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.

Alice Peillon

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Alice Peillon – Untitled Collage, mixed media, © 2018. Image courtesy of the artist

If we think of collage as a language of disparate, often delicate elements coming together in taut and balanced interactions, then Alice Peillon has achieved over time no small degree of mastery of its vocabulary and grammar. And if we can agree that a language at its most effective can express both the banal and the profound in a single breath, then we can see evidence in Alice’s work of the artist making the same demands of her medium; collage.

Whilst not precisely minimal, Alice’s collages do manage to express a certain expansiveness which hints at things unsaid within the measurements of the surface. This sense of a sparsely occupied space is all the more surprising on such a small scale. Alice’s experience as a painter contributes to the life of these works. Where paint or ink has been applied in her collages it is like the hint of a larger gesture – one which we can imagine continuing beyond the edges of the artwork. Painted marks are so reduced in these works that, where they appear, brushstrokes could be thought of as potential rather than fully formed. Pigment holds a subtle but powerful presence over these delicate surfaces, like the implied consequence of an unrealized act.

Through her unhurried experiments with paper, ink, fragments of photographic images, and painted gestures Alice is adding to the depth of findings by other exponents of the medium, artists such as Anne Ryan and Lyubov Popova.

This text was produced for the artist’s website – www.alicepeillon.com

Alice’s work is currently on show at Winns Gallery, London – artrabbit.com-winnsgallery

200 words #23 / Channing Hansen

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Channing Hansen, 9-Manifold, 2017, 42 x 48 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art. (see below for full list of materials used to create 9-Manifold)

The idea of a painting as something akin to a weave is one which facilitates several convenient associations. Apart from the literal weave of canvas, there is the interplay between layers, the superimposition of glazes, an infinity of textures and tonalities, and an equally unlimited scope for the arrangement of marks and painted motifs, arrangements often made stronger through varying degrees of separation than proximity. And this is to say nothing of illusory depth.

Channing Hansen arrived at his current preoccupation with knitting and weaving via an involvement in latter-day Fluxus and an interest in physics, fluid dynamics, and surgery theory. Employing a profound knowledge of fibres such as wool, alpaca, silk, and mohair, and an almost scientific dedication to sourcing and recording the provenance of the material he uses, Hansen creates irresistible, painterly weaves which he mounts on wooden stretchers. There are occasional gaps in the weave, and collisions of colour which may appear random, abstract. Hansen’s weaves however are largely determined by pre-applied computer algorithms, which dictate colour choice, pattern, and stitch.

George Maciunas would doubtless approve of this artist’s approach to the creative process – “Like a mathematical solution such a composition contains: beauty in the method alone.”*

*Taken from a Fluxus manifesto written by George Maciunas for the concert ‘Après John Cage’, Wiesbaden, 1962.

Channing Hansen / Fluid Dynamics at Marc Selwyn Fine Art

(Materials used in 9-Manifold: Bluefaced Leicester, California Variegated Mutant (Hattie), California Variegated Mutant (Hope), California Variegated Mutant (Petra), California Variegated Mutant (Pine), Dorset Horn, Exmoor Blueface, Romedale (January), Romedale (Patty), Romney (Martin), Romney (McKenna), Romney (Nevaeh), Romney (Noble), Romney (O’Connor), Romney (Osiris), Romney (Princess), and Shetland (Freya) fibers; silk noils, and Tussah silk fibers; gold, holographic polymers, pearl dust, and photoluminescent recycled polyester; banana cellulose, bamboo, bamboo carbon fiber, rose cellulose , SeaCell , legume cellulose, and Sequoioideae Redwood)

200 words #21 / Louise Fishman

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Louise Fishman, A LITTLE RAMBLE  2017, Oil on linen, 70 x 90 inches, 177.8 x 228.6 centimeters. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

By the time Louise Fishman took her first painting class in 1956, the same year Jackson Pollock died, Abstract Expressionism was already in decline. Retrospectively, Fishman has been spoken of as belonging to this movement, if only by way of a spiritual affiliation rather than as having played a part in its formation. In fact, had Fishman been a true contemporary of the main players in Ab Ex, it is unlikely still that she would have engaged with them to any great extent. She has been, by her own admission, a loner when it has come to creating alliances and nurturing relationships within the artworld. For such a solitary activity as painting this is perhaps no disadvantage. 

Fishman’s canvases are packed tight with contemporary riffs on Ab Ex – the sweep and drag of the brush, or whatever other implement the artist employs, leaving on the canvas the unmediated imprint of a super-sized gesture. If this sounds unsubtle, then the effect within each of Fishman’s canvases is elegant and controlled. The artist’s stated intention “…always, was to not repeat a painting”. The implied grid in each painting however, upon which the painted marks proliferate, allows a remarkably consistent voice to emerge.

Louise Fishman at Cheim & Read, New York

Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.

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Installation view, Tomma Abts, Greengrassi, London, 2016.

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

Painters tend to approach the work of other painters in a matter of fact way. When they walk around a show they might go straight to the side of a canvas to scrutinize how the artist dealt with the edges, or perhaps contort themselves into unnatural positions to verify whether the surface reflects the gallery spotlights, or instead resists their potentially cheapening glare. More often than not, painters will point to the craft of a painting, how it was put together, rather than what it is trying to say or how it makes them feel. It’s a bit like the art world version of kicking the tyres at a car show.

With Tomma Abts’ work one could talk about craft, and how the paintings were produced, for longer than most people might listen, before ever getting around to subjective responses. There is so much to discuss regarding the physicality of Abts’ work, despite the fact that in reproduction it comes across as unremittingly graphic. This work has to be seen in the flesh, as it is only when the viewer is face to face with it that it truly discloses.

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Lya, 2015
acrylic & oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

For some reason, whenever I think of Tomma Abts’ work I get the sensation that I am looking at work which is minimal. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of so many sharp edges, and the general predominance of a single colour in more or less each painting, and the overall equivalence of tone within canvases that have several colours, that leaves the single abiding sensation of having seen something exceptionally understated. This is not the case however. There is a great amount of general activity going on in each of these paintings. Up close, there is a rawness to the masked out edges of straight lines, which betrays the handmade reality of these paintings. There is relative discord too in the colour schemes; no more so than in the piece entitled ‘Oeje’. Then there is the support itself; a slight plumpness in the folds of the canvas around the corners of the stretcher interrupts what, from a distance, looked more like a machine cut panel. This added level of physicality becomes even more apparent on such small canvases than it would on much larger ones, and might threaten to become an irksome feature in itself were it something that the artist had simply overlooked. But it is inconceivable of course that Abts had not considered the consequences of using a material of such thickness. It is the evidence of the handmade that arguably makes this work even more interesting than reproduction might suggest. Continue reading “Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.”