Archive for Abstract Expressionism

Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Motherwell, Summertime in Italy (with Blue), 1965-1966
Lithograph (zinc) in blue on Arches Cover paper, 30 x 22 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

Before an introduction to Meyer Schapiro convinced him to devote his life to painting, Robert Motherwell studied philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard. Thus, it is no suprirse that Motherwell became one of the few first-generation Abstract Expressionists who regularly made information about his art and theory publicly available through frequent lectures, writing and interviews.

He considered his essay “On the Humanism of Abstraction” (The Writings of Robert Motherwell) to be one of the most philosophical texts he ever wrote. To my mind, this essay is one of the most accessible and convincing statements I have come across on the nature of abstraction in painting.

What follows is a long excerpt from the essay.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954
Oil on unprimed canvas, 93 x 56 3/16 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery

As the dictionary says, the purpose of abstraction in any field —art, science, mathematics—is, out of incredible richness and complexity and detail of reality, “to separate,” “to select from” the complexity of reality that which you want to emphasize, or to deal with. . . it is not feasible to re-create the Battle of Gettysburg; yet the ultimate aspiration of that naturalistic notion of what a work of art is remains of reproduction of reality itself; hence the popularity of the cinema in the 20th century, as of the novel in the 19th.

Joan Mitchell, Land, 1989
Oil on canvas, overall size (two joined panels): 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

. . . All our forms of communication are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  I have often quoted Alfred North Whitehead in what I think is one of the crucial statements on abstraction, that “the higher the degree of abstraction, the lower the degree of complexity.”  In that sense, mathematical formulae are (ironically) by nature of a lower degree of complexity than a painted surface with three lines, even it it’s an Einsteinian equation. Once one understands that every expression is a form of abstraction, then choices are made in relation to emphasis, i.e., to significance. . .


Amy Sillman, N&V, 2007
Color soft ground etching with soap ground and spit bite aquatints, 35 x 28 inches
Crown Point Press

Once one can get over one’s inherited primitive feeling that what a picture is, is a picture of something in nature, and think instead that a picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction (which in the case of Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, for example, is a very low degree of abstraction and a relatively high degree of abstraction, or moving from them to, say, Mondrian, a high degree of abstraction and a low degree of complexity), then one begins to view painting in an entirely different way. . .

Irene Rice Pereira, Mecca, 1953
Oil on canvas 40 1/8 x 50 in.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A difficulty for an artist speaking to you (in comparison with a composer or a mime) is that they can give you a performance, and the painter cannot. . . Painting is also a language that is universal by nature, but one highly-sophisticated and elite, in terms of the general run of people. If one is a very skillful abstract painter, it’s difficult for many people to be aware of it. . .

Janet Sobel, Untitled, 1946
Oil on canvas
(Gary Snyder Gallery)

Most people have a prejudice against abstraction in anything. . . And I must say that when I look at an advanced mathematical equation, it’s meaningless to me. I can’t read it, any more than I can read Chinese. But I don’t have a resistance to it for its being abstract, because I regard abstraction as a most powerful weapon. It is also true that abstraction can become so removed from one’s experience—one’s sensed experience—that it become remote from its origins. Most people’s resistance toward abstraction is just that it is remote. . .

Willem de Koonig, Painting, 1948
Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8 inches
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

. . . You see, art is a triangle. Let’s say, in the case of painting—most people think that the triangle is composed of yourself and the canvas and “nature,” and that I, as a painter, look at nature and then stick over there on the canvas what I’m looking at. Actually, the triangle is composed of oneself, the medium and human culture, not brute nature alone, which is but an aspect of culture; the sum total of one’s human experience in relation to one’s culture in painting. So in many ways, rather than looking at a tree, one is playing a game with other painters. . .

Jackson Pollock, Number 13A: Arabesque, 1948
Oil on canvas, 37 x 117 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery)

. . . In painting or music or poetry, one is concerned with how a specific medium functions, and paradoxically, in how it is functioning, the whole human soul is revealed, more than if one tried to paint a “picture” of the soul. It’s one’s soul that’s being communicated, how one feels about the character of reality. . . In the end, more hits your heart and your gut than can a photograph of a massacre or a photograph of two lovers embracing and so on, because abstract art. . . can convey feeling in its “essence” (in the Platonic sense) in a way that “naturalism” cannot: it has far too many extraneous details, and loses its emphasis, its focus. . .

Agnes Martin, Water Flower, 1964
Pen and white and red ink(?) with gray wash, 11 7/8 x 11 15/16 inches
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

. . .In this sense, abstract art is active and decisive, not passive and undifferentiated, and only becomes remote, by definition, when it becomes too distant from its original discriminations among the complexities of concrete reality.

Wider Connections
Mary Ann Caws—Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds
Hello Monday: “The Rothko Chapel

Barnett Newman—”The First Man Was an Artist”

Posted in Artists Speak, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on October 10, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Barnett Newman, Onement III, 1949,
Oil on canvas, 71 7/8 x 33 1/2″
© 2008 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York;
(Photo courtesy MoMA)

Barnett Newman deeply believed in the spiritual content of abstract art.  Superficially, his work appears to focus on issues of form, such as shape and color. However, as the essay below makes clear, those forms carried symbolic meaning weight.

What was the first man, was he a hunter, a toolmaker, a farmer, a worker, a priest, or a politician? Undoubtedly the first man was an artist.

A science of palaeontology that sets forth this proposition can be written if it builds on the postulate the the aesthetic act always precedes the social one. The totemic act of wonder in front of the tiger-ancestor came before the act of murder. It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before the desire to discover the unknown.

Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void. Philologists and semioticians are beginning to accept the concept that if language is to be defined as the ability to communicate by means of signs, be they sounds or gestures, then language is an animal power. Anyone who has watched the common pigeon circle his female knows that she knows what he wants.

The human in language is literature, not communication. Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water. Even the animal makes a futile attempt at poetry. Ornithologists explain the cock’s crow as an ecstatic outburst of his power. The loon gliding lonesome over the lake, with whom is he communicating? The dog, alone, howls at the moon. Are we to say the the first man called the sun and the stars God as an act of communication and only after he had finished his day’s labor? The myth came before the hunt. The purpose of man’s first speech was to address the unknowable. His behavior had its origin in his artistic nature.

Just as man’s first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned the axe. Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin. Archeologists will tell us that the axehead suggested the axehead idol. . . (A figure can be made out of mud, but an axe cannot.) The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act. It is the materialistic corruption of present-day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that the original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture. Pottery is the product of civilization. The artistic act is man’s personal birthright.

The earliest written history of human desires proves that the meaning of the world cannot be found in the social act. An examination of the first chapter of Genesis offers a better key to the human dream. It was inconceivable to the archaic writer that original man, that Adam, was put on the earth to be a toiler, to be a social animal. The writer’s creative impulses told him that man’s origin was that of an artist, and he set him up in the Garden of Eden close to the Tree of Knowledge, of right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation. The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as the fall from Utopia to struggle. . . nor, as the religionist would have us believe as a fall from Grace to Sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life to be, like God, “a creator of worlds,” to use Rashi’s phrase, and was reduced to the life of toil only as a result of jealous punishment.

In our ability to live the life of a creator can be found the meaning of the fall of man. It was a fall from the good, rather than from the abundant, life. And it is precisely here that the artist today is striving for a closer approach to the truth concerning original man. . . for it is the poet and the artist who are concerned with the function of original man and who are trying to arrive at his creative state. What is the reason d’etre, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden. For artists are the first men.

—Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist” (1947)

Wider Connections

The Nation—“Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime”
Melissa Ho—Reconsidering Barnett Newman

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