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.

Picasso - Reclining Woman with Necklace.jpg

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.

Dorner ddd.jpg

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

Anni-Albers,-Wall-Hanging,-1926.-X65523.jpg

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

Shoji-Hamada_Bowl_Image-Michael-Harvey-Oxford-Ceramics_02.jpg

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

2007-68-8-neh.jpg

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.

AAA-AAA_takatosh_0003.jpg

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.

pnca_64747d81-322c-470c-9141-42823d272c2e_large.jpg

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

 

 

 

About theglazelondon banner image / Hans Hofmann’s 1958 mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York.

HH 10002 (1).jpg

Mosaic mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York, Hans Hofmann, 1958. Image: Robbie O’Halloran, 1999.

The banner image for theglazelondon might not be the most arresting one to use to brand a website devoted to visual art, but I chose it because it is a photograph of one of the few public art projects by the great Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, and for the fact that so many people walk past it every day without realizing the significance of the artist behind it.

HH 10001.jpg

I took the photograph in April 1999 – the same month that I first saw Hofmann’s paintings in the flesh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two visits – first to the Met to see the paintings, then to West 49th Street to see the mural – constituted, as much as I am comfortable calling it such, a kind of pilgrimage. Hofmann’s position in 20th century American art, and the story of Abstract Expressionism specifically, has always seemed to me to be more peripheral than it ought to be. At about the same time that I was looking at his work in New York, I had been reading a lot of what has been written about Hofmann, and of course the artist’s own writings on art. Hofmann was one of the most respected and vocal teachers of the time; a fact which may have contributed to the diminution of his reputation as a serious force in the community of his painter peers.

Hofmann’s thoughts on painting were quite well formed even before he moved permanently to America from Germany in 1932. And it is not so much his having such a direct connection to European Modernism that made his work difficult to incorporate smoothly into the emergent critical space of Ab Ex, so much as the fact that Hofmann attached to his work, so vocally and with such conviction, unfashionable interpretations of what he was doing. The story of American Painting in the 1950s is very much owned by the critics who made the work visible and not by the artists.

At its heart, Hans Hofmann’s art was about pure visual sensation, the way color and form operate, interact, and the effect this has on the viewer, at first optically, but ultimately on a more subjective level. I like the fact that Hofmann has never been a household name, even in certain houses whose walls are lined with art books. For painters however, every square inch of his canvases is an object lesson in getting on with the job, and enjoying it in the process.

Further links:

Walls of Color; The Murals of Hans Hofmann at Bruce Museum

New York Times article on Walls of Color – Roberta Smith

200 words #18 / Ernest Mancoba

Mancoba_Untitled (3)_hr.jpg

Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba

Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.

Ernest Mancoba at Aicon Gallery New York

Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017

Ryan - 6174.jpg

Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.

Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces. Continue reading “Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017”