patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Archive for October 2011

There’s a wasteland to confront

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I keep coming across statements about abstraction and spirituality. Sean Scully seems to like the connection, and I have been re-reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky.

I also found an old copy of Art & Design from 1987, inspired by the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

 

The Art and Design special is entitled Abstract Art & the Rediscovery of the Spiritual. It has a good article by Catherine Cooke about Kandinsky, an interview with Maurice Tuchman (the curator of the L.A. exhibition) by Charles Jencks and an article by Sixten Ringbom. They are all going on about Theosophy, occultism and mysticism, and suddenly there is this brilliant article by Peter Fuller, who unsurprisingly is rather scathing about it all. It’s not the spiritual as such that he is scathing about, but rather its trivialisation and the exhibition’s uncritical and unhistorical treatment of its theme: “Tuchman’s concept of the spiritual seems so elastic that it could be extended to include any artist he chose – even that vandal Marcel Duchamp, beatified in this show because of his interest in auras and alchemy”. I love Fuller’s polemical style, I can hear him almost spitting as he says

Tuchman… plunges us immediately into the sterile world of tarot cards, Ouija boards, Dr Who, seances and every kind of mixed-up media. Predictably, neither the catalogue nor the exhibition itself contains any hint of the fact that modern physics and mathematics are generating ‘cosmic imagery’ of a beauty and power never before seen. Rather the exhibition seems to want to root its credibility in the fact that Kandinsky and Mondrian were interested in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. And sadly, neither Tuchman nor his panel of spiritualistic scholars attempt to understand these artists’ involvement with such sects in terms of the state of spiritual life in Europe soon after the turn of the century

In other parts of his essay, Fuller puts the label ‘scholar’ in inverted commas!

The sentence quoted forms a fulcrum in Fullers article, as he now goes on to analyse the state of spiritual life in Europe soon after the turn of the century, positioning Kandinsky’s desire to penetrate beyond the veil of material things in relation to Kandinsky’s Christian beliefs. Beginning his survey with the natural theology of P.T. Forsyth who insisted that “A distant God, an external God, who from time to time interferes in Nature or the soul, is not a God compatible with Art, nor one very good for piety” he observes that by the time Forsyth was writing, this belief in the immanence of God within his world had already been eroded by the advance of science, secularism and industrialisation.  Nature had already become a wasteland, a wilderness divorced from spiritual and aesthetic life. Whilst Kandinsky, brought up in the Eastern, Orthodox tradition with its icons that expressed ‘transfigured’ rather than visible realities, hoped to  see through the physical world to the spirit, earlier Western theologians like John Henry Newman, had already highlighted the gulf that divided the material from the spiritual. What Newman and Kandinsky shared, however, was a ‘longing after that which we do not see’, a longing that was not shared by the prevailing liberal Protestantism of the Christian churches in pre-war Germany. It is against this backdrop that Kandinsky was attracted to the ‘new Christianity’ of Theosophy.

Fuller sees patterns that connect Kandinsky’s rejection of the worldliness and reasonableness of nineteenth century faith to Rudolf Otto, the Austrian theologian who wrote The Idea of the Holy, and who drew a comparison between the religious experience of ‘the numinous’ and the aesthetic experience of the beautiful.   He probably had Chinese painting in mind when he praised pictures “connected with contemplation – which impress the observer with the feeling that the void itself is depicted as a subject”, the void of negation “that does away with every ‘this’ and ‘here’ in order that the ‘wholly other’ may become actual”.

Continuing his survey of the spiritual in art against the theological background of the early twentieth century, Fuller observes that the aesthetic rooted in natural theology ended in the obsessively detailed materiality of the Pre-Raphaelites and the hope that abstraction might reveal transcendent reality, ended with the emptiness of the void. In other words we arrive at the impossibility of the spiritual in art.

This impossibility was voiced by the twentieth century’s greatest theologian Karl Barth, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. In Barth’s theology God is the subject, not the object of experience,  and religion is the very antithesis of the (partial) revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Otto’s idea of the holy as the wholly other within human experience was the opposite of Barth’s ‘Wholly Other’ as utterly transcendent “the pure and absolute boundary… distinguished qualitatively from men and from everything human, and must never be identified with anything which we name, or conceive, or worship, as God.” The most that art (or theology) can ever hope to do is perhaps to point to the revelation of God in Christ, like John the Baptist in Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece. For Barth, Kandinsky’s desire to give expression to the Wholly Other in a plastic way would have been absurd, vain and presumptuous.

Doesn’t Barthian theology lead so easily to atheism? It is a very small step from the almost impossibility of experiencing God, to Death of God Theology: we do not live in a garden made by God for people, but in a god-forsaken wasteland, already attested to by many poets and painters of the mid nineteenth century. Fuller puts it this way:

The importance of Barth lies in the fact that his is the only possible theology for the twentieth century: and it proves to be impossible.

He criticises the exhibition for its shallowness and ignorance arguing that the spiritual insights of Tuchman and friends are so thin, and the trance sessions and cosmic vibrations such a distraction, “that they appear not to realise that there is a wasteland to confront.” He goes on to list British and Australian artists of the twentieth century of whom this cannot be said (even though they do not feature in the exhibition): Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Winter, John Craxton,William Scott, Ivon Hitchens, Alan Davie, David Bomberg,Petter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Mary Potter. And he closes with an appreciation of “the greatest American painter of the twentieth century” who was “intimately concerned with the bleakness of our spirituality in the absence of God” namely, Mark Rothko.

Back in time: Sean Scully at Abbot Hall, Kendal

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Thinking of Sean Scully as I have been doing recently, I was remembering the exhibition of paintings and works on paper at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal in 2005.

Was it really that long ago? Visiting it was my birthday treat that year, and I took the trip up a few times during the three months it was open.

I liked that there were so many pieces of work (there were 23 in all) in a relatively small space. It was possible to get to know them over a period of time and to see how they related to each other. Although we wouldn’t think of Scully as a systems artist, the fact that he works in series means that you do see relationships between works very clearly and that the work becomes more than each individual painting.

In the catalogue for that show Scully says:

…very often with painting, when you see someone’s painting for the first time you can’t really relate to it. You have to see it over time, and you have to see different kinds of works by the same artist, and kind of live with it, live with the experience of that painting and come back to it until you sort of connect to it

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 25, 2011 at 7:00 am

Sean Scully, contemplation and time

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If I have a favourite artist it is Sean Scully. I remember once visiting Tate Modern with a friend, and in the time it took him to see everything in there I had viewed only the three Scullys that were on show. I was literally mesmerised by them. For me, the type of naturally occurring trance state, or reverie, that Franz Anton Mesmer (re)discovered is just the kind of experience provoked by many of Scully’s paintings. Whilst in some ways all aesthetic experience comes into the category of naturally occurring trance, (or if you prefer ‘flow’ state), the work by Sean Scully seems particularly to put me there.

In Issue Ten of Turps Banana, Scully, talking to Peter Dickinson about the bad reception abstract art gets in the UK, says that looking at abstract art “requires contemplation and time”

Sean Scully, Soft Ending, 1969, Acrylic on canvas (226.1 x 226.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist

You could imagine that a gallery might be a good place to find time for contemplation. .. unless it is such a gigantic space that walking past the art becomes the norm.

Sean Scully, Moon, being walked by at Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2008, my photo

Surely he is right about abstraction, it does require contemplation and time, and isn’t it also the case that it rewards the time and contemplation given to it. That is certainly my experience with Scully’s paintings, even the early, minimalist-leaning work.

In Turps Banana, the interview is supplemented by some excellent reproductions, all of early work. I have come to like the more recent Wall of Light series (like the one in my photograph above, taken at Centre Pompidou) so much that I had forgotten how powerful some of the early works are. Soft Ending 1969, for example, seems to have an opticality that is understated or resisted in the later work. The development of Scully’s oeuvre could be read as an increasing emphasis on the physicality and objecthood of painting. Of course that physicality includes the optical much as it could also be seen as a container for the spiritual. Scully talks a lot about the spiritual in art, but I don’t remember him defining what he means by it. What he says in Turps Banana about contemplation and time possibly hints at a way of viewing that approaches spirituality in the sense of meditation.

The new issue of Turps Banana also includes interviews with, or articles about painters such as, Tomma Abts, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart, René Daniëls and Rose Wylie.

Check out this post at Abstraction Blog with some good photos of three new Scully paintings at his current show at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, and a link to itunes where you can download Turps Banana.

Abstraction, decoration and Tomma Abts by Dan Coombs in Turps Banana

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In Turps Banana issue ten, Dan Coombs writes about the paintings of Tomma Abts. I like her work. At least I think I do, only having seen it in reproduction, and looking forward to seeing some of it in ‘real life’ soon.

Tomma Abts, Schwiddo, 2008, Oil and acrylic on canvas (46 x 38 cm). Courtesy of the artist and greengrassi, London

One of the recurring themes of this blog is abstraction and its relationship (or not) to decoration. In his Turps Banana article Coombs makes some interesting points on this subject. I have noticed that whenever the ‘D’ word is used in relation to abstract art it is usually the late modernist painters, championed by Clement Greenberg, that we have in mind.  I remember being horrified at a lecture by Peter Fuller in 1979 when he referred to the paintings of Jules Olitski as ‘terrible’ (in the bad sense) and I think it was what Coombs calls the ‘innocently decorative’ that he was reacting against, and what the earlier generation Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman referred to pejoratively as ‘batik’. Coombs suggests that what Greenberg left out was the psychological component of art, a dimension he finds plenty of in Abts paintings and that prevents them from ever becoming ‘innocently decorative’.

I like his discussion of Abts’ painting Schwiddo, shown above, where he senses a note of disquiet invoked by the dip in tone within the smaller of the two central circles. I agree with him, and I wonder how it works: how is it that I interpret a dip in tone as a note of disquiet? And this interpretation is only secondarily cognitive, I can describe my experience in this way but first I feel it, somatically. It is this kind of experience that makes the painting more than decorative, and in Coombs’ words nudges it “towards having a subject, or more precisely, into being a subject”.  I am reminded of that famous cartoon by Ad Reinhardt of the abstract painting in a museum confronting the viewer who had mockingly asked “what does this represent?” Pointing its finger back at the viewer the painting  demands “what do you represent?”

(The new issue of Turps Banana also carries, among other things, articles about Sean Scully, René Daniëls, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart and Rose Wylie. As usual there is a plate entitled The Banana, in this issue by Dolly Thompsett. And whilst on the subject of bananas, though nothing at all to do with the Turps Banana,  I couldn’t help but connect to the blog posts I saw yesterday at Geokult on Carmen Banana, Big Banana Time, and Going Bananas)

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 14, 2011 at 8:48 am

the indiscipline of the discipline

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Abstraction Blog posted about a new exhibition at Tate St Ives: The Indiscipline of Painting, subtitled International Abstraction from the 1960s to Now. At last! A big show of abstract painting, and it’s outside London too.

It opened yesterday and continues until 3 January 2012, bringing together paintings by British, American and European artists, made during the last fifty years.

I am even more delighted to discover that this project is a collaboration between Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, and that when it has closed at Tate St Ives it will travel to the Mead Gallery and show between 14 January and 10 March 2012. Coventry Arts Centre is near where I live (no matter that every time I have attempted to visit this year it has been closed). I can go see it in St Ives and then visit regularly from January to March.

Of the 49 painters included in the show I am particularly looking forward to seeing work by Tomma Abts ; John M. Armleder, Daniel Buren, Mary Heilmann, Blinky Palermo, Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Myron Stout and Dan Walsh.

The Tate write-up about the exhibition says

The contemporary position of abstract painting is problematic. It can be seen to be synonymous with a modernist moment that has long since passed, and an ideology which led the medium to stagnate in self-reflexivity and ideas of historical progression. The Indiscipline of Painting challenges such assumptions. It reveals how painting’s modernist histories, languages and positions have continued to provoke ongoing dialogues with contemporary practitioners, even as painting’s decline and death has been routinely and erroneously declared.

Painting is dead. Long live painting!

Feedback from Rise Art

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Sometimes I get feedback I am glad to receive and other times I get helpful feedback that I didn’t like to receive when I post my work on Rise Art. I like to be liked…

wishful thinking

and I like it when my work is liked. So naturally, I expect that when I see the votes (on Rise Art you can vote for work by clicking on a tick or a cross) 100% will be favourable, and it never works out that way. Sometimes only just over half of viewers clicked favourably, and often those are the works I like the best! It can be discouraging.

When I posted my Wakefield Bridge recently, I got some favourable interest and some helpful comments.

Wakefield Bridge, 2011, acrlylic on canvas, 81cm x 81cm

I was unsure about the hardness of the hard edge direction I am beginning to take ( I have mentioned it before), and to hear others like Matt Selby and David Riley say that they think it is a good direction is appreciated.

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 10, 2011 at 7:00 am

Post Mondrianism

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This link shows the Mondrian painting I saw recently at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue  1935, Oil on canvas,560 x 552 mm. I have started to make some studies of it.

I was chatting with someone about abstract painting and contemporary art and, intending to say “post-modernism” it came out as “post-Mondrianism”

The first time I ever heard the word ‘post-modernism’ was in a lecture in 1979. I have no idea who was lecturing but the case they were making for post-modernism was a lot to do with Kandinsky’s notion of the spiritual and both his and Mondrian’s links to Theosophy, but I remember struggling to understand how that was post anything.

There’s a show at The V&A just now called Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 on the blurb they say “many modernists considered style to be a mere sideshow to their utopian visions; but for the postmodernists, style was everything”.  I guess what they say here about “many modernists” would be true for Mondrian, who was highly utopian. So perhaps ‘post-Mondrianism’ says ‘post-modernism’ after all.

Ross Wolfe’s blog charts the importance of Utopianism for modern art and architecture, it’s subsequent demise leading to late and post modernism.