What Abstraction Means

Ellsworth Kelly Blue Yellow Red IV 1972

“For me, I just want to make works that mean something. And I don’t know where it comes from or what it means all the time. How can you know what abstraction means? So much abstraction that I see doesn’t have any meaning. It looks like design, a set-up. I want something that continues over time.” [Ellsworth Kelly in conversation with Gwyneth Paltrow]

Ellsworth Kelly Red Yellow Blue White and Black 1953

“When I got to Paris I did some Picasso type paintings of figures in the first six months. Then I stopped. I said, you know, “I didn’t come to Paris to [make] paintings that have been done. Saw a show in which the paintings were quite small. And I saw the windows which were about 15 feet. And I kept saying, “You know, I like these windows better than these paintings here.” I said, “I have to have one.” So, I painted the window. I made it so big I didn’t want to tell anyone what it was. I felt that it wasn’t really kosher to to do something like that. Then I began seeing things in Paris that I lifted. I made drawings of things, ideas of structure.
…“La Combe” developed from shadows on a stair case. I was fascinated by shadows. I felt like I was picking up something that was mysterious. I’m attracted to color and shape. I feel that people want a content. They’ve always had a content. You know, the figurative – right away – is a story. Abstraction has always been, “oh, it’s abstract.”
…I think my pictures need time. Time is very important with art. And a show, even though it’s a couple of weeks, or sometimes a month, that’s not enough time. You go to the gallery once. You see it ten minutes or so, then walk on. I like to leave my paintings – to be mysterious. I like them to be open. I feel like they have to be looked at. They have to be investigated.” [Interview with Ellsworth Kelly – SF MOMA]

Ellsworth Kelly Red Yellow Blue II 1965

Temperamental Layering Process

Brice Marden Red Yellow Blue II 1974

“In each of the Red Yellow Blue paintings (1974), Marden painted slabs of dense yet nuanced color on three adjoined canvas panels, using oil paint mixed on the spot with melted beeswax and turpentine and applied with a knife and spatula. The dull sheen of the encaustic medium intensifies the bold, contrasting color blocks, built up through the temperamental layering process that yielded such intricately worked surfaces. The spirited variations within each “primary” trio (where red can range from cadmium to almost black, yellow from ochre to saffron, and blue from cobalt to sullen indigo) are rich with interpretative possibility—like musical chords improvised in major and minor keys.” [Brice Marden @ Gagosian Gallery]

“The first painting of Marden’s group is made up of three vertical panels of the three primaries: in the following three paintings of the same structural format he set out to “deviate from the standard” and overturn the established notion of these colors. Beyond the obvious resemblance to Kelly, the paintings seem even closer, in a less overt way, to Johns. Several paintings of the early 1960’s by Johns are made up of separate, but joined panels, on each of which is stenciled the name of a primary color. But the color used to paint the name of the color does not correspond to the color named. Like Johns, Marden “names” the colors by isolating them and then confounding his own naming process by creating a color which is not a pure version of the named color. For example, the yellow in the second painting is murkier than in the first, the blue deeper; the shifts are slight and subtle, but constitute nonetheless a violation of the primaries. Unlike his earlier groups of pictures, our response to these Red, Yellow, Blue paintings seems dependent upon seeing them as a series. Each three-panel painting in the whole series seems almost to be functioning like a single panel within one three-panel piece. Therefore, a single painting’s significance seemingly relies on its relation to another painting in the series. Apparently coming closer to a more accessible vision, he continues to make the experience of his work difficult— whether or not we know the paintings in the series context, we are forced to deal with our preconceived notion of red, yellow and blue, and to define his “deviation from the standard” in our own minds and according to our own sensibilities.” [Brice Marden @ Guggenheim]

Brice Marden Red Yellow Blue III 1974

“It seems there are so many things, references. I didn’t feel at all aligned with the Stella logic. I felt much more in tune with abstract expressionism—much, much more. The actual act of painting, the physicality of the thing, became the substance of abstract expressionism. Paint worked as an actual plastic element. And you know, the paint wasn’t meant as a reductive thing. I would think to myself that this could be a detail of a Pollock line, it was spatial. Like my real early stuff, the first color paintings really came out of trying to paint grids, but I couldn’t work out a grid. There’s so many references. There’s one painting that’s like two squares, called Pair. I was thinking of those two Rauschenherg paintings, Factum I and II, because they started out to be two separate paintings and then by the time I finished them they were one painting. I was also thinking of Giacometti portraits—spatial exactness within the frame. I had also done a painting that was two squares on a canvas and it was divided down the middle with charcoal lines—that was the edge. It wasn’t about something coming through. The line was where things met as opposed to how you talk about the Newman zip.” [Brice Marden in conversation with Saul Ostrow]

A Trick of Thought

Jasper Johns Corpse & Mirror II 1974-75

“I’m not interested in any particular mood. Mentally my preference would be the mood of keeping your eyes open and looking, without any focussing, without any constricted viewpoint. I think paintings by the time they are finished tend to take on a particular characteristic. That is one of the reasons they are finished, because everything has gone in that direction, and there is no recovery. The energy, the logic, everything which you do takes a form in working; the energy tends to run out, the form tends to be accomplished or finalized. Then either it is what one intended (or what one is willing to settle for) or one has been involved in a process which has gone in a way that perhaps one did not intend, but has been done so thoroughly that there is no recovery from that situation. You have to leave that situation as itself, and then proceed with something else, begin again, begin a new work.” [Jasper Johns in conversation with David Sylvester]

“I think through living one’s life, one both changes and remains the same. One can see it either way, one can see oneself as being now what one was and one can see oneself as being absolutely different from what one was. It’s a trick of thought. It’s almost just a difference of mood as to whether I would describe myself one way or the other. I think I share that experience with most people. One can think of things that have happened in one’s life. But one can also sense in oneself continuity with what one has always been since one can remember.” [Jasper Johns in conversation with Philip Smith]   

Jasper Johns Untitled 1975

“One of the two Dancers on a Plane paintings is mainly red, yellow, blue and white. It uses a symmetrical structure without any great variation of inflection. I had in mind that this might suggest the heroic mood that I was trying to indicate. Heroic or stoic, not involved in impulse. And while working, I began to think of a dancer on a stage. I thought of Merce Cunningham and how so often his work seems colored by a kind of unbalanced energy. In the second painting, with complementary colors, I tried to show that thought.” [Jasper Johns in conversation with Marjorie Welsh]

Jasper Johns Dancers on a Plane, 1979

“I think that the commonly accepted reading of Johns’s career – that he rejected subjectivity, which we associate with Abstract Expressionism, in favor of detached objectivity – overlooks his interest in intuitive responses to life and art. As he has repeatedly stated, he had a dream in which he saw himself painting the American flag. When Johns made “Flag” (1954-55), he wasn’t rejecting subjectivity so much as merging a visceral experience with objective detachment. This fusion of two distinct states helps explain Johns’s use of preexisting things – or what he might recognize as objective counterparts for subjective states – as motifs throughout his career.” [John Yau on Jasper Johns

Totalitarian Immunization

Piet Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie 1942-43

“All blocks are the same; their equivalence invalidates, at once, all the systems of articulation and differentiation that have guided the design of traditional cities. The Grid makes the history of architecture and all previous lessons of urbanism irrelevant. It forces Manhattan’s builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block to another. The Grid’s two dimensional discipline also creates undreamt of freedom for three dimensional anarchy. The Grid defines a new balance between control and decontrol in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.
With its imposition, Manhattan is forever immunized against any (further), totalitarian intervention. In the single block-the largest possible area that can fall under architectural control – it develops a maximum unit of urbanistic Ego. Since there is no hope that larger parts of the island can ever be dominated by a single client or architect, each intention – each architectural ideology – has to be realized fully within the limitations of the block. Since Manhattan is finite and the number of its blocks forever fixed, the city cannot grow in any conventional manner.” [Rem Koolhaas Delirious New York]

Piet Mondrian Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow 1937-42

“In spite of all, both art and reality around us show this precisely as the coming of a new life — man’s ultimate liberation. For although art is created by the flowering of our predominantly physical being (‘feeling’), basically it is the pure plastic expression of harmony. A product of life’s tragedy — due to the domination of the physical (the natural) in us and around us — art expresses the still imperfect state of our innermost ‘being.’  The latter (as ‘intuition,’) tries to close the eternally unbridgeable gap that separates it from the material-as-nature: it seeks to change disharmony to harmony.  Art’s freedom ‘allows’ harmony to be realized, despite the fact that the physically dominated being cannot directly express or attain pure harmony.  The evolution of art in fact consists in achieving the pure expression of harmony: outwardly, art appeared as an expression that (in time) reduced individual feeling.  Thus art is both expression and the (involuntary) means of material evolution: of attaining equilibrium between nature and the non-natural — between what is in us and what is around us. Art will remain both expression and means of expression until (relative) equilibrium is reached. Then its task will be fulfilled and harmony will be realized in our outward surroundings and in our outward life.  The domination of the tragic in life will be ended.” [Mondrian on Neoplasticism in Architecture]

An Isolating Space

Peter Halley Theory of Flight 1998

“In the visual arts, the era of the early 1970s believed itself to be a great flowering of post-capitalist culture. It believed that the commodity and its mind-set would be replaced by performance and by site-specific works. The artist would perform in real time, enacting an example of non-alienated work. The artist would play out the role of the free-subject, creating a model that would be emulated elsewhere in society. But the ’70s represented not the flowering of a new consciousness, but rather the last incandescent expression of the old idealism of autonomy. After this, no time would be real, no labor would be living, no cultural expression would be outside the commodity system.” [Peter Halley Notes on Abstraction]

What is the modern landscape? Is it the expanded figure, the micro-image made macro, or the empty field? Does it exist any longer as anything but a map, a system or a byte of memory? Clem’s color fields, as it turns out, were the last of the Impressionist landscape and the Modern spiritualist traditions. These things have metastasized in our Postmodern era through Modernism’s economic systems. Yet we remain nostalgic for the old visions, filling our surfaces with processes and materials. But is any of that real? Or are we so inured to our commodity systems that what’s left is our nostalgia for the mythology of the Modern Era? What does our landscape look like?

isPeter Halley Exchange and Response 1996

“… I was newly back in New York and feeling quite psychologically isolated, and began to think of things coming in and out of these isolated spaces, like the telephone lines, electric lines, plumbing. I shortly thereafter added a second canvas, with the idea that these were underground conduits feeding these spaces. So it wasn’t just a cityscape, it was a diagram of contemporary life as it’s organized. I thought of these early works as cable TV, but it seemed to anticipate what was about to happen with the internet…  there’s almost a classic postmodern critique of geometric abstraction, and that’s how a lot of people see the work. So instead of seeing abstract geometry as utopian, I’m seeing it as dystopian. For Malevich and the modernists and Albers, the square was sort of the ultimately balanced form. I saw the square as something confining, and if you thought of it in terms of a modern environment, it could be seen as an isolating space. So the first thing I did was put bars on it and Roll-a-Tex, which turned it into this very childlike prison.” [Peter Halley in conversation with Max Lakin]

Engines of Culture

Marilyn Minter Torrent 2013

“They’re really just images that everybody knows—everything I paint, everything I do. It’s just nobody’s ever made a picture of it before. Other than medical textbooks, there aren’t any pictures of pimples, but we all know them. We all know what armpit hair looks like growing in. We all know what it looks like to have freckles, but they’re Photoshopped out. So when I was working on that, back ten years ago, I was just erasing the Photoshop. I think the eye craves what it doesn’t see—like this last body of work, in my painting show [at Salon 94] and in the Brooklyn Museum show, too, it’s pubic hair. Pubic hair has been erased from the culture, so I wanted to make a case to women: Shave all you want, groom all you want, make topiary out of it—but don’t laser because fashion is fleeting and laser is forever. I tried to make the most beautiful pictures of pubic hair. You could put these in your living room, they’re so beautiful!” [Marilyn Minter in conversation with Laura Regensdorf]

The Postmodern landscape still runs through Modernism’s processes. De Kooning’s Gordian solution to the problem of figuration in Modern abstraction is still the best and only answer – but there have been upgrades. Today ambitious painters use the extreme close up [something we experience in television and movies nearly every day] which makes figures into even more of a Modern Landscape – less recognizable, more ambiguous and more visually tactile. Our electronic culture exults and mythologizes the power of these kinds of lens-based images. The Modern Era was started with them and changed by them, and the Postmodern Era traffics almost exclusively in them.

Frank Stella’s original idea of “what you see is what you see” has now become “the eye craves what it doesn’t see.” And Marilyn is right. The reductive Greenbergian theoretics employed by Stella in his early works leaves out the primitive human experience driving the history painting – desire. And so much of our Postmodern Era has been about the way images and desires form us, create us and use us – the advertising image, the fashion image, and even the pornographic image. There’s a three part process involved in understanding these kinds of abstracted visions. First there’s our desire for the eye to see what it doesn’t see. We are tempted, we become involved. Second is the understanding promised by the image – a personal fulfillment, narrative or mythology of some subjective experience. Third is the economics built into our desire for the mythological image – it must be processed and possessed. Ambiguity becomes certainty. The transaction is complete.

Marilyn Minter Not in These Shoes 2013

“That’s been my vision: my critique is that I don’t criticise! Everything is too complicated. I just try to make a picture of what is. I know that a lot of my pictures give people an enormous amount of pleasure, but at the same time the subjects are considered shallow and unimportant. They are dismissed and debased by the culture.
Fashion and glamour give people so much pleasure even though fashion is also very dangerous: it distorts women and it is problematic because of eating disorders and cruelty towards women, and women picking on other women. But at the same time it gives women a real power in the world. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s one of the engines of culture. It’s how everybody sees who the rest of their tribe is. Even if you don’t care at all about how you present yourself, that’s a tribe too. It’s a constant paradox. It’s the same paradox with pornography. It’s considered so contemptible, but it is another engine of culture. There would be no Internet without pornography. You can take abuse imagery and reclaim it for your own pleasure. I don’t consider it as porn at all. But women working with any kind of sexuality seem to really frighten people, especially if they are young and beautiful. That’s terrifying. I feel it’s a big mistake for artists to not shine a light on this. I don’t understand why more people aren’t doing it.” [Marilyn Minter in conversation with Robert Ayers]

Embarrassed the Man

James Rosenquist Zone 1961

“It seems like every artist looks for his own—his or her own space. Their own ground-breaking places and it seemed then that the latest rage was French non-objective painting. And as I understand it—French non-object painting—there’s no meaning, except pure color and it’s supposed to be pure color and pure form. Well in the attempts at doing these non-objective paintings—which had vestiges of leftover cubism, or whatever—things would appear, unconsciously. I saw an exhibition at the Howard Wise gallery on West 57th of this old artist whose teacher had been Hans Hoffman. And Hans Hoffman walked into the room. It was a winter day and Morris Kantor and Miles Forest were in the room. Old Hans came in with a “Snoopy hat” on with its earmuffs down and his hearing aid. He said to this man who had been his student, “What’s that there?” And he replied, “It’s winter solstice” or something like that. And Hans says, “looks like Popeye to me. Looks like Popeye sitting in a chair, see, see his head.” And there was Popeye. He had a pumpkin head, a stick body, big feet, hands, and it was supposed to be totally non-objective painting. Only colors. Feeling. And it embarrassed the man and from there onward that was Popeye. You could not eliminate that. So, the point is—my ambition at that time was to get below zero.” [James Rosenquist in conversation with Mary Ann Staniszewsk]

James Rosenquist Marilyn 1962

By the 1960s widescreen movie formats, the rise of television and the ubiquity of advertising had changed the importance of imagery in popular culture. A new technological age was dawning. James Rosenquist – a Times Square sign painter (back when that was a thing), was dealing with extreme close up imagery in his day job. The images he painted expanded beyond his ability to see them and it changed his relationship to the meaning of the images. And so he naturally began to use this kind of imagery in his paintings. The figures become the landscape – the genre changes – the processes leading to abstract painting don’t. In addition – photographic imagery of any and all subject matter are no longer meaningful images but “abstract” imagery – like stripes or strokes, geometric images or color fields. This wasn’t classic Modernism or even Clem’s Neo-Modern pure abstraction. Rosenquist begins to define a different kind of abstract painting for the emerging Postmodern Era.

James Rosenquist I Love You with My Ford 1961

“… so I was thinking that, because of painting outdoor pictures of commercial things, cigarettes and whiskey, anything, which meant totally, meant nothing to me except painting of color and form, how could I introduce imagery back into non-objective painting — which meant that I was painting — what I meant was absolutely nothing, but there it was right in front of your face. So that’s what I was trying to do. So I did a painting with a front of a ’50 Ford in a field of spaghetti and two people whispering to each other, and then some other pictures.” [James McElhinney in conversation with James Rosenquist]

Admit Any Exaltation

Barnett Newman Vir Heroicus Sublimis1950-51

“I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how, if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?” [Barnett Newman The Sublime is Now]

Barnett Newman was interested in the landscape that pushed the edges of the work. Newman felt that someone who was visually overcome would be jolted into another state of being. This idea of the sublime was the way back to a more “primitive” experience of life – a physical understanding of the sublime. His abstract landscapes were intended to capture the absent figure – an encounter with consciousness. “Newman hoped that the viewer would stand close to this expansive work, and he likened the experience to a human encounter: “It’s no different, really, from meeting another person. One has a reaction to the person physically. Also, there’s a metaphysical thing, and if a meeting of people is meaningful, it affects both their lives.” [MOMA]

Barnett Newman First Station 1958

“I don’t manipulate or play with space. I declare it. It is by my declaration that my paintings become full. All of my paintings have a top and a bottom. They are never divided; nor are they confined or constricted; nor do they jump out of their size. Since childhood I have always been aware of space as a space-dome. I remember years ago shocking my friends by saying I would prefer going to Churchill, Canada, to walk the tundra than go to Paris. For me space is where I can feel all four horizons, not just the horizon in front of me and in back of me because then the experience of space exists only as volume… Is space where the orifices are in the faces of people talking to each other, or is it not between the glance of their eyes as they respond to each other? Anyone standing in front of my paintings must feel the vertical domelike vaults encompass him to awaken an awareness of his being alive in the sensation of complete space. This is the opposite of creating an environment… my paintings are hostile to the environment. The room space is empty and chaotic, but the sense of space created by my painting should make one feel, I hope, full and alive in a spatial dome of 180 degrees going in all four directions. This is the only real sensation of space.” [Dorothy Gees Seckler in conversation with Barnett Newman]

After Many Drinks

Jackson Pollock One: Number 31 1950

“Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again,” Willem de Kooning once said of his fellow AbEx painter, Jackson Pollock. Unfortunately, Pollock’s comments on his contemporary—rumored to have been spoken after many drinks at one of de Kooning’s exhibition after-parties—were lacking the same reverence. “Bill, you betrayed it,” Pollock said. “You’re doing the figure, you’re still doing the same goddamn thing.” [Pollock vs. de Kooning] I guess we can all agree Pollock was being a dick, and probably was a bit envious as well, since he would return to “doing the same goddamn thing” before his death.

Willem de Kooning Door to the River 1960

In the early 19th Century painting was stuck in a rut. Photography had changed the game and the institutional Salon was producing nothing but stultifying and conservative Beaux-Arts dreck. Ambitious painters had to rethink the game. So they began developing new techniques and visions using a less “respected” subject matter – the landscape. Nearly all the great movements throughout the Modern era emerge out of the “landscape.” Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky and Mondrian, even Surrealists like Miro, Dali and de Chirico, developed and definined new visions and new painterly processes primarily through this genre. The figure seems to always came after.

Willem de Kooning Milkmaid, 1984

AbEx was no different. American-type painting used the spatial tropes of landscape painting to create new forms, processes and images. This also allowed painters to keep things non-figurative, non-objective – purely abstract and therefore Modern. Most of the ambitious painters of the time understood that this is where painting needed to be. But de Kooning was a problem. He was a natural figurative painter, and would not relinquish his need to paint it. So, he caught hell from Clem -and from Pollock as well – even as they both acknowledged his gifts. When Bill finally “busted the idea of a picture all to hell” he pushed the scale of the figures and expanded them into landscapes destroying all the old Cubist structures. It was a clever solution to The Gordian knot. For me the best work came last – de Kooning’s wonderful Late Works make the landscape and the figure indistinguishable – both one and the same.

Jackson Pollock, Echo: Number 25, 1951

When Pollock died in 1956 at the age of 44 he was just beginning to understand how his radical landscapes might produce a figure. It wasn’t so much his innovative techniques that were creating a problem, rather he was unsure of how he might resolve the figure within his landscape. I always liked the fact that you could find Jackson’s footprints and handprints in many of his beautiful and delicate “drip” paintings – almost like he was trying to climb into the picture. He was the absent figure. But as wonderful as those paintings are Pollock knew that his “destruction of painting” was incomplete. He would have to face the “goddamn thing.” And like so many other painters before him the question became – How does one use this new painterly vision for other subjects and in other genres – particularly the figure?

Jackson Pollock Portrait and a Dream 1953

Enchanted by Flowers

Henri Matisse View of Notre Dame 1914

Matisse made a number of ground breaking landscape paintings during his long career. One of the best is this one, “View of Notre Dame.” Part of the intensity of this image comes from the work barely hidden beneath the surface. You see Henri building up the imagery – the arches of the bridges, the casement of the window, the quays alongside the river. And then he covers them with the greasy blue paint smearing the line work to change their meaning. That blue also covers over the disappearing ochre light from below. Matisse takes us along the river right up to the “cathedral” – a primitive Modernist box, scratched and etched into the “space” – which is flanked by a “tree.” Both move from light into shadow. What Matisse is abstracting is not really the world seen from his window, but the time passing before his eyes. He’s not trying to get at spirituality and transcendence like so many abstract painters of the time. He’s painting temporality and entropy.

Henri Matisse Landscape at Collioure summer 1905

“Before working I used to take a walk – I walked in my garden. Before working in my studio I look at the flowers, a tree, a form of branch. I am enchanted by flowers, by a combination of lines. When I return, I am [well] nourished by that and I make something else, something completely different.” [Matisse interviewed by Jerome Seckler]

In Landscape at Collioure Matisse’s ambition is moving him beyond Neo and Post-Impressionism into something more difficult. In the Collioure landscape there’s the Fauvist color of course, but the painting is a sketch – very fast brush, dashes and flicks all over the surface – no perspective, no illusion – hardly any over painting. It’s all done in one sitting in order to record the moment. It’s 1905 and Matisse was spending more and more time in the south of France. He was looking for something more from his work, something more than Signac’s Divisionsm and his ambition was taking him through a tough patch. He suffered anxiety and insomnia and was close to a breakdown. His family was in a state. That’s when Henri reached out to his friends in Paris. It was Derain who answered the call, and came to visit almost immediately. The two set to work and used Collioure, its light and color to dismantle the past. That summer of painting changed everything for Matisse and Derain. In fact it changed everything about painting.

“Matisse indeed not merely discarded perspective, abolished shade and ignored the academic division of line and color. He challenged the method of vision that had been developed and embraced by the Western world over the centuries, ever since the times of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and even since the masters of ancient Greece and Rome. He replaced the illusion of objectivity of the past by conscious subjectivity, which was already twentieth-century art based on the visual and emotional reaction of the artist himself.” [Hillary Spurling on Matisse]