patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Fuller

Colour: A Kind of Bliss

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Colour can be indulgent. You can lose yourself in it, as in colour field painting. Viewing a gigantic Jules Olitski for example, such as Instant Loveland, (1968), undoubtedly induces a blissful state. The critic Peter Fuller was wary of this experience. I remember being shocked, hearing him refer to this paintings as “awful”. Today, I still think it is a great painting. However, I can see that it may be in danger of eliciting a gormless fascination, a distraction from the “real world”, a bliss that smacks too much of escapism, an opiate.

When Roland Barthes refers to colour as “a kind of bliss”, [i] he is countering a first impression of Cy Twombly as an anti-colourist. To do so, Barthes differentiates colour “in the blissful sense of the word” from colour as a “rhetorical mode of existence”, a “sensual idea”. He contrast them along the following lines.

 

Colour as bliss Colour as sensual idea
Lacerates something, passes in front of the eye, apparition, disappearance, like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell. Appears, is there, inscribed, Intense, violent, rich. Delicate, refined, rare. Thick-spread, crusty, fluid. Affirmation or installation of colour

 

For Barthes blissful colour is almost incidental, as if the altered state that colour induces were akin to the naturally occurring trance states that we experience on an everyday basis, a daydream, an apparition, or a negative hallucination such as not being able to find the car keys, even though they are staring you in the face on the kitchen table. Disappearance, a closing eyelid or a tiny fainting spell has momentarily hidden them.

Colour as bliss cuts into our everyday “reality”. It is inscribed into it, rather than installing itself with cries of affirmation. Yet, neither is it exquisite nor exclusive. Instead, it is simply present if we are. However, it is the presence of something quite extraordinary, as David Batchelor has it, “a falling into a state of grace”.[ii]

Julian Brown, Vega, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The 18th century poet Thomas Gray had already associated colour with bliss in his poem Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude, where “the hues of bliss more brightly glow chastised by sabler tints of woe”. Colour, appearing brighter when countered by black, becomes in the poem, a metaphor for the tempering of joy with grief, again suggesting a grounded bliss, somewhere between hedonistic pleasure and spiritual ecstasy.

Kandinsky no doubt overstated the case for colour in his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, invoking its healing power after the fashion of chromotherapy, but the attempt was to ground the spiritual in the discoveries of “science” at the same time as showing that colour could affect the viewer directly, quite apart from the requirements of imitation or analogy. He was making a case as much for abstract or non-objective painting as for colour.

The artists included in the exhibition Colour: A Kind of Bliss, at St Marylebone Crypt, London, approach colour directly, without the distractions of representation, but also without an over indulgent spirituality.

In the paintings here by Julian Brown, colour seems inherently tied to the ground upon which it is situated. In Vega (2016), spectrum bands zig zagging across the surface have been applied over a polished, pearl white surface that shines through the gestures lending them a vibrant luminosity. Scattered among the assertive bands of colour are black circles, dots that look to have been dropped or splattered into existence, except that they also look too carefully placed to have been made that way. A non-verbal conversation takes place between the ground, the rainbow bands and the black dots, as well as between each band, some favouring the yellows and oranges of the spectrum and others more the blues and violets, each band shot through with lines of other temperatures.

Julian Brown, Tattoo Lagoon, 2017, acrylic on linen, 80 x 100 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

In Tattoo Lagoon, (2017), the sabler tints of dark blue and grey form circular patterns in the centre, flanked and partially obscured by multiple crescents of various colours, resembling melon boats on a sea that is just about to become stormy. They are accompanied by circles in gold, amber, maroon, black and silver along with tiny yellow speech balloons, ochre asterisks, pink drips and blue or green runs. And all the time it’s the dark ground that calls to us, almost menacingly. A captivating darkness is waiting to envelope us, just as it has already overtaken some of the crescent shapes, absorbing their colour into a homogenous mass of dark.

Yet it is a playful and joyous painting, the darkness recalling the dark ground of East Asian decorative lacquerware or indeed the Polish folk art that Brown cites as an influence.

In David Manley’s shield-like ovals painted on aluminium, colour differentiates one form from another, or merges geometric shapes so that they come in and out of view often giving way to a larger pattern of their interconnections, like cut-outs in paper, where the paper is kept and what’s cut out is thrown away, as if to bring our attention to the importance not so much of things as the relationships between things.

David Manley, Nine Lives Of Fives, 2017, acrylic on aluminum, 72 x 48 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

In his Nine Lives of Fives, (2017), pentagon forms are all but destroyed by having been posited, erased and restated numerous times and in many places within the frame. Colour gives them life via demarcation, just as it does for map-makers who have known for centuries what I only just learned from Beau Lotto that “you only need four colours to create any map and be able to make sure no bordering countries are ever coloured the same”.[iii]

In my own paintings, I am interested in what 17th century cartographers knew about colour, that colour spreads, not “really” i.e. physically, but “really” i.e. in our perception. It is unnecessary to colour-in every country of a map, the colour of a bounded outline can be made to spread into an area, not physically, but perceptually. Visual cognition scientists have called this the watercolour effect (WCE). A light meter will show you that the area is physically white, but colour is perceived there as a result of the boundary colour. In my Cybernetic Drawing (Hexagons), (2014), the lilac of the drawn lines merges into the white of the ground in a similar way.

Andy Parkinson, Cybernetic Drawing, (Hexagons), 2014, mixed media on canvas.

In, Jeff Dellow’s paintings the same motifs change dramatically in different colour-environments. A motif seen in one painting looks very different when set within the differently coloured ground of another. Also, within a single painting, a repeated motif, especially the net-like motif that appears quite often, looks markedy different depending on its colour. But even more interesting, the ground that I know is the same colour over a large area, changes colour where different coloured nets interact with it. In Orange Fix, (2016), the orange ground between and around the squares of the green/grey net motif is much redder than it is between the squares of the lilac/greys along the right hand edge. The ground is the same colour physically but perceptually it changes. Although we “know” that such “illusions” will take place, when they do, they surprise us. I think that is what makes colour so blissfully enjoyable.

Jeff Dellow, Orange Fix, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 92 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The paintings of Freya Purdue are like colour landscapes, it is difficult not to read the blue grounds as skies, within which are colour happenings, resembling what daylight fireworks might look like, bursts of colour sometimes taking up discrete areas here and there and sometimes filling half the space.

Purdue’s Nada (2016), may be a picture of nothing. The sky association remains and there is a cloud-like shape, taking up more than half of the canvas. It could be a swarm of smaller nothings, insects perhaps, or atoms, or smoke. And this indistinct cloud hovers above sticks of colour that are arranged to suggest a perspectival recession into a vanishing point at the centre of a low horizon line. Associations abound, as they do whenever we see colours, but without ever cohering into a definitive object or idea or story. No thing is clearly depicted.

Freya Purdue, Nada, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lucy Cox’s playful geometric arrangements, almost inhabiting a believable three dimensional space, seem to celebrate the ways in which colour creates spatial ambiguities and irregularities. In Zippy Seven, (2017), holes in grey planar structures reveal coloured and/or patterned surfaces way behind them. However, being more coloured than the sable structures, the parts of surfaces covered by holes appear to push forward, sometimes occupying the space immediately behind a hole, but more often transforming themselves into positive circles that hover in front of the grey planes.

Lucy Cox, Zippy Seven, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Knowing a bit of colour theory we could have predicted this chromatic (mis)behaviour. Nevertheless, when it happens we experience a jolt of surprise as if it had been totally unpredictable.

The trouble with colour theory is that it con’s us into thinking we understand colour. Yet face to face with it, we find that we cannot get wise to it, almost as if it puts us in the wrong and makes us ignorant. But isn’t ignorance also bliss? Borrowing even more famous lines from Thomas Gray: “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise”.[iv]

 

Colour: A Kind of Bliss, curated by Lucy Cox and Freya Purdue continues at The Crypt, St Marylebone Church, London until 30 June 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, Basil Blackwell, 1986

[ii] David Batchelor, Chromophobia, Reaktion Books, 2000

[iii] Beau Lotto, Deviate, The Science of Seeing Differently, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2017

[iv] Thomas Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, 1747

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Written by Andy Parkinson

May 26, 2017 at 8:48 am

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.

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

Role of the Critic, Updated (via Slow Painting)

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I  saw this two-years-old-blog-post recently, I had been re-reading Peter Fuller’s Beyond the Crisis in Art and blogging about it. (Slow Painting continues to be a good blog by the way. It reads like a press digest of what’s going on in art). What a good photo of Fuller this is!

Role of the Critic, Updated Savage… the art critic Peter Fuller by Jane Bown, 1988 Photograph: Jane Bown/Observer Do art critics have a point any more? Can they contribute anything to the development of art? For a long time I’ve ducked this question. If you’d asked me any time over the past few years, I’d have replied that criticism does not seriously influence art. It has its own justification, however, as literature. If literature seems a pompous word, let’s say enterta … Read More

via Slow Painting

Then, a year after the blog post, there’s a comment by Wallydevilliers that suggests that the role of the critic is to find what’s really good and bring it to our attention. Good point. However, Fuller’s refusal of so much that was going on when he was writing was not really bad publicity (I recognise that the comment was actually about Robert Hughes in relation to Damien Hirst) the publicity had already been had. He was interpreting the meaning of the art works and establishing a position within a Marxist framework. So, reading Fuller was also a way of learning about Marx and socialism (he was just as critical of the positions taken by the Left as he was of the art) and I think he was a good teacher.

He also showed us how to criticise. I don’t always agree with his judgement, but I do find his approach, and his commitment to imagining a world different to the present one, to use an old-fashioned word – edifying.

It is that committed position that I think exemplified his approach and that informed his understanding of the role of the critic: not to entertain but to imagine.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 3, 2011 at 7:44 am