Abstract Critical

What’s Abstract about Art

Written by Robin Greenwood

I have begun recently to think that the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘visual’ are often transposable. This rather makes one or the other of either ‘abstract art’ or ‘visual art’ redundant. All other kinds of art, of which there is aplenty, I consider of a ‘literal’ nature, neither visual nor abstract; visible, but not visual. Personally, I support ‘abstract-ness’ as a requirement of all visual art. I will try to explain this, but first I want to distinguish my viewpoint from that which quite commonly suggests that ‘all art is abstract’; and worse, that all art, figurative or abstract, can be analysed and comprehended as consisting of ‘abstract’ constituents, which we are given to understand as being comprised of, for example: geometric divisions, orthogonal grids, pyramidal structures and suchlike compositional devices; or simple vertical, horizontal or diagonal partitions of colour, in some kind of scheme or pattern. The latter are often given as the structures of abstract art; the former are more often applied to, or superimposed upon, figurative art. They are often bunched together and blithely united as ‘colour, line and form’; if ever there was a meaningless trio, and not the least abstract in any element! But to justify that, I will need to explain my notion of ‘abstract-ness’ through some specific examples. Let’s face it, ‘abstract’ is a very big mess of a word; I may well make things worse.

The Columba Triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden, in the Pinakothek Museum, Munich, is a work of unambiguous expressive naturalism. It is a painting quite resistant to any kind of dry formal analysis, as exampled above. Nor has it an affinity with the flattened picture-plane or the two-dimensional design of much modern painting, particularly modern abstract painting, an aesthetic which has come to be such an integral and unconscious part of our contemporary acceptance and enjoyment of visual art.

This painting by Van der Weyden is something very different, and takes a little more effort to get to grips with. The revelation on offer in this work is that painting might be about something other than – more than! – aesthetics, and that a content-led painting such as this might have something to offer a truly post-modern and post-Post-modern take on abstract art. At the centre of the main panel of the triptych is a passage of interrelated figures or parts of figures. The child, supported but somehow alert and erect of its own volition, is cradled by an array of three hands, one of the mother and two from the first adoring King, all of which are varied and articulated, especially in terms of fingers coming in from different directions and angles. The child has its own hands pronated and its feet supinated, and all these separate elements combine to form a little lucid cluster of three-dimensional interaction. After which comes the attentive head of the King, then his shoulders, arms, and especially his eccentrically draped sleeves, which fall toward the strange pointed hat resting on the floor. This is a very specific and particular, not to say peculiar, ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’; and prior to Van der Weyden’s imaginative invention of it, it had never ever before or elsewhere existed; certainly not in the real world. As an entity – which I believe it to be, in the sense of a linked visual passage of forms – it is entirely the most extraordinary creation of this artist alone. What’s more, It seems to me to be, in essence, an unnameable, abstract thing.

So this grouping in space of the ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’ is not a construct of composition, design or geometry. Nor does it stand (in my consciousness) as any kind of metaphor, allegory or semiotic representation. Outside of the painting, this particular ‘thing’ has absolutely no actuality, no meaning; it is indeed completely unavailable for any kind of interpretation – what a relief! Existing as it does within the painting, however, it is not only a coherent and fluid article, but also, of itself, both significant and meaningful, independently of the subject-matter of the painting. It holds your attention, it gathers your gaze. It is just truly wonderful to look at. And whilst I concede that it is certainly a part of a picture of a Nativity scene, with a storyline and all that literary stuff – of course – then so what; there are many, many Nativity paintings, and more than a few that are very similar in lots of ways to the Colombo work; but only this one painting has this one particular passage of form with this very specific meaning.

This is to say nothing yet of this sequence of form being in full correspondence, spatially and plastically, with the poise of the Madonna’s left hand and head; and further, with the cow and the ass behind the Madonna, as they turn their heads for a look, in passing, right to left; and beyond, into the other parts of the painting; the queue of worshipers stacking up to the right, back through the architecture to the landscape seen through windows and doors. My point is this: what is consequential about this work is not to be gained from perusal of the generalities of either the formal composition or the subject matter, but only in the consideration of the particularities of the visual content.

Let’s try a harder one! The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, in the National Gallery, London, is a work beloved of those seeking out symbols and metaphors as signifiers of extrinsic meaning in visual art, and comes loaded with a whole host of allegorical extras (many of them down to historian Erwin Panofsky, seemingly), every detail having a literary interpretation. The dog is construed as a representation of faithfulness and love (who knew?); the fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility; the discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage, and so on. This is charmingly interesting, but not anywhere remotely near to the real meaning of this work. What about the tender humanity of the loving couple (it is often said to be a wedding portrait)? Well, we are a little nearer, but even this subject matter is too generalised to pass as the meaningful content of a great painting. We are being asked to see things of far greater particularity than this in order to extract full measure from our freely-made act of looking. We’d be better off, for example, examining how the cornflower-blue patterned sleeve of the woman’s left arm slides out of from the fur-lined slit of the fabulously ruched, gathered and ornamentally moulded lush green dress. How does that feel? (And no, I don’t mean it necessarily as a sexual thing – look at the look of it, what it does, without reading anything in to it!) Or, more broadly but still specifically related, how about the association between this slight young woman’s innocent laced-bedecked head, as she glances up, and the sallow, cunning face-shape of the man, under that big furry hat? What about the relationship of those forms? If we start to look at these carefully and specifically, as we are invited to do by direction of the whole painting, we can begin to get in touch with Van Eyck’s unstinting act of communication. The meaningful interface here turns entirely upon the ‘look’ of the thing, and how it all very particularly fits together and feels and works. What Van Eyck has done, part by part, passage by passage, is create a whole rationale of feeling, a compelling and total visual argument. OK, those shoes might well be an allegory of ‘the bed chamber being holy ground’ (no, I don’t get that one!), but they are such specific shoes, of such specific form, in such a specific orientation. Don’t we have a feeling straight away for even the relational orientation of these shoes to Arnolfini’s feet, or to the dog, or to the whole space of the room, maybe even to just about everything else in the picture? (The allegory works on any old pair of shoes; the meaning comes just from this pair alone) How can we fail but to have some particular feelings towards them just by looking and taking in and wondering at their very particular shape and form and position? This again gets us closer still to the real meaning of the painting, but you see the problem; this is only one detail! A painting of this quality is both amazingly complex and astoundingly precise about what it means. Not only do we begin here to get a glimpse of what real intrinsic meaning in painting comprises of (and this nameless thing I will call ‘abstract-ness’), but we also begin to see the very particular greatness of great painting. Because the next time you look at it, it will have reinvented itself. The ability to reinvent its own meaning has much to do with its complexity and particularity, and gains nothing at all either from generalised subject-matter or from the ambiguity of geometry. To clarify that; the complexity here is not to be confused with ambiguity.

The human content and meaning in visual art, that which is always present in great art, regardless of the context of how and when it was made and how and when we might see it (though, of course, context can have a huge impact on our own ability to see it properly, through no fault of the painting), is in the woven minutiae of specific feelings that build into a complex web of significance; from the feel of that sleeve through the fur, to the angle of the pointed shoes; even to such things as the ‘verticality’ of the man’s costume, which again has such a particular/peculiar visual character. I’m not for one minute suggesting we look at this work, or any other figurative painting, as if it were abstract. But I am insisting that its meaning as a painting is fully embodied in this indescribable, and, from the point of view of trying to pin it down in words, frustratingly mutable, ‘abstract-ness’. This ‘visual art’ thing just will not stand still and take a hit!

And why should it? The truth about good painting and sculpture is that it is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value; a great freedom for ‘abstract-ness’, a freedom from interpretation and literalness. What’s more, to continue that centuries-long tradition of the genuinely visual in visual art, I would dare to suggest that we should now be inventing new abstract art that is absolutely on the limits and beyond of what we can currently talk about. Can we find a new abstract content for our new art?

  1. Alan Gouk said…

    Robin is being very naughty. I have never thought or said that Manet paints ” flat”, nor Matisse neither for that matter. Indeed in my very first Essay on Painting, Studio International, October 1970, I challenged the notion of Matisse’s alleged ” flatness “. And in 1982, in Patrick Heron 1,Artscribe No 35, I wrote ” Manet,you cheat. You don’t paint flat at all “.I refer you to my article Letter from New York or Matisse on this site since April 2012, in which these issues are discussed at some length. In attempting to copy Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergeres in 1980, I bit of much, much more than I could chew, and sketched in the contents of the mirror impressionistically, more like Manet’s preparatory sketch, now in Amsterdam, where the background is less evidently a mirror reflection. By introducing a mirror, increasing bilateral symmetry and the pendular swing as we take in the orbs reflected in the mirror, Manet initiates one of the most complex plays of ” reality” and illusion in painting, not the least of which is that what we see in depth behind the barmaid’s head, ( Robin’s beloved deep space ), we are obliged to sense as existing behind us in our real space, since we as observers are positioned in the role of the male customer reflected obtusely in the mirror. What must female observers make of this? Alan Gouk. January 11th, 2013.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    This debate has got a little diverted of late, so I would just like to emphasise a point that relates directly back to the original article.

    This visual ‘abstract-ness’ thing that I talk about is entirely a relational phenomena. This is why I spoke of the particular related passage of forms in the Van der Weyden, which had struck me on seeing the work, but which could have been another, seen by someone else. In isolation, the baby, the hands, the sleeves, etc… and indeed, lines, singular items of form, colours, smears of paint, geometry, are none of them abstract in themselves. The ‘visual’ or ‘abstract’ thing happens across correspondences, as a movement through the work; a passage, if you will. Perhaps even a passage in time?

    Something which I did not really touch upon in the essay, but which has come up in relation to Pollock, is the business of ‘wholeness’. David has unpicked this to some extent in his new essay, and we should perhaps switch the debate there. The Pollock brought in here to this exchange gains a wholeness by being pretty much the same all over; it’s a kind of minimalism, a lack of relations, a move towards literalism. The Weyden, if it attains a state of wholeness, achieves it by very different means; I’m not sure it does, or whether it matters. It seems more of an ‘ongoing’ experience, rather than a single recognition of unity. Perhaps this relates to the ‘abstract-ness’?

    • Ashley West said…

      I don’t know if you read my last article Robin – I’m sure there’s all sorts of stuff in there you find problematic, but I discussed this business about relationships and wholeness, and the process of observation – in the second paragraph of my discussion of Ocean Park No.29 (I remember discussing the term ‘passage’in an earlier draft – as probably the best way of describing it -in relation to this, but had to edit it out due to the word count):

      ‘It looks like a piece that is proposing an idea about unity and balance, but do we actually get a sense of final resolution? Standing in front of it, the eye constantly moves from this to that, and the mind flits from one association to another. The effort to take in the whole image at a glance seems almost to force or reduce it. It is as if what he leads us to, is in fact a carefully proposed question about the nature of things. What happens if one looks at the yellow and blue as (curiously), not being separate? Or, put another way, can one entertain the idea of a continuation across this division, because of, rather than in spite of the separation? One thinks here, not only about the relationship between zones in the landscape, but also the division of cells and tissues in the body, and the transference of forces in architecture. As with the nuances, it is less about how these parts appear as things in themselves (forms) and more about what they do or how they function through relationship. Diebenkorn spoke about the difficulty in overcoming inertia and his hope “that [he] can get things into that relationship where some kind of continuity materialises.”

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Yes indeed, we are close on this, though of course I still think you overdo the ‘association’ thing. I do like the Diebenkorn quote – I like the notion of continuity materialising. That takes account of the process of painting, whilst keeping it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. And ‘continuity’ may be a better thing to talk about than ‘wholeness’, because it accomodates difference and variation better, perhaps.

        By the way, there is a really excellent show of early Gillian Ayres paintings (from the 50′s) on at Jerwood Hastings, which I’m hoping to post an essay on soon, but it ends on 25th Nov. I can’t recommend it enough, it is first-rate abstract painting.

  3. John Holland said…

    I’m glad you are so respectful to the elderly.

    Your application of the scientific notion of the paradigm shift to painting is exactly what concerns me- art after Manet is NOT the same as science after Einstein, and to elide the two is to fundamentally misrepresent the natures of art and science.
    As I said before, you are trying to apply a false level of objectivity to your ideas, which are ultimately value statements- Einstein did not deal with value statements, he dealt with verifiable, predictive equations. Science is an accumulation of knowledge, a progressive activity, in a way that art is not. Manet can’t be proved to be either wrong or right, whatever his place in the history of art.
    It’s not so surprising that art, and critics, want to ape the objectivity of science now- it is, after all, the defining methodology of our age (not for much longer perhaps). Maybe that’s why artists now talk about their ‘practice’ rather than their art.

    • David Sweet said…

      Kuhn’s book isn’t really a scientific work, more a history or philosophy of science. Its claims are cultural, and can’t be proved or disproved.

      Clearly what is coming over in all this to and fro is the importance of Pollock, and what his work means. The epistolary format is not the best way to sort that question out.

      My final point on paradigm shift is to mention the uncertainties it produces by looking at an example outside Art or science.

      It’s widely felt that the biggest change in British life over the past few decades has been the movement from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural society. Multiculturalism is the new paradigm. It was instituted when the presence, visibility and social contribution of ‘anomalous’ populations passed a certain threshold and could no longer be accommodated under the existing paradigm.

      But, undeniably there are anxieties around this shift. ‘Downton Abbey’ plays into these anxieties, creating an entertainment based on the old mono-cultural paradigm for an audience who remember, or mis-remember, the past. If this is a coping strategy, that’s ok. The problem comes from thinking that the earlier state of the paradigm, is retrievable.

      Back to art.

      The work of Lucian Freud is an entertainment, albeit high-class entertainment, based on the earlier, pre-Manet paradigm. We can enjoy (though, actually I don’t), Freud’s mastery of illusion, the semi-tone, solidity, depth, oil paint, and all the rest of it, as we can enjoy costume drama and stories about people who dressed for dinner.

      At least ‘Downton Abbey’ and Freud are explicit. But elsewhere, in calls for painting to adopt a more robust three-dimensionality, in Mark Stone’s article about modernism and dematerialisation, as well as in Stone’s paintings, (which appear to employ a sort of homeless chiaroscuro) to say nothing of the hysteria about van der Weyden, the same anxieties and the same yearning for a return to older paradigms are plainly audible.

      • Noela Bewry said…

        You may want to end the discussion around paradigm shifts, but I was wondering if you feel we have come to the end of new paradigms for painting?

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Just a small point about Downton. It’s popularity can hardly be based on what you describe as “an audience who remember or mis-remember, the past”. The vast majority of people who watch it were not alive to experience and therefore have memories of the period that it portrays. Perhaps you under-estimate both it’s audience and it’s achievement as drama.
        However, this does little to increase our understanding of your belief in the importance of Pollock which you are strangely coy about sharing. I don’t know if this format is the best way of addressing the question of Pollock’s importance but it’s what we have so why not make full use of it to define your substantive point for those who are sceptical about his role in any sort of paradigm shift thingy?

      • John Holland said…

        I can see that this is getting me nowhere, and you will continue on your imperious (and impervious) way with your category errors (Kuhn was writing about the culture of science- the extrapolation to culture generally is too simplistic to be very useful.).Pp

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Hysteria? Must have missed that.

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    I thought it might be worth bringing your interesting recent comments up to the top, so here they are repeated:

    This ‘pictorial paradigm’ thing seems to have caused problems.
    The (vintage) idea comes from Thomas S. Kuhn’s ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ (1962). Kuhn argued that key, but rare, revolutionary events in the history of science cause ‘paradigm shift’. This is a conceptual re-adjustment that occurs to accommodate new or anomalous pieces of knowledge that can’t be satisfactorily described under the paradigm as it stands.
    Applied to painting it works out like this.
    Painting is not just a medium, but a medium in history. Included in the history of painting is its formal development. Manet’s contribution to this development is tantamount to a paradigm shift. It means that Manet can’t be fully appreciated under the paradigm that holds for his 19th Century predecessors. Smaller shifts occurred under Impressionism and Cubism. Pollock is largely responsible for the expansion of the pictorial paradigm after Cubism.
    You don’t have to be serious about painting, but if you are, you have acknowledged the formal advances made by Pollock, which cannot be fully understood without acknowledging a shift in the pictorial paradigm. Matisse is easy to like, but you had to learn to like Manet, and you have to learn to like Pollock. You have to think that Manet’s good, and that Pollock’s good, I’m afraid, just as if you were a physicist, you would have to think that Einstein’s good.

    My reply:
    Are you so sure Pollock is responsible for the ‘expansion’ of your pictorial paradigm shift? What if he were responsible for a contraction of paintings possibilities? Just what are Pollock’s ‘formal advances’? Care to enumerate them?

    I am vaguely familiar with Kuhn’s ideas on scientific advances, and were you to suggest that art ought to be judged by the application of more empirical criteria than are the norm, and valued according to a more objective appraisal of ‘progress’, I would be the first to agree; for in art we are forever resurrecting ideas that would be laughed out of court by the sort of objective artistic discourse such as is applied in science, by virtue of peer review. I don’t need to enumerate these bad ideas in art, you can pick your own. Openly discussing the objective shortcomings of bad art (in the same way that bad science is dealt with) should be seen as a necessity and a liberation for artists, rather than the personal affront and embarrassment it usually gives rise to.

    But I would suggest that Pollock’s paradigm shift, if such it is, is not as good an idea as you think; not healthy for the medium you seem so intently to value as a discipline. I think it should at least be very strongly interrogated as a supposed ‘formal advance’. Is such pictorialism really progress over and above Manet (never mind Van der Weyden)? My eyes tell me something different; they deny your theory.

    Even science is not a set of fixed facts, but a group of things that are considered ‘the least wrong’ at any moment in time; and thus always subject to revision and/or progression. I don’t think anything is quite as fixed as your note suggest. Pollock’s value can go down as well as up; as, indeed, could Einstein’s, though I think his contribution is perhaps more assured.

    And actually, I think Pollock is really too, too easy to like…

  5. Noela Bewry said…

    I am not altogether confident that a ‘paradigm shift’ , as David Sweet describes , through the medium of paint, is that likely anymore. Certainly not to the extent that other key artists in history have managed it.
    It feels rather depressing if one is thinking historically, but one could experience this paradigm shift on a personal level through hard work and commitment .
    I don’t subscribe to the notion that painting is dead or anything, but is it enough to work purely for oneself ? [not in ignorance though].

  6. john holland said…


    I’m still none tha wiser about the basis of your ‘formal cultural paradigm’- adding the notion of ‘medium specificity’ is a bit tautologeous as far as I can see. You’re just repeating it slowly as if to an inmate of an old people’s home. It seems like a remarkably rational method, an algorithm as I said, that you can make such incontrovertable judgements on the basis of its application to such different works without the need for any personal value statements. Is your paradigm essentially Greenbergian-it sounds it- but then I suspect that would be too anachronistic.
    It’s a little like your asertion in your ‘Detail’ article that Pre-Raphaelite painting has no ‘relevence’ now, when the fact that it is so popular with so many people clearly means this is not a statement of fact, but of value- you don’t think it OUGHT to have relevance, or the relevance it does have is unacceptable. (I dislike these pictures as much as you do, by the way, and I dislike the reasons people like them). The ‘economic’ facts of the image, the portrayal of wealth and the reasons for its commission, were deconstructed well enough by Berger, but as he would readily admit, this will tell you a lot but also remarkably little about this painting, or any other.
    There is a lot of ‘post-structuralist’ art writing now that is keen to declame in authoritive, ie would-be objective, fashion what ‘we’ can or can’t now see, how we can longer do this that or the other. There is usually truth in these historicist strictures- we clearly don’t see the world in the same way as Van Eyck’s audience- but there is usually a lot of generalisation, over-simplification and ideological boundary-forming in all this too, the tidying up of a permeability of realities for the benefit of conceptual certainty. You yourself, after making your point about the non-pregnancy and insisting on the implossibility of ‘reading’ gesture in past images, make a remarkably empathetic(sentimental) reading of the couple’s lack of eye contact being a sign of their ‘low-key unhappyness’.

    I appreciate you wanting to remain magnificently silent about my last paragraph (I have the image of an eagle soaring high over the valley in mind), but my point was merely to question the bounderies of your historicism- what is distant, emotionaly, sociologically, religiously, is not so easily demarkated, and to many young artists now, Pollock and his generation are felt to be as irrelavent (rightly or wrongly) as you pronouce Rossetti to be.
    My point being, I suppose, that too much pseudo-objectivity in the catagorisation of response seems to have led to a lot of boring art now, work that operates symbolically- not in an iconographic sense, but through a symbolism of process, or rather, strategy (to use an unfortunate critical term). This leads inevitably to very simple dialectics; the Holyhead in your article, for example, enacts a simple contrast between two signs of process, the fetishised gestural brush mark, and the straight geometrical cut-off. The picture requires us to read this as an interesting or intelligent strategy for painting, ie a particular but simple sign for a cultural conflict. This is why contemporay criticism tends to discuss artists’ strategies, rather than individual works- particular paintings merely repeat the methodological sign in essentially the same way- it’s the strategy, not the painting, that is relevent. One painting is as good (or bad) as another.

    • John Holland said…

      Sorry, that was a but dashed-off; the painting I’m referring to after the bit about the Pre-Raphs is obviously the Arnolphini portrait.

      • David Sweet said…

        Perhaps my response to Sam Cornish (below) might help.

        When I visit residents in old people’s homes I make a point of speaking in my usual voice, and at a normal speed.

  7. Terry Ryall said…

    In the light of David Sweet’s analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait I’m wondering if it is actually possible “to extract full measure from our freely-made looking” without concluding with some sort of interpretation, it is after all a figurative work. By saying that, I don’t mean that the freely-made looking,in the manner that Robin Greenwood describes, should be for the sole purpose of reaching an interpretation, (clearly, that is not what he is saying) but I’m keen to understand if such a way of looking can include an interpretative element.

    I’ve looked at this work many times in ignorance of the symbolism etc., plus I’ve always thought that the woman was pregnant. It has always puzzled me that I have never interpreted the work as I would have expected to (admittedely in my ignorance) ie. as the portrait of a tender, loving couple because that’s not what ‘comes from’ the painting, at least for me.

  8. Terry Ryall said…

    I’m pleased that we agree about EW’s comments and thanks for correcting me. Yes, words do fail, I was equating method and process in the sense that they might generally be used as opposed to an Art context.

  9. Robert Linsley said…

    From Emyr Williams:
    “so much abstract art is locked in this malaise of stasis – and pre-determined formats, systematic approaches, fastidious techniques or even higher purpose aspirations are not going to get us out of it”
    None of you are going to think your way to where you want to be. You can paint your way though, and a set of “nos” is a good place to start, as always in modern art.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      So much wisdom in such few words here from Emyr and Robert. To echo a sentimsnt from a previous discussion ‘What Paint Does’-if visual art (and painting) is where we want to be then only what we ‘do’ with paint on a ground will determine our success or failure and the evidence will be there in front of us. We all want success, achievement,call it what you will, but in my experience it’s not possible to build-in success before you start (a sort of magic bullet if you like) by applying the sort of practices that Emyr lists. If (as I almost invariably do!) you paint your way into trouble then you have to paint your way out. Simple isn’t it, the failure the success and all the shades between it’s all done with paint.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        One has to have a method – then let the results show the way!

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Apologies Robert, in my haste I interpreted support from you for the quote from Emyr Williams but it seems not!

        Method sounds very close to process which is a place I have been at but have now moved from (one of my many “nos”). My experience was that as a way of working it was indeed very productive for a while but I really felt that the processes were eventually taking the place of thought and were resulting in repetitive and unprogressable results. Changing to different processes was not the answer for me as I felt I would end up with the same problem.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I do agree with Williams’ comments. Don’t be so sure you know what I mean. Words fail, necessarily. “Method” does not mean process in the seventies sense.

      • Emyr Williams said…

        I don’t think these comments are meant to contradict mine? As I would also have added a line like Robert’s paint your way, not think it, which I applaud. Though how this happens should involve discovery at its heart surely, and if anything is undermining that discovery then that would naturally be a compromise. Any way of painting can be called a “method” and this is not meant I think to refer to any “process” type thing if I understand it correctly. Though thinking aloud here, maybe we (all) have to accept to never having a clear judgement criteria that can be agreed upon for what any method is actually achieving?- not meant pessimistically. The take on these works and other statements seems so diverse – fascinating arguments though and complex language to boot (no pun there… what is another word for thesaurus?)) To lapse into metaphor for a few lines:- if the the Van der Weyden painting were a “room” then Robin’s comments make you feel as if you are in the room looking at the furniture, actively discovering if you would move the coffee table over by the window; whereas other comments feel like they are looking in through the window – taking in the scene and telling us lots of tasty information about the room, but we still feel like a voyeur looking in. As a painter I enjoy going in to these rooms so I will respond positively to anyone who can open the door for me and even push me in if needs be. I then go back to my studio with room envy! Others may prefer the view from the outside. I would say that corridors are colder places (to me at least) but it’s not as easy as just opening a door to get in. I don’t enjoy metaphors either so forgive my indulgence on this occasion.

      • Emyr Williams said…

        Just seen Robert’s remarks after I posted mine – so yep, was correct in assumption, cheers.

  10. Noela Bewry said…

    Maybe a good way of echoing, the moving round a sculpture and honing the ‘ visual gearing’ to keep the dreaded ‘malaise of stasis’ at bay , could be regular rotation of the canvas or board.
    Emyr Williams has some great phrases.

  11. Terry Ryall said…

    Robin, Boreda! I applaud your invitation to Emyr but you do realise of course that you might now have to consider making the site Bi-lingual?

  12. Robert Linsley said…

    Robin, I came late to this article, but I like it a lot. Particularity, concreteness – that’s the way. It is what it is. This is not something I hear spoken very often.

  13. David Sweet said…

    By citing Pollock’s 1949 work, I was trying to inject a little modernist optimism into this debate, foregrounding one of the great achievements in the pictorial canon that advances well beyond Cubism.

    You can see why sculptors might prefer the stark relationship between ‘things’ and the ‘naturalistic’, empty, engineered space in the nativity picture, and therefore consider the van der Weyden great art, but ‘Out of the Web’ is a better painting when considered under a pictorial formal paradigm rather than one ‘proper to sculpture’. And it matters who painted ‘Out of the Web’, because its meaning begins in a personal rather than a public, institutionalised consciousness of the sort from which van der Weyden’s imagery derives its various levels of signification.

    We no longer have immediate access to the cultural force of most of the elements in van der Weyden’s world. (Immediacy is crucial because of the emphasis on visual perception. Other types of connoisseurship, routed through iconography or allegory, take too long.) We still respond to images of infants and dogs, but these responses, though ‘immediate’, are not aesthetic but sentimental.

    The viewer can also become sentimental about all the meanings in past art that are lost to the modern audience. These leave a puzzling residue of unintelligible elements, like the single candle or the gesture Arnolfini makes with his right hand, which we are tempted to subsume under some overarching ‘meaningful’, profound but unnameable subject. This lost or underground meaning has much more power than it would have if we knew what it was, and contributes to the false sense of ‘richness’ that is often attributed to work of the past.

    Following the drift of this rather weird debate, it seems like ‘figuration’, as a lost attribute of past art, not a functioning property of contemporary practice, has also become a focus of sentimental regret.


    • john holland said…

      Hard to know where to start with this one, but a couple of questions;

      The “pictorial formal paradigm” that you use to judge the Pollock as superior to the Weyden sounds like some kind of universal algorithm; could you share it with us?

      Also, you seem to make the assumption (against everything that Robin actually wrote) that the ‘meanings’ of the Weyden and Van Eyck are all in the nature of a code now lost to us, and the only meaningful interest in the paintings we can have now is a sort of sentimental reverence for their arcane indecipherability. What makes you think that, say, the passage discussed in the tryptich had a ‘meaning’ in that sense, rather than being a thing-in-itself, its meaning lying in its unique form, which I haven’t seen repeated in any other painting in quite that way?
      Perhaps the codes reified in the works of those distant Modernist Romantic Expressionists of the post-war era are also now lost to us, hidden behind a fog of nostalgia for a time of heroic Titans carving out a new American Art with the certainties of Abstraction?
      I hope not.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Couldn’t have put it better myself.

        I think the sentiment is all yours, David – for your dream of a modernist ‘pictorial formal paradigm’ now lost. I’m very glad I don’t subscribe to it, whatever it is (or was), if it somehow compels you to judge the Pollock higher than the Weyden.

        A lazy pictorialism has dominated abstract painting for too long, and even worse, dominated abstract sculpture. I’m keen to see the reverse of it. And whilst we’re about it, why should painting not take a lead from sculpture? From my position, it sure looks like it could use a bit of robust three-dimensionality.

      • David Sweet said…

        To respond to the first question;

        The notion of a pictorial formal paradigm, as distinct from one for sculpture, is a reference to medium specificity. To derive part of one’s system of evaluation from an understanding of the medium in which a given work is set seems a reasonable critical strategy.

        And to respond to the second one, (with additional positional statements)

        All art has ‘human’ content, except that made by chimpanzees. That has chimpanzee content.

        The van der Weyden is a routine religious picture with a striking arrangement of Gothic forms in the central panel. It’s not the answer to everything. The van Eyck is a far better work.

        I can also amplify the point I made about sentiment.

        Part of the pleasure of looking at past art is that it shows us complete worlds from which we are excluded but that we still want, vicariously, to inhabit. Trying to empathise with the creatures that occupy these worlds is a way of fulfilling this desire. Of course, we can treat any painting formally. All that means is we pay attention to the forms it contains, whatever they are, and how they are organised. However, when pictorial forms are coextensive with the forms of identifiable things, though we can skip symbolic or allegorical references, it’s harder to keep sentiment or empathy out of the art experience. Empathy can be useful but potentially misleading.

        Take the form of the figure of Arnolfini’s wife. She is sometimes, mistakenly, thought to be pregnant. Such a thought sets up a conditioned reflex in the modern viewer, which will affect appreciation of the painting. You can’t help it. Under this influence, all the gestures seem tender, solicitous and humane.

        But she isn’t pregnant. Women of her class held their skirts in that fashionable way, something the viewer of the time would have known perfectly well. But then, if she isn’t pregnant, the emotional content of the gestures appears more problematic. Suddenly the economics of van Eyck’s world emerge with great force: the themes of luxury and property. Material, not spiritual or ‘romantic’ values are being celebrated. You become aware of the fact that Arnolfini owned the furniture, the dog, the hat, the expensive imported fruit, the wife, even the very painting in front of you. You look at the body language of the man and wife again. Then you realise that they don’t get on. That’s why they avoid eye contact. The shoes are the clinching clue: a pair, a couple, but misaligned. It’s an inventory of bourgeois life, a portrait of low-key unhappiness.

        But there is no formal difference between a pregnant wife and one with an empty uterus, gathering her skirts with her free hand. Both ‘look’ the same. In fact, formally the painting remains unchanged, whatever empathetic pathway is taken.

        Yet a disenchanted, materialist conception of the ‘Marriage’ is more productive. It emphasises the exceptional variety of expensive surfaces within van Eyck’s painted world. Compositionally, the picture is sound enough, though not that inventive, but the rendering in paint of fine perceptible textural differences between fur and velvet, between the light falling on local cherries and foreign oranges, can’t be improved upon. Van Eyck was a great painter. His achievement is medium specific.

        The last paragraph of the comment – that bit about ‘modernist romantic expressionism’ – I’ll pass over in silence.

    • Sam said…

      Hi David,

      I agree on human / chimpanzee content – always going to be a vague appeal. Your point on sentimentality & figuration is also interesting, as a check on the feeling that we can really see/understand a picture. I swing both ways on the ‘direct experience’ problem, possibly because I have formalist / literal minded inclinations seasoned with a bit of the skepticism of New Art History. At times I think that strictly you cannot separate formal understanding from a reading of meaning: certain cultural clues establish visual hierarchies that are entwined with or re-order formal structure (Robin brings this up by not referring to composition, balance etc). At other times – when looking at art – I think that constantly throwing these barriers in the way is self-defeating and that doubt should not be extended to total disbelief. I normally keeps these doubts to myself. Worth saying here I don’t think a decision either way has any bearing on how artists approach past art – misunderstanding, reinterpretation has got to be one of the ways art develops.

      But referring to a formalist paradigm in the way you did seems to me to work the other way round. Rather than clinching an argument shouldn’t a reference to the ‘formalist paradigm’ also be a check – something we should be aware of, and work around, or at least question? As Robin rightly says it has influenced how we see and make pictures for quite sometime, we are – to a large extent – in the paradigm, so reinforcing it is perverse, without an argument as to why it is still a good thing.

      As an aside (though this is perhaps more interesting than the above). “some overarching ‘meaningful’, profound but unnameable subject”. This to me sounds like a description of meaning / content in abstract art. I’ve always (obv not really always) vaguely felt that abstract art has at its centre the unnameable, that it makes it the subject of art.

      • David Sweet said…


        This ‘pictorial paradigm’ thing seems to have caused problems.

        The (vintage) idea comes from Thomas S. Kuhn’s ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ (1962). Kuhn argued that key, but rare, revolutionary events in the history of science cause ‘paradigm shift’. This is a conceptual re-adjustment that occurs to accommodate new or anomalous pieces of knowledge that can’t be satisfactorily described under the paradigm as it stands.

        Applied to painting it works out like this.

        Painting is not just a medium, but a medium in history. Included in the history of painting is its formal development. Manet’s contribution to this development is tantamount to a paradigm shift. It means that Manet can’t be fully appreciated under the paradigm that holds for his 19th Century predecessors. Smaller shifts occurred under Impressionism and Cubism. Pollock is largely responsible for the expansion of the pictorial paradigm after Cubism.

        You don’t have to be serious about painting, but if you are, you have acknowledge the formal advances made by Pollock, which cannot be fully understood without acknowledging a shift in the pictorial paradigm. Matisse is easy to like, but you had to learn to like Manet, and you have to learn to like Pollock. You have to think that Manet’s good, and that Pollock’s good, I’m afraid, just as if you were a physicist, you would have to think that Einstein’s good.

        And the paradigm shift is irreversible. Like the problems faced by the family on Michael Rosen’s ‘Bear Hunt’, when it comes to the history of the medium,

        You can’t go round it,
        You can’t go over it,
        You have to go through it.

  14. John Holland said…

    Robin – Cubism “horribly theoretical”? Was there ever a less theoretical artist than Picasso? And “flat”? Explicitly aware of the picture plane maybe, but their multivalent space is not so much flatter than .Manet’s. Colour, I grant you, took a dive. But you can’t do everything at once.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Hear, hear!

    • John Holland said…

      And no, neither Braque or Picasso could match Van Weyden- but then he was the highest manifestation of the culture of his age- art is a small thing in our time, we invent computers and go to Mars. Artists look on from the side.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      OK, but I did say ‘…started to become…’ horribly theoretical. I’ll stick to that, just about. I’m a fan of (particularly, late) Picasso.

      I really take exception with you (and Greenberg too) over the suggestion that Manet is flat. I had a four year argument with Alan Gouk about this. I won when he finally went back to see ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ again in the flesh and realised it was his copy that was flat, not the Manet. ‘Corner of a Cafe-concert’ or ‘Dejeuner dans l’Atelier’ flat? I don’t think so. Not a bit of it. Great painter.

      There is a kind of flatness in bad painting which I would maintain begins to (re)emerge in Cubism, which owes nothing to Manet (and which Ashley’s hideous Danny Rolph painting exemplifies), which is the flatness of a picture composed of things that exist together only because they happen to find themselves next to each other on a picture plane. They have no (spatial) correspondence with each other whatsoever, they don’t know of the existence of each other, they take part in no visual/physical concert with each other. It’s graphics, basically, not painting.

      • john holland said…

        I don’t think Manet is ‘flat’, that’s why I used him to compare with Cubism, which I don’t think is flat either.
        Manet is just ‘flat-er’ than other painting of the time. I was looking at some of his sea-scapes in Philidelphia last week, they’re certainly not flat, but they compress the sea in some very strange ways.

  15. Terry Ryall said…

    Robin, Having just read John Holland’s post I’m taking some comfort from the fact that his list of the best painting in the last 100 years includes, indeed ends with, analytical cubism. I’m not claiming that John is in support of my assertion that cubism represents the zenith of figurative painting. I’m merely guessing that he is closer to the view of zenith rather than nadir. However that in itself is not a worthy rebuttal of the criticisms that you make of cubism which on the face of it would appear to have,in cricketing parlance, clean-bowled me for a duck. But wait a minute, the umpire might have signalled a no-ball!

    I don’t think it is correct to attribute the negatives that you define to the whole gamut of what we roughly charactarise as,belonging to or resulting from,cubism. That said, I wholly accept that the seeds of the negatives that you describe are to be found in cubism (at least with regard to abstract painting) and do eventually come to fruition. However it isn’t correct to blame all of cubism for the failure of subsequent generations of artists to take what was significant from it. Blame (as in fairness you often do and in an inimitably pugnacious way) those misguided painters some of whom who have made highway careers on the back of side-road ideas. Equally to blame (if not more so) are the individuals and institutions that sit in judgement on what the best achievements of the day are.
    Either way,zenith /nadir the present/future of both figurative and abstract painting hasn’t thus far been well served by the successors of cubism.

    As for the Van Der Weyden Triptych versus Duchamp’s Nude Descending, well,that would appear to be a bit of a one-sided contest in favour of Roger. Is the Duchamp “demonstrably as good in all aspects as the Columba Triptych”? Clearly not, so I’ll cave in straight away on that one. But hold on a minute, is there perhaps one aspect of the Nude Descending that might be better, more relevant (to those of the abstract tribe) than can be found in the Columba? Most emphatically, yes!
    Let’s physically grapple with both paintings, that’s what sculptors do isn’t it, we wrestle with stuff.
    Let’s turn the Columba through 90 degrees. It no longer makes sense does it, not in any way you could possibly describe or analyse do you now have a coherent work of art. Do the same thing to the Duchamp however (whichever way you wish) and you still have a convincing work of art, spacially complex, dynamic, endlessly fascinating to look at. Stripped of the tyranny of it’s subject matter by having been turned on it’s side the full glory of it’s abstract-ness can now flourish. I rest my case.

    Ashley, I quite agree with you, this comparison business is definitely crazy!

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Not a fan of the Duchamp sorry – don’t think it really works… on any level (sorry couldn’t resist that!)

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, I’ll have another go, not that it is my intention here to try and persuade you of anything (I get the feeling that it really doesn’t appeal to you at all!)but I’m worried that I might not have made a good enough case for it’s value to painters who feel that abstract painting could/should be more ambitious than it has been to date.
        Here we go then. Why the Nude Descending? Well,no particular reason in terms of a Cubist ‘league-table’. In order of importance I don’t really know where it would be placed. I’m sure those with greater knowledge of Cubism than I could cite other paintings that would have served my purpose equally well, if not better. In terms of colour it isn’t the most attractive work to emerge from Cubism. Duchamp has used a limited palette, relying largely on tonal difference and drawing to build the picture with. So perhaps a bit of an ugly duckling, but hey , I’m a sculptor, I don’t need painting to be pretty. What Nude Descending does for me when I look at is to present a dynamic image, built with shapes of great variety, both curvaceous and angular, with passages of great depth to boot and what’s more, I will again say, it does all of this whichever way you care to look at it, upside-down, on it’s side, whatever.

        By the way I very much enjoyed your post in response to the Triptych and don’t be sorry for disagreeing if I stick my chin out a bit you are perfectly entitled to have a swing at it!

    • Emyr Williams said…

      There is an almost cartoon-like “tikka-takka depiction” of movement. The space is cluttered and fragmented rather than felt. The colour is tonal. It would look the same on any size – in fact you could add some more dark browns around the edges and it wouldn’t make much difference as the edges are irrelevant – they trap abruptly the lighter areas. It is a readable image of a painting. It camps in artifice and has no real sense of synthesis; abstract has become a ham-fisted verb rather than a noun. The drawing if you could call it that, is wristy and tight. It looks like art which I always find troubling and the fact he ended up as a chess player pretty much wraps it all up for me.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, an excellent blow!-I’m about to eat but will be back tomorrow.
        Nos Dda

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, If I’m interpreting correctly what you are saying here then I think there is a lot of common ground between us in the sense that we seem to be seeing the same visual characteristics or put another way that we broadly agree about what Nude Descending looks like. Obviously where we radically disagree is in what we ascribe to what we see,fundamentally, what part the different elements play in the work and the significance that the painting might or might not have in the context of this current discussion and perhaps in the more general search for a better abstract art.

        Following the assertion that Cubism represented the Zenith of figurative painting I put Nude Descending forward not really as a serious challenger to the Triptych but because I thought it had ambition and abstract-ness in abundance and because it was closer to our time and therefore perhaps more accessible to learn from. I’ll try (as briefly as I can) to characterise it in that way whilst addressing the points which you make so forcefully.

        Firstly, the Movement. It probably is as you describe it, but that ‘tikka-takka’ thing doesn’t concern me at all. What is important is the ambition that lies in attempting to make a painting of a figure descending through space and the visual and formal results thereof.

        Secondly, the Space. It is indeed cluttered and fragmented but surely that’s the point isn’t it. I can’t imagine him going about this thing in a minimalist way.

        Thirdly, the Colour. I agree it is tonal. Again that doesn’t concern me. It serves to emphasise those features which I believe are important about the work.

        Fourthly, the Edges. They certainly do trap the lighter areas. But imagine if the work had let’s say an over-all-ness, that for example a lot of Pollocks have,it wouldn’t make sense because it is after all a figurative painting and without those darker edges our reading or sense of a descending figure would disappear.

        Fifth, the Readable Image of a Painting. Are you really suggesting that it is no more than an an illustration? It might not be the greatest painting that resulted from Cubism but it deserves better than being described as a”readable image of a painting” surely?

        Sixth, the Artifice-that is all art. I know of no natural art.

        Finally, I wouldn’t mind having the ability to put together such a ham-fisted verb as Nude-Descending with said wristy and tight drawing. It’s certainly much better than anything that I’ve ever produced.

        It has never been a loved painting-it’s not very cuddly or pretty but I do believe it’s worth considering as a place where we can see ambitious, complex abstract-ness
        that might play some part in understaning where we should be going.

        Emyr,I’m beginning to repeat myself now and as I’ve criticised others elsewhere for going round in circles, you’ve had my last word on this matter. It’s been good to exchange views centred on what things look like rather than the baggage, long may it continue!

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Hi Terry – By saying an image of a painting and “artifice”, I mean that it is a stylised “idea” of movement with a bit of cubist vernacular chucked in. It is not a “synthesis” of anything visually “felt” or really seen. I acknowledge that ambition is important but the proof of the pudding etc… About the colour – we’ll have to agree to disagree about that – I would say though that the forces in a painting will be stronger when they are summative and not just localised as in this case. I am not suggesting any overall-ness just a better handling of what is there to make a better painting, which is how I am judging it – as a painting. Also if you can read it as a nude descending a staircase – how is this abstract? Hence my remarks about verbs and nouns. I get a slightly uneasy feeling when I see something that has been “abstracted” because it usually means stylised with a lot of smoke and mirrors to get you back to where you started in a very conventional way (a bit of a squinty-eye vibe). I am tempted to take “real” cubism to task here but I will leave that to a more opportune time maybe, just to say the link between Cezanne and cubism looks ever more ropey as time goes by. I never bought into it anyway to be frank and certainly don’t see it as any zenith of figurative painting. Matisse is on a different planet(and he owned a Cezanne for 38 years – as he said “if Cezanne is right, I am right”.) I suspect we may never reach a common ground on this which is just as valid to conclude as if we had. Finally I think you are setting your sights too low if you think you can’t compete with this. However if there are elements to it that prompt responses in your work and help your work to grow, then that is another issue. We find our clues in such disparate places that I would be out of order to criticize any starting point of anybody’s – you know what makes you tick. Pob hwyl!

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Hi Emyr, there is a lot for me to consider here and although I might have started to go round in circles you certainly haven’t! I will,if you don’t mind, withdraw my “last word” position but not in the spirit of entrenchment, rather because you have deepened and widened this exchange (at least for me) and there is probably more that I can get out of it. If I may just quickly address your question “if you can read it as a nude descending a staircase-how is this abstract?” I don’t believe that it is abstract as it is not an abstract painting but (if I’m understanding Robin Greenwood’s term correctly) there is an ‘abstract-ness’ about this depiction of descending movement that I would claim still functions (in fact is improved) if you rotate the work. I might be barking completely up the wrong tree with my understanding here so I’d better get my suit of armour ready! Until tomorrow perhaps Emyr. Nos Dda

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Bloody Welsh.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      I don’t think that the orientation of this work has any significance as a justification for quality Terry. I appreciate that as a sculptor the differences in “viewpoint” however are fundamental to you. I wonder though that the ‘purposeful’ particularity of the approaches in the two paintings in this article with their visual factness (abstract-ness in the sense you mention) are timely reminders of how limited and unfelt the Duchamp really is. Furthermore I am beginning to consider that eyes in movement (rather than movement per-se) are a sort of linchpin in all of this. When I look at a cubist painting it has a pervasive centralised weighting that is rather conventional in appearance , which is a characteristic that Picasso never really shook off (or even tried to), whereas Matisse created a fluid sense of space – one that is more akin to, or rather really is, how we see and perceive the world around us. His eyes moved and recorded as they moved. Sculptors will have to move their eyes around their work and so are already in an advanced state of visual gearing, whereas paintings are static by comparison and more often than not this stasis ultimately becomes the quality of the work itself , undermining the pictorial potential of processing not just what we see but how we see. So much imagery is that of the single lens and imagery casts a reaper like shadow over art these days doesn’t it? . Its an avisual rather than a visual time. Renaissance box space produced marvellous illusory spaces and cubism shallowed up those spaces, made them more ‘there’; they made Matisse organise his paintings in a more fundamental way too, but a box remained nevertheless. It’s space containment rather than space generation. Having said that we all agree the best of art from any age teaches us some amazing lessons and sets out formidable challenges to respond to, which as is proposed here, we have to find possibly fresh terms of engagement with. As a painter I would say that colour can get us out of containment and into the real space of sight, and into the sort of spatial complexity that – good -sculpture creates, but it is still a very difficult undertaking. However to return to the fixed viewpoint point, I am beginning to see how so much abstract art is locked in this malaise of stasis – and pre-determined formats, systematic approaches, fastidious techniques or even higher purpose aspirations are not going to get us out of it (believe me I’ve tried). It is a humbling position to be in, but I am more comfortable being a bit lost and daunted by all this rather than blissfully ignorant of it. (PS .Terry’s English from Kent Robin, so is it because I ‘is’ not?!)

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I think these are really intersting comments, Emyr (Welsh or not) and really deserve their own coloumn. You should write an expanded version as a fresh new article to be posted on abcrit. Very much agree about the conservative nature of Cubist composition. Matisse fought mostly sucessfully against this, was much more inventive and, as you say, ‘fluid’, spatially.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, Boreda! Outstanding,and in the light of Robin’s invitation I’ll take,if I may, a ‘just going to get my coat’ moment with regard to our exchanges around Nude Descending. You’ve taken things to better places that deserve a bigger audience.
        I’ll comment on just one aspect of the many points that you raise. Painting certainly has,for the reasons that you state, to escape the stasis that you describe and even though (as Robin Greenwood has highlighted many times) abstract sculpture has also suffered from a similar difficulty I do believe that a sculptor’s shifting of viewpoint-moving-things-around-thing as well of course as a feel for three-dimensionality, could be of use to abstract painters. I look forward to reading your Article and good luck with the writing of it.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Just when things are daunting enough in the studio…. Cheers Robin!

  16. Noela Bewry said…

    Just looking back at this discussion I picked up something Sam mentioned earlier that painting abstract art could be an ‘invitation to meander’ which could be dangerous.
    I think meandering could be one of abstract art’s strengths.
    Van der Weyden’s Triptych , absolutely amazing though it is , has a very static quality. How long could one live with that and still get a frisson of excitement every time one looked at it?Seems a terrible thing to say, but hope you know what I mean. [probably I'll regret what I just said]
    Whereas an abstract piece wouldn’t have the ‘clear imposition of subject matter ‘ as Sam puts it , to bog it down.
    I saw the Gerhard Richter show earlier at Tate Modern and there were some stunning works that were very exciting , complex, and embodied feelings of space and light and energetic explosions of life in paint. Mind you, I suppose he knew when to stop !

  17. Ashley West said…

    Take a look at this piece by Danny Rolph: http://www.dannyrolph.com/plastic/lge-05.jpg
    Ok, it’s a triptych, but it has many of the things people are talking about – complexity, richness(?), depth, abstract but with an illusory space, and so on. I like Danny, I like to listen to him, I like the sheer visuality of the work, and it’s very clever; but does it touch me? It presses lots of buttons, but I’m not sure it adds up (which is maybe it’s point). Is it’ennobled’ (must get hung up on this though). One might use the term ‘spiritualised’ or ask if there is any real ‘transformation’ going on – now this has nothing to do with ‘belief’ of any kind, but I think what I look for (and try to aspire to) is something more than simply cleverness, technique, a good idea, expressive outpouring etc. One could talk about work leaning toward the physical, emotional or intellectual. Each is capable of amazing acrobatics, but what happens if these are somehow brought together, and what happens if they are conjoined by something more, that we can’t quite put our fingers on? Cezanne certainly seems to epitomise this kind of engagement (in say the Mt Saint Victoire paintings). Paradoxically one could say they are believable. Similarly with Degas I think.

  18. John Holland said…

    As someone who agrees that abstraction is the best option for making art right now, I do sometimes wonder if abstract painting could ever achieve the richness of the best figurative art of the past.
    The best painting of the last 100 years or so is surely that of Matisse, Cezanne and analytical Cubism- work that pre-figured but stopped short of full abstraction. The tension between their invention and the ‘known’ visible world is part of their power- Cubism could not have felt so radical if it had not maintained some link with the perceptual facts of the world. To revolutionise the way we perceive the form and the space around it, figure and ground need to just about keep their integrity- the basic figurative language needs to remain. The contrast between what we think we know of a bowl of apples on a table and what Cezanne can make of this, with his remaking of light, texture, gravity, perspective, the haptic qualities of cloth or fruit, only makes sense in this gap between art and contingent facts.

    How can a wholly abstract painting match the incredible richness of the Weyden- the hands-baby-hat thing is not just a collection of abstract shapes, if it were its invention would be far less powerful, far less extraordinary than it is. Again, it’s the ability of the artist to re-make the world in new ways that is the point, and that requires a common ground- the experiential world. The complexity of the space needs us to know things about the ‘image’, like the fact that stone is solid and sky is infinite and hands move as they do. How could you make an abstract painting that used the spacial ambiguity of the mirror in Las Meninas? Even the best abstract art has something generalising about it.

    I say this as someone who tries to make abstract pictures because that seems the only way at the moment of avoiding the tidal wave of rubbish that surrounds the perception of images now. Sculpture is a different case- figuration is a restriction in way way it’s not for painting. But then I’ve never understood sculpture, really- too much part of the world.

    • Ashley West said…

      John, just an aside – I’ve tried to find examples of your work. There are lots of references to different people by your name when googled. I presume the piece shown at the Standpoint is yours? Can one find any others anywhere?

      • John Holland said…

        That, Ashley, is because I find it very hard to make something worth showing. And I don’t mean that flippantly.
        Yes, there is stuff on the net, but it’s mostly from a previous incarnation- not things that are particularly relevant to how I’m thinking now.
        There’s a small collage by me in this year’s John Moores show.

      • John Holland said…

        Oh, and three pictures in a Standpoint show next month. I’ll send you an invite- I don’t know much about who else is in it.

      • Ashley West said…

        Lovely pieces John – real contenders!, maybe because of their humility and touch. Often you hear what people say then see the work and there’s a shock at the discrepancy – not so with yours.

    • Sam said…

      the problem is that abstract painting, particularly when reduced or minimal, though even when it is not, because of its emptiness, its lack of overt meaning is also very susceptible to this tidal wave…

  19. Patrick Jones said…

    Well Done Robin for a clear and moving account of your position.How that would translate into studio practise ,Im not sure but thanks for sharing that with us.

  20. Emyr Williams said…

    “The inability to perceive “human” content in modern art means ultimately the inability to perceive the point of painting in general…
    The great masters of the past achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigment whose real effectiveness was “abstract” and that their greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where is could function as art. ”
    Clement Greenberg writing in Partisan review 1948

    Thought these remarks poignant…This is such a refreshing article as it is trying to be really specific and pin down why or how things work in the way they do- What could be termed the “mechanics of fact” in a painting. I would say that much of your take has a fascinating sculptural sensibility to it, in terms of what is where and the particularities of the decision making. There is also the issue of the surface. I can’t judge this, (only guess) as I am looking at the Van der Weyden on screen, but the way surface is handled in response to the colour it supports is something that abstract painting is strongly – maybe uniquely even- placed to explore as a sort of prima facie . What is another challenge though is this spatial ‘definiteness’ and the complexity of space in a work like this. Which ,I am guessing you feel is where much or even all abstract painting falls short and think that abstract sculpture may be better equipped to deal with even?, This work is in three, relational parts too – again a very sculptural thing. Figurative art gives so many opportunities to get into the stuff of painting and in such a rich way that to meet this concrete and spatial challenge in abstract painting without lapsing into generality is a daunting one, granted. I would say at this point also that sprinting off in tangents about painting being some kind of conduit to a higher state will do nothing to meet this challenge either. (It feels like having one of those clean suited bods at my doorstep telling me how troubled the world is ) What is also apparent is how well the panels relate to each other. When you look at the middle one on its own, the figure in red on the left looks a bit too strong in colour pushing those pillars back into deep space in such a forceful way that it literally bends the space inwards; however to look across all three panels, it suddenly hangs together beautifully, setting up a dialogue with the red on the canopy to the left and the clothing on the right. This raises a lot of stimulating questions, awkward, uncomfortable ones at that. Thanks…. I think!

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Great quote.

    • Ashley West said…

      Absolutely, with the guys at the front door it doesn’t seem to go beyond the message, and I suppose we get that in painting and sculpture when it’s purely illustration, second hand and sentimentalised – there’s little attention to the surface or form, and it becomes rather yucky. If you google images of abstract painting you will see hundreds of them, but Mondrian’s triptych ‘Evolution’ comes to mind, and early Malevich’s like ‘Englishman in Moscow – but then it was all about manifestos – the idea of something rather than the thing itself. So we come to that telling phrase ‘ennobled raw matter’ which suggests our highest (or deepest) sensibilities being put to the ultimate test through relationship with matter and form – the stuff of the earth. Is matter being ‘ennobled’ in a Natasha Kidd or Alexis Harding on the one hand, or a Fiona Rae on the other? What about Barnett Newman’s ‘Onement 1′? (abstract or illustration?)

  21. Terry Ryall said…

    Robin, before I go any further (it’s gone mid-night and bed beckons!) would you, for the purpose of my responding to your challenge, accept Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase No2′ as a cubist, or at least cubist-derived painting? As you probably will have guessed I took a bit of a flyer with that assertion about cubism (I did say it “could be argued”!!!!)so I was expecting that if there were any responses at all they would be challenging in one way or another. So far I think I’ve got off pretty lightly. Apologies for not posting an image.

  22. Ashley West said…

    I agree, there’s something very suspicious about separating the visual from the other aspects of a painting like this. I suspect (for I’m no expert on the subject) that for many of these kinds of artists their painting was very much at the service of the subject matter. They painted out of a sense of spiritual communion and tried to express that in the work (there is some interesting discussion of this idea by Richard Temple, in his PhD thesis, a study of Breugel and his connection with ‘perenial philosophy’, which is available to download from http://www.templegallery.com). Isn’t their a unity here between what it is and what it is about? I think Robert Hughes referred to the near impossibility of appreciating the context in which such a work was painted. How you can bring in the fact David, that Pollock painted his piece all on his own, as one over on the Van Der Weyden I don’t know. I’m not sure you’re wrong Robin, I think you’re onto something, but I just feel there’s something misguided about it, that an important part of the equation is being missed out. When I tried (crazily, because I think this is a bit daft) to think of pieces that compare, there seemed to be so much that one couldn’t consider, maybe because most painting doesn’t seem to even attempt such breadth or depth – most are in a sense exercises by comparison – nothing wrong with that (eg. Frank Nitsche is interesting in its space and movement, but then, quite mechanical and too clever in a way). As you might expect I would consider Diebenkorn – not sure which single piece but try these, which I linked in before somewhere but can’t remember when or where – losing track: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/74974706/Diebenkorn%20images.doc
    I’m not trying to equate with the complexity or richness of VDW necessarily, but with the touch and the feeling, which seems to have no taint of ego in it. Also, very unfashionably, Sutherland came to mind, https://dl.dropbox.com/u/74974706/St.%20Ismail%27s.doc who at his best had an extraordinary touch and ability to paraphrase, and I think he is an interesting example in that he weaved together both the figurative and the abstract. What’s more this spirituality was an intrinsic part of his work – maybe in a different way than in the Van Der Weyden, but there nevertheless. If abstraction is to reach the new heights you seem to be suggesting Robin, I just don’t think it is possible to do it without that dimension, and it seems to be a dimension that has by and large disappeared.

  23. Robin Greenwood said…

    Are you really aspiring to the abstract? Why would you want to do that? I’d stick with figurative if I were you.

    I’m pleased you have hung in there and not taken flight or fright, and it is good to have your contribution; and no personal slight taken or intended on my part, though I do get a bit carried away at times.
    The Van der Weyden is indeed, I agree, a ‘veritable maze of layers of meanings, of subjects, of cultural forms of layers of signs and symbols, of motivations…’ etc., and you can have all that too, and welcome to it. But you can have all that without the painting, whereas you can’t have my moments of ongoing revelation (since I stood before it) without it, without the incontrovertible facts of the visual thing in itself. It is not a puzzle, to be unlocked.
    And there you go again with a reference to ‘pure form’! Where does it come from? I don’t mention it, ever.

    A good try. I like this Pollock, though I’m not sure I’ve actually seen it. Was in the Tate show? It’s a good painting, but it doesn’t even begin to match up to the Weyden. Everywhere I look on the Pollock is a repetitious vagueness; everywhere I look on the Weyden is a different particularity – it’s so much more engaging, so much more extraordinary in content, fabulous colour, fantastically spatial. Is the Pollock spatial? Yes but in a very limited sense, and all in relation to a picture plane; the spaces are not felt as different, particular. The Pollock achieves an easy unity; the wholeness of the Weyden I’m still working on… Not sure about the ‘similar tapering shapes’ thing!?! I wasn’t looking for superficial similarities, just an evaluation of relative achievement. And how he did it doesn’t matter to me either.

    Well, let’s see what others think of your comparison.

    Since I have in this essay abandoned a categorical distinction, I would be open to anything that had this quality of ‘abstract-ness’, whether it was figurative or non-figurative. My oft-made assertion of the future being abstract is pure supposition. It’s my best guess, and I would be happy to be wrong if figurative painting showed signs of something real. I’m not convinced ANY painting shows signs of something real. Don’t forget, it’s abstract sculpture I’m backing – very different kettle of fish.

  24. Robin Greenwood said…

    Here’s a challenge – anyone think of an abstract painting that is demonstrably as good in all aspects as the Columba Triptych?

    And you’re going to have to justify it…

    • Dan Coombs said…

      Robin , I must come clean. I am indeed a figurative painter who aspires ( and often misses) the abstract, rather than begins from it.I don’t have any desire to change anyone’s opinion, and respect your uncompromising position ( I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think anyone else’s position is wrong or anything stupid like that) .To me arguing over art is enlightening , I hope you concur and I agree with many of the sentiments about the contemporary art market favouring little meaning-nuggets over aesthetic quality( as notions of quality inhibit market expansionism, and quality is harder to sell than meaning.)
      However the Van der Weyden is a veritable maze of layers of meanings, of subjects, of cultural forms of layers of signs and symbols , of motivations , of hidden depths, of architecture, of wealth of power- goddammit, there’s even a line of text coming out of the angel’s mouth!!!
      I find it amazing you can extract such pure form from it- to me, its an intricate maze, like a three dimensional chess board, of every trope available to Western Art. Everythings there- why reduce it to one thing?

    • David Sweet said…

      Easy: “Out of the Web”. 1949. Jackson Pollock. Similar tapering shapes, similar movement, similar formal drama. Moreover, he did it all himself, without apprentices, or workshop assistants, or the New Testament to help him.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      If a figurative painter working now produced something that you thought as good, would you still hold that the future is abstract?

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Sam,I appreciate that you have probably targeted this question at Robin Greenwood but it’s such a good question that I can’t contain myself!
        Holding that the future is abstract is tricky. I prefer to hold that the present is abstract and leave the future to make up it’s own mind. That is of course not meant to be proscriptive of other viewpoints, practices,ideas etc but we all have to make our choices and ‘abstract’ is my aspiration.
        In terms of visual ambition it could be argued that figurative art reached it’s zenith with cubism. The reason I say that is because I don’t think any painter since has come up with a more ambitious visual and formal idea than depicting a multi-viewpoint image of an object, person etc, on a flat ground (that isn’t very well articulated but I hope you will understand what I mean). I don’t believe that it can or will get any better than that as an objective for figurative artists. Whilst I would agree that abstraction (at least in painting) has yet to achieve the heights of visual and formal complexity of figurative art, for the objectives that Robin so compellingly argues for, it (abstraction) seems like the right road to be on. ‘You pays your money (and you takes your chance)’ so to speak.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        At the risk of seeming to argue with everyone, I’d have to disagree with you that Cubism is the zenith of figurative art. It seems to me to be a nadir, the moment when it started to make no sense, when it started to flatten out (contrary to the notion that it depicted three-dimensionality), when it lost an understanding of colour in favour of drawing, when it became rather predictably composed, and when it started to become horribly theoretical. I’ll extend my challenge – is there a Cubist painting better than the Van der Weyden?

  25. Noela Bewry said…

    What a fantastic discussion !! So many words !!
    I think maybe it is possible to write so much about painting or sculpture because there is a certain ability to detach oneself from the object.
    Music ‘s effect can be visceral and overwhelming , and so, maybe, can escape such scrutiny . [I am sure musicians and composers are different animals.]
    I get what Ashley is saying about working and using his life experiences and surroundings etc. and reducing them to abstractions of one kind or another, however broad or far removed.
    But I think the challenge Robin Greenwood sets, to find a new abstract way, sounds like something to strive for.
    The former sounds comfortable and, from experience, enjoyable possibly.
    The later sounds angst ridden and full of pain and disappointment but probably far more about what an artist could be.
    As for the visual ‘ something’ in a painting or sculpture, a really good work resonates off the wall [or floor] whatever the subject.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Ah, a new voice!

      Yes, the angst, the pain, the disappontment is definitely getting to me. Anyone mentioning the cuddly toy on the same page as Rogier Van der Weyden gets a double-barrel of invective, OK!

  26. john holland said…

    For me, Robin’s article is touching on the crux of the difference that seems to be unbridgable between two points of view here.

    Robin has tried, with more success than most, to talk about just what ‘visual content’ actually means- how it feels to look, and why we look. As his choice of paintings shows, this is not about abstract art as such, and it’s not about systemic analysis of structure, of the sort that breaks pictures down into simplistic compositional devices. It is about the richness and immediacy and power and downright strangeness of the visual- and all the talk of symbols, references and metaphores, all the supposedly philosophically sophisticated contempory juggling with ‘tropes’ and contexts, blinds us to it, it dulls our visual senses.

    They aren’t wrong, exactly; all these Post-Modernisms float around the ether whether we like it or not. But their constant foregrounding in the way we are now expected to view art, and the fact that they make up the greater part of current art discourse, is literally blinding us to the unique content of painting and sculpture- the world we find ourselves in, the actual visible world. Not the world first mediated through language, not the world after it’s been translated into verbal ideas, metaphors, symbols, memories or associations, but things like Robin’s “baby hands sleeve hat thing”. This is a painting full of ‘verbal’ content- lots of potential symbolism, historical context, all the things art writers now like (precisely because they are writers, and so need verbal ideas above all)- but this stuff is so much less interesting, so much more predictable and less enlightening and complex than the specific acheivement of what it looks like in all its peculiar individuality. Dan, at the beginning of his review, mentions puritanism- the current art-world’s distain for the unruly and unpredictable visual sense is maybe not unconnected to Northern Puritan iconoclasm, always bubbling somewhere in the Anglo-Saxon psyche. In The Beginning was the Word.

    The ‘invisible’ content of art, as Dan puts it, is there, it’s fine, but it is, by its nature, essentially already known, it’s about what is already in our heads, all the linguistic concepts and associations and recieved ideas, all being put into play by a ‘trigger’ in front of us. Reviews constantly use an artwork to spin off into their own set of assumptions and beliefs about the ‘subject’ of the piece, using art as little more than a conversation starter. Talking about art is hard- metaphores inevitably creep in even if you try to avoid them, but they nearly always end up getting in the way. It’s like the metaphores used by physicists- like billiard balls for atoms, that help us understand something about an atom, until it’s discovered to be an unworkably misguided image, and they have to find a new one. Metaphores are not the real content of visual art, they are at best a way of getting to grips with it, because, as Will Self has said, ultimately, nothing is like anything else.

    Really, my disagreement with Dan and Ashley is big, but it’s still one of degree- that is, the degree to which ‘extra-visual’, or invisible, elements should or can delineate our perception of art. As I said earlier, visual art seems to be pretty much unique in regarding its essential means- vision- as rather stupid, lower than the important things like verbal language. Musicians don’t look down on sounds, notes, rhythms-the same artists I speak to who see art largely through theory would never say of Bach, or Coltrane or dubstep, ‘what it sounds like is not unimportant, but what it means, its context and associations, in short, all the clever things you can’t actually hear- that’s where the important stuff lies’.

    Ironically, I know that Ashley, and I suspect Dan, are at the less ‘anti-visual’ end of contemporay art- some of the stuff I come across in the institution I work in really is just the use of objects to trigger ‘arguments’ that are no more than well-worn truisms, truisms that could just as well have been writen on a card on the door of the gallery.
    There is (or was) a tribe in Peru that shut its shaman (men? mens?) in a cave until adulthood, when they would be slowly led to the entrance to the cave, and their blinfold ceremonially removed. It was believed that the sudden, inmediated sight of the world in front of them would reveal its meaning in the miracle those first few hallucinatory moments of vision. Maybe curators now should be raised in this rather cruel way.

    • Ashley West said…

      John, I’m with you in so many ways. I don’t deal in all that stuff when I’m painting. Maybe my article was misleading in that sense. When I’m just painting and not ‘thinking about it’ overtly, yes the associations are there – it’s part of the human condition, but I actively try to keep coming back to my senses, the body, the materials, seeing, attention, and at its best these things come together and things start to happen before one. I play free jazz and Irish music too (which is less formulaic than you might think)- and in that incessant practising it’s just sound, rhythm and so on. Why do I do it? Why the labour of painting? Just to get closer to that intelligence that is possible when there is no division I guess, between cause and effect (which is surely what Coltrane was after). It’s maybe what we all long for. I wonder where all this started, because I’m not really enjoying all of this argy bargy (or however its spelled)- it’s not what I usually do. I think it’s just in defence – yes, of the puritanical. As you say it’s just a question of degree, though the hair we are splitting seems to be an important one. When I was making a painting and found myself balancing a tennis ball on the top edge, it wasn’t suddenly becoming a conceptual artist and I wasn’t trying to be funny. I defend my right, and anyone else’s to try these things out without being damned or ridiculed. We just need a lot more lee-way than some seem prepared to give. Now what really gets me is where these things are done for reasons other than for the work – then it becomes a mockery. For example at Wimbledon I remember someone who had obviously just done their PHD giving a lecture, who I don’t think had any interest in communication at all – it was all about posturing and theorising, and using as many words as possible that you wouldn’t know, and it wasn’t in the service of what we were there for. And of course artists doing it just for kicks, or for money, or adoration. I need to go and give my daughter her fiddle lesson!

  27. Terry Ryall said…

    This and the Bainbridge/Kelley discussion seem to be characterised by an ever increasing number of statements and speculations around meaning (in various contexts) that I can only describe as psycho-babble. Just when I say to myself “Terence old boy, it can’t get any worse than that, surely?” no no no , up pops Dan or Ashley to pull the proverbial Rabbit (or perhaps I should say Teddy Bear?) out of the hat. Not content with just looking it seems we now need an imaginary stick to help us ‘see’. “It’s as if this looking is like a stick” Why does looking have to be ‘like’ anything? Can somebody please tell me, what is wrong with just looking?

  28. Ashley West said…

    Mmm…Beginning to get the gist of what you’re getting at – maybe. Not sure where to post the comments any more – just been moving between articles and following up links. Better to continue here I think. Dan, I think you may as well give up – you’re never going to bring this lot around to your way of thinking – all I will say is that in my teaching students get an awful lot from exploring a broad range of approaches, which includes both the visual/abstract, as well as ransacking the skip and looking at both the formal and symbolic qualities of found objects within assemblages – I think among other things it helps them to look at the way things function in the world at large, and in themselves. Robin, following that link back to your article on Smart, who I don’t know much about, I was mystified initially as to what you were talking about, but then I became less interested in what you were against and more interested in what you were FOR. I know it’s only a photograph but that last piece got me hooked and I wondered what it was. There seems to be something of a world unfolding, organically you might say, but articulated, step by step in a highly felt way, which seems to connect with what you are saying in this article about the relationships and movements of forms. With both, it takes time, but it’s well worth it. There seems to be a similar thing going on in the Panting pieces – at least those in the Note about his work, though I’m not sure either about the connection with Pollock. One can also see a connection with Kahn here in this unfolding, awkward, groping quality. I was wondering whether, with Smart say, he would ever take more than one pieces off to try again, or whether each part had to be a response to what already existed, moving inexorably outward so to speak ( a little bit like Klee seemed to do?). Where can one see a Smart?

    • Sam said…

      Ashley, Although I also have a feeling that representation, reference etc. can have a place in art (and in some ways in abstract art), I have to say I find your readiness to reach for ‘aboutness’ slightly troubling. Or more specifically not just the readiness but the speed and vagueness with which you do it. I realise that this could just be how you write, rather than how you think,but still…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I agree with Sam about your reactions, Ashley. You seem to be unable to get hold of a thing visually without wanting to have it ‘look like something’ – and then you (and Dan) want to load that association with all sorts of stuff. It’s an attitude closely related to the one which asks of abstract art that damn stupid question: ‘What’s that supposed to look like?’ As an abstract artist yourself, perhaps you ought to question it. Dan at least has the excuse of being some kind of illustrational figurative artist, and one might expect him to support sculptures with a similar kind of imagery, such as those by Mike Kelly; and even Bainbridge, whose work is completely concocted out of (seconhand) imagery.
        Abstract art can work without imagery.

      • Sam said…

        To distinguish myself from Robin, I’d say that abstract art must have some resistance to easy meaning, specifically to easily translated meaning. Not that it can’t be interpreted or that it is always wrong to do so (of course things exist in history etc, may say something about their time or whatever) but that the real meaning, or the value for an viewer, lies in the experience of its structure (or form or whatever). Of course all sorts of things may occur to you whilst you are looking, but to pick these out and sort of riff off them is really misguided.

        This is perhaps the big danger with abstract / non-figurative art: that its openness immediately becomes an invitation to meander… At least figurative imagery has the advantage of clear imposition of subject matter.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        What is the advantage of ‘a clear imposition of subject matter’? It seems to me if we could get beyond this roadblock in our debate we could see the very clear advantage of NOT having an imposed subject matter; the very clear advantage of, in the future, being even more abstract.

      • Ashley West said…

        Yes it is speculative (rather than vague), quick, if you like, but this is a blog isn’t it? So there is a certain informality and looseness that one expects – and sometimes downright rudeness it appears. We are using language – of course it’s inadequate. The temptation is to not bother trying to share anything in this way. I mean who was it that said that Kelly’s work had no form? (even if ‘to speak of’). The temptation is to confine oneself solely to the work in the studio, where, yes Robin, one reaches a point where the experience goes beyond language and even thought, in its usual form. Perhaps I speak loosely because it places some distance between that which is experiential and cannot be explained, and the discussion of it, i.e. I try to hint at it rather than tie it down (finger? moon?), as one would face to face. But to get back to the point, there seems to be something fundamental at issue behind the content of a lot of this discussion, which we keep coming back to – the thing itself, the visual, the abstract. I take the meaning to be something that resides in the artist or the observer. The art work, if it is successful acts as a medium for that and has a corresponding structural integrity. The medium serves the search for meaning, which takes place in the human being. The observer can take away the meaning, whereas the art work is simply an object when the observer isn’t in front of it. It seems from what you have said elsewhere that you don’t see it this way – you see the object as having intrinsic meaning when no one is in front of it. That to me amounts to a materialism of sorts – you are taking the art object for what it is not, i.e. taking it too literally, which is perhaps why you don’t get Dan and I’s take on the use of found objects. We DON’T take them literally, because we accept that they can operate in different ways; why? because they are subject to perception, psychology, context and so on. This, one could say, is a humanist perspective as distinct from a materialistic one. That is perhaps why I, by nature, am prepared to consider what it is about, what is its significance. That is being rigorous, because it comes back to YOU, and demands that you question yourself, as well as (or through) the work, something you seem to shy away from. If I don’t get back to you will know why!.

      • Sam said…

        Hi Ashley, I’m not quite sure what your last sentence means – my comment wasn’t intended to rile you up and I hope it hasn’t done so…

        I’m sure that various philosophers have various opinions as to where meaning resides, how it is constructed etc. I’m not a philosopher but as far I can tell I don’t think what I’ve said necessarily implies I think meaning just resides in the object: on the contrary criticism of a type of response to art, or suggestion that it is useful to respond in a certain way seems to me to imply that meaning is something that does exist somewhere between the viewer and the work of art (I’m not sure about the artist).

        However I do think it is useful to approach abstract art as if meaning did reside purely in the object (this is an attitude, rather than a statement about philosophy). To see whether how it is put together, the spaces it contains etc. I would hope that if it were interesting / exciting it could sustain this kind of looking. And in this looking would be its meaning, and this already involves psychology, and perception, and even context in the sense that I am my context, or it works through me.

        Of course other approaches to art are valid but I think this is a good one for abstract art, even if it is quixotic. Aren’t there those 18th group portraits called ‘Conversation Pieces’? Perhaps abstract art could be thought of as an Anti-Conversation Piece.

        On whether Kelly has any form, I’ll reply to Dan on the other thread – complicated, eh?

      • Ashley West said…

        Sorry, I changed track half way through and was addressing Robin. ‘And in this looking would be its meaning, and this already involves psychology, and perception, and even context in the sense that I am my context, or it works through me’. Yes, I can agree with that – in the seeing. It’s as if this looking is like a stick, where the two ends are the observer at one end and the art object at the other. But what ARE the ends? Isn’t the stick the only thing we can know? (Isn’t there an idea that language of one form or another is everything? is it semiotics?) Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to understand each other – because we are different contexts. The idea that we can experience the self as observer on the one hand, and the art object on the other, without the medium of the stick – well I guess that could be what we strive for – all spiritual practices incidentally describe this as their aim – to experience that unity, truth, the disappearance of separation (the world of illusion) – something many abstract expressionists were interested in, and it’s something that I would say was central to my own practice. I don’t take that experiencing of the purely visual or abstract for granted – it has to be worked for. Now is this what Robin is talking about? Because it’s quite a claim, and I don’t think it is achievable without first acknowledging the stick, and I’m not sure Robin does (it would take a bit more humility, although I suspect there’s a lamb within the beast!), hence the suggestion of a materialism on his part as opposed to what one might call a spirituality (which I don’t think real humanism can be separated from). Now that word, the dreaded S, is really going to set the cat amongst the pigeons.

  29. Ashley West said…

    Thank you for those very touching reflections Robin, and more importantly the questions they raise. You take us into another world (so to speak) and I feel this helps our on-going discussion. It will take time to digest. There are some words you use which for me are crucial. One is ‘feeling’. You imply that there is another level of intention on the part of the artist, which perhaps comes through his depth of commitment, feeling and articulation. Another is the word ‘passage’. In visiting the Diebenkorn show and writing the subsequent article, the idea of ‘passage’ seemed to get somewhere near to describing the movement (and what Diebenkorn referred to as continuity) between apparently separate areas of form or colour. Here is a link to a couple of his works which I feel have something of the ‘touch’ and ‘feeling’ you are talking about, and wishing for in abstract painting, (though I do this lightly as I know you are referring to something rather special):

    I got a similar feeling when I spent time with the Andrea Vanni triptych ‘Agony in the Garden: Christ in Limbo’, in the Corcoran’s permanent collection, in between studying the Diebenkorns. The attention and intention of the artist seems to be of another order and calls for the same in you as the observer – looking at it is like a feast, but it fed a part that is seldom reached. I’m not sure this part was reached by the Scully or the Mangold upstairs, but I think there’s something in Diebenkorn which is beyond his time, and it does have to do with feeling I think. The only thing I’m not sure about is whether ‘abstract-ness’ is adequate to describe that intrinsic meaning. You seem to suggest that this level of meaning, while not hidden, is not recognised if we simply stay with the literal. We have to pay more attention, open more, and go beyond the formal in order to access it. Maybe the word ‘presence’ comes close?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      ‘Presence’ gives me the creeps. Probably ‘cos I’m a sculptor – moving statues and all that. Too much like a metaphor for me.