The Very Idea of Composition

Joan Mitchell Installation David Zwirner 2019

The very idea of composition is as beleaguered as the brushstroke. In a recent statement summarizing his career-long theorization of this subject, Yve-Alain Bois contrasted the fundamentally arbitrary gesture of the traditional composing author— “the expressionist route taken by Kandinsky”— with Mondrian’s rigorous approach to composition, where “a painting is understood as a highly balanced assembly of diverse elements unified through the action of an extremely complex system of thought.” It is, however, noncomposition, as Bois has shown, that is the defining rubric of modernism. Noncompositional responses to expressionist composition have played out in each generation over the twentieth century, generating modernism’s signal strategies: the grid, the monochrome, the allover, the indexical transfer, the deductive structure, and various chance procedures such as the abdication to nature or gravity in process art. [Mark Godfrey on composition in the work of Sillman, Von Heyl, Owens & Humphries]

Joan Mitchell Sunflowers 1990-91

“One could explain the current interest in Mitchell’s paintings by pointing to patterns of reception and certain theoretical conjunctures that her work suddenly fits into. Her early work, in particular, caters to the resurgent desire for painterly gestures and composition. Literature on her work has repeatedly pointed out that her early pictures aren’t Abstract Expressionist allover paintings but in fact retain the idea of compositions and figure-ground relations.
The clumps of paint placed centrally in her paintings of the 1960s might in fact be perceived as something rather figurative – because all the forces with the paintings drive toward these central clumps in a manner that could be described as centrifugal. Her paintings seem to become further animated by the density of the painting the variety of brushstrokes, the apparently calligraphic lines around them forming a kind of background. As described in a recent essay by Mark Godfrey in Artforum, this holding on to compositional devices sits well with the rehabilitation of composition in recent painting theory. Godfrey praises painters like Amy Sillman and Charline Von Heyl for painting in new and unforeseen ways, arguing that non-compositional procedures, such as aleatory procedures, have long been exhausted and overcome.” [Isabelle Graw on Painting in a Different Light]

Joan Mitchell Minnesota 1980

“…one could say that it is abstraction that, both retrospectively and programmatically, established modernism as a whole as an enterprise of motivation… liberated from the burden of representation, but also pondering their responsibility in front of the void that such a liberation had engendered, artists had to justify (for themselves and for their audience) what they were doing. They came up with four different models or strategies of motivation.
One possibility was to revert to the Romantic idea of the total freedom of the artist, the “arbitrariness of the poet that does not suffer any law” of the Athenaeum, which I just mentioned. This is the expressionist route taken by Kandinsky, among others: what I paint are the deepest folds of my very own soul, accessible to myself alone, if at all, of which I nevertheless claim to offer you a truthful portrait. Take it or leave it. This notion of the work of art as a seismograph of the artist’s psyche lies beyond all expressionist conceptions of art (it resurfaces from time to time and could be heard, barely altered, during Abstract Expressionism’s heyday). It is against this highly subjective solution that all other strategies of motivation began to develop almost simultaneously.” [Yves Alain Bois on Modernist composition]

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