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Abstract Art

It has been said that with existential plays like Hamlet Shakespeare was expressing the chaos of thought in his times.  Contemporaneous with Galileo, like the rest of humanity he was rocked by the notion that the earth was not the center of the universe.  And therefore man might not be the central focus of God’s attention.

In the 19th Century Nietzsche proclaimed God’s death.  That may not have been totally true, but certainly any thinking man could no longer believe in a God who created an ordered universe with Him at the top, angels in the middle and man ruling over the beasts of the earth.  Darwin suggested that we shared non-divine origins with those beasts, and despite the protests of religious people clamoring for that old order, all further scientific inquiry has proved Darwin essentially correct.  Freud discovered the Id teeming with irrational, non-orderly, taboo thoughts.  Einstein probably dealt the final blow when he proved that fundamental concepts of order like time and space were relative to perception.

All art began to unravel at the seams after such world-shattering discoveries.  Poetry lost its rhyme and meter.  With writers like James Joyce and William Falkner prose became a stream of seemingly disordered thoughts.  Melodies and harmonies that had been so soothing to the ear were stripped from modern music.  And painting no longer seemed to represent anything at all.

Until I reached my forties, I had no more of an appreciation of abstract art than the average person who has been told that artists like Picasso and de Kooning were great, but really didn’t “get it.”  It was when I began to travel to Europe on vacations that I got my first taste for abstract art.  My wife and I went to all the obligatory museums and after a while I found myself drawn back to the ones that showed modern art.  Now I have much more interest in 20th Century abstract artists than I do in earlier artists, including the Impressionists whom I like a lot.  This appreciation preceded my own efforts at painting, which have drifted into doing “non-representational” art.

Strangely, I have been writing since I was in my early teens, and although I have written some fairly abstract poetry, my prose is fairly traditional.  I use the same tools as novelists of the 19th Century, seeking for an orderly story that moves forward through time.  I don’t think I do anything much more radical than Jane Austen.  As a painter, though, traditional thinking bores me.  I still study representational art, painting models and outdoor scenes, partly so that I and others will know I’m not just painting abstract art because I don’t have the chops for representational art.  I don’t really, though, because plotting out a representational scene feels as stilted to me as making blueprints in school.

Abstract art, on the other hand, is like getting out on the dance floor when you don’t know what you’re doing and just letting the music carry you along.  Trick number two, of course, is getting it not to look too embarrassing to others.  Real dance requires some feeling for the thing and study.  We’re talking about a bit of Twyla Tharp.

So, to get back to a more objective discussion of abstract art: why do I and others appreciate art that seemingly has no “content,” as a representational artist I know said.  I think that for those of us who are real enthusiasts, it speaks to our modern sensibilities.  If we take the long view of all the arts, the greatest artists expressed the sentiment of their times.  And the sentiment of our times is the loss of all the order that succored our ancestors.

Now some might argue that if we have lost that order in our thinking (because of Einstein et al), wouldn’t we want our art to restore some of that lost order?  That might be true if art were simply a matter of the expression of thought, but it isn’t.  Essays, scientific treatises and college text books express thought.  Art expresses emotion, collaterally using thought processes to find some sort of form suitable for that expression.  And I think that the art enthusiasts’ reaction to art goes far deeper than logic—to places that are inexplicable except through the art they are appreciating.

Let me try to give you an example of what I am talking about.  Say you are young and full of passion and have fallen madly in love with someone who is “all wrong for you.”  Someone it makes no sense for you to be with.  Your parents tell you so, as do your friends.  “Here,” they say, “here is the person it makes sense for you to be with, not the one you think you’re in love with.”  Well, this is a plot that great stories are made of.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Ms. Austen’s ghost, or watch any two-bit love story.

But it’s not the conflict of the story that I’m interested in.  It’s the ridiculousness of speaking of love and sense (or logic) in the same sentence.  So now, why do I find myself getting more easily bored by older, traditional art, but I can’t seem to get enough of abstract art?  It speaks to me on that same deep level of attraction as falling madly in love.

Oddly enough, despite the fact that I see throngs of people in museums that show abstract art, I rarely see it in people’s homes.  Most “cool” people seem to have stopped their artistic appreciation with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.  I see Matisse a lot and figurative works of Picasso.  Sometimes I might even see one of Picasso’s colorful “abstract” studies of a very recognizable woman.  I don’t see any paintings or even prints of the abstract expressionists, though.  In other words, I think most people need some sort of recognizable figure or image to relate to.  Perhaps that’s why young artists who work like Warhol are coming into recognition.  A lot of people need that thing they relate to in the “real,” outside world (despite the fact that modern physicists continue to prove it less real) to hang on to.

Yet I think that for me and others who appreciate abstract art without any recognizable forms, modern disorder has not only affected our thoughts, it’s affected us on a much deeper emotive level.  And I’m convinced by the art I see in people’s homes that there are not really that many of us around.  It’s the same with modern, abstract serious music.  People go to the symphony to hear it, but how many listen to it on their stereos at home?  (As I write this I’m listening to Pandora Radio set to play songs like those of Coldplay.  I guess I’m not as advanced with music as I am with painting.)

I’d like to try to talk about what I see in an abstract painting, what I hang on to.  First of all, I like the fact that abstract painters have totally dispensed with the ruse that a painting is something more than color and texture on some sort of surface, usually canvas.  Monet studied how light reflects off nature; Rothko studied how light reflects off his canvas.  And that’s it—light reflecting off colors applied to a canvas.

But I’m being a bit glib.  There’s more to it than that.  There is form, but not the form of recognizable figures arranged in a pleasing scene, or even an agonizing scene (which is still secretly pleasing in its artistic arrangement).   Art has always had a deeper form than the things it has depicted.  Artists learn it the way that singers learn how to hit the note, and then it becomes so natural they almost forget about it.

Let’s think about this for a minute.  Exactly what are we talking about?  Well, with music, there is a mathematical order (interestingly, adjusted a bit for some quirk in human perception) that we instinctively respond to.  That order preceded music.  Musicians searched it out and found what pleased human desires.  So, desire comes first, then art is constructed to please our desires.  The same with story.  The mind expects a certain structure to a story and becomes sorely disappointed when that structure is broken.  (For some reason I am very attracted to films that break that structure, but not particularly to books that do.)  Painting also has an order that preceded the art, and artists have learned to cater to the human desire for that order.  (I sometimes like to play with the thought that that artistic order might have preceded humanity, and might even be built into the structure of the universe, but that is another topic.)

Abstract artists who are no longer constrained by figurative, recognizable images, are free to deal directly with that artistic order.  Their entire expression consists simply of color and form.  This could seem limiting, especially to people who don’t respond to art that lacks recognizable images.  For example, that person could argue, “Look at the Mona Lisa smile!  Could anyone express such subtlety of human expression without depicting a human being?”  My answer would be that in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa I can see that subtlety of human expression, but with certain abstract art, although I may not be able to see it, I can feel it very deeply.

Before I go on to talk about an example of abstract art that I thinks does work, let me tell you what I think does not work in abstract art.  Like all art, most of what is produced does not work all that well.  That’s just the way the cards were dealt.  We’re not all great geniuses.  Bad abstract art usually suffers from too much logic—geometry overwhelming emotion.  You see it everywhere.  Most of you probably think of it when you think of abstract art—basically as some sort of design, that is.  Design pleases the eye and head, but does little for the heart and soul.

Rothko, on the other hand, is a perfect example of abstract art that works on the very deepest human level.  His paintings are amazingly deceptive.  They look extremely simple, with a few hazy boxes of color breaking up an equally hazy background.  They are not at all simple, though.  If you want to see for yourself, just try to do one.  You won’t come close.  First of all, his colors are perfectly matched to elicit emotion, as are their proportions on the canvass.  When you look closely you will see that he has built those colors with agonizing effort, laying one color over another so that the background colors peek through.  The way he constructs his canvases, it seems that one color floats above another like a tenuous emotional state.  I have seen Rothko’s that make me smile and make me want to cry.

I am certain that artists from past centuries have had the same affect on their audiences.  Goya probably made his contemporaries want to tear their hair out.  I can see that and appreciate it, but I cannot feel it the way somebody who shared his time would have. 

All considered, the appreciation of art is very personal.  In some ways I consider myself to be avant garde, and in others, pretty traditional.  I think it’s very rare to find somebody with absolutely modern sensibilities in regards to every artistic form.  I’m fairly modern when it comes to films and paintings.  I appreciate contemporary serious music, but don’t play it much at home.  And I read pretty run-of-the mill literature.   I also watch a lot of junk TV.

I say this so that you will know that I am not trying to be highbrow or pretentious when I talk about abstract painting.  I am not saying that somebody who does not appreciate it is lacking in intelligence or sophistication.  I think that people ought to enjoy what they enjoy.  I guess, in the end, I am simply trying to convey why I enjoy abstract painting.  And perhaps encourage a few of you to take a look at some of the better examples when you visit a museum that shows the better abstract artists.

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