Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1

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.

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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.

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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.

200 words #27 / Anni Albers

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Anni Albers / Wall Hanging 1926, Mercerized cotton, silk, 2032 x 1207 mm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Everfast Fabrics Inc. and Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1969 , © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

In the critical rehabilitation of weaving as a serious artform, much is made of the analogy between the figurative ‘weave’ of painting – the modernist grid being a heavy-handed example – and the literal weave of fabric on a loom. It is a comparison from which the art of weaving invariably comes out on the bottom. It is a comparison also which would have us see the weave as a starting point for something supposedly greater, and not the result of an accretion of experimentation, symbolism and knowledge, and an end in itself.

Shortly after moving to Black Mountain College in 1934, having trained at the Bauhaus, Anni Albers began taking frequent trips to South and Central America. She collected textiles, and her eye discriminated as much based on aesthetic interest and her own feel for quality as a producer of textiles as on the historical importance of the sample. For Albers, Peruvian weaving was the ‘highest point weaving could aspire to’ (1.). Her respect for the accumulated wealth of weaving knowledge from different cultures was evident in her own unhurried and sophisticated oeuvre. In the artist’s own words – ‘let threads be articulate again…to no other end than their own orchestration’ (2).

Anni Albers at Tate Modern

(1.) Briony Fer on Anni Albers in Tate exhibition catalogue

(2.) Anni Albers, ‘Pictorial Weaves’ in Anni Albers: Pictorial Weavings, exh cat, Cambridge, MA 1959

200 words #26 / Shoji Hamada

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Shoji Hamada – Bowl / 13 x 21.5cm / private collection UK / image – Michael Harvey, Oxford Ceramics

I have long enjoyed the variously attributed quote that observes – ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Its pithy truth about the perpetual failure of the intellect to come up with anything meaningful to say about an artwork occurs to me when I hear many artists try to speak about their work. Potters though, seem in general to suffer from no such trauma of expression. A potter will mention specifics – clay bodies, glaze recipes, firing ranges and multiple failures leading to modest successes. I like to think that this concentration on the medium and the skills involved in pottery allows for slow and meaningful innovation.

In 1953 ceramic artists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach delivered a lecture tour across the US. The tour contributed to the shift in American pottery from being a staid and functional craft to an artform. At the same time in the States, Anni Albers, through textile weaving, was showing a healthy disregard for any debate around functionality and art. For Albers, coming from the Bauhaus, and for Hamada, one of the leading potters of the Mingei movement in Japan, there had never been any question of a distinction between craft and art – enough said.

Shoji Hamada at work – YouTube video

The Mingei Film Archive Project – watch

Shoji Hamada current exhibition at Leach Pottery

Shoji Hamada at Oxford Ceramics

Toshiko Takaezu

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Toshiko Takaezu / #8 Closed Form, 1970-1979, Salt-glazed stoneware, 9 x 8 1/2 inches (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 2007-68-8, © Toshiko Takaezu

When potters are learning essential skills on the wheel, they will often use a gauge – perhaps no more than a chopstick held in place with a lump of clay – to ensure that a series of pieces reach the same height and diameter. And to develop an awareness of the vessel as a 3-dimensional object, and to ensure uniformity of shape, they might use a mirror held in place to reflect the side which is out of view as the piece is being formed. In short, everything the potter does reminds her of the form and volume of the object she is making.

For several decades the American artist Toshiko Takaezu (b. Hawaii 1922, d. Hawaii 2011) taught the skills involved in forming pottery on the wheel, teaching first at the Ceramics Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, and then at Princeton, where she helped to develop the visual art program. She herself had studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan under the influential Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell – a training which would give her a solid yet experimental approach to the unique challenges and problems of ceramics.

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Toshiko Takaezu throwing a ceramic pot / Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Wheel formed pottery’s unique challenges are tied to the demands of the medium and the skills involved in handling and forming it. This is a factor which often leads to more subtle shifts and developments over time than might be registered in another artform, such as painting. Another factor which influences the way the potter thinks about her medium is the serial mode of producing vessels on the wheel. In Japanese pottery this repetition, and the natural impulse to try to produce identical objects, was harnessed and made central to the creation of such objects as Chawan – tea bowls thrown off the hump – a method of repeat throwing in which the potter forms a series of vessels one after another from a single large hump of clay on the wheel. In Japanese pottery the subtle inconsistencies and imperfections which necessarily result from any attempt at identical repeat throwing are embraced rather than rejected.

Toshiko Takaezu was maturing as a potter and artist in the 1950s – a period when artists such as Peter Voulkos were exploding the very form of the vessel itself. Voulkos, like Takaezu, was an immensely skilled potter. He took his experiments to a large scale and chopped up and reassembled his colossal pots so that they relinquished all functionality and now looked more like modernist sculptures. To me they recall the wobbly urns and jugs that Braque painted in his patient 1940s reworkings of Cubist still life. Voukos’ rupture with the integrity of the vessel looked dramatic on the scale at which he carried it out and was in tune with concurrent developments in painting. On deeper reflection however, Voulkos’ innovations might equally appear as radical reworkings of the kind of openwork ceramics being produced in Korea in the 5th century AD which often featured ventilated bases and angular protrusions. So, the idea of a complete rupture with tradition in ceramics is one which disregards the knowledge and skill which the serious artist will have acquired in order to be able to make even the slightest shift in what he produces and how it looks.

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Toshiko Takaezu / Enclosed Form, 1980; ceramic wheelthrown white clay vessel form with small hole at apex. Gift of MaryAnne Normandin. Credits: Photo by Hannah Finegold. Rights: All Rights Reserved. Image: https://mimi.pnca.edu/

Takaezu’s rupture with the idea of functionality in ceramics was, on the face of it, subtler than that of Peter Voulkos. At the end of years of wheel forming open ended vessels, manipulating subtle shifts in elegant necks, and experimenting with glazes, Takaezu’s revolutionary break came in the moment she decided to close the form completely, sealing it at the top with a steady and patient hand. It is the kind of shift which one can imagine happening in a single unplanned moment following thousands of near repetitions of thrown pots on the wheel, like waves lapping the shore until one finally covers the last visible rock. It was a radical shift very much in keeping with the artist’s personality. In the same way that there is no distinction made in Japanese culture between the status of a painter and a potter, Takaezu saw no distinction in her life between the activities of pottery, cooking and gardening. To her the attention and patience required by each were essential to ensuring any degree of mastery.

From this tidy gesture of sealing the top of her vessels, the artist proceeded to elaborate on the forms which could be produced now that the functionality of the object had been reduced to a memory. As she became further drawn into the formal properties of the sealed form, she produced objects of larger scale and more ambitious technical challenge. Like Braque’s pots which seem to emerge from the camouflage of the densely patterned canvas, and with a steady, humming energy like that of Giorgio Morandi’s painted arrangements, Toshiko Takaezu’s vessels from this point on were objects pure and simple, with all the mystery and beauty that this implies.

Toshiko Takaezu documentary on YouTube

 

 

 

Josep Grau-Garriga @ Michel Soskine Inc. Madrid / 13 Sept -24 Nov, 2018

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Cada Día, 1992, Tapestry, 300 x 180cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

An odd fact at the heart of painting is that it retains such a widely unquestioned status above so many other forms of visual art despite its debt to, and sometimes yearning for, certain qualities of those other media. In commentary, the infinite contortions of the painted surface are routinely spoken about in the borrowed vocabulary of other media. A painting’s presence as object might become so determinant to the way it is interpreted that it is spoken of as being sculptural. And in describing the interaction of motifs on a painting’s surface, such as Piet Mondrian’s experiments with lattices of coloured adhesive tape in his late New York paintings, we might understandably think of tapestry and opt for the word weave. Of course, the term painterly is equally applied across other media when describing a certain trace of fluidity in motif, surface texture, or colour. I would argue however, that what is painterly in painting is that which is evocative to us of the physicality of many other media.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Textures Fan Mar, 1977, Tapestry, 220 x 225cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Tapestry, by virtue of its relative flatness and the range of pictorial possibility available to it, is perhaps more prone than many other art forms to direct comparison with painting. Whilst there is nothing odd today about tapestry occupying the gallery wall, as a stand-alone art form in Europe it has not always been viewed as a medium independent of and equal to painting. The Catalan artist Josep Grau-Garriga (1929, Catalonia – 2011, Angers) speculated that the very practicality of tapestry, in that it is relatively light and easy to roll for transportation, inspired the shift in painting studios around the 14th century from painting on wooden panels to painting directly onto prepared fabric. Whether or not this transition in painting was as straightforward in origin as the artist describes, painting did go on to experience many other transformations across the centuries, whilst the art of tapestry largely remained the remit of artisans until as late as the early 20th century – a factor which served to insulate it from harsh, transformative creative forces.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Personatge Blau, 1992, Tapestry, 200 x 80cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Whilst artists such as Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies – also Catalan incidentally – used fabric and rope with great inventiveness, they did not go down the same route as Grau-Garriga of allowing the material to speak for the entire piece. In their work, fabric typically remained either a support for paint or simply another component within a sort of assemblage involving the two as distinct elements. Grau-Garriga made the transition from painting to tapestry during the late 1950s, during which period he met the artist Jean Lurçat – a key figure in the resurgence of interest in the art form in Europe amongst artists. By the time of their meeting in 1957 Grau-Garriga had already started an involvement with the Casa Aymat – a former carpet manufacturer in Catalonia and now a creative space. In France, the artist would consolidate his skills and make artistic connections.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / De L’Afrique També, 1998, Tapestry, 200 x 113 x 35cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Artists who come to a new medium with an established practice in another tend to see that second medium as a means towards expanding on the possibilities of the first. Grau-Garriga’s stated aim however, was to address the tradition of tapestry as a craft in the service of painting – a medium to be manipulated to order by an artisan rather than being worked on directly by the artist. To really address this, and to begin to push the medium in new directions, there could be no half measures. In approaching the art of tapestry from the premise of equal status to painting in its articulation of texture, motif, colour and meaning, Josep Grau-Garriga contributed towards an important and continuing realignment of many art forms traditionally thought of as craft within the shadow of painting.

Josep Grau-Garriga on tapestry (French)

Josep Grau-Garriga at Michel Soskine Inc, Madrid

200 words #25 / Yann Gerstberger

DSC_8776.jpgYann Gerstberger / Sex Messenger, 2018, 280 cm x 250 cm, 110,2 inches x 98,4 inches, Coton, linoleum, colle néoprène, pigments naturels (grana cochenille) photo Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy Sorry we’re Closed Gallery

The word painterly often gets thrown around without thought for the scope of its significance. When applied to the weave of a tapestry or an area of glaze on a ceramic pot, its very use implies the primacy of painting above crafts. One irony however, is that the thing which is considered painterly in painting is that moment when its very nature as a material – pigment suspended in a medium – is most evident. In that moment, I feel we are in fact appreciating painting as craft. So, it should seem strange for an observer to lend the term to other art forms when in truth, a painting is sometimes most painterly when it reminds us of other media.

In Yann Gerstberger’s large scale tapestries, the heft of the weave and the complexity of fantastical, crude, exotic motifs as they seem about to bleed into each other, may well bring to mind a heavily-worked painted surface. The exaggerated flatness of tapestry weave – in Gerstberger’s case market sourced fabrics and hand-dyed mop-head strands glued to a vinyl surface – is enhanced by the tightly-packed and carefully balanced imagery, the arrangement of which leaves not a single area of visual slackness.

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Studio view – Image courtesy Sorry we’re Closed Gallery

Yann Gerstberger at Sorry We’re Closed Gallery