Abstract Critical

Review of abstract critical 2012

Written by Alan Gouk

Gillian Ayres, Muster, 1960. Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery.

Back in London, I’ve been catching up with the debates on abstract critical, since in my Scottish fastness I have no computer. Much the best article has been Robin Greenwood on early Gillian Ayres, and it seems the admiration is mutual between us (Robin and myself) in the writing department at least.

Most puzzling, however, is the amount of chatter generated by David Ryan’s “Ha Ha what does this represent?”, which manages to “reference” not only the polarity addicted Wilhelm Worringer and Ad Reinhardt, but the hauntingly obscure (for the arts of painting and sculpture at any rate) hence de rigeur amongst cultists, Walter Benjamin, in whom extreme subjective idealism clashes with the horrors of actual life, and The End of Paintingharbinger Douglas Crimp (who he?) as well as sundry other theorists. That Ryan can even dignify the likes of Groys and Lyotard says much about the climate within which painting is currently languishing (if you can languish in a climate), or its plight.

The trouble with polarised thinking is that the skin and bones of an issue are dealt with, while the meat of the matter remains untouched. I remember assailing Clement Greenberg with a rather different polarity gleaned from my readings in Matisse (in 1970), to which he replied “Yes, that’s right, but I wouldn’t want to be categorical about it”. This was consistent with his hyper-pragmatic stance as a critic, honed by experience of the waywardness of artistic inspiration, and the folly of predictive gambits, his own included, meaning that quality can come from anywhere, and in unexpected packages.

From 1920 to 1937, Naum Gabo had already shot Worringer’s fox with “shapes exult and shapes depress; they elevate and make desperate; they order and confuse; they are able to harmonise our psychical forces or disturb them…..” and the history of abstract painting almost since its inception with the Delaunays, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Van Doesburg, has been to humanise, “spiritualise”, imbue with emotion, geometric shapes and their three-dimensional implication, whilst acknowledging the spatial ambiguities of planar construction.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, in Europe and America painters strove to reconcile the diverse strands of influence from these pioneering masters, interweaving their sign languages and habits of craftsmanship as if a giant computer were at work, in which they were immersed, Neo-plastic purism vying with Kandinsky’s “aura” – tinged expressive geometry and Klee’s pictographic short-hand. Critics and uninvolved observers are always ready with the epithets “impasse”, “crisis” for such an endeavour. Only much later can it be seen that a meltdown was taking place, (which might well merit re-examination now if only as a warning of what not to do), rigidities of thought fraying at the edges.

The J. Donald Nichols collection of the American Abstract Artists Group, now housed in Wake Forest University, North Carolina well illustrates the melding of styles at work in these years,  (a situation somewhat akin to today, without the sense of mission of those years). Ad Reinhardt was a distinguished exponent of one of these styles, veering towards the purist end of the spectrum. (His Untitled 1938 may even have influenced Mondrian’s conversion to colouring his bars, and dropping black from his palette?), but his desire to “neutralise” led him on a one-way ticket to palukaville. By suppressing the emotive and space-creating capacity of colour; by suppressing the varying textures of paint handling from delicate transparencies to viscous saturated opaques, effecting the plasticity of surfaces also, Reinhardt left himself no alternative but the “death of painting” – and thence to the total inertness of Frank Stella’s early black pictures.

Perusing these card-carrying abstractionists of the 1930’s, it is Arshile Gorky who stands out for his willingness to explore and conjoin apparently antithetical styles, and for his evident conviction that, abstraction or not, it was the superior plasticity (i.e. disregard for wafer-thin eggshell fragility of surface) of Picasso’s linear impulsiveness, his unconstraint, and Matisse’s aesthetic of “feeling through colour”, which reaped the biggest rewards; and it was Gorky’s engagement with the Picassos of the 1920’s, combined with surrealists input from De Chirico, and then Matta and Miro, in short his “convictions of taste” which opened things up for others.

Of course the difficulty for today’s young painters faced with this panoply of antecedence is compounded by awareness of the protean self-confidence of a Picasso, whereas their confidence in any form of impulsive or intuitive gesture, any form of unbridled affective life has been undermined, gnawn away by decades of neo-marxist and neo-freudian literary theory, pushed in the “cultural studies” departments of the universities, where according to the great literary critic Prof. Harold Bloom, the counterculture is institutionalised, undermining the work of practising artists (those who are not embedded) – so that every mark, every touch has to be carried out under the crushing weight of ironising self-regard, an analysis of motive fatal to the discovery of any creative source in oneself.

This, and a vogue for literalness, affectless statement of the bleeding obvious, material and process – “look! – I am applying a skin of coloured pigment to a piece of stretched fabric delimited by strips of masking tape”, suppressing any tendency for such a manoeuvre to generate a spatial illusion (other than by accident); and other forms of dead-hand, dead-pan neo-pop attitudinising.

Evidently the rich heritage in England of engagement with issues of abstraction has been buried under the post-modern tsunami – after the “purist” commitments of Circle with Nicholson, Hepworth etc. in the 1930’s, there was Victor Pasmore’s newsworthy conversion to abstraction in 1949; the constructivism of Kenneth and Mary Martin, Anthony Hill and Gillian Wise; Patrick Heron’s conversion to abstraction following the Vanguard Americans at the Tate in 1956; William Scott’s ambivalence on the issue of abstraction/representation during the 1950’s and early 60’s; Frost’s and Hilton’s perceptive writings on such issues; the shaped-canvas episode of the late 1960’s, in which I was a participant, and Sean Scully is a very belated descendant; then came minimalism and op-art. Perhaps that’s where it all began to go wrong. (But that’s another story).

You don’t have to be a synaesthesic, (though it might help) to be aware that the harmonised (essential) reciprocal influence of a chain of colours has the capacity to move by association in the same way that contrast or harmony between chords in music can create emotion in the listener (a belief as old as Nicholas Poussin with his modes, echoed by Baudelaire in poetry and prose following the Wagnerian cult in France, and thence to Gauguin’s prophetic manifesto, and continued by Matisse.

But only if given room to do so, and not if trapped in some cage or linear labyrinth undercutting its space-opening potential. People talk of Hofmann’s “push and pull”, for instance, as if they knew all about it, how to achieve it, as if it were yet another cliché of modernist painting (understood merely as a pattern of words it may be), whereas it is one of several ways out of the “impasse” created by Reinhardt’s reductionism, another being Adrian Stokes’ “carving conception” (see the following).

At times Ryan writes as one following Reinhardt’s dictum, for whom the emotional potential of colour (expression in Matisse’s terms) is regarded as incompatible with clarity of conception. Reinhardt inaccurately implies a dichotomy between expressive purpose (whether semi-conscious or unconscious) and the internal coherence of a free-standing work of art.

Ryan’s essay, though highly intelligent, testifies to a presiding confusion as to the aim of painting by devotees of latter-day abstraction- “its meaning can still be found in the actual painting activity”- I don’t know of any painter I admire who ever held that view- “a form of labour to particularise its forms”- says nothing about what these “forms” do pictorially together, (to Reinhardt they should not “do” anything), or what the expressive content of the end result is or might be.

You don’t, as a practitioner need to know what this is, but you certainly must want to have it happen, and the observer to be open to it.

I am not in the least implying that geometric abstraction as a mode is inevitably trapped in cages, or that it is incapable of plastic expression (Mondrian and Nicholson would turn in their graves), but “a form of labour to particularise its forms” will just not cut it.

I think Reinhardt’s extreme separation of picture purpose and picture reason was a reaction against the self-deception of the “Subjects of the Artist” alliance (Still, Newman, Rothko, Motherwell, Gottlieb etc.), sensing rightly that these artists had put the cart before the horse- that the “subject”, however defined did not precede the painting or lie behind it, but that the painting led up to it, concretised it (in Gabo’s term), discovered or revealed it. As I have said elsewhere, painting is not an attempt to recapture something but a movement towards something.

The “Subjects of the Artist” alliance “was meant to emphasise that our painting was not abstract, that it was full of subject matter” (Motherwell, Art Forum 4 : 1 1965). But “it was easier to assert the presence of a subject matter than to define it” (Breslin, Rothko: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, page 264).

Rothko worried that “his paintings might be mere facades, beautiful decorations lacking human or spiritual sustenance”. (Breslin) This recapitulates the nagging doubts of Kandinsky at the very outset of abstraction, that it might lead to painting that was only decorative, without “spiritual” content, but this to me rests on a misconception both as to the role of decoration, and as to how “the spiritual” manifests itself in painting, if it does. (On how secularists can still be spiritual, see Harold Bloom’s book Genius).

Reinhardt’s acid tongue and cynicism regarding other artist’s motives turned to ridiculing the self-important rhetorical stances (even Rothko’s silences) and promotional strategies of his former friends. The Abstract Expressionists are easy to satirise, there outré stances preposterous in the light of their meteoric rise following the death of Pollock.

In retaliation, for his pains Reinhardt was then comprehensively ripped off by Rothko with his Houston murals. His star has faded while the Abstract Expressionists continue to shine, if a little less brightly.

So why is Reinhardt considered relevant today? I’m blessed if I know. It can only be because he pricked pretentiousness and humbug, for he offers nothing for anyone in search of a mode of painting which allows the full spatial eloquence of which oil paint is capable, without ceding to the sort of anachronistic pseudo-naturalism of the likes of late Twombly / Maggie Hambling which, without foundation in a richly observed spatial reality, inevitably serves up a half-baked half-way house of vapid, vapourous impressionistic effect. And why not Turner/Monet/Hambling? Is she not post-modern enough? – does she not scribble lines of Latin and Greek poetry across her canvases? Why is Twombly any less old hat than Hambling? Is formless scribble still in vogue after all these years? David Sweet has the answer at least in part.

Back in the real world, it is interesting to compare Reinhardt’s Untitled 1938with Nicholson’s 1937 Painting (Courtauld Collection) or 1940-43 (Two Forms) (Cardiff), where the same kind of sometime synchronous, sometime sequential pulsing of colours around the rectangle occurs, that I mentioned in my article on Mondrian-Nicholson, though the Reinhardt is much cluttered. [both the Nicholson images are reproduced in Gouk’s article on the Mondrian/Nicholson exhibition]

Perhaps in the Reinhardt this effect is exaggerated on the silver screen, but in the absence of the paintings’ presence, further than this it is not possible to go – and then to look at the later developments of both artists.

Compare Nicholson’s relief Mycenae-Axe Blue October 1961with one of Reinhardt’s black on black pictures of 1954-60. Adrian Stokes’ “carving conception” of space fits the Nicholson sensibility well (having helped to shape it) as well as “a total identity, something laid out and instantaneous…. something that is calm, clear and demarcated” (Stokes 1937) or as Christopher Green explains “of ‘equal intensity’ to every part of the picture surface- instantaneity and integration through clarity of colour identified with surface, colour which is both attached to the picture surface and locates forms in pictorial depth, colour whose prime characteristic is as ‘something out there, resistant to the eye’”(Stokes 1937 Colour and Form) (from Christopher Green’s Courtauld Catalogue Essay on Mondrian/Nicholson.

The death of painting?- I don’t think so. As to the fertile ground of the English abstract pioneers left fallow as a result of wave after wave of seductive(to some) but shallow distraction by the saviours of painting from abroad- there’s plenty of room there for every kind of sensibility to flourish. I urge a close reading of Christopher Green’s essay. Surely someone can pick up on it.

I’m not quite as pessimistic as David Sweet about the evident disruption with the painting of the past wreaked by the destruction of the art schools. As long as there are writers like Fry, Heron and Stokes, and historians like Golding, Bloom and Green to access, all is not lost, even if the current vogue is to see art not as a self-validating dialogue with its past, though not only that, but as a symptom.

Incidentally, I am not recommending a plundering of the same sources as Gorky, since at its worst that could lead to a kind of illustration favourable to the creation of animated cartoons, (Gorky’s post-1943 style would be a prime target for just such a Fantasia-style animation) and pretty soon we would arrive at Fiona Rae.

Robert Storr’s piece in the Tate catalogue for the 2009 Gorky retrospective, The Painter’s Painter ends with this “Moreover, here was a painter who took it upon himself to embody nearly the whole of the modernist tradition as he found it, and to do so on the highest formal and poetic levels by dint of unrivalled command of its conventions- as conventions! – rather than by strategically tinkering with them or by making any pretense of sweeping them aside altogether. The realisation of that ambition spanned 25 years during which modern art spiralled out in myriad directions in ways that made and still makes Gorky seem less like one of its offshoots than its gyroscopic center at the mid point of the 20th century……………….. Most of the artists we call either modernist or post-modernist fall within categories three, four, five and six (of Ezra Pound’s hierarchy, six being starters of crazes), these last being the biggest catch basins of intermediate talent. Then let me say unequivocally that Gorky was a great talent, (category two) while conceding that he was in no sense an inventor (category one)…. there are ways in which critical irony and the countervailing quest for absolute authenticity can be suspended. Gorky personifies that dual suspension, and his work bespeaks the transcendent understanding and beauty such selfless immersion in multifaceted otherness can make possible”.


Post script 

Regarding Sam’s somewhat cheap shot about my “disingenuous” video; of course my paintings are the way they are because of the whole history of the past hundred years of painting. Everything I have said and done testifies to that, as Sam is in a better position than most to know.

But to link me with Linda Karshan on the theme of grids is stretching the notion of “grid” too far. “Grid” means Agnes Martin, Edwina Leapman, Bridget Riley, Sean Scully, and a thousand others.

Patrick Heron was probably the first to show that even Bonnard composes on the basis of a kind of subliminal grid – “I think we may best conceive this underlying abstract rhythm in Bonnard if we think of a piece of large scale fish-net drawn over the surface of the canvas; – it is through an imaginary structure of loose, connected squares – sometimes pulled into oblongs and sometimes into diamond shapes- that Bonnard seems to look at his subject”(Heron 1947) – and much more brilliant aperçus in that vein which would in turn begin to influence his own paintings, and thence to mine.

I defy anyone now to read Pierre Bonnard and Abstractionwithout exclaiming- “this man is a genius” (Heron I mean) – and the greatest writer on painting since the death of Roger Fry, and hence hated for it by inferior critics and artists alike. Why bother with Lyotard, Groys, Benjamin and Adorno, who have so very little to say that pertains to the concerns of painters or sculptors, when there are the likes of Heron and the more theoretical Adrian Stokes, who have so much.

The point I was making since I approach the question of “subject” from the opposite end of the scale from Bonnard, is that if one is stretching across a large canvas laid out on the floor, applying turpentine thinned paint with sponges and rags (this to avoid paint running down the surface, and neither Bonnard nor Heron worked in this way) it is hard to avoid the creation of roughly oblong or ovoidal areas. The alternative is a ragged edged splash (which carries its own history); and when one ragged edged splash meets another it takes a good deal of contrivance (and I’m against contrivance if possible) to avoid one colour being adulterated by another, and thus losing clarity; and in any case this would be early Gillian Ayres.

Comparatively few of my pictures conform to an “orthogonal” pattern, which is where the conversation began with Robin’s article. So the link with Karshan is specious. I might even be tempted to say “disingenuous”. I’d rather link with Kim Kardashian!

Alan Gouk

31st of December 2012

  1. AYEJAY said…

    Mr Gouk,
    I couldn’t agree more with you on the genius of Patrick Heron, his writing, insight and of course his artwork. I also greatly admire his term for the works of another artistic hero of mine – Pru Clough, her works were ‘…machines fo seeing…’ I see potential Cloughs every single day!!!! Thank you!

  2. Alan Gouk said…

    I apologise to Maggi Hambling. Her Erosion is not vapid or vapourous. She is a better painter than Twombly. ________

  3. Peter Stott said…

    No such thing as formless scribble, it’s total form scribble, utterly exact representation, that’s why it works.

  4. Alan Gouk said…

    Comment on Review 2012 from Alan Gouk.

    The qualities that attracted me to Heron’s paintings had nothing to do with orthogonal design. Those that I felt I needed to assimilate from him, to get beyond heavily impastoed surfaces, in preparation for large-scale pictures were : –

    1. “Utter directness” – trusting one’s first impulses, and letting them speak, without overlaying them with consciously and laboriously worked up formal ambitions which bury the eloquence of brush moving on canvas – which I have been calling since the late 1960′s one’s “involuntary response to surface”.

    2. “Brushwork is spatial” – the realisation that the same hue laid on with different touch (or by different people) will alter the spatial effect of an area. And incidentally so does palette-knifing – a smooth buttery surface in which colours grade into one and other has a markedly different spatial result from one composed of firm strokes.

    3. From my Patrick Heron II., Artscribe number 35, 1982 – “The question that Heron is posing and answering in the paintings of these years (the late 1950′s) is this. Can painting create a palpable sense of depth without the sense at the same time that that depth is filled by or mediated by the sensation of the solidity of real objects? The answer would seem to be an emphatic Yes! – And a less equivocal Yes than one meets in Hofmann”

    The intellectual or conceptual grasp of such an insight says nothing about one’s ability to realise it in one’s own painting. That takes a lifetime of trying, otherwise everyone would be a great painter just by taking thought.

    Heron, Stokes and Hofmann all agree on one thing: –

    Heron – “I believe absolutely in the formal equality of all sections of the painted surface – no section of the picture surface should be less of a shape than any other….”

    Stokes – “A total identity, something laid out and instantaneous…..something that is calm, clear and demarcated”…… – “Of equal intensity” (to every part of the picture surface) – “something ‘out there’ resistant to the eye” Stokes, 1937.

    Hofmann – ” When the two-dimensionality of a picture is destroyed, it falls into parts – it creates the effect of naturalistic space. When a picture conveys only naturalistic space, it represents a special case, a portion of what is felt about three-dimensional experience. The layman has extreme difficulty in understanding that plastic creation on a flat surface is possible without destroying the flat surface. But it is just this conceptual completeness of a plastic experience that warrants the preservation of the two-dimensionality.”

    I know Robin will answer that there is nothing partial or incompletely realised about the best Constables – but Hofmann is talking in the context of the abstract picture and its own “special case” requirements. You cannot have both.

    Matisse appears to have both, which is why he exerts such a magnetic pull for all tuned in painters still, but in Matisse’s most “abstract” pictures there are sly perspectival hints, and sometimes emphatically delineated ones, in for example Interior with Goldfish and Sculpture, 1914 (Barnes Foundation) Interior with Violin and Case, 1918-1919. As with all pronouncements in art, everything is relative and comparative and requires endless qualification.

    I referr you to my article Letter from New York, on this site since April 2011, and To the Young Painter of Today in my book, published by Poussin Gallery in 2009.

    Alan Gouk
    19th of January 2013

  5. Alan Gouk said…

    See my upcoming comment No 99 on your article What is Abstract etc.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    Well, Mr. Gouk, you appear to have read at least half of the authors David Ryan refers to, and good luck to you, because it’s more than I have.

    I have read some Heron though, and your comments about ‘Pierre Bonnard and Abstraction’ had me rooting out my copy of Heron’s ‘Selected writings’. Heron does indeed make a good case for Bonnard’s direct contribution to abstraction; in particular, to the sort of abstraction that Heron himself produced – now there’s a coincidence.

    The trouble is, it directly promotes all of the worst symptoms of flatness in Bonnard’s work and the abstract painting which it influences. The concept of a fish-net dragged over the surface of a painting as a means of structuring the activity is one I find, to be perfectly honest, abhorrent. Imagine doing that to a Matisse! But in Bonnard, I can unfortunately see it; I can see all those little pockets of colour lined up in a shaky orthogonal grid; I can see all those separate and flattening shapes, pressurised into conforming to a picture plane of sorts; and I can see directly how Heron’s work in the late fifties takes very directly from those roughly squared-off circular shapes derived from plates and jugs and bowls on an upturned-toward-the-viewer tabletop. Heron is right to point it out, but wrong to think it is worthy of praise; It’s why I don’t really much care for Bonnard – he’s just too flat. He may be something of a colourist, though I need convincing of that too, but it seems to me he differs totally from the great Matisse, who harnesses colour to the service of the robust spatial architecture of his paintings (even, and perhaps especially, when he appears to be ‘decorative’). Bonnard, by contrast, seems to spend much of his time filling in shapes that are adjacent, without bothering too much, if at all, about what they do spatially.

    Nevertheless, I can agree Heron is a genius (at writing); move on through his collected essays to ‘Late Matisse’ and he makes a brilliant case for Matisse’s ‘interior Rouge; Nature Morte sur un Table Bleue’ and it’s complete lack of flatness; he enumerates its implied distances by the foot; he demonstrates its extraordinary ability to communicate a darkened interior with blazing colour; and he unpicks the means to the magical separation of outer and inner space by the window-frame. All and any of which, for me, leaves Bonnard trailing in the dust…

    Even better (and it takes some bettering) is Heron on ‘Constable: Spatial Colour in the Drawings’. It’s one of the most brilliant bits of art writing I’ve ever read. OK, so Constable is my favourite artist, but I would never have given too much time to his drawings without Heron sticking my nose directly into them and pointing out exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it so well. And it is in this essay that Heron cracks his own conundrum, about the reconciliation of depth with flatness in painting, which he has so eloquently set up in the Matisse essay:

    ‘Penetrating across the river, and over and across and through the meadows opposite, Constable’s eye proved over and over again to be the most accurate eye in the history of painting for recording recession. Yet always the deep distances and horizons are perfectly accommodated to the picture surface. Never in Constable was profound spatial accuracy disruptive of the most delectably organised surface-design.’

    I could quote paragraph after brilliant paragraph from this profound essay, but let that suffice.