abstract art, a systems view

Waltz, Quickstep, Mondrian and the Endurance of Abstraction

with 7 comments

Mondrian, a keen social dancer, disliked the Waltz. It was romantic, emotional, and the rise and fall and sway seemed to denote the curved line. He preferred the Foxtrot and the rhythms and figures that would later become the Quickstep, modern, all straight lines, abrupt changes of direction, obtuse angles and speed. I could imagine that some social dancers like Mondrian might have expected the new dances to replace the Waltz for ever. However, rather than one replacing another they all carried on being danced, side by side, as it were. Today, no longer new, the Modern Waltz, Modern Foxtrot etc continue to be danced.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 55.1 cm Private collection, on loan to Tate © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

At the time (not long before Mondrian was in London painting, and dancing, with the Nicholson/Hepworth crowd),  I wonder if it could have seemed like abstraction might replace figurative painting. Now in the modern ‘modern world’ (metamodern possibly), both remain whilst newer art forms than painting are dominant. Like ballroom dancing, painting continues alongside more contemporary practices, and within the (in)discipline of painting representation and abstraction co-exist.

At the Indiscipline of Painting  exhibition at the Mead Gallery some of the abstract paintings on show question the relationship between abstraction and representation. The show as a whole explores the endurance of abstraction (arguably Mondrian’s invention), specifically concentrating on international abstract painting since the sixties. There is an international element to another abstract painting exhibition that opens in February: Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel at the Courtauld Gallery where the relationship between the these two artists and their work is the theme. For a few weeks the Courtauld exhibition and the Mead Gallery exhibition will be showing in parallel, a short train journey apart.

Seeing them in parallel may give us a detailed view of abstraction since its early days, what has happened and what is now happening to it, especially now that we no longer think of the adventure in terms of linear progression.

At the Indiscipline show, Bernard Frize’s wonderful painting for example, has little continuity with Mondrian, other than its abstractness, neither in the way it looks nor in its attitude.

Bernard Frize, Suite Segond 100 no 3, 1980, Alkyd Urethane lacquer on canvas162 x 130 cmCollection of the artist, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London

Has Mondrian’s utopian purity been replaced by its opposite? Instead of painstaking corrections in the search for harmony we have a chance placing of colours skimmed from the top of the paint cans. Mondrian’s dislike of the curve was not shared by other early abstractionists, for Nicholson the circle starts to look like an image of purity, but not here. For Frize it even has a referent, the paint can. Also, long gone is the insistence on red yellow and blue with black and white, and whereas Mondrian and Nicholson thought of their art as ‘spiritual’ and somewhat lofty, Frize’s seems entirely ‘material’ and approaching the trivial. It is matter of fact, mechanical perhaps, yet not quite resigned or cynical. I still have the sense of searching, discovery and playfulness (or possibly gamefulness) that seems to me to be part of what makes abstraction continually new, interesting and endurable. In ballroom dancing, though the steps and figures of each dance were invented long ago, their repetition in each new performance continues to demonstrate the impossibility of repetition. Though I have heard it said that the ‘language’ of abstraction has now been invented, it is still very much alive.

Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel is showing from 16 February 2012 to 20 May 2012, and The Indiscipline of Painting is at the Mead Gallery until 10 March 2012.


7 Responses

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  1. Great post Andy!

    Deborah Barlow

    January 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

  2. And I for one hope abstraction never does get codified into a language! While I completely agree with the parallels you draw between ball room dancing/waltz and painting, figurative and abstract, re: newer forms of dance and art, dancing it seems to me has been thoroughly codified into a very precise and specific ‘language’. My wife competes at ball room dancing, so I think I have some peripheral insight. As much as I can with 2 left feet anyway. Getting good at ball room dancing, it seems to me, is a matter of skill, practice, and improving in skill. Even though figurative painting does have a definite language, or several perhaps, it’s still mostly about creativity imo. Abstraction and non-representational painting are even more about creativity, as I see it. Not that there is no room whatsoever for creativity in dance, at least I certainly hope that is not the case, but there nonetheless seems much less scope for it, when compared with painting.

    I hope I do not live to see abstract painting become as codified, rigid, and inflexible as dance! If this happens I will throw my paints and canvases in the trash! And light my hair on fire or something!! Performance art would be my only recourse!

    Whew! Sorry, your post seems to have provoked something quite vehement in me, even though I think my little rant here is tangential to what you’re saying at best… 🙂

    Great post!!


    January 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    • thanks Zorgor for your intersting points. I guess ballroom dances get codfied because they are popular and they get taught. (Though I do not think that codification is the same as rigid and inflexible and certainly they cannot be danced in that way. Wasn’t our little experiment with following a set of rules for a painting similar to codification?) )
      Abstract art is not popular nor is it taught in the same sense that dancing is taught.
      I only intended my metaphor to stretch as far as the surpassing or not of one practice by another. However, i wonder what your wife would say about her dancing not being creative!
      I am honoured to have provoked!

      Andy Parkinson

      January 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      • [Things are] “…codified because they are popular and they get taught” — excellent point. Yes, abstract painting, painting in general to a lesser extent, is not very popular. I don’t know *any* painters IRL except the few I met in the painting class I took. I’ve had to ‘go global’ with WordPress here to meet you and just a handful of others. 🙂

        Also a good point you make that codification does not equal rigidity and inflexibility. I got a little carried away conflating those, because yes, I did realize after I clicked “post comment” that the rules for container painting are a codification. Any step by step instructions for anything really are. I’m working on a second container by the way. I actually just decided to let the first parts of step 3 dry and check on the ol’ blog. I wanted to mix them on the canvas, but decided I did not like the way that was going. 🙂 So I think I’ll finish step 3 with some pure tones.

        Thinking further with a cooler head, I recall that there is ‘free-style’ competition in dance. So that’s where most of the creativity is, but for other forms I just think of the judges with their checklists of dance forms and points, and in the end it pretty much just gets totaled up, right? I find that off-putting. But then again, maybe the problem is that it’s a competition. I’m not competing with anyone when I paint, I’m just exploring my own creativity, and inadvertently my own psyche. And doing it for the fun of it. And you dance for fun, no? And to explore the patterns? 🙂

        So perhaps competition serves as a crucible of the forms taught, and thereby comes the rigidity… I dunno about that yet, I just thought of that… But as an aside, I will say as an American that I think one of the worst aspects of American culture is the way we’ll make a competition out of *anything*. I don’t know if you get our Food Network TV in the UK or if you’ve ever seen it, but they have wedding cake baking competitions. Interesting though that is to watch, I still think it’s a little over the top… We’re so ridiculously competitive, often we lose all perspective imo. And we seem to be collectively deciding that is ok! I think we could do better at keeping it all in perspective.

        So I don’t know, maybe if there never are abstract painting competitions, we’ll be ok. 🙂 Some codification of abstract styles and some abstract languages will be fine I guess, as long as there is still plenty of scope for creating completely new things…

        Yes, your posts are often very thought provoking!


        January 29, 2012 at 11:46 pm

  3. Really great post – abstraction and dance!

    Robert Hope

    January 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm

  4. I can’t paint without music (except plein air when I have birdcalls). When I’m totally in the zone I do a dance/paint move, the paint works much better especially in those mid-angst periods of a painting. Although I love all music, classical, jazz, blues, Beatles etc and I listen to it all, I’m embarrassed to admit it’s KC & the Sunshine Band- that get’s the wiggle-up not a foxtrot. Thats the way I like it Uh Uh! Cheers Sue


    February 1, 2012 at 9:55 pm

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