patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Forms 1

Betty Parsons and Abstract Expressionism

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AbEx being in vogue just now reminds me of a painting I saw at a wonderful exhibition earlier this year. The exhibition, back in March at Seventeen Gallery, curated by Gabriel Hartley and Rhys Coren was Cuts, Shapes, Breaks and Scrapes and the painting was Forms 1 ,1978, by Betty Parsons. Yes THE Betty Parsons who Rhys Coren described as “the one and only, gallerist and artist extraordinaire”, known for her early championing of Abstract Expressionism through her New York gallery, where she exhibited Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still and Newman long before they were well known. Helen Frankenthaler said of her that she and her gallery “helped construct the centre of the art world”. Nevertheless, every summer, she would close the gallery to concentrate on her own art.

Her driftwood assemblage sculptures, mostly small sized totemic abstract figures sometimes wall mounted, are probably better known than her paintings. They seem to borrow from the “primitive” art traditions that Barnett Newman, writing for the catalogue of Parson’s opening exhibition Northwest Coast Indian Painting, had already connected to “our modern American abstract artists”

In her paintings Parsons borrows more from her AbEx contemporaries, but without the all-important scale, Clyfford Still in miniature, almost. Parsons also looks back to earlier European modernist works, those of Paul Klee for example, not only in the modest sizes of her canvases but also in their whimsical lack of certainty.

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo 20160323_143442

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo

In Forms 1, irregular, roughly geometric forms in four loose columns situate themselves on a grey ground, which looks as though it may be comprised of many layers of other colours in order to arrive at the richness of the final colour. The forms may have been drawn by brushing the painted ground only as far as the perimeter of imagined figures, constructing shapes from negative spaces, allowing a previous layer of colour to remain, a blue here, a yellow ochre or a green there. If the ground had been blue the forms might have looked like islands in a sea but as some of the forms are themselves blue, maybe they more resemble fishing holes in ice. When I see the painting this way I realise it must be an aerial view, a plan or a map, and this quality is present in many of the paintings that Parsons made around this time. Moonlight – Maine, 1972 looks so much like a map of ocean and islands, (possibly the gulf of Maine), that I find it difficult to read in any other way. But if they are maps, they are very unusual ones in that they are entirely without function, “cheerfully useless cartography”, to borrow a phrase that Roberta Smith used in relation to them. They do not describe a territory, rather the map is the territory; signifier and signified have become one and the same.

Another painting Journey 1975, on the other hand, can be perceived as oriented vertically or horizontally, and in this respect I think it has more of the quality of Forms 1.

Seen vertically, Forms 1, might show two abstracted human, animal or machine figures, inhabiting a space in which there are other unspecified objects, the figure on the right is possibly carrying something. But then, they are so vaguely described that the gestalts quickly rearrange into simply multiple forms, of various colours and shapes, some repeated or reversed, creating shifting spatial links, and indefinite relationships.

Here, Parsons does not take some real world starting point and abstract from it in the process of representation, rather she invents by pushing the paint about on the canvas until forms suggest themselves. And the suggestions remain just that, never quite becoming precise things, always ambiguous, hovering between definition and doubt.

If the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Newman and Still are epic and tragic Parsons works are lyric and comic. Rather than concertos they are chamber music, “the music of friends” (an apt expression for someone as generous as Parsons). And if a concerto might seem more ambitious, the domesticity of chamber music should in no way be disparaged. After all, monumentality is much more useful to propagandists of corporate capital than is humility. In a 1981 interview with Gerald Silk, Parsons recalls that Newman saw how the apparently uncompromising could be pressed into the service of the ruling class. Parsons reports that when she had referred to Rothko as “The Painter of the sublime” Newman’s response was “It should be The Painter of the Establishment”[i]. Why that should be true of Rothko only, I have no idea.

In Parsons we get wavering uncertainty, appropriately small in scale, not overwhelming but enticingly intimate. Jeanette Winterson once argued that our experience of art “suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality”, an idea that may seem especially pertinent when viewing works by Parsons such as Forms 1.

 

 

[i] Gerald Silk interview with Betty Parsons: Oral history interview with Betty Parsons, 1981 June 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.