Personal Practice (Coursework, Part 1): (Ex: 1.1) Research Point: History

Research Point: (5 hours)

(1) Abstraction in the 20th century

The Tate defines abstracts art as: Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Tate (s.d.) Abstract art – Art Term. At: (Accessed 28/12/2020).

This raises some questions such as: is there such a thing as an ‘objective’ visual reality given that much of what/how we see is culturally conditioned? And every electrical signal from our eyes to our brains is passed through our personal ‘photoshopping’ software before being decoded into what we ‘see’.

There is a long history of figurative art in the West and the visual language associated with it going from medieval art through single point perspective and onto photorealism. Figurative visual language has evolved over time as it has hybridised across cultures (with the addition of Japanese and African art in the 19th century for example), time (with the reintroduction of earlier art forms such as the pre raphaelites), and been bent by ideologies such as in German Expressionism.

Maybe abstraction uses figurative visual language (such as warm and cold colours and aerial perspective to create 3D effects) or perhaps it has had to invent a visual language of its own?

I am going work through the Tate article as a good overview of abstraction in the 20th century. They say: The term can be applied to art that is based an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised.

This seems to be a very popular strand of abstract art and although in the right hands it is highly professional, individual, moving and beautiful it also feels overused and tired. I might end up painting abstracted landscapes as that’s where my practice was heading, but I don’t find it exciting.

It is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality. Some artists of this ‘pure’ abstraction have preferred terms such as concrete art or non-objective art, but in practice the word abstract is used across the board and the distinction between the two is not always obvious.

This ‘pure’ abstraction would seem to describe what I’m looking for but it misses the mark because I am not concerned where my marks come from but how they work on the canvas.

Abstract art is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality.

I would like to paint a feeling, an experience… anything ‘human’ that can be communicated on a non verbal level.

Since the early 1900s, abstract art has formed a central stream of modern art.

Looking through the Tate article it features a selection of artists since 1900 with an example of their painting and some notes. The paintings seem to fall into three broad groups, those that take the visual world as their subject matter, those that take the artist’s subjectivity as their subject matter, and those that have no visual or human reference point.

For example the cubists (and fauvists) begin with a subject matter from reality.

Gris, J. (1913-14) Bottle of Rum and Newspaper. [Screenshot] At: (Accessed 28/12/2020).

It may be well camouflaged/schematised but in this cubist painting you can still see the bottle of rum and newspaper. I would say the modern abstracted landscapes also begin with a subject matter from reality (the landscape) but then abstract it.

An early, and famous abstract painter was Kandinsky…

Kandinsky, W. (1910-11) Cossacks [Screenshot] At: (Accessed 28/12/2020).

Although this is described as expressionist, uses intense colour and non-naturalistic brush strokes, and reflects the artists inner feelings it has a visual title. When I hear ‘Cossacks’ I imagine charging horsemen and I have heard art historians describe parts of the canvas in terms of a hill and a lance, which is subject matter from reality. So, I’m not sure that this has entirely escaped visual reality. Also, for me, the linear aspect pushes this in the direction of a doodle and away from expressionism.

Orphism is another 20th century movement in abstract art, as exemplified by Sonia Delaunay. Sonia and Robert Delaunay used the term to describe their work because they felt it was like music.

Delaunay, S (1913) Electric Prisms [Screenshot] At: (Accessed 28/12/2020).

This is very interesting because I feel this is cut off from visual subject matter and working purely on the picture plane. It has emotion and it has rhythm, so is like music, but it is also free floating. By that I mean film music is often tied to an image or a story, a title can also tie music to visual image or narrative… but here the music of the colours are having to do all the work on their own. And, for me, I’m not sure they’re strong enough to do that.

The 20th century (modernism) was very much the century of movements and here we have another one, Suprematism.

Malevich, K (1915) Dynamic Suprematism [Screenshot] At: (Accessed 28/12/2020).

This leaves me cold and is nothing I would want to paint. I cannot see or feel any connection to it. I read it is an attempt to escape from the real world, so the assumption could be that it was the result of a lot of thinking and an academic theory? Also, I am not sure what ‘the real world’ is, and what the ‘unreal world’ is… as the unreal world could be the world of the imagination and this certainly isn’t that. However, it succeeds in detaching itself from both visual reality and humanity.

De Stijl / Neo-plasticism (c.1919) another movement that I can find no connection to…

Doesburg, T (1925) Counter-Composition At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

Interestingly this was another ideologically driven movement. Neo-plasticism tried to produce ‘pure paintings’ as a response to the destruction and chaos of WW1.

Another experiment was Automanism (c. 1920) coming out of Freud’s theory of free association in which artists such as Joan Miro and Max Ernst painted ‘automatically’ in order to reveal their subconscious.

Miró, J (1927) Painting At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

Here again is a movement driven by a theory which produces paintings I can’t connect to… I can find no meaning or emotion and am not drawn to the painting on a human or spiritual level.

We now reach mid century, post WW2, and one of the most successful (and imitated) abstract painter of the 20th century.

Pollock, J (1952) Yellow Islands At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

This is an example of action painting which was heavily influenced by automism but driven by gestural paintwork, rather than considered execution. Pollock danced round his canvas dripping, pouring and splashing paint. As far as I know he didn’t pick a topic, research or express a particular memory, he allowed himself to connect to the canvas and worked intuitively creating marks until he had made a painting.

I can connect to his paintings and they have a strange but compelling meaning for me. They are human and tug at something deep inside. There doesn’t need to be a title… there is no external visual reality… but there is a deep humanity.

Somehow by working spontaneously in the moment his gestures have captured something universally human. That nobody has matched his fame in dripping and splashing paint suggests to me that he was a genius with a unique voice.

However, I think there is an element of gestural painting in my voice as I love working in the moment and composing intuitively.

Another abstract expressionist that I find captivation is Mark Rothko.

Rothko, M (1959) Red on Maroon At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

I have been lucky enough to see this at the tate and it is mesmerising.

Rothko was a colour field painter (1940–1950s), a group who used slabs of colour and blurred edges with no ‘subject’ (particular focus) to produce a spiritual response. His painting was huge and I think colour field painbtings work better big where you can lose yourself in the picture plane.

It is interesting that two abstract expressionists have both captivated me. That would flag to me that I should look at abstract expressionism, and that it could be an important part of my practice.

However, I think, as with Rothko and Pollock both had such individual voices, that the key to success is finding my own individual voice.

Another 1950’s movement is post-painterly abstraction.

Louis, M (1961) Alpha-Phi At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

This was a reaction against the mysticism and emotion of abstract expressionism where they rejected both humanity and any reference to an external visual reality. Instead they focussed on the painterly aspects of form, texture and colour for example. I suspect this was ideologically driven and while they have succeeded in losing the humanity, they have also lost my interest and I cannot connect to this painting.

Finally, there are two saturated pop art colour painters from the rocking 1960’s.

Stella, F (1962) Hyena Stomp At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

Not surprisingly these were called hard edge paintings. They were seen as part of the post-painterly movement. The hard edges and geometric abstraction was a reaction against gestural abstract expressionism. This reminds me of a Greek or Roman pattern (mosaic flooring) where the surface is completely flat, and the ‘decoration’ works inside it. I like the colours but it has no meaning for me, and it does not engage me on the level of meeting another person, or being spiritually or emotionally involved.

Finally the Tate features Op art…

Vasarely, V (1964) Banya At: (Accessed 28/12/2020)

This was another version of post-painterly abstraction. Again I like the colours but for me is more like a modern floor design than anything else and does not engage me as a work of art.

Accepting that there may well be developments in the 21st century which have veered off in totally unexpected directions I can take this as a foundation of abstract art and make some tentative conclusions.

In no particular order:

  1. There appear to be three main strands of abstract art. Those that begin with a subject matter in reality such as a landscape, those that (in some way) start with the artist/or an experience of the artists as the subject matter, and those that are non-human and non-visual.

  2. Although I enjoy looking at landscape driven abstracts what excites me as an artist are human driven abstracts.

  3. I really enjoy looking at abstract expressionism so this might be an area to investigate, but I must find my own unique style.

  4. I also know I like bright saturated colours.

  5. I like having a reference/starting point for my art, so that it is grounded in some kind of meaning which could be a memory or a feeling.

  6. When I paint I like working quickly in the moment (with periods of reflection and looking).

  7. I love gestural mark making and letting the painting speak to me so that the composition becomes a collaboration between me and the canvas.

Having researched some background I think I now need to look at my chosen abstract artists.

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