Abstract Critical


Written by Emyr Williams

When looking at a work of art, we could measure our physical distance from it and get a number in either feet or metres, yet this measurement will be of little help in explaining the perception of distance we get when we look at the work. A work of art creates the sense of an illusory space in our minds, a space produced as a result of the interaction of colours, textures and forms. One has only to observe someone looking at an artwork in a gallery to see a judgment of this spatial distance in action – a viewer shifts their weight and moves in response to what they are seeing – trying to feel the work’s visual gravity and make sense of its inherent pictorial or object space against their own actual physical space. Looking at art is a physical activity.

In good art this perceptual distance to my mind, feels at its closest: spatial sensations are brought up to our eyes forcing us to deal with them, to confront visual content head on, the art becomes part of our own physical sensibilities, feeling as natural or even mysterious as nature itself – it’s a fully visual experience – not an easily describable one, an existential or even an ‘enlightened’ one, but one that is full and complete, in and as, itself. It starts and ends in the arena of the visual.

As an aside here, we marvel at a good actor’s work; they possess a character. We believe in the illusion they create, yet we are simultaneously aware of the humanity coming from them through their characterisation. We can relate to them and find aspects of our own human story in their portrayal. So too, is the case in a good work of art – not necessarily present in any narrative or with any symbolism, simply in the ‘feel’ of it. We know it when we see it, so to speak. The way forms or colours have been articulated, the scale, the textures – all this ‘visual food’ satisfies our appetite.

I would venture the point that a painting should be a consequence of the decisions made in response to colour as a visual force, dependent upon surface, and not merely as a decorative element.  I believe also that closeness can only be achieved in its fullest sense when these colour forces are working together to create a summative – greater – force. The articulation of these forces through surface and colour control, I would define as “drawing.”  I have begun to realise that this – elusive – summative force is directly comparable to the fluid, moving space of sight.  Painting is a static art form, yet it is overtly and covertly informed by our moving field of vision. This visual information is then synthesised by the artist through the processes of painting. The greater the synthesis, the closer the painting feels, I believe. Displays of fastidious techniques, self-conscious stylisation, or even imposed formats are all factors that can push us visually further and further away from a work. This distancing weakens the work’s visual potency and a dwindling of its latent humanity follows. Some observers will settle for this distancing though, subconsciously perhaps feeling more comfortable with art when it is perceptually more distant? I think it is easier even, to write about art when it is perceptually further away too – distance seems to afford an easier access and often helps facilitate a convenient understanding in trite, transmutable terms.  Consider the reams of words written in defence of poor art (there is an inversely proportionate link I’m sure). The best, most advanced works are incredibly difficult to describe, moving from the visual into the verbal is not straightforward; whereas too often we see a lazy figuration, so called abstract “vernacular based” works with cheesy references to objects, people or places, kitsch subject matter, all lending themselves seamlessly to uncritical description – this is usually work where irony has become a refuge. Visual art seems unfortunately prone to this sort of cultural mugging.

An artist should respond critically to the materials they use, and through this response, stretch the physical qualities of these materials to their limits and thus explore their potency as materials for art making. Matisse thoughtfully noted this approach as understanding “the purity of the means of expression.” Degrees of expressiveness  – if there are such things - could be said to manifest themselves in a work of art, as degrees of closeness. We can feel the humanity in a work of art through its closeness.

I have described how painting and sculpture are affected by our field of vision in their conception and execution, yet I wonder how much do they really have in common as art forms (if anything)? If you are a painter how different is that sculptural hat and vice-versa? I see painters often who make sculpture that is a three-dimensional approximation of their paintings, rather than existing as sculptural works which do something with real space. Conversely, sculptors can be equally guilty of painting out three-dimensional relationships in which colour is subjugated to a ” literal – spatial” descriptive role. Colour can generate space in unpredictable ways – it needn’t be choreographed.

I mentioned in the “What’s Abstract about Art” thread that due to the nature of sculpture and its multiple viewpoints, the relationship of seeing to making is possibly in a more advanced state as a product of its modus operandi, whereas we painters can often end up producing a spatial stasis by comparison. Sometimes it’s in the overarching, stifling appearance of a format, sometimes perhaps the self-consciously energetic approach, which involves much hit and hope and ending up with relatively little to show for all this attack. Another thing I have noted (and you can try this on a painting) the main field of activity is often a few centimetres inside the edges. Incidents sort of arrive at the edges but run out of steam by the time they get there. Advanced art has always acknowledged the importance of edge, but I am not sure if the problem has been solved with real conviction yet. Depth has replaced space too. Depth is a product of imagery, screens and illustrations. Space as felt by moving sight is a prize greater than staged or even accidental illusions of depth. The repoussoir devices and atmospheres of landscape often flavour even the better abstract art and the flip side of shallow-space overallness tends to undermine potentially more inventive, unpredictable spatial qualities. Cubist painting, as I mentioned in that thread, was dogged by a centralised pictorial weighting, often struggled with the corners and ended up merely filling space with awkward – literal – planes of colour rather than describing or discovering it as a palpable entity. Cubist space has cast a long shadow over abstract artists who have been happy to work in its shade. There is something here that makes me consider that synthesis can turn into artifice when discovery is not present, and cubism ultimately presented artificially “composed” rather than “discovered” spaces. A monocular space similar in feel to that of the fixed viewpoint or the single lens.

Being attuned to unpredictability is dependent upon having the confidence to ride out the shocks and uncertainty that go hand in hand with discovery. We could bring the notion of closeness back at this point, as maybe the visual quality needed to provide reassurance in the face of this uncertainty. There is more to discover in art – it should always be a work in progress. We need to remind ourselves of this. Looking at art from previous centuries is a sort of “communion” with the past that can surprise us in unforeseen ways.  Think of a corkscrew turning in spirals through space – this corkscrew could represent art being made, constantly moving forwards as we look at it from a side-on viewpoint, veering up and down yet with ultimately, moving in a linear direction – our conventional notion of time passing.  Now imagine moving around to one end of the corkscrew and we can see it turning in circles forever crossing imaginary radii which could be considered each as the different themes, approaches, whatever you want to call them, of art. From this viewpoint, art continues to cover the same impetuses, just at different times. This is why we can relate to it so strongly, so visually, on equally human terms. The best of art is always relevant, whenever or wherever it was made.

Look at the paintings Matisse made after the Second World War, known collectively as the Vence Interiors 1946-48. These are a touchstone for me for the kind of closeness that I have been describing. (An image of Matisse’s Deux Fillettes, Fond Jaune et Rouge, 1947 is here) In these paintings you see a quite different kind of space. Light behaves oddly here. When you see one of these in the flesh you fully appreciate this phenomena. It’s as if light reflects and ‘bends’ in a slightly convex way outwards causing the colour sensation of the picture plane to settle just in front of the surface – not as a cheap optical trick but as a physical sense of real, even, super-real space. Colour here creates a luminosity through the sum of its forces, and in doing so equals the luminosity we feel through all sight. There is simply nothing like them in describing space, handling paint, and orchestrating colour, all in one hit. They glow incandescently. Before Matisse, luminosity tended to be merely an effect created through localised – atmospheric-style colour relationships – you hear phrases about how light has been “captured.” This is tonal colour really.

Colour can be a light generator too though and not merely a painterly effect. I am persuaded Matisse was able to do this because he constantly looked and recorded as he did so. By bouncing his glances off the multitude of fabrics, furniture, objects, flowers, interiors, windows, mirrors and figures that he set up, he peppered his canvases with complex incident and seemingly in-exhaustive space-defining relationships. All this studio stuff gave him things to react to, and to invent with. Forms were absorbed into his muscle memory to be called upon spontaneously when he moved paint, or eventually cut paper.  How can this fullness of space, this richness of incident be achieved without these prompts? Could an abstract artist gain a comparably expressive kind of muscle memory?  And how can space be made that is part of our human visual sensibility rather than as an illustration of depth illusion, which panders more to the cerebral than the visceral?

As I have stated a good work of art is always made through a process of discovery, and as such is able to regenerate itself for successive ages and become non-culture specific. By this I mean, we are able to find fresh takes on it through the new viewfinders we create, as we in turn make our own art. Anecdote and symbol may be part of an educated mind’s codex, but humanity will out through the facts of the visual first and lastly.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-9: ©The National Gallery, London.

Recently, I have made several visits to London to see the Diana and Castillo by Titian in the National Gallery. It is a stunning painting with a heady, sweaty-like intensity. Look closely at how the weave of space never breaks the picture plane. Titian can simultaneously make heavy fabric droop and fall and turn in space without becoming ‘sculptural’; it is three-dimensional yes but on painting’s terms not sculpture’s. Titian was the master at creating a wholeness in space and colour. The transitions of one body to another, dogs which pop up as inventive space-filling devices to maintain rhythms, and figures prone to propel ever more complex internal arabesques. The space is breathable yet entirely synthetic and artificial in conception. How does he do this? We can look at his works and map his development from early, more heavily composed, almost strategic paintings to the later ones that are “found” through the workings of the painting. He really dragged these forms out of the paint, creating the picture space and adjusting things as he worked. This fluidity became the essence of the work. Maybe there is a clue here?  I am reminded of the sentiment of odyssey – you will find a treasure but not the one you necessarily seek. You can’t second guess your art. You have to make it.

I want to return finally to that point of sculpture and its relationship to painting. Wholeness is a prize in painting which may be achieved as I have suggested in its fullest sense through the closeness of the colour experience. I am still in the belief that the quality of wholeness is a relevant pursuit to painting, yet one that is remarkably difficult to achieve (especially the more challenge you take on). How can a sculpture gain this sense of wholeness or rather why should it?

Much advanced abstract sculpture has primarily concerned itself with the qualities of objectness, which, although is an approach that can still produce works to engage and impress, is not really developing the full potential of the medium. If a sculpture is to be truly challenging it needs to go beyond this approach and do something more urgent with space, move a viewer around it more, and through this movement set up relationships that cause conflicts as much as resolutions. This moving, relational, give and take is dynamic not static. Changeability is surely a virtue in a sculpture. I want to move when I see it, find its rhythms and be surprised as I move around it. If it has any awkwardness, this may not necessarily be a weakness, it may well be a marker for a greater completeness that is revealed through the continuity of time spent in visual dialogue with the work – an acidic note that sharpens a creamier one so to speak. Dealing with relational conflicts is something that sculpture may offer painting as another way forward too. Seeing an element as a force, in the way that colour can be perceived in a painting, is an offering coming the other way maybe. Sculptures should aspire to “completeness” rather than “wholeness” perhaps? Completeness would thus be time-dependent.

Those actors I mentioned earlier might have their good sides, sculptures needn’t be so vain. If a painting needs to open out space by creating a cohesive sense of light, a sculpture needs to open out space by creating a cohesive sense of time.

  1. Robert Persey said…

    If I am hestitant in writing about time and sculpture it is because it is a quality that has to be recognised and experienced in the presence of a particular sculpture and sculptures that possess this illusory quality are very rare. I am also very aware that to describe it in any detail would be very difficult and would in any case reduce the quality to an explanation that could become a substitute for its experience.In fact if I knew what created it then I would do it, so what I have to say must be treated as speculative.

    Firstly a sense of time in sculpture has nothing to do with traditional ideas of movement or aesthetic ideas such as flowing curves and the like.It has nothing to do with any overlaid psychology. Nor does it have anything to do with the time one spends walking around a sculpture, I cannot see how it can control the rate at which an observer circumnavigates it.

    The first sculpture that made me think about the possibility of the illusion of time was Rodin’s “John the Baptist” in the V&A in London. Happily it is still on show and better shown than before, although last time I saw it I thought it had been raised too high but that’s an aside. It did not reveal itself on first viewing but only after prolonged aquaintance. The sculpture has a pervading, strong and persistent feeling of reciprocated pressures within it that are built up in the work; in a kind of forward and return manner. It can be sometimes be taken for a combination of before and after aspects of a body in motion but I think it is more than this. It is part of the nature of its physicality in conjunction with its structure that leads to an expressed sensation of relationships beyond mere position, definitely beyond presence. Its effect is to render the sculpture as vulnerable, not fixed but tensions in constant readjustment as it were.

    Effectively the “John the Baptist” becomes something else. Not a copy after nature,not a narrative, not even a representation of an idea such as a fixed stride or a man walking but the creation of something you would never see or feel in life.

    Emyr, quite rightly, asks us to see sculptural elements as forces. Forces in the physical world have a direction and significantly, a duration. Why not the same in sculpture? Except that real world forces ultimately reach equilibrium and/or are spent, whereas in sculpture they can be controlled and held forever.

    I have chosen this sculpture for the reasons given and because it is available to see now. There are others,Rodin’s “Age of Bronze” also in the V&A and Degas’s “Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot” Rewald XLIX in the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford are well worth seeing in this context. By way of contrast in the same room as the Rodin’s is Lord Leighton’s “The Sluggard” which is “in your face” space occupying, domineering stuff but compared to the Rodin’s it has no sense of time and is completely locked up.

    The sculptures I have selected are of course all figurative but that is not to say abstract sculpture can learn nothing from them. Cubism may have been its birthplace but one does not stay in the cradle forever.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Robert,This has helped me enormously to get a sense of the characteristics of a sculpture that could form a perception of it creating an “illusion of time”. This doesn’t mean that I am any nearer to ‘feeling’ that particular sense of time that you experience in the presence of the works that you cite (if only life were that easy!). As you suggest it is not possible for words to substitute for experience, but at least it’s a start for me.

      From Emyr Williams: “this moving relational give and take is dynamic, not static”

      From Robert Persey: “not fixed but tensions in constant readjustment”

      Perhaps these two statements get us a little closer to what must be considered by those who want to achieve a “cohesive sense of time” in sculpture. How we as makers, whether of the figurative or the abstract, might achieve it is another matter.

  2. Terry Ryall said…

    One of the features that I like and feel is important about this essay is that it articulates,as fully as seems possible with words,the visual experience of looking at a work of art . It does so with the studious insight of a practising painter who places the highest value on the visual experience. The comments that relate to the making of a painting or sculpture are equally insightful and revealing, particularly so for the painter/sculptor (or vice-versa if preferred!) who might be seeking, if not to integrate, then perhaps discover some meaningful dialogue between the two strands of expression.
    If there is an area that I would take issue with then it would be the section on Cubism but that could raise such a wide-ranging number of arguments that it is probably best left for another time. All I would say is that whether we like it or not, working in the early 21st Century our birthplace as artists lies in the ‘Big Bang’ of the early 20th Century and we ignore/deny the significance of the ‘matter’,however flawed,that emerged from it at our peril.

    Robin, as a sculptor I wish I could contribute something to the ‘cohesive sense of time’ idea but my understanding of time,which Robert Persey also refers to,in relation to sculpture is a little short and possibly completely absent. I understand Emyr’s point where he refers to the “continuity of time spent in visual dialogue with the work” which would seem to apply to the process of a viewer getting to know a sculpture. What I’m not clear about is whether that particular ‘time’ is the same “cohesive sense of time” with which the essay finishes and that you describe as a great aspiration. This appears to me to be something different, something that is not inherent in the making of a sculpture as I understand it.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Terry, at the risk of appearing to put a foot in your doorway.. Picasso and Braque during their cubist phases created a pictorial vernacular based on the look of Cezanne, but failed to absorb his fundamental achievement of synthesis. Cezanne famously said “colour is where our minds and the universe meet”. How about that for a statement! Cubism was essentially a systematic approach, it created shallow space that superficially felt more “there” due to its containment of space. Yet it doesn’t feel spatial in the way we see or even in the way it portends to. Look at Matisse’s Fauvist works from 1907 and compare them with Derain’s exact same scenes and you will see what I mean by colour as a force to create space. Derain has passages of dark areas – still rooted in conventional local colour relationships – which are essentially tonal. Matisse on the other hand creates luminosity throughout all parts of the picture – the space surrounds you (if Dolby did painting….!) This is much more significant an achievement from the early twentieth century to my eyes. Go back a little further: If you look at Delacroix you will see a greater ambition than any painting from the cubist canon. How he gets incident into the top of the picture (compare with David which is bottom loaded in weight). He gets this from Veronese and Titian. What cubist work has as much fluidity, phrasing and handling of colour and drawing as a Delacroix? (please don’t say Guernica) We can jump around times and places and find numerous examples of painting that are more ambitious and relevant still than cubism (Titian was my other one and he doesn’t stack up too badly either! )- getting coloured glues onto a support hasn’t changed all that much really. So, no I am sorry, I do not see Cubism as any big bang phenomenon – I am not ignoring it, just clearly not as impressed or inspired by it as you. As I said before in the other thread, if it is important to you, then I’m not knocking that role. Though, I am more and more convinced that “systematic processes” lead to dead ends and shut more doors than they open. (I say this from real experience too) Finding new ways to engage with what we see without abstracting but somehow possessing it, is – I think – a better route. I am only going on my experiences in the studio and from looking at art and looking in general (what else I guess). I think cubism is more limiting than you are willing to acknowledge . If you don’t accept my point here then how about this notion – drop the lot, the whole of art up to this point. Where would you start from? What would you think would be the most you could aspire to do with your art? “sans references” so to speak. I cannot see how cubism would ever come back into your thinking once you address a question like that. Its all up for grabs surely, both painting and sculpture are only limited by an artist’s approach. I think that having a clearer understanding of the nature of each discipline, what they are capable of doing, not just what has been done so far, will also make it more exciting and far reaching for future development. I don’t really want to see too much more pictorial sculpture and I don’t want to see any more centrifugally weighted painting either (though I painfully accept this is a challenge and a half to get over!) One last point: The opposite to the drop the lot one, as a polemic: Ask ourselves this. Can we make art that enables us to engage with the greatest works that we admire – on our terms but with as visual an outcome? Is your approach going to reward you with as much richness, as much ART as these works possess? …..Cubism… shmubism! Regarding time: I think Robert’s reply was far more exacting than I could muster at this point…in time.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, “I’ll be back”

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Emyr, I’ll begin if I may (unlike your illustrious countryman) at the end rather than the beginning of your ‘foot-in-my-doorway post’. I won’t spend much time defending what you refer to as my ‘approach’ but in case I have given the wrong impression I will just say that I’m not a sad quasi-Cubist entrenched in systematic ways of making sculpture and painting. I find the early 20th Century exciting simply because it is where we find the origins of abstract art and it is that fact of history that is as important to me (as an abstract artist) as the work that was created at that time and all that followed from it. It helps me to have a sense of context and continuity for what I’m doing, something that I can feel attached to.
        When Cubism came to it’s cul-de-sac, Picasso, when he made his cardboard guitar, in effect, plucked a Cubist image from the canvas and brought it into real space. This opened up new possibilities for abstract sculptors of the 20th century and beyond and I believe that sculpture was/is/and will continue to be the real beneficiary of that explosive period. In any assessment of the comparative achievements of abstract art and the figurative art of the past our judgement has to be tempered by the fact that abstraction is still in it’s infancy. Is it really reasonable to expect this struggling infant to have equalled the richness and complexity of the likes of Titian, Poussin, Delacroix, Matisse et al in less than a Century? We must of course aspire to make abstract art that is ambitious, unpredictable and of our time, but in a sense considerations/calculations beyond that don’t really interest me. What concerns me is what I can do to find ambition within and by the act of painting and not by attempting to graft on any number of observed desirable characteristics from exotic sources (I’m certainly not suggesting that that is what you or anybody else is doing but I do find the trend on this site of earnest reverence being shown to the old masters a tad worrying!). A word of warning, Titian Poussin , Manet Matisse etc. all these artists appear to us as if they have crossed bridges to special places, but beware they will almost certainly have wrecked those bridges behind them rendering them useless to others. If wanting to get to a special place is your thing you’ll have to make your own bridge. Don’t you find looking at Matisse just a little bit like drinking sweet tea?

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Many years ago I taught a lad who said he wanted to be a bin man when he was older. When I asked him why , he said ” cos you get all that money and only work on a Tuesday”. I think you have to see a bigger picture here Terry. I am not grafting exotic sources onto anything (though “exotic ” is a backhanded compliment in a way). Delacroix to my eyes is a great painter, so is Matisse , so I have to ask myself “Why?” , why do I respond to these two artists amongst many others who are not abstract painters? If we are only going to view art through the ever more myopic lens of early to mid twentieth century abstraction our own practice will become impoverished as a result. You talk of building bridges to new lands. Yes I agree with that, but not from any sandy foundations: these painters themselves looked far and wide for their inspiration, mining any culture that they saw fit to. Matisse more than any other was a culture vulture of sorts, Coptic, Islamic, Pre-Renaissance, West African, Pacific, and so on and so on. What I have been trying to do in this article is find something that I feel unites all this work, something I am inherently responding to that transcends the time, place or even the medium used. I can turn that around to you too. Why bother with cubism at all- that was a hundred years back? You obviously get something out of it. You must permit me the same leeway to find my own points of departure. I don’t much care for the blurb around art and I certainly have no pre-disposition to “old master” painting. If it hits me visually then I will respond to it and learn from it. As Larry Poons once said, show me chipmunks that made good art and I’ll applaud them, but when the chipmunks start banging on about Romeo and Juliet or the Roman Empire in their painting then I’m not interested. Where is the Art? As to your last comment about Matisse – all I can say is look again. You are having tea with the subject but missing the cake of content.

      • John Holland said…

        Could I suggest that Tate should put the phrase ‘ We are having tea with the subject but missing the cake of content’ on tea towels to be sold in the gift shop?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Never mind the Tate, let’s do it on an abcrit teeshirt.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        I certainly have no intention of denying anybody their points of departure or their valued assessments of admired artists from whichever period they might hail. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of other artists, and ourselves of course, is, or at least could be, a very important part of understanding how we might develop our work, manage its change, and also see its position in relation to what others have achieved.
        So fear not Emyr,I do hear all that you say and please put my name down for one of those nice tea-towels and a tee-shirt as well, preferably signed by you and your two cohorts. But really! Tea (sweet) AND cake, far too much sugar!

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    I agree with Robert Persey, a very thoughtful article, with more questions than answers, which I like. I’m particularly grateful for having my attention drawn to those Matisse ‘Vence Interiors’ 1946-48, and your interesting comments about them.

    As for the business of sculpture creating ‘a cohesive sense of time’, that is a great aspiration. How can we talk about that more specifically? I suspect we do not have a sufficient number of sculptor/contributors to this site to get very far into this at present (I hope that changes), but it is good to read an out-and-out painter writing about abstract sculpture as a seriously different and challenging thing.

  4. Robert Persey said…

    This is a very good article, worthy of very careful scrutiny. I agree with the attempt to distinguish between painting and sculpture and the stress on their different potentialities.

    Our field of vision is limited by our inability to see three dimensionally, we actually see in depth only, something is always hidden from our view and sculpture as you rightly point out must resist the temptations of depth in favour of space and time and that is an enormous challenge.