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.

Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus @ Andrew Kreps Gallery / March 3 to 31, 2018

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Erika Verzutti – Homeopatia, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 40 3/16 x 32 11/16 x 2 3/4 in (102 x 83 x 7 cm) Unique edition of 3. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

When I wrote the very first article for this website in December 2015, about Brazilian artist Erica Verzutti’s show at Alison Jacques London, I felt more inclined to refer to her as a painter than a sculptor. (Click here for the 2015 article) At the time I was struck by Verzutti’s use of bronze to create deceptively simple panels, any one of which could quite possibly have been produced with less effort in less permanent material. Added to the pleasant surprise of discovering that these panels were bronze was the willful irreverence the artist had shown towards that very medium by adding patches of acrylic paint here and there. The cheapening plastic dullness of acrylic served in this case only to strengthen the effect of bronze being used in such an unusual context, as a kind of surrogate for canvas. Verzutti’s confident handling of material, no small measure of humour, plus a gift for distilling complex questions of perception to produce irresistible objects of beauty, combined to deliver what I considered to be one of the best exhibitions of painting I had seen in recent years. And the question of whether Verzutti’s work is more painting than sculpture remains as delightfully infuriating in the artist’s most recent show – Ex Gurus – at Andrew Kreps as it was in her 2015 show in London.

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Erika Verzutti – Oblique Strategies, 2016 Papier-mâché and wax 21 1/16 x 26 x 3 1/2 in (53.5 x 66 x 9 cm) Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

In Ex Gurus we see the same deft associations of material (bronze, paint, papier mâché, wax, clay, and stones) with subject matter – although the artist’s subject matter can often appear to operate in the service of the material. In Ex Gurus, as in Two Eyes Two Mouths – the title of her 2015 London show – I hesitate to refer to Verzutti’s conceptual material as subject matter but rather as a starting point. The concept is often a self-contained conceit on which the artist riffs with enviable ease with her physical material. One of the neatest examples from the 2015 show is a two-part painted bronze entitled The Dress. Two more or less identical bronze casts hang side by side, one gold, one black. The gold cast is streaked with white acrylic paint, the black cast streaked in its corresponding sections with blue. The identically distressed and chiselled surfaces of the bronzes mean that the streaks of paint look like a rubbing is being taken from two rocks. For anyone who remembers the visual paradox which was trending on social media at the time about a dress which appeared to two groups of viewers as alternately white and gold or black and blue, the spark of recognition and humour is immediate.

While the artist tells us that the subject matter of Ex Gurus is more personal – taking ideas from various “…immaterial things: astrology, homeopathy, feng shui, positive thinking.” and that the body of work in the exhibition “…started as a digression on synaesthesia, on the translation between senses.” – she has managed to maintain the same tight control over subjects with such potentially rampant humorous possibilities and created a series of superbly balanced works.

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Erika Verzutti Pilates, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 48 x 40 3/16 x 4 3/4 in (122 x 102 x 12 cm) Edition 1 of 3, with 2 APs. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

There is never too much attempted in any single piece. Where a bronze has been left unpainted, it is because to have added more to the surface would likely have suggested that the sculptural component of the work on its own was not strong enough. Conversely, where paint has been added, as in the neatly arranged depressions on the surface of Homeopatia, it is only because these brightly coloured additions sit in clear distinction to the base on which they rest. In this case the addition of painted elements is governed by the availability of areas on the bronze surface on which paint can rest without losing its essence as just that – paint.

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Installation view of Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Dawn Blackman

And yet almost every visible aspect of the work speaks of sculpture and rough manipulation of material. Surfaces are pockmarked, slashed, gouged, and essentially duffed up. So, what is it about these panels that identifies them more as paintings than sculptures? And if we want to see them as painting entirely, then is it the evidence of a kind of crudely-worked clay form which has been manipulated just prior to the memorializing bronze casting stage which keeps dragging our thoughts back to sculpture, or is it simply the shock of the bronze itself?

A clue to the oscillating effect between painting and sculpture in Verzutti’s work lies in the relative segregation of all the individual elements of the work and their casual, but never contaminating, interaction. One of Verzutti’s talents is to be able to take otherwise irreconcilable components and distil them down to their essence so as to enable them to operate together. Sculpture here is represented by bronze, just as painting is invoked more than explored through the artist’s spare application of paint. And the third, and no more or less significant component – the conceptual spark – likewise lingers over the work as it develops physically, in the end becoming an intangible participant in the whole.

Ex Gurus at Andrew Kreps, New York

Two Eyes Two Mouths at Alison Jacques, London

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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”

200 words #7 / Jessica Stockholder

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Installation view of Jessica Stockholder: The Guests All Crowded Into the Dining Room at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. © Jessica Stockholder; Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. 

When certain critics asked Jackson Pollock why his paintings stopped short of the edges of the canvas, as though the looping paintwork was turning back on itself, they were exposing a fictional boundary between painting and the world beyond the canvas. In asking the question they seemed to be willing the paint across the edge, perhaps to see what would happen and what it would mean.

When I first saw Jessica Stockholder’s work about 20 years ago, reproduced in a generously illustrated large format Phaidon monograph, I realised what it meant to take the challenges faced by painters every day in front of their canvases and to thrash them out in three dimensions. The issues of painting are portable I discovered, and could just as well be investigated without easel or paintbrush.

Using the most commonplace of items such as plastic laundry baskets, refrigerator doors, lightbulbs, fans, mirrors, and shower curtains, Jessica Stockholder creates irresistibly lush environments. Where she uses paint, it is to consolidate disparate objects under the same colour. In other places similarly coloured, unpainted objects seem to mimic the painted surface. Her immersive installations, sometimes resembling a latter day merzbau, are cerebral and poetic in equal measure.

JESSICA STOCKHOLDER / THE GUESTS ALL CROWDED INTO THE DINING ROOM
is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York until October 1, 2016.

Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.

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Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, pavement designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1970. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Amongst the multitude of artefacts in the architect Sir John Soane’s house on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a bust representing Soane has been positioned above those of both Raphael and Michelangelo. It is said that Soane chose this symbolic arrangement to suggest that the greatest of achievements in either painting or sculpture were lesser than those of architecture, albeit the type of architecture which was based on classical principles.

Nowadays, in the absence of such guiding principles, it would seem a redundant exercise to choose sides according to which art form one believed best expressed the same ideas or best achieved the same end. Better perhaps to accept what each art form does best. The practice of jumping between disciplines, if it is done well, and the resulting cross-pollination, is today considered a sign of sophistication in an artist.  It is arguably because of the divisions and differences between practices, rather than in spite of them, that it has become so attractive to be able to switch from one discipline to another with ease.

Yet the impulse towards a hierarchy of the arts persists. A ceramicist for example will only be brought into the context of a contemporary art gallery once the larger portion of functionality in the object has been relinquished. As a subject for painters, a garden, or a chosen vista onto a pastoral landscape, has long allowed artists to say at least as much about paint itself as about the landscape being painted. The notion of the primacy of paint (above a great many other mediums) is deep-rooted. Claude Monet might not be as celebrated as he is had he not come to his enthusiasm for cultivating gardens through the medium of paint with its immanent philosophical potential. Continue reading “Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.”