patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Rothko

Betty Parsons and Abstract Expressionism

with 2 comments

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.

There’s a wasteland to confront

leave a comment »

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.