Does it matter if an abstract painting is hung the wrong way up?
This question is not as facetious as it sounds. In one of the programmes under review, a story is related of how Wassily Kandinsky once saw, but failed to recognise, one of his own paintings hung on its side. The fresh arrangement of colours impressed him and ultimately provided a new insight into the possibilities of his own trajectory as a painter. Kandinsky, referred to by Matthew Collings at one point as the “Lord of Abstraction”, made good use of this happy accident.
If Kasimir Malevich’s painting Black Square (1915) was hung upside down, it is doubtful very much that anybody would notice. This feted work, fetishized for it’s beguiling simplicity as much as anything else, may well stand as the apogee of the abstract movement. It is so elemental that it is hard to imagine a work of art departing any further from the sphere of representation that characterised almost all art-making before it.
Whether Malevich’s rudimentary totem – a roughly hewn blackish square just under a metre in each axis, painted onto a linen canvas just over a metre in size – is a true paragon of artistic achievement remains still a matter of contention. What is for certain is that it stands as a perfect exemplar of what abstraction has come to mean: on the one hand a daring, obscure, and by the connoisseurs at least, deeply revered statement; on the other, an absurdly artificial, perhaps even bogus triviality.
One might think that abstract art should be a pleasure. No preparatory reading required; just an immediate adventure for the eyes, a landscape of colours, shapes, patterns and movement. Yet the form has remained quarantined from wider attention by the lingering suspicion that it is either too obscure to understand or else too easy to be taken seriously. That the cultural elite should hold objects like Black Square in such high regard causes discomfort in the popular consciousness. What seems to sit at the heart of the worry, as captured in the Kandinsky tale, is that abstract art has no rules of gravity or perspective to anchor it; a painting can be hung the wrong way up and still survive.
Commentators and artists have tended to describe abstraction as a form of self-examining mysticism. In one of the programmes under review, the contemporary artist Fiona Rae proffers an explanation of her work as “trying to make a picture of something that doesn’t exist”. The best approximation for the ‘meaning’ of abstraction is arguably gleaned through the history of its development. The probing, experimental semi-abstract pantheon of Cubist, Fauvist, Orphist and Futurist artworks gives a reasonable clue as to the steps that led up to the decisive break. With these artists we cross the bridge, as it were.
Jumping forward fifty years, the American critic and abstract-devotee Clement Greenberg certainly admired, even valorised, the technical developments in painting that led eventually to the high-modernism of Abstract Expressionism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, and Barnet Newman proved that Malevich’s Black Square did not represent an exhaustive climax of abstraction. Malevich clung to rigid form; painters like Pollock enraptured and enraged audiences with a technical freedom that seemed so loose, so formless, as to be almost destructive. For Greenberg, these testing qualities were the hallmark of Modernism, what he saw as the ability of a work of art to be self-critical through the manifest techniques of its creation. If the arc of the technical evolution of abstraction can be traced, it is surely characterised by the freedom and monumentality of the gestural sign. Pollock preferred to drip with a stick. Barnet Newman produced his ‘zips’. On this side of the Atlantic, painters like John Hoyland and Gillian Ayres continued the tradition with vivid, untrammelled gestural marks that owed little to premeditation and everything to the belief in artistic intuition.
The position of abstract art in the contemporary scene is uncertain. Today’s artists working in the strictly abstract mould generally fail to achieve the impact of their predecessors. The free gestural mark has become common currency, having passed through the mangle of post-modernism and now comfortably understood as the orthodox expression of an artist’s spontaneous volition. Somewhat outstripped by the more progressive strategies of recent art-making, abstraction can sometimes feel like a solipsistic cul-de-sac into which a contemporary artist ventures at the peril of their own relevancy.
The sense that we can all do better at appreciating abstract art, if only we knew how, somewhat pervades the BCC’s latest season of arts broadcasts BBC Four Goes Abstract: When Art Broke Free. There is plenty of artwork on show, all of it worth celebrating, from Sonia Delaunay to Barbara Hepworth, Piet Mondrian to Mark Rothko, as well as contemporary artists such as John McLean, Paul Tonkin and Yayoi Kusama. And there are plenty of questions that seem in need of an answer.
At the outset of his BBC Four feature The Rules of Abstraction, the critic and artist Matthew Collings promises confidently that “there are answers”. Overtly deliberate with his words, he walks us through the way-markers of abstraction, from Kandinsky’s Theosophically inspired spiritualism to Paul Klee’s evening visit to the Kairouan mosque in during his 1914 trip to Tunisia. Next comes Mondrian, Malevich, and then the Americans. This is not quite a history, but an optimistic investigation into how we might understand things better.
For Collings, looking more closely is the key that unlocks the door. Helping to guide our eyes, he offers aphoristic remarks to shake away the dust: “shapes defining other shapes”; “concentrated visual events, honed condensed versions of the world”; “visual organisation”; “simple signs serving a higher reality.” Collings’ point is that we should leave behind our intellectual expectations and let the paintings speak to us directly. The metaphor of music recurs over and over. For Kandinsky, “working with colour was like playing the piano.” Colours can be “in or out of key”. Jackson Pollock created a “visual symphony.” The contemporary artist Dan Perfect plays “a musical score” as he redrafts his initial drawings into full scale paintings.
The metaphor remains useful even if it is well-trodden. As a tool to pull away the veil of what abstraction does, the music idea helps clarify because it gives us something to familiar to work with, an uncontroversial starting point to approach the form. Yet it presents difficulties too, because as a package of visual information, an abstract artwork is also able to contribute to the world of visual reality, both through connotation and through its actuality. Questions that music doesn’t have to deal with remain pertinent: does an abstract work signify anything beyond its own form? What are abstract artists trying to show through their works?
In order to answer this question, Collings meets with a number of contemporary British painters, among them Tess Jaray, Fiona Rae and Albert Irvin. Disappointingly, none seem able, or at least willing, to forcefully express the decision making process that lies behind their work. Another programme in the BBC season, Abstract Artists In Their Own Words, devotes a full hour to artists talking, thereby raising our hopes of a direct insight. Drawn from the BBC archive, the most eloquent speaker is Barbara Hepworth, who describes her relationship with the natural landscape and the sea, and how these forms shape her working practive. Arguably the most fascinating voice is John Hoyland’s, whose contribution is taken from a 1979 edition of Arena, Six Days in September. During the course of this programme the artist worked on a new painting and attempted to complete it during the filming schedule. The avid uncertainly of his process shows how painfully aware the artist is of the potential failure of the televisual exercise. This insight, therefore, is as much about human frailty as it is about abstract art.
With all these artists, past and present, a certain degree of bashfulness is apparent, which seems to reinforce the accepted notion that abstraction is a personal pursuit, a branch of solipsism to which language can contribute very little.
In other programmes, the architect Zaha Hadid explains why she is inspired by the Suprematist creations of Malevich, and the Japanese “polka dot” artist Yayoi Kusama, whose work merges the line between abstraction and installation. The effect is resonant of artists like Anish Kapoor, who enjoy public acceptance by opting for a more interactive type of sculpture, which by its responsiveness, tends to be more inclusive. More fun.
The final broadcast of the season, Figuring Out Abstract Art – A Free Thinking Special, aired on Radio 3, opens these questions up to a panel debate. Does the dialogue of several voices bring us any closer to finding the right words? The answer is: not really. What this, and all the broadcasts, seem to agree on, and also worry about in equal measure, is that we’ve forgotten how to look at abstract art. That abstraction at it’s most pure is a fictive landscape dealing with content-less forms is the challenge that is being tacitly addressed at every moment. This problematic status attests to the ultimate failure of abstract art as a fulfilment of a historical project for a purer art stripped bare of symbols. As history attests, it has achieved a somewhat lesser status through its contribution to the vocabulary of painting, providing a new facet of the visual lexicon, albeit one that whose syntax is difficult to pin down.
For what it’s worth, my own feelings towards abstract art chimes with Matthew Collings. Abstract art is itself a metaphor, not for reality, but for the idea of reality. Understanding the metaphor involves looking and seeing – simply enough, an attention to the exact movement and merging of coloured paint, the treatment of surface, the plastic suggestion of depth or layering, stillness or flatness. A personal response to visual logic. That’s it.