Early abstractionists such as Kandinsky and Klee found that music gave them a lot to work with. Since then the idea that abstract art is visual music has become a cliché so cornball that no one even thinks about it anymore—so it might be worth taking up again. But for abstract artists a hundred years ago music meant the orchestral variety, not pop, Beethoven not Beefheart. Jazz came along in the twenties, but the musical landscape for the kind of art that aspired to the condition of music was definitely classical. As it happens I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven, and I find his music incredibly alive, varied, joyful, clever, inventive and infinitely ungraspable by my admittedly limited understanding—in a word abstract in a way art too rarely is, expressive as form without literal content or paraphrasable ideas, but lacking nothing for that. The ideas are in the form, the content is in the feeling, but the results are not merely subjective. Perhaps the form keeps the feeling objective. Also interesting is that he, like many composers of the 19th. century, was really writing possible music, since the instruments and the skilled players who could realize the scores didn’t exist yet. For example, the pianos of Beethoven’s day were too flimsy and didn’t have a big enough sound to do the music justice. The piano had to be reinvented before Beethoven’s music could be heard, much of it after his death. Now that’s abstraction. It might also be called conceptuality of a certain kind, but in the event the interpreters have kept the experience non-conceptual yet allowed the ideas latent in the music to emerge. Again, the key is that art does the thinking, if there is to be any—artworks do not become essays by the artist.
These days I’m getting a musical advantage in my watercolors, by building formally and keeping the image improvised, but Frank Stella is also leading the way backward to the productive initiatives of the first modern abstraction. As he says about his Scarlatti series, “If you were to be able to follow an edge and follow it through quickly, you’d get that sense of rhythm and movement that you get in music.” Seems pretty straightforward.