Comments on: Ha Ha What Does This Represent? Abstract Critical is a not-for profit company aiming to establish a new critical context for all generations of artists involved with ambitious abstract art. Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:23:33 +0000 hourly 1 By: jenny meehan Sat, 17 Mar 2012 21:11:34 +0000 Rather random comments from me, apologies,

Wow! David Sweet, you nailed a few things down there! Very interesting. Thank you. A fundamentally interesting and helpful addition to the comments.

Robin Greenwood…

“Meaningful visual content” should be obvious in a singular painting, I prefer it that way myself, and I get tired of this confusion of concept of the written, logic, rational kind and the “meaning” delivered through the painting which I think appeals to the limbic parts of our brain anyway. Recognisable subject matter brings a more logical mode of understanding, or maybe rather, interpreting, a painting.

Geometric Abstraction does to my mind possess a strong sense of it’s own rationality and overtly expressed internal structure, which kind of invites the option of working in series in order to experiment with deviations.

“In the course of a lifetime of making paintings, whether figurative or abstract, the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process.”

Yes, very true, and there is a LOT of interest in this.

So much more to comment on, but that’s my little part for now.

By: Robert Linsley Sat, 17 Mar 2012 15:14:39 +0000 David, very interesting and very clear. I would like to qualify with the observation that there may be more than two organizing spatial principles; at least we might hope so. But what caught my eye was your notion that “the plane…[has]…a specific density, borrowed from the repressed history of perspective.” This is something I’ve been working on, a kind of condensed memory of space in the plane, something like data compression, and I have found another method of “opening up the pictorial field without invoking the third dimension,” that is to say different from the ones you mention. Although that wording is not correct – you mean without using perspective. The third dimension must be invoked, the question is how.
To connect back with the review under discussion, again, “neutrality” is not a value in art; art must be specific, particular and concrete. So if the underlying spatial system, which you liken to a computer operating system, is neutral, that is where a critique must start.

By: David Sweet Fri, 16 Mar 2012 23:38:22 +0000 The guy in the Reinhardt cartoon, who, as David Ryan points out, ‘represents’ the common man and not the modernist subject, is a victim of the success of Western painting. By providing an organising principle governing pictorial construction that complies with our everyday experience of the perceived world, the invention of perspective made the content of pictorial art available to the ordinary viewer. To access literary art you not only have to be educated enough to read, but amass a vocabulary encompassing a wide range of cultural references, have the time to spend with books, and so on. Reinhardt’s viewer, obviously on his lunch break, resented his exclusion from the painting, hanging from a nail on the wall, not because of the issue of representation – after all, a sauce bottle can represent Napoleon (see Nelson Goodman) – but because he could not find an alternative point of access to the pictorial material in a work which had abandoned the familiarity of perspective. He didn’t know where to start looking.

The pictorial economy of a painting cannot be identified with its materiality. Its function is to offer an intelligible argument to support that materiality, as the organising principle of perspective orientates the brush marks in a Titian. But neither can this principle be identified with painting’s aura, although it does mitigate the literalness of material components. It’s neutral, (in Ryan’s terms) but, like a computer’s operating system, essential.
There are two distinct organising spatial principles to be found in abstract painting, one, which is based on the sign or symbol, harks back to the pictorial anatomy of Byzantine and Siennese paintings, and the other, which is based on the plane, evolved from the processes of schematisation started by Manet. Sometimes they combine, sometimes they are combined with the default perspective system. This latter conjunction produces ‘figstraction’. There’s a lot of that about.
Symbol-based pictorial organisation follows the same principle as this text. The letters do not overlap and each word is separated from the next, to foster an essential legibility. Symbols can’t function if they are obscured by other symbols. Miro’s paintings exemplify this legibility principle.
The planar pictorial economy emerges from the gradual compression of the spatial field of perspective, inaugurated by Manet. Because he over-illuminated his sitters, his pictures did not need to accommodate roundness. Their forms, and the pictorial depth they would have displaced, were condensed, not dispersed. Although his paintings are supposed to be ‘shallow’, both volume and space remain central to the experience of the work. That’s simply because all the pictorial content, which formerly stretched from the picture plane, through the middle-distance and towards the vanishing point, was still present, crammed into the foreground.
The evolutionary trajectory of this paradoxically non-reductive flatness invests the plane, in ‘geometric’ abstract painting, with a specific density, borrowed from the repressed memory of perspective. But that history disqualifies the plane from legitimately participating in traditional pictorial illusion. Painters have used different methods to open up the pictorial field without invoking the third dimension; Hofmann had ‘push-pull’, Newman uneven, thick/less thick pigment, and Reinhardt, warm black/cool black.
Reinhardt’s cartoon viewer would have needed some experience of French painting of the 1860’s, and perhaps have spent an afternoon at a Mondrian exhibition, to understand the organising principle of the work in front of him. But, given that the operating system is neutral, he could still have had a strongly negative critical reaction to what he saw.
David Sweet

By: Robert Linsley Fri, 16 Mar 2012 11:58:19 +0000 John, I am deeply sympathetic to what you are saying, however, the more I think about it the less simple it becomes. This has been a topic on my blog, extensively treated over the last couple of months. I might draw your attention to a post called “Words and material things,” near the bottom of the first page. The blog is at

By: John Holland Thu, 15 Mar 2012 22:14:19 +0000 I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, so I cannot comment on Robin’s opinion of the work shown, but his point about contemporary art’s
habitual reliance on the series, the ‘practice’, the ‘ongoing negotiation of the strategy’, or whatever, as opposed to the specific, self-sufficient statement, is important.

It’s surprisingly rare now to feel, when faced with a new piece of art, that it really worth engaging with it as an object that takes itself, in its particularity, seriously. The old paradigm of the work of art- that it is of sufficient specificity and complexity that everything needed for a serious and profound engagement with it could be found within its individual parameters- has largely been replaced by the conception that any one piece of art is like a road sign, directing the viewer to a destination. Like a road sign, it’s not, in itself, meant to be very interesting. One would be making a fool of one’s self spending too long looking at any one manifestation of much contemporary art, rather than engaging with the entirety of the project.

As I say, I don’t know if this applies in any way to ‘Ha ha…’.

By: Robin Greenwood Tue, 13 Mar 2012 16:03:13 +0000 Francesca,
I’d like to hear more on your statement that “In the course of a lifetime of making paintings… the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process.”
This begs a lot of questions for me. Is this the real reason for making a series of very similar and fairly simple works? Is the real interest of such painting in its nuanced difference from the previous one? If the meaningful content of the painting therefore resides in the context of the series rather than the individual work (as indeed I suggested), why then ever show one work at a time?
As you may have gathered, I would much rather be faced with a painting that was a self-sufficient repository of meaning, which had intrinsic properties of value, regardless of context, intellectual or physical. This does not in itself rule out the idea of working in a series, and many great artists have done so to great effect, particularly if they can use such an approach to home in upon their content more powerfully. But I can’t quite get my head round the idea that the meaning of abstract painting is in the variation. A singular painting can only be judged by what it in itself achieves or fails to achieve. A painter, it seems to me, is then evaluated by the accumulation of such singular judgements, in a comparison with other painters.
In any case, I can’t presume to think that that someone (in the future?) will be interested in an in-depth study of the subtle variations of handling and thought-processes in the art of you, me, or anyone else working now.


By: Francesca Simon Sun, 11 Mar 2012 12:34:12 +0000 The seventeen paintings in Ha Ha were chosen to hang together, no one work dominating any other within the limited space available. It’s a small scale, mixed show which aims to show a particular form of contemporary abstraction. Each work chosen is representative of the individual artist’s work. In the course of a lifetime of making paintings, whether figurative or abstract, the artist’s hand and mental process will be revealed and the interest for the observer is in identifying variations and developments in style and process. These works are produced by artists with an interest in exploring abstraction with the discipline of some sort of compositional structure; gesture, if it appears, is deliberate and controlled.

David Ryan’s essay is a complex piece of writing, which repays the effort of reading and re-reading. An abstract painter himself, he understands well the approach of artists like those in this show, whose work emerges, as he says, from “the negotiation of material, method and controlled repetition”. Robin Greenwood’s observation that the writing and the show are mismatched imagines some ‘ideal’ in which writing and painting make the same revelation. They do not.

By: Robert Linsley Fri, 09 Mar 2012 20:52:31 +0000 Just to offer an assent. It does seem sometimes that only the rare viewer really gets it. To explain everything is very wrong, but that’s the normative position in art today – a “message” or a “meaning.” So let’s continue with the alternative.

By: Robin Greenwood Fri, 09 Mar 2012 18:58:24 +0000 Reinhardt is a painter of no particular interest to me, and I confess to not having read Worringer, but this Reinhardt quote from David’s essay caught my eye:
‘It is more difficult to write or talk about abstract painting than about any other painting because the content is not in a subject matter or story, but in the actual painting activity.’

Superficially, I would agree with that, though paradoxically I think it should make us all examine more closely our discourse on figurative art, which for me often has more ‘abstract-ness’ than so-called abstract art. Because, with reference to the second half of the statement, does not the real meaningful visual content (as opposed to subject-matter) of a figurative painting depend equally upon the ‘painting activity’ (perhaps we should better say the ‘painting’s activity’ – what the painting does – to distinguish it from the process of painting)? If abstract art has taught us anything of value so far, is it not to be able and willing to take so much pleasure in the ‘abstract-ness’ of Poussin and Constable, without the baggage of subject-matter?

The comments so far on David’s essay have focussed on just that – the essay – but I would like to relate it to the work itself, i.e. the exhibition which it accompanies. I do, however, find it difficult to relate this rather complex bit of writing to the simple paintings on view in the ‘Ha Ha…’ show. Two things I think about this. Firstly, it is often the case (and Reinhardt is a good example) that the simpler the paintings, the more complex is the philosophy which attempts to supports it. To be honest, I find this frustrating and annoying, because really what I want to do is to look at complex, interesting, demanding art; I would much rather do that than read complex, interesting, demanding essays (though I will do that too, occasionally). If the art is mediocre, as it is here, no amount of philosophy will rescue it.

Secondly, the paintings in the show all look as though they are token works, part of a larger scheme or series. Of the artists I know about, I think that it is true to say that they all produce numerous works that look similar, with perhaps only colour or geometric variations. Even if this is not the case, I still think there is cause for concern in the disengagement these artists reveal for their work. Every individual painting feels slight, uninspired and formulaic – which, of course, if they are part of a prescribed series, they are. It’s not that I need to see painting attempting grandiosity or wearing its heart on its sleeve all the time, but I do crave something more ambitious for the individuality and singularity – and thus the particularity of meaning – of each work. Perhaps what would suite me would be to know that the artist thinks this is the very best one of the series, and I don’t need to look at the rest, and they have all been burnt.

There seems to me to be a connection here with the dreadful current show put on by Mary Heilmann at Hauser and Wirth. Here again, no single painting has anything at all of substance to offer; or rather, they only offer us the chance to revel in some trivial subjectivity of our own making. Heilmann gives the impression that she views her canvasses as small parts of some bigger conceptual context ( which is what both a series and an installation is), and downgrades the business of putting paint to canvas to some kind of skittish romp through the appropriations; figurative, abstract… whatever. Again, there is philosophy (of sorts) to back this up, albeit a kind of hippy, trippy sort of communing with the painted gesture. It looks to me that in both the ‘Ha Ha…’ exhibition and the Heilmann show, these artists are a very long way from particularizing the forms they use (to paraphrase a bit of David’s essay), and the geometries employed seem on the whole pretty second-hand, generic and slack. I strongly suspect these geometries of being a big part of the problem.

Robin Greenwood

By: Robert Linsley Fri, 09 Mar 2012 14:35:13 +0000 Re-reading Worringer I see that my own position is the empathetic – however, the dialectical Worringer does not claim an absolute, unchanging distinction between the two positions. At one point he even concedes that in later periods abstractions themselves must be apprehended empathetically.

Art can never be “neutral,” or move toward the neutral, it can only be specific and particular. This is what I hear said in the present review:
“This is perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of any approach to abstraction: its relationship with a form of labour in order to particularize its forms. In this sense abstract painting does not refer to an immediate style or a given type of image (anyone can illustrate an abstract painting…), but more a work upon, or with, these neutral elements to create something both singular and articulate in some form.”