Monday, September 22, 2008

The Beast of Abstraction

This week I am working on a large 38 x 48 in. painting of a row of cliffs at the Grand Canyon. It has been a helluva stretch to complete - I've always thought that the Grand Canyon was one of the hardest subjects in American landscape painting to do. It is a terribly beautiful and complicated arrangement of shapes and colors, and believe me, if you haven't seen it, I urge you to make a point to see this amazing natural wonder in your lifetime.

Ever since visiting New York City a couple of months ago, I've been thinking a great deal about abstract painting. Seeing some of the great works of Pollock, DeKooning, and Rothko was a special treat, but then I noticed something a little disturbing; for example when you visit the modern art wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., you'll see that it is one of the emptiest areas of the museum. After going there last year, and again this year, my wife was joking to me that it seemed cruel that they wouldn't let the security guards in those areas of the museum have ipods to break the boredom. I alone wandered through large rooms glowing with canvases by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Styll, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and many others - and frequently I was the only one in the galleries. And that got me to questioning the value of art which is so strange that it, by it's very nature, alienates those it depends on for communication and meaning. What can a painter say of his or her work if they are an abstract artist, and their galleries get 3 visitors for every 50 the Impressionists attract?
Lots of questions follow. We'll, I ask myself, do I not understand the work? Do I not have the equipment? We'll I don't buy that exactly. If I or other people perhaps don't have the mental acuity to understand abstract work, then it may require interpretation from a 3rd party for us to reach some clarity regarding the work. And here is the biggie - if it requires interpretation, has it not failed it's goal of one to one visual communication?

Well, perhaps the best we can say about this is sometimes. Sometimes I, and perhaps others, have felt that we understood an abstract piece without some pince-nez scholar telling us what we should take away from the painting. I have always felt this about Pollock and his work. I never really needed anything from anyone to get Pollock. I felt all his power, his disturbances, his violence, and his eloquent beauty without ever hearing a lecture or art talk. However I puzzled for a long time over the work of Mark Rothko. With effort I did manage to get into the idea of his works, but they ask a lot of the viewer, and the connection from artist to viewer is a tenuous one.

We can surely say that what is popular in the creative arts is not always deeply meaningful. I don't think that you'll find anyone ready to put Miley Cyrus on the same level as Bob Dylan. However if something is so hard to understand that it impacts almost nobody - then can you call it good art or not? Again, sometimes. If further examination leads you to new horizons of feeling then the argument could be made that the art is effective. However I am convinced that many pure abstractionists are reveling in one thing - and one thing only - strangeness. Strangeness gets even harder to handle when there are no visual cues for the viewer to process. And then when the bulk of the viewing public walk away going "what the hell was that...?" then many such artists will feel confirmed in their originality, assured that they have confounded the average Joe on the street. I don't buy this at all. Because I know of countless artists who have very original styles and who are very popular. My mentor Quilici is one. Picasso was another. The question was floated during Jackson Pollock's lifetime "Is he the greatest living painter in America?" That alone was a huge creative compliment.

At the same time I was experiencing the empty abstract galleries in Washington D.C., I noticed the huge crowds flocking close to see original works of the Impressionists. That too set me to thinking - what was it about the Impressionists that still captivate audiences in 2008? I think that the answer had something to do with the photographic camera. That instrument had been invented in the years leading up to the arrival of the Impressionists, and many of them rightly deduced that if you wanted a perfect replication of a person or landscape - then the camera could do that - in black and white at least. So the Impressionists sought ways to personally express their own touch when painting an object, and their respective styles resulted in images that were joyfully painted, with the styles of the individual artists - but which didn't replicate perfect classical reality. So then, as it is today, people are greatly comforted by the Impressionists because they still know what they are looking at, but they still feel the expressions and color usage that were particular to each artist. In D.C. I saw groups of schoolkids, 7 or 8 years old, congregating in a room full of Monets. They clearly enjoyed them - as did the adults. And I saw no such cross section of people visiting the abstract artists.

Every artist has the free right to push painting or art in general in any direction they choose. However the viewing public has a right not to go with the artist on such tangents. And if I were to sound one warning - as I declare myself an admirer of at least SOME abstract artists - it would be to honestly say to them "don't project unreasonable expectations on the viewer of your work." The deeper one gets into strangeness, with nothing recognizable on the canvas and with no dispensation to care about artistic beauty - one may expect fewer viewers. One should never behave as if the viewers decide the works FOR the artist - however one should neither behave as if the viewer is irrelevant.

I've heard it said that some artists bristle at the insinuation that their work should be beautiful...I don't feel that way at all. I think beauty is a wonderful aspiration. That is my soul's release when I look at art. Because, hey, if I want to feel bad, I can always turn on the news instead.