Thinking, Seeing, Painting – Further Conversations…

The conversation about Space in abstract painting, as all conversations do, has become a bit more personal and far ranging. It was inevitable. Words carry weight and if an artist is talking about one thing and doing another then things can be confusing. So in that spirit we take the comments/conversation into another public forum at Martin’s and Robin’s request.

Ok, then. Their tweets were for a discussion of the show that Martin’s curated, and you can click this linked text to read the essay and see some of the work.  Basically, I think this is Martin’s brief for the show:

“…we…are…artists who want to put back together what was torn asunder in painting over the last fifty years. We don’t ignore the ideas that motivated that deconstruction but work with them. There is a paring down of art to bare essences in the Greenbergian ethos of painting. And it extends to the point where artists start taking the very material and ground of the painting apart. Where does it end? The work of Kelley, Stella, Ryman, Tuttle and Richter, artists I’d like to label as artists of the ‘bare minimum’, informs our painting. They provide us with the iconic shapes and notions of canvas as sculpture set free by their research into the underpinnings of painting. But our plan is to do something different to them.”


It’s fairly easy in this way. Martin wants to show us work that understands and accepts the deconstruction of painting from Greenberg on to the present while perceiving/creating something “different” within that style. So do these works do this? What is different, what is this difference, how does it work?

Now Robin, who is adamant that painting find something new to paint about, has challenged Martin about his brief and this work. Basically, he’s saying that the show broaches nothing new, and he’s having a difficult time seeing in the work the things that Martin is saying about the work. And that’s about where we are. Here’s C&P from a comment Robin made in a  great conversation about abstract painting on Abcrit:

“So why can we not see a contemporary equivalent happening in abstract painting now? Why are we revelling in the facile geometry and the easy-peazy gesture of dinky little abstract paintings that can be knocked off three at a time of a Sunday afternoon? Is the association with past radical politics blinding us to the reality of the work? Why are we so tolerant of the lack of any kind of ambition…?”


I think this explains a little of the difference in viewpoints here.

Our conversation on space – space in painting, space in sculpture, what it means at this moment in time, what it means for the future of both of these disciplines – shows that “change” is becoming a real concern. And I think this is the subtext of our discussion on Space – what could abstract painting become, what should abstract painting do to make itself new? And I don’t mean that in the Modern sense! So in this vein let’s see if this conversation will continue…

26 thoughts on “Thinking, Seeing, Painting – Further Conversations…

  1. I’m flattered, Mark, that you should set this up, even if I was a little unsure that we should go down this route. It will be interesting to see whether anyone else thinks it is important, or whether we are pissing in the wind…

    Martin and I seem to have agreed about a few things recently, but words are just words, and in the end you have to come back to the work, and as artists that is where we must be judged. The big impediment to making sense of any of this is that we cannot see the work for real (which is why I think our discussions on Brancaster Chronicles are so valuable), but I have stuck my neck out a little here, relying upon a lot of years of looking at art, and I’m prepared to say this much: that all the work in Martin’s show is rather familiar, verging on derivative, based upon things I’ve seen done in abstract-ish art before; and that Martin’s in particular is relying upon some very literal (not to say literary) and un-abstract ideas about painting. As visual art, his recent paintings are, in my opinion, non-starters (and the ‘visual’ in art is as close to the ‘abstract’ in art as anything gets). Abstract art, if it means anything, has to be, to a very great extent, a process of discovery, and the ‘content’ which I tiresomely keep banging on about has to come about as the end result of an imaginative and free involvement with each new work. Martin has defended himself against the charge of conceptualism on the basis that it is work that has gradually evolved in the studio. I’m sure he will have more to say about that, but I can’t see that makes any difference. His paintings of lettering in pastel colours squeezed out of an icing applicator are a conceptual formula for object-making. Not abstract, not spatial, and as gimmicky as any other bit of post-modernist over-intellectualising.

    Here is a question for Martin: what makes one of his paintings better than another?

    By the way, I’m not against intellect – Martin writes very eloquently, and his essays range far wider than I could ever attempt; but in visual art, a strong intellect must be partnered by, and in harness to, a very strong sensibility. OK, we all want to do new stuff, but it still has to bloody look good; see Cezanne and Matisse again! You can’t separate their ideas from the actuality.

  2. The notion of the gallery and museum is all that remains of the sacred in art.We still wend our way to these cubicles and halls to look for some sort of meaningful experience when we communicate face to face with the work itself.We measure ourselves against it: our physical height and breadth as well as their intellectual equivalents. Unfortunately this discussion is taking place on a pixilated computer screens where so much of what we do becomes something other than what the artistic experience in real space and time was meant to be.Perforce we have to approach a work of art first from afar and then close up, maybe if we are intrigued by its presence we will linger awhile.The truth of the work is revealed over time and maybe only after several visits over several years. I suppose that I am addressing these issues of the medium as a way of deflating Robin’s expulsion of my work from the canon of Cezanne and Matisse.If he does not appreciate my work it is because of the impediments of the media on which it is transmitted not any defects of the work itself.I know my work requires the space of my studio in which to be created and will come alive in the gallery space where it soon will be hung. I have been looking at the work online of a contemporary artist who has a show in New York.I saw it first on his site,then on the gallery site and finally from photos taken by a blogger directly in the gallery.My sense of what the work is about changes from source to source and I find that although there is a lot that is admirable in his painting ultimately I will have to go to the show itself and experience it face to face. But Robin sees nothing admirable to even entice him to know more about my work.I remember when Cezanne and Matisse made no sense to me.I was a teenager and could only make appreciate the realism of the 19th c.I looked at Inness and Homer and as for the 20th c I could tolerate only Hopper.I was a curmudgeon in my tastes in art.Over time I understood the genesis of Cezanne’s work as it came out of a deepened understanding of how the eye shapes reality and from that point on he and Matisse were more real than the realists. Obviously Mr.Greenwood is not an ingenue but I would like to think that someday if ever he encounters my work face to face he might be pleasantly surprised of how it takes the tradition maybe not to a new level but to a new and unusual level of interpretation.

  3. ‘…a new and unusual level of interpretation’? Now I know we are going to disagree.

    But you didn’t answer my question, Martin: what makes one painting better than another? I can do without either your interpretation or mine, but what critique are you bringing to bear upon this work? How will you improve it? Do you even want to improve it, or are you satisfied to have found a niche activity that (possibly) no one else does? Is that the extent of it? If not, what do you think the work is doing, and how can it do more of it, and do it better? Is it worth doing more of it? Is there a better way to squeeze out letters in icing-sugar colours across a canvas…? Could that ever be spatial; could it even be remotely pictorial? I don’t think you can entirely pass this off as being problematic due to my seeing it only on a screen. What is it that you want me to think might be ‘admirable’? What is the ‘tradition’ that your work is in?

    If you go down the sensitive and subjective interpretation route, then you land straight back into the territory of every amateur-art website pseudo-discussion around – #justdoit, #like,like,like, as per Two Coats of Paint, etc., etc. ad-infi-bloody-nitum. You are free, like everyone else, to go down that route; or you can fling it all into the melting-pot of a more objective critical attention and see what comes out. Maybe something, maybe nothing…

  4. I have come to the conclusion that all art is a reflection of the economic construct that is current at the time.It sets the topos of the society and art follows in step.Before you have Zombie Art you have a zombie economy.(see my blog you have Malevich’s White Square you have the Bolshevik revolution that starts time at zero.Before you have Matisse you have the integration of scientific methodology as embodied in Husserl’s eidetic reduction that tries to capture of “eidos” of perception.You may think the times are corrupt as I do but that does not stop the art community from trying to embody their times.Provisional painting is a reflection of Vattimo’s notion of the presence of weak ontology in current society where the strong being of the purely scientific minimalists lingers on but only weakly. Good for them for intuiting the zeitgeist.Maybe that is their genius.They are neither good nor bad. On another subject I use a frosting applicator in an attempt to keep my strokes volumetric something they lost due to the striations of the paintbrush. Not to be hip or whatever.

  5. Hi Robin,
    I might have come to this debate a bit late as my question is a little off topic. I was reading the discussion that followed “John Seed’s Back to the Future”, particularly the part where you discuss your excitement for abstract sculpture and where it can go. I myself am a painter and having followed both abcrit sites for some time now I am very aware of which figurative painters you most admire. So when you said that “some recent abstract sculpture is indicating a very strong and optimistic extension of potential, beyond that ever achieved by figurative sculpture in the past”, it just made me start to wonder which particular past figurative sculptors you admire, and if you admire them in the same way that you admire Cezanne, Matisse, Constable etc.

  6. Martin,
    This is such a tired old argument which says art only mirrors society. It’s an apologist’s charter for bad art. If you want to know about the social history and context of the times, look at the bad art of the period. If you want to know about art, look at good art, which transcends its context. Good artists make their own culture; bad artists use all the excuses you are citing to justify their failure of imagination and ambition.

    I started to look up ‘Husserl’s eidetic reduction’, but then I just couldn’t be arsed… because it has no bearing on Matisse’s work. In fact, it is yet another instance of irresponsible contextualisation, and the result is a twisted trivialisation of what is important about his work.

    And by the way, before Malevich’s ‘White Square’, or for that matter, his equally banal ‘Black Square’, you have Sonia Delaunay’s far more significant and brilliant ‘Prismes électriques’ of 1913-1914, which, far from sending abstract art off down some dead-end minimalist sink-hole, does actually set in motion some exciting and real propositions and possibilities for abstract painting. As far as I know, Delaunay was nowhere near the Odessa Steps.

    With apologies to Mark, we seem to have come a long way off course from a discussion about space in painting and sculpture. I’d happily return to it. Perhaps Martin can tell us about the space in his paintings. The paint may have a literal volume, but then it had that in the tube. Are there (for example) any pictorial volumes in the painting…?

    That’s a big topic. In a nutshell, I don’t have anything like the interest in the history of figurative sculpture that I do in that of figurative painting, and I don’t think it gets anywhere near to the same level of overall achievement. I think that abstract sculpture will eventually outstrip figurative sculpture. The main reason for this is, again, spatial – it is very hard for a sculpture of a single figure to get out and away from the core of the figure/body; it has a ‘boundedness’; whereas abstract sculpture has no such constraints (though it may have others).

    That said, there are exceptions; I was looking at a Degas sculpture in the Courtauld Gallery very recently and was struck by how brilliantly it articulated its forms in and through space. This might not be quite the same thing as being ‘spatial’, but it can be very exciting. Degas is my favourite sculptor.

  7. Is Robin asking for a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine?

    Robin asks Martin, What critique are you bringing to bear upon this work? Robin goes on to ask related questions—questions I’m thinking might also be related to a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine, a supremely objective, critically attentive device.

    But Robin also says, “Abstract art, if it means anything, has to be, to a very great extent, a process of discovery, and the ‘content’ which I tiresomely keep banging on about has to come about as the end result of an imaginative and free involvement with each new work.” Plastic Consciousness Rating Machines have trouble with discoveries, with “content”—and most certainly with “abstract art.” These things often just don’t register.

    Robin again: “in visual art, a strong intellect must be partnered by, and in harness to, a very strong sensibility.” I read/“translate” “intellect” as “content” and “sensibility” as “plastic consciousness.”

    I’m trying to reduce what Robin’s saying to something I can “understand.” Robin writes like an unbustable bronco. You think you’ve got hold of something: the “prose” kicks wildly in a different direction. What am I leaving out if I say all Robin is saying is that painting and sculpture have something to do with form and content? I’m leaving out the vehemence with which Robin objects to Martin’s paintings, to the paintings in Martin’s show, to the work of the painters John Seed mentioned earlier—(for one thing).

    What’s behind this vehemence? Is it a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine—or the sad truth that there’s no such thing as a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine—the sad truth that we’re stuck with Jerry Saltz?

    Mark writes, “Words carry weight and if an artist is talking about one thing and doing another then things can be confusing.” Yes, things can be confusing.

    A small point: Martin talks about a “formulaic Giacometti technique” at the Studio School that turned into a “technique for art-making.” OK. I’m delighted Martin has even heard of the Studio School. After 40 years at the place, I don’t really understand what Martin means by a “formulaic Giacometti technique”—but that’s not the point. The point, the small point is: how is the Studio School’s “Giacometti technique” different from Martin’s frosting applicator technique?

    A bigger point: does Martin think that the difference is significant because his painting is now “abstract” and the Studio School/Giacometti work is somehow not “abstract”? And this bigger point just begins to get at all the confusion associated with the word “abstract.” How nice to hear Robin wonder aloud whether or not “abstract art” means anything at all! I’m not trying to suggest “abstract art” is a meaningless phrase. If anything, it “means” too much. Maybe it’s not a complete waste of time to think about trying to sort out its various meanings. Somewhere (maybe in his essay “On Makavejev On Bergman” collected in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes) Stanley Cavell talks about the “human desire to be inhuman.” I think this human desire is deeply mixed up with abstract art—but I don’t think Robin has any desire to be inhuman—and I don’t think he has any need for a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine. I think Robin sees his own Plastic Consciousness as a kind of sign of humanity. I think that’s what’s behind the vehemence of his objections to this and that. I think that’s why Martin and Alan and Noella and I put up with his terrible writing.

    PS. Good question, Harry—about Robin’s take on figurative sculpture. Bad answer, Robin: “I think that abstract sculpture will eventually outstrip figurative sculpture.” But an answer many “sophisticated” folks Robin’s age/my age and older come up with. Maybe there was something about the “context” we grew up in that mixed sculpture up with car theft. It’s an answer a Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine might come up with. There are “boundedness” meters on all Plastic Consciousness Rating Machines—but the “boundedness” meters go haywire when confronted with Donatello’s Pumpkin Head.

  8. Nice one Jock. I think I’ll re-write my bad answer: ‘I HOPE abstract sculpture will…etc’ I too think the Donatello head is great; there are a few gothic pietas I think are great; there is some African stuff… OK there’s loads… and Degas (maybe not Rodin, so much); but all in all it doesn’t get near the achievements of figurative painting. Now get back to your formulaic Giacometti technique.

  9. While I was sleeping it seems that the UK is hard at it.I brought out the old Marxist trope about the individual second and society first and I agree that it often does result in bad art.But we must acknowledge that it has a tight grip on what gets shown and what doesn’t get shown and moreover I think as individual artists fighting for a personal vision of art we must be very aware of its shaping force on the art scene.Matisse would not have moved toward pure color planes without the scientific method.It allows him to isolate pure color(sort of like isolating compounds in chemistry)and break out of a volumetric 19thc reality into a world built out of color and moreover allows him to use the kind of intensity and push and pull that pure color provides.His early 20th c nudes in a classroom show the excitement of seeing the primacy of color perception peering out from behind value.The society of Europe in the late 19thc and pre WW1 looked baroque and Beaux-arts on the outside but its ways of thinking were trying to build a language that could organize a mass culture by scientific method.Matisse is part of that revolution although his subject matter is bourgeois.Maybe the war itself was just a manifestation of the new technological world view applied to control large groups of people,which are now just parts of a large social machine.But I digress… Hey Robin why are you using my put down of the studio school if you think so poorly of my thinking.BTW I loved what the studio school taught but not what its students made of it.Fault of the student’s imagination not the method.It was such an effective way of drawing most people could not get beyond it.As for my squirts being a cheap way of achieving volume,the pastry applicator is just a vehicle for putting paint to canvas and like a brush has a shaping effect of how the paint looks on canvas. I got tired of not having control over the thousands of brush hairs on how each stroke looked and enjoyed the introduction of volume it provided.I suppose I could sculpt each stroke for absolute control over how the volume works( I do to a certain degree by squeezing hard or soft) but it gets to be absurd at some point to control everything and I have to accept the chance effects of the pastry applicator.In any case I suppose you would hold it against someone using a palette knife to create flat planes of color.The intent with the palette knife was also to get rid of the small brush strokes so as to increase the size and flatness of color.It would then interact more effectively as a part in the whole structure of the painting.Turning each stroke into something volumetric adds autonomy to the stroke.I just looked at an earlier painting that I did with a brush.Each stroke is an individual color but I notice the tendency of the strokes to go concave not convex.That was not what I wanted and subsequently achieved with the pastry applicator.

  10. I just read this article on Art News. David Salle wrote a review of the recent show of painting at the MoMA, and he makes a couple of decent observations about painting in general that may inform the current discussion –

    “Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing.”

    This is how we started this discussion using John Seed’s article as the catalyst – but unfortunately, John has not commented since. In addition to the historical contexts I would have been interested in hearing about John’s ideas concerning the space in the kind of work that he was promoting, and how that kind of space might be relevant to the future of both figurative and/or abstract painting. C’est le vie… John if you’re still following the discussion let us know!


    “Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people — resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self — are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities — waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption — color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.”

    Words and visions.

    Also Jock has returned to the Red Room with his PC Rating Machine, so it looks like we may have measured up after all.
    But really, Jock, did you have to bring Saltz with you again?

  11. I have to agree with Robin on this, Martin. I only know him virtually, but from my reading he’s always on the side of the angels! Very, very Tough but extremely Fair! What has been interesting is that these discussions resemble the kinds of dialogues that my friends and I get into when we sit for a long meal. Of course that’s a bit more fun – great food, a great wine, and lots of dramatic pauses and theatrical gestures!

    I thank and applaud everyone who has commented! I wasn’t sure if this virtual discussion would be interesting or revealing, but it has surprised me. Of course if anyone wants to continue the discussion then have at it. I think we’re all up for the conversation, as long as Jock brings his PC Rating Machine…

  12. By the way, Jock when you ‘read/“translate” “intellect” as “content” and “sensibility” as “plastic consciousness.”’, you promulgate the rather academic notion of the separation of form and content; please don’t lumber me with that. Abstract art is the very thing that should continue the job of putting those two things together, indissolubly. I’ll say it again: in Cezanne and Matisse, you can’t separate their ideas from the actuality. Content is NOT ‘subject matter’; form and ‘subject matter’ you can separate, maybe, but abstract art doesn’t have a subject matter. I know this is a bit radical, Jock, but try to keep up…

  13. Mark, I bring Jerry Saltz with me wherever I go. He’s taught me all I know about writing—and translating. He’s the reason why I’m so good at this stuff!

    I want to add my thanks, Mark, for what you’re doing at Henri Mag. I do have trouble keeping up, but I thought of the reaching back business in the David Salle/Artnews piece and in John Seed’s piece reading the Sunday Times yesterday.

    The Paul Taylor Dance Company is now the Paul Taylor American Dance Company. Taylor is “reaching back.” ““I wanted to show other people’s dances besides mine, because a lot of young people especially don’t know anything about the history of modern dance,” Mr. Taylor said.”

    Also Ross Douthat made a case for old ideas:

    Robin, the separation of form and content may be “academic”—it may be just an “old” idea—but it seems to me it’s not useless when talking about painting and sculpture: it’s especially useful when you talk about these things as rigorously as you do.

    There’s a great Cezanne show in New York now. It closes this week. Maybe it’s called “Madame Cezanne.” The thing is talk about the great, great paintings in the show has gotten stuck on subject matter. The catalog, the critics—everybody’s talking about whether or not Cezanne loved his wife. It’s tempting to laugh at this, to dismiss it completely. We’re so used to the modern/the “radical” point of view—maybe it’s the “radical” content of Cezanne’s work—you talk about: form and content/ideas and actuality can’t be separated. I think it’s a big mistake to dismiss the show though. The lesson—the startling lesson—of this show—for me anyway—is that Cezanne brought all his “ideas”/all his formal muscle to these canvases and he couldn’t capture actuality: “actuality” remained “separate.”

    Of course—now that that’s settled, and we agree (I have no doubt) about the Mme Cezanne portraits—I’m thrown by your statement that abstract art doesn’t have subject matter. I’ll think about that. I’ll urge you to keep looking at figurative sculpture. I’m thinking about boundedness. I brought my Plastic Consciousness Rating Machine to The Plains Indians show that just opened at the Met. Interesting readings on the boundedness meter.

    Now back to my formulaic Giacometti technique. . .

  14. Jock, Jock, that’s just it! You don’t ‘capture’ actuality… you create it! It isn’t out there, waiting to be discovered (like a sculpture hidden in a block of stone – ha!); you make it. In abstract art, you make it from scratch. How bloody exciting!

    Now re-calibrate your machine…

  15. Bravo Robin.In total agreement with your article.I also agree with your take on Tuttle of which I can’t recall the details but I think in my mind it is related.I was once in a small gallery show of Tuttle’s in the 90’s with a friend who had befriended Tuttle back in the 80’s before he had a reputation.He met him at a show at RISD or Brown U I forget which that was opening next to a show of Alex Katz.No one was at the Tuttle show and everyone was at the Katz show.Things change.I started to vituperate over the pretentiousness of Tuttle’s work and was told to calm down by my friend. It is only recently that I can accept my intuition about Tuttle’s work and understand how it applies to Diebenkorn.The decision about colors and their placement has to push back against something and that something pushes back and creates the space.The X factor.Otherwise it is just a technical exercise.Both Diebenkorn are flaccid in that sense.There was a time when he was the one to emulate.That time is long past.Like Cezanne, Matisse still unfolds and surprises.

  16. I wonder if one could imagine space other than the sort of constructs that Cezanne and Matisse build.If you can read their language there is great pleasure in seeing and going along with its magic.But instead of the space being grounded in the flattening out of the volumetric world(I recall a great conversation with Held about the portrait Matisse did of his wife where there was energy released by the very act of flattening and compressing of the foreground and background.)but a space that is so incongruous that the solution or resolution of the space took place outside of the painting i.e later in time.So the drama points beyond the painting and abandons the self-referential ways of modernism.Sort of like how the painting of the early renaissance points outside of the painting to God.I think Serra took the push pull dynamic to such an absurd place of total domination of the viewer that we can no longer travel along with the work of art.There is nothing to be shared.Here is the latest blog on the show in Concord,NH. Just some opining and surmising.Is there a psychic space rather than the visually formal space which rests on the energy of optically derived color?

  17. Among other things.Since you are not fan of provisional painting you might enjoy this comment that I put on Hyperallergic.”On FB I have been engaged in a discussion with the former Director of the Rose Museum about contemporary painting initiated by my use of the word autonomy in a catalog essay for a show I just curated.He brought up Newman and I mentioned early Stella and Kelley as artists who had that sense of autonomy.In fact all Minimalism especially Judd seems to have reduced art to an essence that resists further reduction from whence it gains it authority. Those were the days when art was expressing Being with a big B.Today to follow the ideas of the philosopher Vattimo on “weak being” that permeate our contemporary thinking, everything seems infused with being with a small b. Belz seems irked when contemporary critics call the art of Stella,Kelley and Judd(the art of his generation) utopian and what is being done today post-utopian and therefore liberated from the rules based art of Minimalism. It was art about thought and not thinking about things of this world. The art in this show from what I have seen of the images on line seems to use thinking in a relative way not in the absolute way on high modernism. It is in no way atemporal. It is a perfect reflection of the postmodern condition and I assure you that this condition will linger on for many years to come. Maybe the work is not timeless, but endless.”

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