patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Tomma Abts

Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

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The exhibition Somewhat Abstract, drawn from The Arts Council’s national collection, on view at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June 2014, is abstract to varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. After all, both the following statements hold true, “all art is abstract” and “there is no such thing as abstract art”. Hence, the show’s curator, Alex Farquharson, can say of abstract art that it “is many things, if it can be said to exist at all”.

In the gallery notes we get an excellent discussion of the multiple relationships to the abstract characterised in the show (see fig 1), from work that is downright figurative but that either “verges on the abstract” or that “could not have been made without the knowledge of it” to the work of proponents of ‘pure’ abstraction like Kenneth Martin. There’s the suggestion that even the exemplars of abstraction like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and John Hoyland, are more connected to the ‘real world’ than we might once have allowed. I find this argument to be much more convincing in relation to Hepworth, Clough and Paolozzi than I do for Caro, Riley and Hoyland. The reference to landscape made for Hoyland’s magnificent Red Over Yellow, 18.9.73, seems somewhat spurious. The point being made is that the most abstract art may be more figurative than we think and that the old distinction between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant. Certainly there’s a strong case for seeing ‘nature’ in the most abstract of works, if more in the sense of “the pattern that connects” to quote Gregory Bateson [1]; or in Bridget Riley’s own words: “I draw from nature, I work with nature, although in completely new terms. For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance”[2]. So whilst there is a deep connection with nature, the work doesn’t become ‘figurative’, as Riley goes on to say: “These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

There are also works that specifically reference abstraction, a relatively new phenomenon in my book, because whilst there have always been “paintings of paintings” and references to art of the past, the paradoxical referencing of a class seems to me to be a postmodern invention. Its power comes from a deliberate confusion of logical types.  Abstract or non-representational art’s claim to the status of autonomous object means that it now becomes grist for the mill of representation, leading to the paradoxical position of art that is abstract by being non-abstract, and vice versa. Keith Coventry‘s CrackCity series here is a brilliant example of this. What, at first sight, look like appropriations of Kazimir Malevich‘s white on white paintings, turn out to be representations of the footprints of South London tower blocks, a critical comment on the failure of modernism at the social level, the design of tower blocks clearly sharing in the heritage of Malevich and Russian Constructivism, ending not in utopia but in dysfunction and ugliness.

Perhaps this failure was reflected in the choice by artists such as Kenneth Martin, of a specifically non-utopian abstract art. (Martin preferred the word ‘construction’ which he stated was “the opposite of abstraction”.[3])

Viewing Kenneth Martin's Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

Viewing Kenneth Martin’s Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

The paintings of Tomma Abts, one of the new generation of  abstract artists, recall the constructivist tradition. The contemporary resurgence of abstraction in painting and sculpture is acknowledged in the gallery notes, finding a distinct contrast between the abstract art of the middle half of the twentieth century and that of today, the mid century version being “associated with boldness of scale, conception and execution” (check out the John Hoyland) as opposed to the vulnerability of the more recent return. In Abts’ painting Heit, the scale is modest and the form looks carefully arrived at through multiple iterations. I see it from a distance and could have continued walking past without really seeing it because it absolutely doesn’t “grab my attention”. It is unassuming, reticent even, and it is only as I deliberately get closer to look at it that it discloses itself. Even then, one of its fascinating qualities is the white line that bisects the painting vertically about a third of the way in from the right. It reads like another of the lines on the painting’s surface, in fact hovering above the other lines in a space that projects outward, whilst being clearly the result of placing two stretchers almost together. The presence of the line (I am tempted to see it as a reference to a Barnett Newman ‘zip’) is in fact an absence, like the Lacanian “absent centre” of the subject.

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

The untitled painting here by Alexis Harding, is also modest in scale, without quite the intimacy of Abts, looks like it is in the process of decomposing, . The impression I have is that the materials have reacted with each other in an unstable way, the abstract grid becoming wonky, out of control in the centre, now resembling a figurative, almost cartoon-like, rendering of a disintegrating net. It’s a wonderful painting and seems to reverse the more familiar sequence of events in which a realistic image becomes increasingly “abstracted”. Here the abstract image becomes figuration.

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

There’s a strange abstract/figurative relationship in Daniel Sinsel‘s beautifully executed Untitled, where the more realistic the image the more abstract it appears. Perhaps this is the result of the close harmony of form and content, a flattened figure-of-eight arrangement of a piece of cloth, resembling so much the formal, literal, ontology of a painting: two-dimensional, motionless, fabric.

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

My friend suggests that, with so many outstanding works here, it’s difficult to find one that “stands out”. However, for me, the star of the show is Bridget Riley’s 1962 black and white painting, Movement in Squares. I keep coming back to it for another look, and even back at home much later, I can’t get it out of my head (a non-optical kind of after-image).  In viewing this painting I start to become aware of my own movement in the gallery space, attempting to find a position from which to really see this thing and to experience it. The nearest analogy I can find is that of music when it is ‘heard’ not just aurally but when the vibrations are also felt, physically, in the body. Here, seeing is somehow also felt in the body. I have a physical sensation approaching motion sickness (except it’s pleasurable), and observing the reactions of others around me, I sense I am not alone in this. Now, this painting does seem to ‘grab attention’ but it also has amazing subtlety that I fear could be lost in first impressions alone. It’s too easy to let the attention first be ‘grabbed’ and then to allow it to be distracted with something else. This painting deserves prolonged attention. And it’s only then that its nuances are realised. It’s not just that studying the execution of it I note that the nails fixing the board to the support are just visible, protruding slightly above the surface, or that the earlier drawing marks shine around the blocks of black paint, those are mere details, it’s the way the structure takes on different emphases, and even that the squares of black and white start to look like multiple kinds of grey. In fact, now I feel sure that I am seeing colours, yellows greens and then reds and violets, in the pulsating ‘mid’ section (more or less along the golden mean), where the squares become narrow rectangles. I have the strong sense that colours are generated, issuing from the painting into the space in front of it. Admittedly they are faint, like a diffused light, only just perceptible. I absolutely cannot get this from looking at the reproduction, only from standing at a certain point in front of the painting itself. Then, I doubt myself; this subjective experience must indeed be so subjective that it is actually entirely imaginary. So I check it out with someone else, who agrees that they are also seeing colours.

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

The experience of looking becomes the experience of doubting my senses and then of starting to become conscious of my own process of ‘map making’, at the point just before my own linguistic abstractions start to come into play, which they do almost immediately and I get into a conversation with myself about what’s going on. At this second stage, I am a further step removed from direct experience, commenting upon it and adding meanings. These are my own processes of abstracting: the abstractions of thought.

This exhibition brings to awareness the many uses of the word, ‘abstract’, in art, in thought and in life. It’s as visually interesting as its scope is ambitious, and I know I will be revisiting it many times.

Artists include Tomma Abts, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Batchelor, Karla Black, Peter Blake, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Caro, Helen Chadwick, Prunella Clough, Richard Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Barry Flanagan, Elizabeth Frink, Gilbert and George, Barbara Hepworth, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Walter Sickert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Wallinger, Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread.

 


Notes:

[1] See Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity (1979)

[2] From The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965 – 2009, edited by Robert Kudielka, p 110

[3] See Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within, in The Tradition of  Constructivism, edited by Stephen Bann 1974, reprinted 1990

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Abstract portraits?

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Dan Coombs has suggested that the abstract paintings of Tomma Abts are better understood “not so much as material objects in the abstract painting tradition but as surrogate people with their own personalities. Each painting is a portrait …of something that does not yet exist[1]“. Seeing the Tomma Abts painting at The Indiscipline of painting exhibition at the Mead Gallery, I was reminded of Coombs’ article. The painting is entitled Thiale, a first name I believe. The format looks like a portrait as does its size (48cm x 38cm).

Tomma Abts, Thiale, 2004, Courtesy of greengrassi, London

It draws us in for closer inspection, I mean for us to inspect the painting, not the other way around, though who knows, maybe whilst I am studying it, it is also studying me? And studying is the mode of viewing that it seems to elicit. Some of the other paintings in the show need to be simply enjoyed, breathed in almost, but not this one; it seems to require close attention or study. And studying it slowly reveals the slowness of its making as evidence of corrections and underpainting becomes apparent.

It isn’t the only ‘portrait’ here. There is also the much larger scale work by Moira Dyer entitled The Vanishing Self-Portrait. There is underpainting of sorts in this one, but hardly in the sense of ‘corrections’. In the Tomma Abts I get the sense of painstaking application and revision, until the ‘correct’ form is arrived at. The Moira Dyer seems more about following a pre-determined course, and quickly. Painted in 1990, only two years before she died at the age of 34, it is balanced on a small tree trunk, rather than hanging on the wall. I could imagine it having been painted right there, the lateral brush strokes in a pale blue/grey with a slightly bluer frame painted around the edge with one blue paint run on the left hand side, that has been allowed to follow its course almost to the bottom edge. The paint looks like it was erased rather than applied, the erasing of an image of the artist perhaps, yet the brush strokes and the dimensions attesting to the artists presence, and body. She was here, and this ‘image’ is what is left of her performance, the record of it hasn’t vanished.

And in looking at these abstract portraits I am reminded of the Clare Woods exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield: The Unquiet Head, showing until 29 January. As well as the large abstract landscapes, which themselves allude to figures in rock formations, there are some smaller works of rocks that are specifically presented as portraits, a series of Idol heads. And then there is a small painting on aluminium entitled Hollow Face, a portrait ‘read into’ the negative space, a hole, or a clearing, in a hedge or some shrubs.

Clare Wood, Hollow Face, (my photo)

This also vanishes, if ever it was there, or only there because we see the absence as a presence and see in that a face. The painting is already there in ‘nature’ but always only inside the imagination, a portrait of something that is both there and not there at the same time, a visual metaphor perhaps. The Moira Dryer portrait is of an event, a performance that once took place, now a nominalisation, whereas the Abts portrait is of a ‘personality’ that exists only because it has been painted into existence.

The Indiscipline of Painting: International Abstraction from 1960 to Now is showing at Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, until 10 March 2012.

The Unquiet Head is showing at Hepworth Wakefield until 29 January 2012


[1] Tomma Abts by Dan Coombs in Turps Banana, Issue Ten

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

the indiscipline of the discipline

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Abstraction Blog posted about a new exhibition at Tate St Ives: The Indiscipline of Painting, subtitled International Abstraction from the 1960s to Now. At last! A big show of abstract painting, and it’s outside London too.

It opened yesterday and continues until 3 January 2012, bringing together paintings by British, American and European artists, made during the last fifty years.

I am even more delighted to discover that this project is a collaboration between Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, and that when it has closed at Tate St Ives it will travel to the Mead Gallery and show between 14 January and 10 March 2012. Coventry Arts Centre is near where I live (no matter that every time I have attempted to visit this year it has been closed). I can go see it in St Ives and then visit regularly from January to March.

Of the 49 painters included in the show I am particularly looking forward to seeing work by Tomma Abts ; John M. Armleder, Daniel Buren, Mary Heilmann, Blinky Palermo, Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Myron Stout and Dan Walsh.

The Tate write-up about the exhibition says

The contemporary position of abstract painting is problematic. It can be seen to be synonymous with a modernist moment that has long since passed, and an ideology which led the medium to stagnate in self-reflexivity and ideas of historical progression. The Indiscipline of Painting challenges such assumptions. It reveals how painting’s modernist histories, languages and positions have continued to provoke ongoing dialogues with contemporary practitioners, even as painting’s decline and death has been routinely and erroneously declared.

Painting is dead. Long live painting!