Stately verticals

I can defend my constant harping on the need to reject the grid for a new departure in abstraction. Maybe not totally new, but new enough. It’s a critique of a common, in fact widely accepted feature of existing abstract work grounded in a more fundamental critique, namely a critique of pre-existent meanings in all art. But it’s not just a negative position, it also implies a way of working that is open-ended, moving etc. And above all it’s not theoretical, it’s concrete, specific and visible. But having said all that, I’m not in any way against the use of verticals, horizontals or right angles in art. It all depends on the particular case.

I’d like to present again a piece included in an earlier post.

Nicolas Pousssin, Israelites Gathering Manna, 1639

The canvas is a little stretched horizontally anyway, and so the repetition of verticals laterally across feels right and feels good. The two standing figures, two kneeling figures and rock at the right hand edge form a nice vertical band, and if we connect that with the strong vertical of the figure at the extreme left hand edge and the equally strong vertical of Moses and Aaron in the middle and slightly back, we have an arrangement that immediately brings to our attention the horizontals of the cloud, the backs of the kneeling figures, the yellow drapery and so on. But this obvious grid does nothing to flatten the space or bring the picture to the surface, or limit the artist’s ability to invent; it just adds a kind of stateliness to the whole composition, carries it across the rather wide surface. But in this respect I’d like to observe that the maybe too emphatic horizontals don’t really help and I’m not sure that they’re necessary. Verticals are intrinsically more attractive, more impressive, more moving, something Barnett Newman evidently realized. But more important is the fact that verticals staggered in space allow all the beauties of a gridded composition without inhibiting the movement of air and space around and through it. As I said in the earlier post, add the intricate patterning of limbs that Poussin specialized in and we’ve got one of the most complete and profound conceptions of how to organize an abstract picture that I know of.

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