Abstraction Lecture at the Atlanta Arts Center

January 16th 2012, Chery Baird

There are many definitions of abstract art. Over the past 100 years, the word “abstract” has become an umbrella term used to describe very diverse movements or directions in art.

For example, we have Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Abstract Imagists (Rothko, Styll, Reinhardt), and Abstract-Creation (1930’s Constructivism to Suprematism – Paris), Action Painting, Surealism, NonObjective, Color-Field, Minimal... The list can go on and on.

The word “abstract” has several interesting definitions which are pertinent to our discussion tonight. Abstract means “… to consider apart from the concrete; general as opposed to the particular…”. It also means “… to take away secretly, remove, withdraw or purloin…”. It is this second definition that concerns all artists because all art is to some extent abstract. We have chosen from what is in front of us. We have chosen from a world of ideas, images, words, or symbols. We have mixed and matched them throughout a world of experience and knowledge. 

When we say we make representational art, we are usually saying, in essence, that the work is recognizable, or it is a likeness.  Somewhere in childhood, we are taught to read a picture. It is ingrained in us and permanently affects the way we see the world. Artists often use a word, symbol, or stick figure to invoke ideas or memories in their paintings.

Art that moves beyond recognition becomes abstract because it embodies emotion, memory, or essence. Milford Zornes said, “All art is abstract, because art is an abstraction of truth.”  When we talk about Lucien Freud’s work, we talk about how he paints flesh – his use of color, texture, and brushstroke, the way that he places the figure in reference to his space, his composition. The image comes second in the conversation. Jenny Saville’s work would also fall into this same category.

All good composition is abstract-geometric, even in representational art. The great compositionists like Poussin, Rembrandt, and Reubens – all produced their representational work over a geometric skeleton.

When the Rings show was up at the High Museum for the Olympics (hopefully you saw it), it gave all of us a chance to see masterpieces here in Atlanta that probably would not have traveled here under any other conditions. Hopefully, you remember the Rubens painting “The Lamentation for the Dead Christ”. It is a small painting, 16x20”, but considered to be one of his best. When I came around the corner and saw it, all I could see were overlapping triangles moving through the canvas. I had to blink several times to make the image appear. This strong composition makes the painting dynamic. It serves and supports the image.

A good composition is the bottom line whether the work is abstract or representational. Nathan Goldstein in his book The Art of Responsive Drawing said, “And this, it seems, is the ultimate irony: that those for whom a realistic image is an important goal will not reach it until they turn from it to learn the visual and expressive abstractions that constitute the language of drawing.” 

Sometimes we fall into the trap that because we make “abstract art” we can be ignorant of history and ignore those principles that have always made art great. We think that emotion, inspiration, experience, or color alone will carry the day.

Ben Jonson said, “Art hath an enemy called ignorance.”  Every great artist has looked back to be able to move forward.  Nothing replaces the principles of art. We must have what I call an educated intuition. Those principles need to be so embedded that they are second nature to us. They determine how we use value, line, color, texture, shape, and space, along with our life experiences to determine the content of our work.

The space in abstract work is very important. Each artist has a space that is his own. He creates in that space, his own personal space. Picasso said, “All painting is a lie – because we are making space appear on an essentially flat surface.” The space we create gives us a place to work and invent, and no matter how shallow or deep, we move our paint around inside that space. 

Kandinsky, remarking on the space of abstraction said, “Not here, not there, but somewhere.”  Art that looked for the abstract and a change in space started around 1850 with the influx of Asian art into the European art market and with the advent of the camera. People started trusting the camera to tell the truth, but not the artist. The camera was considered more reliable because it showed what was there. It didn’t take out wrinkles and remove warts. Now of course we can use Photoshop and change photographs too.

The space of Asian art was isometric space rather than three-dimensional space. Artists started moving toward this flatter space, much of which is related to relative perspective – the oldest kind of space – used in the caves. Artists from the 1850s forward were released from what was expected. They were released to do something new.

If you look at art history from the 1850s to the present, just looking at the space in each drawing or painting, you will be amazed. We are the inheritors of an amazing past. We are given so many options it is hard to choose or realize what we want to say.

The best book on pictorial space is Frank Stella’s “Working Space”, published by the Harvard University Press. In the middle 1980s, Stella was asked to give a series of lectures at Harvard on painting. He was traveling in Italy at the time and started to see how the space of Caravaggio was different and how it connected to 20th-century space. His lectures were the hottest tickets in town. I wish I had time to quote more, but here is just a taste: ”An effective painting should present its space in such a way as to include both the viewer and the maker, each with his own space intact. It is not that this experience should be literal; it is simply that the sense of space projected by the painting should seem expansive; expansive enough to include the viewing and the creation of that space…The necessity of creating pictorial space that is capable of dissolving its own perimeter and surface place is the burden that modern painting was born with.”

For many abstract artists, space is their subject matter. The original meaning of the word “paint” was to weave. I like to think that I am weaving paint in the space I have created.

No matter what kind of artist you are, you should know your preferred space to create in.  When an artist is creating a painting, there is always a dialogue between their head, hand, and image. Usually when a painting goes south is when the head has more control. A head painting is one in which the end result has already been decided on. The image never has a chance to participate.

The image should have a voice from the first brushstroke. Our pictures make us as much as we make them. The hand creates the surface. Your painting or drawing hand is different than anyone else’s, just like your handwriting. I heard recently that you could take one square inch from any Rembrandt and still tell it was his because of the way his paint is layered so tenderly. 

When there is no identifiable subject matter, the actual physical paint takes on a new role, and in some abstract work it becomes the subject. We all have surfaces we are fascinated by. We can love them and want to reproduce them, or we can love them in another artist’s work but wouldn’t want them for our own painting. The dialogue of the head, hand, and image is like a good conversation – it goes places we don’t expect, and we learn things we didn’t expect. And we come away richer and wiser.

There is an anonymous saying “Few plans survive contact with the enemy.” Each painting contains both an account of its history and the potential for future discoveries.  That is what happens when we listen to our paintings. They evolve. They become something new. Sometimes magic happens. It is one of the reasons we all paint; a moment of magic can take us through weeks of just showing up in our studio.

Richard Diebenkorn said, “I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying something’. What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.”   Just as artists dialogue with their own work, abstract art always includes a dialogue between the painting and the viewer. The viewer must choose to participate with an abstract painting. With an abstract painting, everyone can have their own interpretation. In representational art, sometimes people identify the subject matter very quickly and move on.  But again, if they want to find something deeper, they have to choose to have a dialogue with the painting.

In all our paintings we want to leave a record of our journey so the viewer can experience with us the depression, heartbreak, or joy of creating it. Abstract art usually leaves more of the artist’s journey available to the eye.

My brother always laughs at me when we go to New York, watching me move back and forth from the viewing distance to having my nose as close as the guard will let me. I want to know how they did it, and what caused a particular effect. Does it appear close up, at the middle distance, or where? What did they do to make me respond in the way I do to the painting? 

Motherwell once remarked, “An artist is known as much by what he will not permit as by what he includes in the painting.” No viewer but the artist, herself, or himself, will receive the work with precisely the intentions that went into its making. And even the artist will only do so at the time of its making. Often an artist will learn more about their own work afterward, sometimes long afterward. You have to live with your work. It will reveal itself over time.

All artists must have a universal concept of statement. A statement moves from the universal to the particular or personal. The particular which could be for a series or could change every year on January 1st. As your life changes so does it. It doesn’t have to be the same your whole life. Your statement backs up your work and your work backs up your statement.

Matisse, Corot, and multiple other recognized masters, just days or weeks before their death, said they were just learning to see. We never know it all. It is the seeking, the journey, that makes creating art endlessly fascinating. Matisse said “I am simply conscious of the forces I am using and I am driven on by an idea that I really only grasp as it grows with the picture. Truth and reality in art begin at the point where the artist ceases to understand what he is doing and capable of doing – yet feels in himself a force that becomes steadily stronger and more concentrated.”

The creative process for the abstract artist proceeds in many ways. Joan Mitchell repudiated automatism saying, “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best.” She studied her painting while she was creating it. The essence of her pictures is that they come into being through unanticipated responses to what is taking place on the canvas. The activity she instigated provided the clue and the motivation for her next move.

There was someone who said all artists create out of chaos and order; that we either start with order, mess it up, and bring order back to it, or we start with chaos and pull order out of it. I had a visiting professor tell me one day that the cure for a bad painting was a bucket of red paint thrown or poured over the canvas. It would certainly change the painting!

Sometimes we have to step outside our normal solutions or normal processes to actually move on with the painting. I often tell students that if you are not frustrated you are not learning anything new. Lack of frustration means we are only repeating what we already know. One of the many reasons that I became an artist is because I knew there would never be a day that I could say I knew it all.

I read about art for approximately an hour and a half to two hours per day. I read about artists I don’t like as well as ones I do like. I learn from both. I talk to other artists. I go to New York City twice a year. My mind gets stimulated by the interchange of perceptions and ideas. We may discover new points of departure for our own work, or if you teach for someone else or a friend. 

A year ago at Christmas, I saw three new ways to treat edges, and came home and basically explored those ideas several different ways over the past year. Last year I produced 248 pieces, and over half of them were related to that information.

When we see new information, we need to process it to make it ours. Ideas and images spark our minds and imaginations. We get excited!  The making of art is compelling; it is something I need to do. Often, I think, is there some other way I should be spending my life? But the answer is always “No”! the joy makes the agony worth it, and it is the joy I like to share.

I painted and drew figures, landscapes, and still life for twenty years, and I was pretty good. But there came a time when the conversation I wanted to have with the viewer changed, and I could only speak through the abstract. A professor told me no one would like it, and no one would buy it. And I said, “So what’s different”? I have never regretted my decision. I have always moved forward, creating the best work I could, and saying what I needed to say.

I would like to close with a quote from Lee Krasner about painting:  “Painting, for me, when it really ‘happens’ is miraculous. As any natural phenomenon – as say, a lettuce leaf. By ‘happens’, I mean the painting in which the inner aspect of man and his outer aspects interlock. One could go on forever as to whether the paint should be thick or thin, whether to paint the woman or the square, hard-edge or soft, but after a while, such questions become a bore. There are merely problems in aesthetics, having only to do with the outer man. But the painting I have in mind, painting in which inner and outer are inseparable, transcends technique, transcends subject, and moves into the realm of the inevitable – then you have the lettuce leaf.”

© Chery Baird, 2012

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