abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Wassily Kandinsy

Mapping the Abstract at Beers.Lambert

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Seeing the current exhibition at Beers.Lambert, and feeling at first that the paintings in this show are too ‘figurative’ to be Mapping the Abstract, puts me in mind of the difficulty of talking about abstraction, and particularly the ambiguity of the word “abstract” in relation to painting. In one sense, the further removed our experience is from empirical reality the more “abstract” it is. Thinking in terms of “levels of abstraction”, seeing something in the “real world” is a representation “in our heads”, an image that is one removed from “reality”, already an abstraction even at the point of perception, to use Korzybski’s distinction: a map rather than the territory. When an artist then seeks to represent in paint what s/he sees, that representation is a further abstraction, a higher level abstraction if you will. To then “abstract from” that representation is a higher level of abstraction still. In this sense of the word “abstract”, a representation is a lower level abstraction.

However, the expression “non-representational” has also become synonymous with “abstract” because abstract art seeks to do something different than to represent. Consequently, some have preferred the word “constructive”, or “constructionist” (as did Charles Biederman, for whom Korzybski was an important influence) or “concrete”, which in that other sense is the exact opposite of “abstract”. Rather than being removed from observable reality the abstract painting is itself a sub-set of that reality, an autonomous self-organizing system. Things become further complicated when that autonomy is itself called into question as it has, for example by abstract painters such  Jonathan Lasker, Francis Baudevin, Ingrid Calame or Fiona Rae, to name only a few.

It is against this complex background that the three painters in this show: Blake Daniels, Robert Fry and Benjamin Brett could be said to map the abstract.

Installation shot: far wall - Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011,oil,acrylic and mixed media on canvas, left: Benjamin Brett, Floorswamp, 2013, oil on linen, and Dancer, 2013, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of Beers. Lambert

Installation shot: far wall – Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011,oil,acrylic and mixed media on canvas, left – Benjamin Brett, Untitled,  2013, oil on linen, and Dancer, 2013, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of Beers.Lambert

Benjamin Brett‘s Dancer is very clearly a figure, as the title suggests, what the dancer is actually doing is difficult to work out, though s/he seems to be making a gesture not unlike the gestures the painter has made on the canvas. I have no way of knowing whether an observed event was the occasion for an abstraction or whether something resembling a figure was the result of ‘free’ gestural mark making. I recall that Kandinsky, in relation to his own paintings, distinguished between an impression (an abstracted representation) and an improvisation (an image that presents itself from within the mark-making process). I wonder whether Brett’s Dancer might borrow from both these approaches.

His painting Untitled, grabs my attention because of its similarity to a pattern I have been exploring in my own work, a diagonally oriented grid resulting in a rhomboid chequerboard, resembling floor tiles. My interest has been in how when the scale is small this formation becomes a network of scintilla. Brett’s formation is large scale which seems to reduce the optical ‘buzz’ of the image, retaining whilst slowing down, the figure ground oscillation. The contrast between the hard edge, flatly rendered ’tiles’ and the loose gestural graffiti drawn over the top tends to create a ‘background’ of the geometrical pattern, except that the gestures then interact with the shifting of figure/ground so that at times I attempt to situate them spatially somewhere in between the dark and light tiles, in an impossible space, or one that is available only to the sense of sight. I am unsure what to make of the drawings of hands, a cup, a rib cage (?) and I relate to them as if their purpose was to deface the geometry. Then I become aware of a blue mark, roughly central toward the lower left hand quadrant of the painting. When the white rhombus shapes are ‘figures’ it positions itself behind a ‘hole’ in the surface, but when they are ‘ground’ it pushes forwards so that it sits on the surface of the brown tile. It also leads my eye to the lower left hand corner where one of the dark tiles is painted light blue as opposed to the brown of the others and the tile above it is divided more or less in half along the diagonal, with the lower half in blue and the higher half in green, reading at times like these two tile shapes have been cut into the surface and I am peering into quite a deep space through the cut-outs. There is no attempt to create a believable representational space here, yet this two dimensional space is anything but flat, and anything but still.

And in the end, I think it is space that is being explored by all three painters in this mapping of the abstract. Robert Fry‘s paintings are clearly representations of male figures, and they are drawn with a certain degree of illusionistic depth within the figure, for example when the figure is side on, the half of the body that is nearest to the viewer looks nearer than the other half, and the space between the feet is readable as a three dimensional space. However the space behind or in front of the figure is not so readable, the space that the figures inhabit then is shallow, and the negative spaces between the figures also read sometimes as positive figures themselves.  To me, they are tableaus with figures, bearing some similarity to ancient Egyptian  tomb decorations except that whereas there the figures are flat here they are almost naturalistic. But if there is a naturalism it is only a naturalism of sorts, in that body parts, for example, sometimes occupy spaces of their own, or seem to have detached themselves from a body in a way that could never be an observable “real world” event.

Blake Daniels paintings are high level abstractions from the real world, the kind of abstraction that take place in dreams where there may be a narrative but one that makes little rational sense, bringing previously unrelated events together, and parts of different wholes interact in a space and time that makes perfect sense only in the dream.

Mapping the Abstract is on at Beers.Lambert, 1 Baldwin Street, London, until 21 September 2013.


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.

Post Mondrianism

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This link shows the Mondrian painting I saw recently at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue  1935, Oil on canvas,560 x 552 mm. I have started to make some studies of it.

I was chatting with someone about abstract painting and contemporary art and, intending to say “post-modernism” it came out as “post-Mondrianism”

The first time I ever heard the word ‘post-modernism’ was in a lecture in 1979. I have no idea who was lecturing but the case they were making for post-modernism was a lot to do with Kandinsky’s notion of the spiritual and both his and Mondrian’s links to Theosophy, but I remember struggling to understand how that was post anything.

There’s a show at The V&A just now called Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 on the blurb they say “many modernists considered style to be a mere sideshow to their utopian visions; but for the postmodernists, style was everything”.  I guess what they say here about “many modernists” would be true for Mondrian, who was highly utopian. So perhaps ‘post-Mondrianism’ says ‘post-modernism’ after all.

Ross Wolfe’s blog charts the importance of Utopianism for modern art and architecture, it’s subsequent demise leading to late and post modernism.

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture (via The Charnel-House)

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Another brilliant post from Ross Wolfe and a continuation of the guest blog post at my site a week or so ago. Here he emphasises the link between modernism and industrialisation, and especially the influence of the machine and the techniques of Taylorism.

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE — POSITIVE BASES (CONTINUED) The spatiotemporal properties of architecture that were developed by experiments in abstract art reached their highest expression in the work of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy.  Stepping back from our analysis of this development, however, we may witness a crucial conjuncture between the realm of abstract art and the other major positive basis for the existence of modernist architecture — industriali … Read More

via The Charnel-House

…much of which seems to confirm the Ellulian stance I blogged about a short while ago: according to Jacques Ellul, modernist art is either an imitation of technology or a compensation for technology.

Whilst Kandinsky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art could be seen as a compensation for technology (along with the appreciation of the Theosophy of both Kandinsky and Mondrian), the paintings often turn out to be an imitation of technology.

Ellul suggested that Kandinsky painted like a computer. I think that was unfair, but it is also a point that is difficult to argue against! I think that the same criticism (it was meant as a criticism) could be levelled at a lot of the painters I admire, and the practice I have adopted.