On The Possibility of Relational Abstraction
From the advent of abstraction, throughout Surrealism and into Abstract Expressionism, the objective of visually expressing a higher understanding of our existence has consistently led the most determined artists to the vast wilderness of unconscious thought.
The expansion of this realm of art began with early modern painters such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Kupka, Mondrian and Hilma Af Klint. They sought to transcend the widespread materialism, which inevitably accompanied industrialization in the westernized world. Inspired most of all by Theosophy, these artists were embracing the teachings of Helena Blavatsky, Josephin Peladan and P.D. Ouspensky to widely varying degrees.
Essentially, they were rejecting the transitory physical realm in favor of the eternal and sublime. They were fascinated by mysticism but not to the extent of practicing rituals excepting Klint, who did delve into the occult and made her abstract works in secret. Structuralist and post structuralist theories regarding binary opposition certainly apply to these seminal developments, not to mention to today’s dizzying art multiverse.
“Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable…
The aim for the artist is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distill the eternal from the transitory”
The Painter of Modern Life
Many artists sought to depict a more potent distillate of reality in and around the turn of the 20th century but their paths differed drastically, from championing the power and speed of the machine age, as with Futurism, to the quest of Braque and Picasso to circumvent the limitations of eyesight with Cubism. Cubism’s analytical phase has widely been described as overly academic, its chief success having been to collapse or dismantle linear perspective for the first time since its heralding in the renaissance. This opened the door for geometric and multi perspectival abstraction which already had roots in Theosophy’s proclamations of life having sprung from the simplest of forms. Here, the eternal and the material are combined in a historical process although they are largely seen as polar opposites. The material associates with the academic, the sublime with intuition.
All of these artists were in pursuit of visually transmitting some greater understanding of life. The Futurists and the Cubists had their eyes on the physical, tangible, concretely visible elements and forms around them. Malevich, Kandinsky, Kupka, Klint and Mondrian, were constructing imagery from their imaginations. The latter group composed their work with only the rigor of dynamic or other compositional strategies as a guide for the intuitive placement of form, line and color. Conceptually, Malevich provided portals to an “outer world”. Kandinsky sought to access his “inner world”.
Then came “The Great War”. WWI devastated Europe and demoralized many who saw the horror in person. Mysticism lost its appeal in the wake of massive physical devastation and instead, objectivity, practicality and protest seemed essential. The conclusion of a number of like-minded intellectuals was that our supposed civilized existence is a grand absurdity and this assertion lay at the root of the DADA movement, which then emerged in Switzerland in 1918.
By 1924, the writings of Sigmund Freud had rekindled some modicum of optimism in humanity among these activists, artists, poets, writers and war veterans. Andre Breton had worked with Freud’s theories in a military hospital as he tended to those severely traumatized by the mayhem. He then employed Freudian concepts regarding the unconscious as he created the Surrealism manifesto. The main objectives were to unite the movement at hand and to elevate human consciousness through a kind of art and literature that would stimulate the imagination.
The ultimate goal of Surrealism was to achieve a collective level of understanding high enough in western civilization so that war could be avoided in perpetuity. As naïve as this may seem now, one cannot deny the nobility of such an aspiration nor its dire necessity following the horrors of WWI, to which many surrealists were not only eye witnesses, but also, involuntary participants and even casualties. Apollinaire, Breton, Max Ernst and Andre Masson all served and were injured in the war. Apollinaire lost his life to a head wound received in battle.
By the advent of Surrealism, philosophy also had become a greater part of art, largely because of Marcel Duchamp’s antics of “Transformation” which included most notably “Fountian” (1917) “In Extent of the Broken Arm” and other “appropriated” objects. Here the philosophical rift between Plato and Aristotle concerning the possibility of form with no inherent content was employed by critics to further substantiate the “Ready Mades,” which Duchamp later declared he only made to defy the tastemakers of the day.
Duchamp had been asked by his brother at the behest of Albert Gleizes five years earlier to remove his painting from a show of cubist works in Paris and had subsequently stopped painting and turned to philosophy. Here we see the birth of conceptual art, ”art in service of the mind,” ironically arising from an emotional reaction to what was indeed a minor slight. But we’ll get to that later.
At this point the Surrealists and DADAists were united in defiance of material culture and mechanized doldrums, which were perceived as retarding the potential development of an enlightened society. Rational and practical, ‘day to day’ thinking were seen as deterrents to higher consciousness. The subsequent division between conceptual art and expressionism has its roots here; Conceptual art having sprouted from DADA and Abstract Expressionism from Surrealism.
Surrealism gained footing slowly among those attuned to developments in what was then a smallish, mostly Parisian art world and that enthusiasm had begun to gain serious momentum by the mid 1930s. But it was at this dark moment that Hitler began actualizing his long planned and diabolical crusade.
Now, the story goes that many of the Surrealists escaped to New York and had some significant influence on the then burgeoning WPA artists who later became part of the New York School or Abstract Expressionism. However, upon closer scrutiny of the time period between 1938 and 1948 another development in abstract painting appears to have gone largely under-recognized: that of abstract surrealism.
Obviously, WWII, starting in 1939, created mass anxiety, unprecedented confusion and fear, not to mention calamity on an unimaginable scale. The disruptive impact of such a conflict following so closely after WWI cannot be overestimated.
It is largely for this reason that what was developing among the scattered Surrealists, especially Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Stanley William Hayter, Jimmy Ernst, Charles Seliger along with Jackson Pollack, Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell, may have not been able to reach its culmination before the proclamation of Abstract Expressionism as the next major art movement. Undoubtedly, political maneuverings and ambitions among critics, dealers, curators and museum directors played a significant role in this abrupt transition.
The fascination with Sigmund Freud’s exploration of dreams and the unconscious had for over a decade inspired Andre Breton to encourage the use of a range of experimental approaches such as automatic writing and automatism to conjure images from the subconscious. However, the writings of Carl Jung and Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid to late 1930’s either added to or entirely superseded Freud’s influence on many of the later Surrealists as well as the young Americans.
Rather than accessing one’s own subconscious, these artists began using random process, such as the swinging can of leaking ink at Stanley William Hater’s Atelier 17 in downtown Manhattan, to access Jung’s proposed “collective consciousness” through inadvertent incident with minimal control. Also central to these artists’ ambitions was Sartre’s notion that, only by employing the freedom to choose to alter the inherited condition of self, can one attain authenticity.
Sartre’s main influence may have simply been that these displaced surrealists and struggling young American artists grew weary of Breton’s manifesto driven, politically focused ideology and needed to freely choose their own paths. The result among several of these artists was to break with politics and representation altogether in pursuit of a new kind of abstraction which utilized variant forms of automatism to generate parts of what was primarily biomorphic and cosmic abstract imagery.
While in Mexico, Wolfgang Paalen moved away from Surrealism towards completely abstract imagery inspired by uniting recent developments in science, especially physics, with ”The Philosophy of the Possible.” Paalen envisioned an unfettered imagination as a more viable conduit for channeling subconscious impulses than any sort of spellbound automatism. He wanted to depict “matter as energy.”
By 1944 the early Surrealists had gained considerable prominence, especially in New York. Dali had been expelled from the group but had achieved major acclaim and fanfare. The careers of Magritte, Miro’ and Tanguy flourished, and Surrealism appeared to the general public as a whimsical twisting of pictorial realism for the sake of an arresting visual experience. In the case of Miro’, his use of saturated color punctuated with abstract forms alongside his unabashed embrace of childlike figuration set his work apart. Despite the extreme diversity within the movement, the seeming cleverness and apparent whimsy of early Surrealism combined with pictorial representation made it vulnerable to serious art criticism.
That summer, the writing of Clement Greenberg in two issues of The Nation, was largely perceived as a wholesale rejection of Surrealism. This contributed significantly to the confusion of that interim, especially once compounded by the process of word spreading fast without all the facts and details. It was a small, insular art world and the word on the street was the social network, however inaccurate.
Greenberg actually applauded automatist practice and the paintings of Miro, Jean Arp and Andre Masson, but sharply criticized the work of those artists using the “outmoded” techniques of modeling, figuration and pictographic rendering, which had been discarded through Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. He saw this approach as “…taking refuge in the ancient arsenal provided by the traditions of oil painting”
Greenberg saw the history of modern painting as a gradual deconstruction of representation and cubism as the rejection of linear perspective.
Also in 1944, reviewing “Art in Progress,” a group show of various painting styles at MOMA, Greenberg wrote that ”the extreme eclecticism now prevailing in art is unhealthy and should be counteracted.” Here we see a call to action as if an art critic is calling for a mandate on where the history of art should lead.
This was, of course, the age of paradigms, which presupposes a linear art history in which singular, master narratives displace their predecessors. However, Greenberg also had zero interest in any context of existentialism or intuitive access to collective consciousness as a driving force in image making. He advocated for the visual autonomy of any given work of art without the crutch or hindrance of explanation, or, as it is well known: formalism.
Meanwhile, that sense of urgency among those influential in New York’s art scene continued to percolate.
Having never had a major international art movement in U.S. history, pressure was mounting on curators, critics and museum directors as America began to emerge heroically from the war as a major player on the world stage. In the words of historian, Martica Sawin, regarding Greenberg:
“By setting up the Surrealists as a target he could discredit the last existing avant-garde and install a legitimate heir to the modern tradition.”
Politically, this made even more sense given the early Surrealist connection to and affinity for the ideals of Trotsky-based communism, which was perceived as the antithesis of capitalism.
This very same year the paintings of WPA artist, Arshile Gorky evolved tremendously from the influence of his close friend Roberto Matta, and from Gorky’s exposure and involvement with the younger surrealists and upcoming Americans that were all getting together and experimenting with various process oriented approaches to abstract painting.
Gorky had emerged as a promising young painter in New York after coming to the U.S. to escape the Armenian genocide when he was fourteen. Originally named Vosdanig Adoian, he had held his mother in his arms as she died of starvation. Escaping to the U.S., he managed to unite with family in Connecticut. After years of study and prolific output he began to gain attention from both peers and critics. His murals for the Newark airport referenced Leger, among his many derivative phases based on modern masters, but he garnered considerable attention for them and was well liked by most fellow artists in the New York downtown scene.
By 1944, well versed in every incarnation of modernism, Gorky finally hit his zenith by thinning his paint and thereby loosening and softening the edges of the biomorphic forms he painted. This provided his work with a far greater sense of fluidity and translucence.
Inspiration from weeds and plants led him to carefully plan and render what appear to be automatist oriented shapes and forms. He did not employ automatism, but went to great lengths to make his imagery appear incidental or like a natural occurrence akin to imagery the abstract surrealists concocted by pouring, dripping and scraping. Here we can clearly see the value of ambiguity in abstraction as it relates to discerning form and space. His works lure the viewer in with their uncertainty, the very quality championed by Baudelaire in his writings on Impressionism.
Greenberg’s response to Gorky flip-flopped but ultimately was supportive. “It took Gorky’s more solid craft, profounder craft as a painter to make many of Matta’s ideas look substantial.”
The inherent contradiction is that Greenberg had championed automatism as the discernable difference between those Surrealists and young Americans he applauded, and those stuck rendering and carefully executing easel paintings, but Gorky’s were just that. He dismissively called Matta “inveterately flashy” but it was Matta who practiced a more automatist, impulse driven approach and Matta who helped Gorky understand the value of a less literal approach to rendering his forms.
(It must be noted that many also blamed Matta’s affair with Gorky’s wife for Gorky’s suicide, despite there having been other tragic occurrences such as his studio fire and the loss of twenty seven paintings, his subsequent colon cancer and the fractured vertebrae from the car crash with Julien Levy, his dealer.)
Of the lost Gorky’s, several were among his newly developed approach which we can see in his superior paintings such as “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” and “Water of the Flowery Mill.” His mastery was in his ability to mask any sign of intentionality such as careful rendering, or any specified representation, thus causing the imagery to appear completely natural, as if it had come from an inadvertent, impulse driven process. Rather than employ automatism, he imitated it. Frequently called ”the last Surrealist and first Expressionist,” he was in fact an abstract surrealist, his images born of deconstructing plants morphing into loose figuration. What matters, nonetheless, is that those paintings invite viewer participation because of the ambiguity of the biomorphic forms in juxtaposition with their specified borders.
It is this delicate and teetering balance between form and field, between animated entities and mere configurations of color, form and space, that allows viewers to complete the context by deriving content in their own minds. These works succeed because the imagination is most effectively deployed when beckoned by unfinished business.
Gorky’s paintings of 1944-7 represent a culmination of that for which several of the abstract surrealists had strived for years and he had considerable contact with those artists, especially Matta. This work is seminal to the possibility of what I would call “Relational Abstraction”, wherein the viewer participates in subjectively contextualizing the imagery. Consider the words of Gordon Onslow Ford in 1941 describing Matta’s work in his first lecture in New York at the New School.
“Each object should mean something to each viewer in terms of their own psyche”
-Gordon Onslow Ford, New School lecture, 1941
In 1995, fifty four years later, in her epic book, Surrealism in Exile, Martica Sawin assessed that comment in these terms:
“Thus the ground was prepared for a mode of painting intended to circumvent symbolic interpretation in order to speak directly from the unconscious of the artist to the unconscious of the viewer”
Gorky’s maturation had a tangible influence on the young Americans and is most visible in De Kooning’s paintings and hybrid drawings from the late 1940s. “Excavation,” a large De Kooning masterpiece from 1950 shows just how much careful and painstaking detail goes into what appears to be gestural and emphatic flurry. Gorky’s and De Kooning’s works were all easel or wall paintings which were carefully deliberated and orchestrated in layers over time but which appear natural, spontaneous and unified.
Decalomania, coulage, fumage, etc., were all very experimental in the forties, and acrylics had not been developed. Consequently, many of these endeavors were messy, expensive and vaporously invasive. In fact, the ideal of process-based automatism largely preceded the likelihood of its success because of restrictions stemming from the tradition of working vertically, inherent limitations of the mediums and the conventional use of ordinary brushes. While Onslow Ford did begin his paintings on the floor with pouring (coulage), he then finished them with brushes and in a vertical position.
The difference between automatism and painting intuitively arises at this point. It must be considered that there are infinitely varying levels of the extents to which artists lean on their instincts and impulses while painting, and that no artist can function while completely unconscious or “in a trance” as has been suggested about Klint. Clearly Matta’s works are impulsively spawned from wild volcanic dreamscapes, but they are also carefully finished. Paalen, Onslow Ford, Gorky, Baziotes and Motherwell all wanted to move away from any sort of trance based mysticism and focus on simply liberating the imagination as a more effective means of conjuring imagery from the subconscious and connecting with the infinite.
By 1948, Gorky was gone and Surrealism had faded substantially as the U.S. emerged heroic and vibrant after the war.
Only Pollack succeeded with gestural automatism as an exclusive and sole method and stands alone as the pioneer in this regard. It was the fluidity of his dripping, combined with the horizontality of the canvas, which allowed for the continuous marking that propelled this method. The coarseness of raw gesture without further refinement set him apart.
The more inadvertent or incidental abstraction appears, as with pouring, dripping and other processes through which control is strategically relinquished, the more surprising and invigorating to the viewers’ imaginations when specific images do become manifest. It is the elusive balance of specificity and ambiguity that contributes to the increased participation of the viewer in imagining specifics within the conglomerate imagery.
However, Pollack’s drip paintings were existential events or a response to “the forces which move our bodies and minds.” This phrase was precisely what Wolfgang Paalen had iterated in DYN, his 1942 magazine, regarding his views of automatism and existentialism. Pollack had all five issues of DYN.
While Pollack actually made his take on hybrid automatism work, he did so without any reference to discernable form. His evenly dispersed imagery was hailed as a rejection of linear perspective and any pronounced figure/ground strategy for painting. Paalen’s words also lie at the root of Harold Rosenberg’s term, ”Action Painting”, which through time has contributed to a somewhat shallow reading of gestural abstraction, including the over-simplified promotion of Ab-Ex as free expression by the C.I.A.
Greenberg saw the drip paintings as a historic development in the progressive collapse of linear perspective and illustrative painting and applauded Pollack. He furthered his thesis by citing “flatness” as essential to painting’s continued relevance and these rejections were echoed by Gottlieb and Rothko in their co-published manifesto.
These specified stipulations/criteria, coming from a highly influential and ground breaking critic, had the effect of restricting the potential growth from this point in time of artists whose works may have otherwise maintained references to forms in pictorial space. By championing flatness of the surface, “all over” or uniformly distributed imagery, and the physical nature of the painting over the imagistic content, any artists employing depth of field or a figure/ground approach were thereby seen as regressive.
Thusly, veiled references to form gave way to the “all-over” field by the time advanced and progressive automatist methods emerged as successful, fully developed approaches to painting. Most of the abstract surrealists, especially Gordon Onslow Ford and Wolfgang Paalen, still reeling from transplantation and wartime confusion, had only begun to fully explore the range of quasi automatist processes, which inspired Pollack, Hoffman, Baziotes, Rothko, Motherwell, Gorky and others. Worth mentioning, both Gorky and Pollack hit their strides when they changed their methods by increasing the fluidity of their paint. And, most unfortunately, both artists died prematurely, leaving us to wonder where their paths would have led.
At hand now is the tipping point of viewer involvement, which brings with it that pesky binary code. But firstly, an examination of the “all over” field, as the crucial development which eclipsed biomorphic abstraction, is essential.
The power of these fields of color and/or drippings comes from the landscape theme of mankind’s inherent vulnerability to nature. In Winslow Homer’s “The Rescue” the power of nature overwhelms the fragile figures on the edge of a raging sea. This theme, inevitably, dates back to cave painting and is primordial by definition. More recent examples abound throughout Romanticism especially in the turbulent near-abstractions of JMW Turner such as “Val d’Aosta.” In 1836 this watercolor includes two enfeebled figures, but in the oil painting by the same name in 1845 those figures are absent, man having succumbed to its undulating, amorphous origins.
Other examples abound, such as “Avalanche in the Alps” by Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherbourg” (1803), numerous Constables, and especially in Turner’s later paintings from 1836 -45.
In the all over works of the abstract expressionists, whether a field of sublime transitions of hue and value as with Rothko or Still, or the labyrinthian chaos of Pollack’s “One Number 31,” ”Alchemy” or “Convergence,” the frail human figure is absent, now replaced by the viewer. Here again are the seeds of viewer participation in expanding the “Art Experience”.
“The deep shock of apprehending a great work of art is no affectation. Something takes place and it is tremendous. Common agreement about this…has led to isolating and cherishing what is now known as the artistic experience. By general consent, art gives the impression of possessing new knowledge…Great art has the power of transfiguring the aspect of the world, while also mysteriously recasting in new shapes the substance of the self.”
-Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art, -1977
It must be noted in defense of Clement Greenberg that abstract painting in 1940-50 still had the power to astonish and intrigue viewers without the support of explanations. Rothko, Pollack, Still, and Motherwell made commanding works, which rewarded open-minded viewers with raw power. Pollack, Rothko and Still are the three artists who most effectively produced work which engulfs the viewer and stimulates contemplation of nature’s immensity and mankind’s extraordinary vulnerability. That their works maintain this enigmatic force when seen in person today attests to the strength of some artists to channel visionary intent well into the future. In the monumental works by these painters, the viewer becomes part of the picture conceptually; vulnerable, surprised, astonished, like viewing a solar eclipse or any number of epiphany inducing confrontations with our vast surroundings.
In the massive “all over” type paintings, the trade off is that with no reference to form, the viewer is left alone in the field. The viewer’s ability to participate exists but is held to a solitary contemplation of near emptiness, a beautiful path to transcendence, or an entanglement in the wildly spun web of Pollack’s drips. The profound significance of this solitary viewer experience comes from the dual encapsulation of binary foes as it speaks to mortality while addressing the infinite.
However, by 1950 The U.S. had emerged triumphant and thrived economically as a world power. The binary pendulum swung hard toward levity. Mass production was celebrated for job creation and consumer ease, big companies launched massive advertising campaigns and television began its march to ubiquity while the dark times of the depression and the war got airbrushed into oblivion with a shiny coat of new found optimism.
Painting then developed in two distinct directions: Pop and Color Field. Post painterly abstraction or Color Field painting, stemmed from existential endeavors to harken the sublime but got steered by Greenberg into prioritizing superficial concerns such as “flatness”, “opticality” and iconic styling. The movement evolved to embrace the sensuous, decorative and material aspects of process driven painting but became second fiddle by a long shot to the easily accessible frivolity and celebrity of Pop. Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski created masterful, process driven fields of color and soft edged harmony, but the sublime was no match for soup cans in a culture ready to celebrate.
Pop was primarily a low-brow reaction to the profound nature of existential expression and akin to provincial nationalism in its promotion, rather than critique, of consumerism (excepting Rauschenberg). Academically, Pop art (especially Rauschenberg) could be substantiated by invoking references to DADA. But in stark contrast, Pop as a movement was fun and easy and did not challenge the arc of civilization as an absurdity. Only Rauschenberg stayed close to the heart of DADA’s commitment to challenging the viewer.
Neither movement prioritized as a paramount concern the stimulating of the imagination or existentialism or elevating consciousness with the use of abstract forms in pictorial space. The trail run cold in 1945-50 was not superseded by a better one; it was just abandoned to accommodate three things: national optimism under a burgeoning consumer culture, the need for a more accessible and distinctly American brand of art, and a further rejection of traditional oil painting.
The material won out over the eternal. DADA and philosophy became the foundational sources for conceptual art, which gained tremendous academic support, as did Pop art. Elevating consciousness was then largely perceived as an intellectual endeavor no longer possible through painting. Pluralism, that “unhealthy eclecticism” deplored by Greenberg, became the reality on the ground. Conceptual art then evolved into social critique as war again brought about the widespread preponderance of our fragile physical and socio-political realm. Protests of the Vietnam War combined with racial tension had the impact of steering art towards applied anthropology, especially in the high profile American art schools.
In this moment those polar opposites of material vs. sublime were expanding exponentially. Inevitably, binary opposition left unchecked by dialectical synthesis leads to extreme polarization, the gulf between filled with mediocrity. Without compromise and synthesis we simply fall into disparate pieces and no longer function as a whole. Such loomed the crisis of Post Modernity. Binary opposition, our fundamental means of understanding ourselves, also appears to be the architecture of our demise. Extremes lead to isolation, animosity and ultimately, implosion.
The postmodern trend of social critique, largely encouraged within academia, shut out any notions of the metaphysical or intuitive directives of self-expression by the mid 1970s and somewhat uniformly dismissed Ab-Ex as non-intellectual. A fusion of color field and the conceptual had led to minimalism, but the meditative transcendence supposed by monochrome painting ultimately failed to be more than decorative.
Instead, critics hailed socio political activism and a morass of DADA influenced sculptural, video and installation art alongside Pop art’s celebration of mass consumerism and sheer frivolity. The 1980’s saw the pendulum swing again briefly with Neo-Expressionism, but those artistic concerns in the U.S. were predominantly about generating iconic style, obtaining art stardom and countering the scourge of dry intellectualism. Within the morass of sub genres and extreme pluralism, post modern Pop and social critique remained firmly in place as the economy boomed despite the Cold War. The Germans, Gerhard Richter, Anslem Kiefer and Sigmar Polk emerged as the best painters of their era.
By 1990, the myth and legend of how cool it is to be ”Avant-Garde” had become institutionalized and every art student was taught to be a rebel. To succeed, you had to conform by rebelling. This imitation avant-garde in a time of hyper pluralism had no art hegemony to resist. Instead, injustice and societal dysfunction provided the perfect reservoirs to exploit. Here we see artists demonstrably exerting their acquired knowledge of social problems as an art form. Increasingly and collectively narcissistic, the material world again became the focus over the sublime, the transcendent, the metaphysical and the infinite.
Today, approaching the year 2020, we experience the Anthropocene era. We see snapshot images of calamities and catastrophe alongside fashion and sports at an unprecedented rate. The result is an unavoidable trivialization of war, disaster and human tragedy. As these images are non-stop, rapidly broadcasted and part and parcel with an endless stream of gyrating dancers and tough truck ads, we have become imagistically anesthetized. As a result, most social commentary, with notable exceptions, has lost its potency for revelatory immediacy.
By too tightly focusing on either material culture or anti-materialism, we have through time failed to see, render and refer to the conflicted totality of the human psyche. Abstraction, however, is a distillate language and can distill from both granular strains of culture at once, uniting the material and the sublime. Any good work of art has layers of meaning and simply because that meaning is not specified does not make the work meaningless. It makes it mysterious. It is an inclusive embrace of polar opposites that great art continues to reflect.
Clearly, the purpose of art is to provide the art experience and the purpose of that experience, by all accounts, is either transcendence or a higher understanding of ourselves, or both.
Polarization in art’s development since 1917 stems largely from a failure to unite reason and emotion. From 1950 the gap has widened exponentially and branched off into numerous directions with the expansion of the art world, globalization and the digital age. But we all feel and we all think.
It is all too easy to cynically categorize and decry any even remotely sensuous abstraction as decorative, perhaps harkening the famous “merely retinal” admonishment of Fauvism by Duchamp. However, we subconsciously internalize most of our knowledge and our feelings over time and therefore our immediate reaction to any visual art has been deeply conditioned by our intellect.
One major binary split accompanying the conceptual vs. the intuitive is specificity vs. ambiguity. In literature and most all writing we must be specific to be clear and the more specific the better. In abstract painting nothing could be worse than being literal. No wonder Cezanne said: ”Artists must be careful not to think like writers.”
And of course, the binary split at the root of it all is known as The Cartesian Error.
“Descartes error…was to separate thinking, rationality, the capacity for language, and so on, from the body…The deep error, the separation of reason from emotion, prevented Descartes from conceiving the entire organism as a thinking, feeling being”
Descartes Error 1994
In addition, we have numerous advances in psychology and neuroscience which substantiate this assertion.
“Science is thus starting to understand how reason and emotion, thinking and feeling interrelate through bodily processes and to stipulate that is imperative to examine these connections”
-Christine Ross-Amelia Jones
A companion to Contemporary Art since 1945 (2009)
So, binary opposition has led to some sort of polarization on many levels in art and that has in some cases led to extremism. Minimal art is one example. Consider Relational Aesthetics as a prime example. After a century of conceptual art dating back to “Fountain”, we now have this:
Relational Aesthetics: “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”
-Nicholas Bourriaud 1998
The most famous example includes the shared experience of cooking Thai Food in an elevator as the actual art. Another, by Liz Magic Laser, includes the shared experience of feeding pastrami to a bank depository while being filmed by friends.
To be clear, all art worth experiencing is interactive and includes some level of relation between others to form a human experience. From the consensus of its quality to the range of its interpretation, a work or show of art becomes central to a network of human relations.
Relational Aesthetics subtracts that central component (as essential) in order to prioritize interaction and participation so that the experience of social interaction outweighs a focus on any object or performance and becomes the actual art.
A less extreme approach would be to recognize that at least the art experience, not to mention humanity in general, benefits immensely from objects which promote, allow for, and indeed serve as platforms for interaction, contemplation and an enriched human experience.
In terms of a relational art experience, at what point does the viewer of twenty first century painting graduate from the tradition of observer to the role of participant? Is there a tipping point beyond which a viewer can somehow finalize or discern definitive imagery specific to their psyche? This subjective interpretation clearly has its roots in 1944 with Gorky, and with the aspirations of Onslow Ford and Matta in 1941. Greenberg insisted that anyone in pursuit of Gorky’s path was “doomed to fail,” but that was before the advent of modern mediums and the widespread employment of process oriented approaches to painting.
Examples of contemporary painting that could be described as ‘Relational Abstraction’ are out there in varying degrees among the ocean of other abstraction, much of which is academically driven and demonstrative in its quotation-heavy tropism. Ultimately sterile and unchallenging, references to digital distortion, fabric patterns, grids, glitches, codes and cryptic text have fueled a mixed media mania. Coupled with an inherent cynicism not unlike a disaffected teenager, we now have an abundance of extremely superficial abstract painting on a suffocating scale.
Conversely, Dana Shultz, Verner Manners, Bernard Gilbert, Mil Culemens, Herbert Creecy, Larry Poons and many other abstract painters have made works that invite subjective interpretation rather than demonstrate knowledgeability. For twenty first century painting to elevate consciousness, it must continue to further engage the viewer as a participant.
When Pollack exclaimed “I am Nature!” he was exactly right. The more we channel internal impulses to create imagery, the more these images resemble various processes of creation itself and are therefore familiar to our subconscious. This internal and inherent association with otherwise unfamiliar abstract images invites the viewer into the painting. It also indicates a strong link between the subconscious and the multitude of interconnections which comprise our collective consciousness and our total existence, from microscopic to telescopic, from intellectual to emotional, from material to metaphysical.
Relational is a broad term that illuminates a property in abstraction that allows viewers to freely interpret spontaneously generated imagery and make associations particular to their own psyches. This means that viewers can participate in completing images specific to the conditioning of their own imaginations.
Relational Abstraction includes a wide array of approaches to abstract painting which invite subjective interpretation and represents a path forward for works with progressively greater levels of viewer involvement in discerning meaning and content.
Richard Heinsohn, 2018
Relational Abstraction copyright (C.) Richard Heinsohn 2018
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