Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1 is the first of a series of personal reflections on abstract art.
I remember sitting in the living room one sunny morning, age 11, flicking through a book of Picasso’s late paintings, when I lingered on a colour print of a canvas from October 8, 1968 – Reclining Nude with Necklace. When I think about it now, I feel certain that it was a sunny day, until it occurs to me that, regardless of fact, my memory of those days is invariably sunny. My discovery of that painting also replays in memory as a moment of revelation, as the very sudden moment when abstract art began to make sense to me.
Nude Woman with Necklace – Pablo Picasso 1881 – 1973, Tate, purchased 1983, Photo Credit: ©Tate, London, 2019.
The painting is, on the face of it, not abstract at all. It is entirely consistent with Picasso’s instinct towards figuration. It was painted at the height of the artist’s final period and is in many ways typical of the loose and large paintings he made in the last years of his life. Some might describe it as the carefree splashings of an artist who felt he had long since earned the right to forego any mediating anxiety about what he put on canvas or how he went about it. For one biographer the last decade of Picasso’s production was such an irrelevance that it was simply omitted. Picasso’s aesthetic instinct was solidly European, and despite the gestural excess of the painting, even at this late stage his hand could not make a single mark which did not in some way represent something. And in Reclining Nude with Necklace, every inch of the canvas is put to work to this end; down to the triangle of pinkish underpainting left exposed to serve as the woman’s supporting left arm, the flecks of impasto which tell us the necklace is reflecting light, or the accumulation of pinkish white here and there denoting highlights across the body. The painting has numerous painterly tricks of the trade which help us conjure a person, a divan, a light source, and a necklace to pick up that light as it falls from left to right.
It is the intensity of Picasso’s disinhibited paintwork however that makes this painting so interesting. Seen from this perspective, the entire canvas in fact works against the artist’s impulse to depict. The woman’s hair, matted against the leaning arm, is an abstract tangle abruptly cut off by the dense blue mass of the background. The crimson wedge of impasto paint representing the shadow between buttock and breast is of equal visual value within the whole to the opaque expanse of the red divan on which the figure rests. The woman’s face is etched with frantic scrawls little different from the ones which identify the upper left-hand side of the canvas and the raised right leg. Despite the sheer excess there is an overall levelling of tonal and spatial values across the canvas. At a certain point the subject disappears and the paint, and nothing but the paint itself, commands our attention. The revelation, to me, was that Picasso’s woman appeared to fluctuate between two states; of being the reclining woman and of being paint pure and simple.
Another more recent and reliable memory – and one which occasionally admits cloud – is from a trip I took to New York in 1999. By that stage I had developed a committed preoccupation with the question of what exactly constitutes an abstraction, and I was constantly on the lookout for what I saw as fine examples of it. My introduction to the Picasso painting had taken root in my memory as a moment in which I had become a believer in abstract art. From then on, I saw abstraction as a condition of perception which could in some way be pinned down and described, and believed that if there was an abstract art, there must consequently be a territory which marked the boundary between that which we perceived as abstract and that which was not.
On a clammy April day in New York, the sky as I now remember it threatening to collapse slowly into the streets from the weight of its greyness, I climbed the stairs to the rooms of Brooke Alexander to see the Helmut Dorner exhibition – Broken Knee. Now my memory records another moment of silent personal revelation as I walk excitedly from painting to painting.
Helmut Dorner – ddd / From the 1999 exhibition Broken Knee at Brooke Alexander / Image courtesy of Brooke Alexander Editions, New York
If Picasso’s Reclining Woman with Necklace had seemed to me to be an abstract painting despite the evidence, Helmut Dorner’s paintings struck me as the closest thing I had seen to the very definition of abstraction. Where Picasso stumbled from figuration into the territory of what was then still recent American abstract painting through sheer brazenness of paintwork, everything about Dorner’s paintings worked to produce deliberate abstraction.
Best appreciated in the flesh, these paintings have a unique presence which is the result of a combination of details. They are relatively shallow Perspex boxes, mounted on the wall like any canvas. There are sparsely distributed paint marks, blobs, and dribbles – some oil paint, some pigmented resin. The Perspex boxes – in every other way performing a very convincing substitution for the traditional canvas – are missing a side here and there. Through the transparent face of each ‘canvas’ we can see the screws at the top corners on which the piece has been hung. Through the surface also, we can see subtle shadows of the paint marks against the wall, the shadows being duplicated by gallery spotlights and daylight.
Where the Reclining Woman gives the effect of paint mischievously playing around with our impulse to see a figure on a divan, the image constantly breaking down amongst the jostling paint marks, Dorner’s paintings are dedicated spaces within which any single mark floats with its presence uncorrupted by our imaging instinct. So independent are these paint marks that they cast shadows! The Perspex ‘canvas’ is a straight substitute for surfaces such as cotton, linen or wood panel – the kinds of surfaces on which paint has always traditionally laid. But by virtue of its transparency, the Perspex support suggests that painting is nothing more nor less than a conjuring trick – a series of movements choreographed to make us believe something has happened when it hasn’t. And by removing a section of the Perspex at the side here and there, the artist is inviting us to look behind an already transparent surface, as though in anticipation of the familiar question asked of painting across the centuries – ‘How was it done?’.
I’m not sure how long I spent examining those paintings, but I left the gallery floating as loose and happy as the shadow of paint, as I remember.