patternsthatconnect

abstract art and systems thinking

Posts Tagged ‘Helen Frankenthaler

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.

why systems thinking?

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Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.

beer game set up

Set up for The Beer Game, a simulation (devised by Jay Forrester) that helps teach systems thinking in organisations

Berkeley Square 1

Berkeley Square 1, marker pen on post-it notes on board, 122cm x 122cm, by Andy Parkinson

For some, in the late 1960’s, systems art seemed to point beyond the impasse of late modernism.

This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc)  and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc)  that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea.  However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?

Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences.  In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.

(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)

Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.

Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).

From http://www.istheory.yorku.ca/generalsystemstheory.htm

It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism.  One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.

Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:

  1. That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
  2. That art does not reside in material entities.
  3. That art is not autonomous.
  4. That art is conceptual focus.
  5. That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.

For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.

For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.