Asymmetry

I found this quilt by Sonia Delaunay in the Sydney Paths to Abstraction catalog.

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Sonia Delaunay, untitled quilt 1911

I’ve been looking at it for a while, and just realized why I like it, and what it means for abstraction. The parts are not all integrated to make a smooth all over effect. Many of the patches are unique—the orange triangle at the left is the only orange triangle, the light yellow vertical is the only light yellow, and so on. Repetition of colors in different parts of the surface is a way to unify and even out a picture, something Cézanne did very well. This picture has some identical repeats, and many that look close but are not exactly the same, so the color is complex and varied, but the unique patches stand out. There is also an asymmetric tonal variation with the dark band down the right hand side that makes evident a light vertical figure beside it. In the same vein there is another figure that sweeps up from the lower left corner to top right and the yellow vertical cuts off its face or props it up. I guess what I’m saying is that conventionally we tend to smooth out anomalies or awkwardnesses or asymmetries and that’s why abstraction today is often dull. This piece by Sergej Jensen, for example, even though it has an an obviously asymmetric composition and figures that stand out clearly on a closely valued ground, still feels too even

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Sergej Jensen

and too much balanced out. Balancing out is a plague in abstraction today. Jensen is an artist I respect, and the fact that he uses fabric makes him an opportune comparison to Delaunay, but the real issue is the ability or willingness to let things be what they are without arting them down into blandness. This we can perhaps learn from early abstraction, before “all-over” composition had been codified as such. The word is asymmetry, if we remember that symmetry does not mean merely a left/right mirroring, but a deeper condition. For science, a system is symmetrical if it remains unchanged when operations are performed on it, so symmetry is a fundamental sameness. A good example of asymmetry is the operation of time itself. Life is not a chemical process that can be run in reverse; even notionally the beginning and end have very different qualities. Delaunay’s work has more of mortality in it, and that is one answer toward the question of whether abstraction really can register the full range of feeling and experience.

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