In recent years, I have been inspired by divergent notions of how we quantify time. When Brian Greene, noted physicist and author, was asked in 2011, what perplexed him the most amidst his studies of parallel universes and dark matter, he responded, "What is time?"
Since then I have been working with that question in mind. We know time as space, time as currency, and we have measures of time upon which we collectively agree like clocks and time zones. I'm calling this geologic or "collective time".
My new work, "Time Frames" presents the possibility of what I'm calling "Personal Time", and relates to the Uncertainty Principle developed in 1927 by Werner Heisenberg, which states that one cannot accurately determine the location and the velocity of an object at the same time.
Personal Time is the perceived rate or velocity of time's passing which varies according to the frequency of changes in lived experience, while collective time is the location of time according to the agreed upon measure of clocks and time zones.
In our contemporary world, the so-called digital age, Personal Time has been entirely altered by technology. We now have a greatly accelerated rate of information spreading and communication, which borders on collapsing chronology as we perceive it. Changes in lived experience happen so quickly that we blur into what author, Tom McCarthy, describes as " a constantly mutating space".
Compared to geologic time, where entire civilizations are reduced to stratified layers in rock and dirt, our total lived experiences are but a nanosecond, and through technology, we are rapidly catching up to this realization. However, sometimes, in traffic, en route to home or work, a red light can seem eternal!
These new works function as windows, which enable the viewer to look through time, and gain an enhanced perspective into the nature and proportionality of our lived experience. They begin as still photos of moving images appropriated from the television screen without pausing the film and without photo-shop. In most cases they are shot from an angle so as to distort the image and also to include a reflection of our tableside lamp. The lamp with the zigzag shade is in the room with me at the time the shot is taken, yet often appears to be connected with the actor or the narrative in the film. The thick, lava-like paint swirls and globs represent the ongoing, and far more vast, cosmological or geologic time frame through which we can peer into these layered moments.
Time remains an enigma, even to our top scientists and philosophers. Therefore, confronting viewers with its seemingly infinite perplexities offers at least one greatly enhanced moment.
The Perpetual Question of Art's Future
It has been a tumultuous century and a half since Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, a moment of shock and rebellion that marked the advent of the Avant-garde. Like everything else in art, even that’s debatable. Some textbooks only point to the DADA movement of 1918 as the beginning of the avant-garde. It could be argued that the spirit was born with Goya. But Manet and the Salon Des Refuses, which included rejected works by Cezanne, Whistler and Pissarro, shook things up enough that these refused and rejected artists became part of the way forward. We now look back on an era filled with -isms and discontent, one-upmanship and passionately defended misconceptions and, yes, through it all, a lot of great art.
Nowadays, we’re way past -isms, even post modern ones. Books have come out titled: The End of Art (Donald Kuspit) and The End of Art Theory (Victor Burgin) and, yet, a century after the advent of abstraction, we are seeing a lot of familiar imagery. Are we going in circles? Is our history of art not so much linear but more like a progressive spiral wherein we cycle back through previous concerns as we zigzag our way forward? It’s hard not to ask with a quasi-blown mind: Now What?
Sometimes, misconceptions break down walls. Around 1916-17, Marcel Duchamp championed “art in service of the mind,” dismissing the fauvist and other modern abstract painting as ”purely retinal.” He clearly felt that color and orchestrations of form and color do not impact the intellect. We now know, through the filter of time and some major breakthroughs in neuroscience, that Duchamp, one of modern art’s most important and revered artists, was actually quite incorrect and that the intellect and emotion are complexly intertwined, especially when exposed to visual stimuli. Our intellects are conditioned over time and our spontaneous reactions to art draw from the mind’s conditioning. However, because of Duchamp’s radical stance, the door was flung open for philosophy to become a major factor in visual art. His impact and that of the DADA movement permanently changed art. Because he was bravely wrong, Duchamp helped us learn that our previous misconceptions are often our best guides forward.
So, now what?
Of course, there’s no end to the speculative conversations on the future of art referencing various movements of the past. And, yes, history, filled with building blocks and puzzle pieces, is most of what we have to go on, but the past is way bigger than the stories we have left. History is enslaved by the exclusionary process of making itself linear. Unique and actually different art that doesn’t fit in often gets left out. Meanwhile, the future has big, new problems and it’s easy to get cynical. I’ll try not to over-rant.
First there’s the money fueled expansion that has grown and blown the art world up into an art galaxy, all while globalization brings us together in various ways, both good and bad. Navigating this morass takes daily research. In the blue chip corner, art is investment. Art is social climbing. Art is an accessory. Art is the emperor’s new clothes to be talked about in terms of its market value, how trendy it is and how ingeniously it was purchased at auction. Repulsive? Yes. If big spenders in this arena would learn art history and seek out less celebrated artists to support, they could have much more rewarding collections and the future of art would brighten immensely.
Then there’s new technology, shining like a new dime to a squirrel, luring us to make 3-D printable whatever and create your own retrospective on Google glass. There will be some great stuff coming from these breakthroughs, but beware that it’s not just the sizzle of new tech obscuring your view of contrivance and demonstration. There will always be “New”, but how good is it?
In defense of all the good that does exist in the art galaxy, it must be said that today’s dealers, curators, critics, and collectors face an unprecedented and overwhelming challenge. There are a lot of gifted, even brilliant, hard working people trying to be good choosers, most of whom have the best of intentions.
The fact is that so much art gets thrown into the faces of the choosers that they cannot possibly lay eyes on it all, much less give it fair consideration. The way out for many has largely been to promote only those artists that already have a fan base or a “buzz” from well placed word of mouth, and that alone sells the work. In addition to turning art selection into a popularity contest, this approach also encourages artists to half-heartedly engage in community-based endeavors and reference social calamities in their work as fodder for their own self- aggrandizement. Granted, given the world’s precarious teeter, there’s no shortage of calamity fodder, and making relevant art should not be unlike sounding an alarm. But the more specific the narrative, the faster it’s just another day in the horrific storm of mankind’s blind destructiveness, and a lot like the news.
In addition, M.F.A.s and even PhDs are being peddled by universities and art schools like hotcakes in a giant money machine which of course benefits from the idea that art has become hyper-academic. And let’s not forget the “Professional Practice” courses which help post grad nubies become wizards at getting shows, reviews and various other plastic accolades. These courses are well intentioned but by enabling people who are simply good at following directions in what is already a swirling morass of new art, we are effectively propagating mechanized mediocrity and filling thousands of square feet of museum space with half-baked ideas represented with half-assed visual aids.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Peter Schjeldahl of S.V.A. (School of Visual Arts, N.Y.C.): “The Art-schooled Art world is mad for intellectual hooks. These leapfrog from an idea, sail clear over the sweat and bother of actual creation, and land in forensic analysis, which some dismal pictures or objects have been devised to illustrate” So, now what?
Brace yourself for the tidal wave of biennale hungry, socially networked fabricators all so cloaked in the scent of art that only an army of Robert Hughes clones could find the diamonds in the mountain. The magnetic force of money has drawn swarms of wannabees to the hive. Money has always been the biggest problem with art, whether too much or not enough.
Does all this mean that those lone, dedicated, socially awkward, compulsively hands-on artists are surely doomed, even if their art is mind blowing, insightful and truly great? Fortunately, a morsel of hope springs forth even after that dark, post modern moment, which mythologized individuality, justifying the frivolous and derivative practice of “riffing” and “quoting”.
Here’s Roberta Smith, New York Times art critic, in a recent interview with Interview magazine: “My basic idea is that our fingerprints are different, our handwriting is different, that there’s something that makes each of us individual... I think each of us has a capacity for originality, but originality is very, very hard to get to.”
So, here’s the thing: originality will always be the difference between great art and okay art. Fitting in sells art and makes artists popular. Celebrating mediocrity also sells a lot more art. Buying expensive crap also makes one popular, but real originality scares people. Originality actually turns most people off. Curators and critics are in the mix to help with that, but somebody has to be brave enough to be wrong, to take risks. Risk is the best part of any forward moving art. We could use a good misconception right now.
In various camps these days I see lots of conceptual art, both good and bad. The good stuff draws you in visually before you have to solve the riddle. Some is evolving back toward sculpture, some towards sound sculpture, and lots of it is content and context heavy, hyper-academic and essentially a stand-in for applied anthropology.
I also see, amidst the ongoing fray in the world of painting, various aspects of Surrealism, DADA, C.O.B.R.A. and a wide variety of gestural abstraction, all cropping up in concert with a less restrictive version of Formalism. These attributes can be seen everywhere in Brooklyn and beyond with names such as “The New Abstraction” and “Provisional Painting”. Some of it is extremely good. Europe is also seeing a huge surge in dynamic abstract painting. Figurative realism and photo-realism also still have avid practitioners and collectors as well. Despite my seeming crankiness, I am optimistic about the way forward for art because we collectively want great art and it will be created and discovered eventually.
No single movement will emerge to mark the new course. It will be an age of wide diversity, of synthesized and integrated approaches dependent on time and chance for their success. Good and even great art is out there waiting. Let’s give the victory to the risk takers while the safe ones are sleeping.
Richard Heinsohn 2014
essay by Richard Heinsohn (revised) 2014
It is my hope that this abbreviated overview will illuminate that through history since the renaissance, painting has undergone what I describe as a progressive deconstruction of pictographic representation in image making. This should prove helpful in understanding the development of abstraction.
At the time of the renaissance, painting was revitalized by the development of perspective and an acute focus on the exactitude of rendering the human anatomy, drapery, and all objects and subjects. The heroic figure was an embellishment, but based on a comprehensive knowledge of musculature and proportion. Cadavers were covertly abducted for examination and study by Da Vinci and Michaelangelo.
One of the first breaks with this focus on the exactness of subject/object was with the development of "impasto", used in the late renaissance by Tintoretto, and Titian to enhance specular light. Much later, well into the 1700s, Goya, when painting the family of Charles IV, used his impasto to depict the specular light on the crown jewels worn by the queen, causing them to appear more brilliant. These artists using impasto painted, not the exact object, but the light itself. Later in the Picturas Negras, Goya also depicted, with great facility, the reflected light from the facial bones and those of the arms and hands of peasants eating out of primitive dishes over campfires and those practitioners of witchcraft over their cauldrons. He was again painting the light to indicate the bones of these subjects and by so doing brought out their ghoulish and macabre character. From El Greco to Goya, the pictorially hyperbolic modification of the human form and the way it appeared enhanced the empathy with which these paintings were viewed. This, of course, also applies to the heroic figures of Michelangelo, the elongated forms of El Greco and Goya's own simplified figures, despite the long history of investment toward precision.
Conceivably, Goya was the first surrealist. Consider "Saturn Devouring His Son", which would definitely not make a great wall hanging for a little girl’s bedroom, or over the mantlepiece. What is clear is that he looked for an alternative reality imagistically, and an alternative to the role of artist depicting loveliness of and for the elite. Perhaps the Picturas Negras make him the first to defy commodification altogether, and the first true avant-garde artist. However quixotic, Goya’s late paintings rendered some unpleasant truths about life in a style at least one step removed from pictographic accuracy.
In the mid nineteenth century, the invention of photography changed painting for good, taking away its solo role of documenting history and its need for exactitude. However, the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, especially his landscapes from 1838 onward, demonstrate a massive trend toward abstraction. Loose swirling brushstrokes in the indication of clouds and distant landforms only vaguely resemble the subjects. It can be argued that abstraction was on the way even without photography.
Later, during the 1860s, The Impressionists found, as had Goya and others, that painting the light itself provided a reality based on the true sense of the subject. Brush strokes became paramount in conveying conglomerate portions of light which, in turn, comprised the image, thus focusing on the natural process of seeing. Here we see pictographic representation veering strongly away from the object(s) to the sensory. Although the image making was still representational, the deconstruction of representation was well under way.
Soon thereafter, Seurat reduced reality into a multitude of tiny specks, Cezanne tilted perspective and dismantled the landscape into geometric planes, Van Gogh gave texture to the atmosphere and Gauguin flattened the figure into interlocking patterns. They all examined the function of seeing, the eye itself, and also opened the door for the philosophical inevitability of questioning sight versus reality.
In 1910, Kandinsky, focused on dynamic symmetry and other compositional strategies, substituted random brush work, shaded areas, and scrawled lines for subject matter in an effort to map out his composition. At this point he created pure abstraction, even addressing the age old discussion of form and content carried on by Plato and Aristotle.
He had created images free of inherent content which were therefore pure and conceivably ideal.
Kandinsky’s idealism may be more relevant today than ever, as we struggle with a period starving for emotional impact and coldly focused on hyper-intellectualism, recreational philosophy, pop culture whimsy and cool irony. However, these concerns were paramount for him one hundred years ago and his anti-materialism paintings, based on fundamental truths from the “inner self” shaped art history. As he moved toward utopian geometric symbolism, others, like Mondrian, placed abstraction in a highly modernist context focused on mathematical patterns much more rigid than Kandinsky’s dynamic compositions and with a completely different set of ideals attached to color and form. At this point, numerous other artists including Picasso, Malevich, Franz Marc, Duchamp and the futurists, continued breaking down representation. It should be noted that while Cubism’s analytical attempt to simultaneously represent the essence of all 360 degrees of a subject on two dimensional planes had a massive impact on artists throughout the world, it gave way to the more accessible synthetic version where figures and objects were still recognizable.
Although Picasso never left figuration, his and Braque's Cubism brought the very perception of reality into question.
Around 1915, metaphysics, transcendentalism, dream analysis, and a focus on the subconscious began to influence artists of the Avant Garde. Artists began to abandon image making altogether. Among those who persisted were the surrealists, pulling imagined imagery from dreams and the subconscious. Finally, years later, also based on channeling the subconscious, came American Expressionism.
Culminating the progressively deconstructionist course, Jackson Pollack disintegrated representation into high velocity splatter.
This was ground zero. Pollack and others like De Kooning even stopped giving titles to their work in order to keep the focus on the paint and the use of it to create imagery about the process of image making with paint. The drip paintings have also been re-assesed as possible metaphors by Pollock as he depicted his concerns with the tragic fate of man as one trapped in a giant web or labrinthe.
This is where one could apply an enhanced view of abstract expressionist painting in retrospect. Influenced by automatism and engaged in an existentialist practice, Pollack and others were painting about painting as an event and or a metaphor for existence.
Since that time, around 1955-60, the knowledge of our immediate and distant surroundings has expanded immensely. Perhaps abstraction today could be viewed as a constructionist approach to image making.
We now have, through the study of biological sciences, quantum physics, astronomy, chemistry, and geology, encountered a myriad of images from telescopes, high power microscopes, electron microscopes, spectrometers and underwater cameras, which resemble imagery created by early abstract painters. Even the imaginary monsters of Miro sometimes look like newly discovered insect species photographed with high resolution cameras. The more we learn from the sciences, the more abstraction approaches representation. Anything imaginable is not only possible, but probable. Pollack’s splatters and drips even speak to concepts of matter colliding with antimatter to form galaxies. This is not to say that abstraction can become representational. Abstraction as a practice distills and extracts aspects of reality in high concentration. Nonetheless, the increasing scope of real images sharing commonalities with abstract imagery gives a heightened relevance to the intuitive and intellectual undertaking of abstraction.
Although this re-contextualizing by no means redefines early abstraction, it does further substantiate it. When Pollack exclaimed “I am Nature! ”, he was exactly right. Clearly, the more we channel the subconscious to create imagery about the process of image-making, the more these images resemble the various processes of creation itself. This indicates a strong link between the subconscious and the multitude of interconnected processes which comprise our total existence, from microscopic to telescopic. At this point, abstraction becomes a greater distillate of reality than ever before even as the scope of reality continues to reach far beyond plain sight. Despite our material culture’s propensity to transform insightful abstraction into mere decor, its significance continues to increase and its meaning, however enigmatic or specified, continues to evolve with us.