paint onto the bottom sheet. The atmosphere of these ‘oil-transfer’ drawings is enhanced by the smudges of black paint pressed through by the drawing hand and which provides a resist to the superimposed coloured washes.”

This kind of thing is fascinating to me. So it was a form of monoprinting, but also resembled something else. Especially interesting is the suggestion that the watercolour was added later. Could have been before and/or after.

Paul Klee, Medicinal Flora 1924

Paul Klee, Medicinal Flora 1924

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Ubiquitous Klee

The narrative of post-war American art is by now pretty dull. It’s hard to say how many really believed it; certainly most artists have always had a broader view of the world. It was probably at base a marketing strategy to encourage more American buyers of American art, and it worked pretty well to open markets in Europe—defeated Europe. But though most readers of this blog would likely nod their heads, as would most knowledgable art worldlings, the reality might still come as a surprise. The most influential artist world wide in the post WWII period may have been Paul Klee.

In Latin America he’s in everyone from Xul Solar to Gego to Mira Schendel; Max Bill notwithstanding I think Klee had more influence on abstraction in Latin America, though it’s interesting that the two examples who come to mind first, Gego and Schendel, were both Central European emigres. In India the early work of Vasudeo Gaitonde was very beholden to Klee. The historical rhetoric talks about Indian miniatures, but the works themselves say Klee. Klee was widely admired in the US but the American juggernaut, meaning above all big, very physical pictures, overpowered his small scale visual thoughts. Everywhere else the concept of “taking a line for a walk” captivated artists with its simplicity and improvisational obviousness. That’s fine, but I’m more interested in one of his characteristic techniques—oil transfer drawing, which is basically monoprinting. He would draw with oil and brush on something, don’t know what, and transfer it onto the surface already prepared with watercolour or ink.

Paul Klee, In the Style of Bach 1919, oil transfer drawing and watercolour on primed linen on cardboard

Paul Klee, In the Style of Bach 1919, oil transfer drawing and watercolour on primed linen on cardboard

Whether the various fabrics and papers were mounted on other supports earlier or later in the process I don’t know.

Mira Schendel ran with this, making a great many monoprints in oil on rice paper. Very attractive nothings. I like them a lot better than her smudgy all over works with letraset, which are too obviously derived from Klee.

Mira Schendel, Monotypes on rice paper, publication by Hauser and Wirth

Mira Schendel, Monotypes on rice paper, publication by Hauser and Wirth

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Torn Paper and Paint

Lately have no money to buy watercolour paper, so have been tearing up some problematic pictures for collages. The process is a compromise between my natural simplicity and the pleasures of more. I think the balance is struck, in this piece at least. It’s not half as busy as a Frank Stella for example. But the collage method has one big advantage—you can try out a lot of things before the glue goes on. At first that may seem obvious, but the fatal weakness of collage is that it’s too easy. Working and reworking is the key to something that bears more than one look. So it’s really not the collage method that matters. After all, it’s common enough in every elementary school classroom.

Untitled, watercolour, silkscreen, pencil, acrylic, tissue paper, spray, collage on canvas 2016

Untitled, watercolour, silkscreen, pencil, acrylic, tissue paper, spray, collage on canvas 2016

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