Abstract Critical

What Paint Does

Written by Robin Greenwood

Some thoughts on abstract painting prompted by Alan Gouk: New Paintings at Poussin Gallery, and other recent abstract painting shows.

 

If… perish the thought… I were to offer advice to an abstract painter starting out today, I would suggest they copy the artist they most admired until they got somewhere near to competing with them, and then move on to someone better; and so on, until there was no-one left and they themselves were the best of all (I’m an idealist). Comparisons might be odious, but there is no better lesson than holding up what you do next to the work of someone better than you. This is probably the direct opposite of advice currently handed out in art schools; and it is, I admit, not the sort of advice I myself would have followed as a student. But there seem to be a lot of enthusiastic abstract artists around who seem well intentioned but are re-inventing wheels that have not so very long ago been proved tread-bare. Because of a lack of comparison, all is forgotten: the moderate and minor successes, the serious inadequacies, and the outright failures of quite recent abstract art are all unremembered. We make very little progress, if any, this way.

 

One of those defective wheels to abstract painting, which keeps being taken out of the boot as a spare at least once a decade, when other things have deflated (I’m trying hard to keep this metaphor rolling), is truth to materials (and/or its close associates, truth to the object and truth to the process). This surfaced in sculpture in the fifties (Henry Moore’s woodcarving!) and sixties (minimal/process art), and gets taken out and driven once around the block rather too often in the history of modernism. In the discipline of sculpture, where it once had some traction, it has ironically become an impossibility, since there is no such truth to be found in sculpture’s current obsession with an appropriation of anything and everything. For painting, however, stuck as it is (in order to be called painting and not become sculpture) with a medium on a ground, it continues to reappear, right up to the present (What if it’s all true? What then? At Mummery and Schnelle; Matter at APT Deptford, both recent). It supposedly entails being honest about medium and ground, paint and canvas, and eschewing illusion. As spectators, we are (these days, perhaps rather more gently than previously) urged to acknowledge the ‘reality’, the quiddity and, often, the cod spirituality of these paintings-as-objects. Must we, yet again?

What’s missing from this, what makes it a defective raison-d’être of painting, is the recognition that paint can carry more potency and meaning through its use as a designator and articulator of form and space than it can by any literal demonstration of its real-world properties. To suggest that the literal ‘materiality’ of paint – or indeed the process of applying it as a performance – is truer to painting than the fullest, richest fulfilment of its potential as an illusionistic medium is to belittle and falsify it. Such a philosophy of painting (for such it is) exhibits a failure to recognise that the meaning in abstract art is not what it is, but what it does. Herein is both enigma and illusion, since what abstract art precisely does cannot be easily described verbally (if at all, and there would be little point to it if it were otherwise), and all painting contains illusion; all good painting contains a convincing matrix of illusion. Every mark on a two-dimensional surface creates an illusionistic (re)presentation of space. With figurative painting, no problem; but how do we reconcile illusion with being abstract? This conundrum is probably why the phenomenological aspects of medium and ground keep being obsessed over, as a desperate attempt to sidestep the problem and make painting ‘real’ again.

Patrick Heron 3 Discs Brown, Red, Yellow, Violet. 67

Abstract painters generally seem somewhat dulled to the possibilities of working through this dilemma (which is the only way out of it; theory won’t crack this nut on its own, it needs plenty of graft). Here’s a good example, from a recent exhibition statement by the London abstract painter Cuillin Bantock (who is by no means an unintelligent writer): ‘Sixty years ago the British painter Patrick Heron pointed out that non-figuration was an ideal impossible of achievement, commenting further that Ben Nicholson’s painting of four greyish circles in a greyish square eventually came to resemble the hob of an electric oven. The point being that the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees.’ The brain might well be hard-wired in such a way, but that is surely all the more reason, if we want to make new abstract art, to be less complacent about the problem, not more. Art is, amongst many things, perhaps a way of expanding the wiring of our brains. Bantock continues: ‘It was the critic Tim Hilton who pointed out that any horizontal division of a canvas inevitably evokes a landscape’s horizon, tacit acknowledgement of Heron’s comment that a painted image is always going to look like something.’ To which I would say, for starters, stop making abstract paintings with obvious horizontal divisions in (see late Rothko, and a thousand others). And, for that matter, hold off on any more circles in a pattern that resembles a cooker hob. Or circles at all. Or at least, having done it once, get over it. Why would we want to be stuck now with making more cooker-hob paintings, whether beautifully aesthetic or nay; or in Heron’s own case, for example, beautifully judged and proportioned and exquisitely varied and coloured cooker hobs. We really do have enough of these. So the problem for painting is this – how to move on into new abstract territory, whilst understanding that to paint any ‘thing’ is to risk a kind of representation. If we are seriously ambitious for abstract painting, we will want to work our way through and out of that dilemma.

Alan Gouk Knotgrass Elegy, 2003-11 oil on canvas, 91 x 241 cm

……………………………………………

I have no wish to deny abstract painting (or indeed sculpture) its materiality. In fact, I think visual art needs a hearty dash of it. But for me this materiality needs to be in the service of something else, that something being meaning, and that meaning being wrought out of form. Too often it seems that painters use materiality to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere in their art, or as a replacement for an interest in involved visual structure. Just to take examples recently featured on abstract critical: the slump of paint in the work of Alexis Harding or the ‘icky’ technicalities of Katy Pratt, where materiality becomes clunkingly literal; the over-wrought paint-dollops of Basil Beattie’s pictographic drawing where material gives physicality to slightness of subject-matter; or in Jonathan Lasker’s paintings where materiality is simply imported as an extra ingredient to the appropriated mix, to give content-less art something – anything – to connect it to the real world.

Alan Gouk Laughing Torso, 2010-11 oil on canvas, 71 x 112 cm

Alan Gouk is an abstract painter not completely immune to the aforementioned cooker-hob syndrome. He has some orthogonal formats that he drops into, as if by default, from time to time. Nor has he been averse to a good bit of lascivious materiality in his day. But in mitigation for the right-angles and circles and the trowelled-on (in the old days, even shovelled on) paint, there is an understanding deep within Gouk-the-painter that nothing can or will take precedence in his art over the architectures of visual form, and that those architectures will be put to work in the picture, orthogonal or not (and increasingly not), in the service of meaning. Thus, the problems of illusion ‘in the abstract’ are right here, being tackled, in his new work. Gouk might seek as much as any other abstract painter to make his art felt as a profound presence in the room with the spectator, but he does it, whether in thin paint or thick, through the controlled construct of making one passage of colour do something in relation with another, and on throughout the painting, end to end, top to bottom, spatially, structurally, significantly; to the extent that the painting begins to modify and give purpose back into our very own world of literal architecture – the space we exist in. To quote Gouk (from the book Principle, Appearance, Style): ‘The world of painting is the world of sensuous architectural spaces, to which the picture contributes, opening out the wall-space, reflecting and enhancing the proportional harmonies of the architectural spaces of rooms and galleries.’

The problem of how to do this is hinted at in his own recent catalogue essay:

‘I hesitate to use the word dialectic – let’s call it a mood swing; my work tends to veer between two extremes – the Cézanne/Hofmann derived overlapping painterliness, and the flatter planarity of Matisse/Heron. I test myself against the latter, since it is the high road of modernism, find it uncongenial – I can’t say everything I have to say that way – and so I veer back again to a more modelled painterliness. I tend to oscillate, some would say vacillate, between the two, though a fusion of the two modes seems to be reaping rewards. There is a tension there, a meeting of opposites which can be fruitful, and the natural world is always there somewhere in the background. After all, an immersion in nature is the reason why most of us became painters in the first place, although naturalism, or what is patronisingly called “lyrical pantheism”, is not enough to sustain innovation in painting. There has to be an “architecture”.’

Alan Gouk Mesopotamian Moon Vertigo, 2010-11 oil on canvas, 81 x 152 cm

Perhaps ‘the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees’. Perhaps; so isn’t it all the more wonderful when art allows us a glimpse of a world beyond the literal. Is ‘non-figuration …an ideal impossible of achievement…’, as per Heron? Can one make a truly abstract painting (or picture)? This is my own vacillation at the moment, but I am absolutely sure that Gouk and others can make a lot of good stuff on the way to finding out.

Alan Gouk: New Paintings is at Poussin Gallery, 25th Jan – 18th Feb.

Robin Greenwood is a director of Poussin Gallery

 

  1. Marius said…

    I don’t think there exists any more meaningful context in which painting can be critiqued because there is no more “field” or some perceivable global progression. I think this was in some sense a subconscious goal of modernism anyway, to destroy the legitimacy of the critics and the legitimacy of painting as a “field”. Some might say “painting is dead” because of this, but this is actually a cause for celebration, because the “painting” they refer to is a rigid relic bounded by interpretations of history and certain demands of predictability. This leaves room for true art painting to flourish, without context or boundaries. In fact the only meaningful education a painter can receive today is one that destroys all his prior assumptions about painting. Even an education that tries to constructively build a painter will only end up serving as a gigantic conceptual term to be absolutely negated, therefore leading to artistic freedom.

  2. Allan Howard said…

    In the early 50′s Heron ditched subject matter as being’problematic’. A subject dictates shapes and forms within the painting’s format which may not be ‘right ‘for the painting. He escaped to a place where he could arrange any shape within the picture freely as he wished, along with any colour.All this is pretty obvious and is a basic freedom of the abstact painter.. The cooker hob story by the way flies in the face of my comments to him about his painting ‘Scribbled Disc in Deep Cerulean’ I likened the scatter of white blobs to a necklace to get a reaction. The quick response was ‘Well,of course it isn’t a necklace’. Despite Mel Gooding’s comment on Heron’s ‘arbitrariness’,I find his work full of structure but wonderfully loose and often with oblique ‘meaning’.My wife’s remark to him that a certain painting needed a white villa in a hot climate went down very well with him.He had done the painting after swimming off Porthmeor Beach. I think that if such context finds its way into a painting in some way, if the painting in unafraid of adventurous structure, if it can relate and reflect the physical world as Heron’s Sydney paintings do, then there is enough indirect meaning in abstract art to make it valid and valuable. This approach is seemingly limitless but there are many others. To quote Peter Cook ‘To infinity and beyond’ is rather comic but has some relevance perhaps.

  3. Jenni Hodgson said…

    Really helpful! Interesting and well-written too.

  4. Andy Cahill said…

    If you want to know ‘what paint does’there are three paintings and one drawing in a group show at the newly opened Red Space gallery in Clerkenwell by Simón Granell which are quite simply extraordinary.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Andy,
      I haven’t seen Granell’s paintings, but from reproductions they look exactly the sort of literal demonstrations of materiality that I criticise in my essay. Do you have a counter-argument? Or tell us why you think they are extraordinary.

      • Andy Cahill said…

        Hi Robin,
        Thank you for your reply. It has been interesting to follow the comments following your essay. My reference to Granell’s paintings is that in his labour of over a year and a half on most paintings, his process is precisely “in the service of something else”.They reach far beyond presenting their own construction (inevitably lost in reproduction)and take what is simply applied and turn into something transformed.They become quite unlike what they are.They are intense and bodily.To ‘literally’explain how this happens would be to do them a great disservice.The passion that you have for abstraction is here in spades.Worth a visit.

    • Bruce Timson said…

      Dear Andy you old rogue. I have tracked you down at last.
      Please take a look at my website:
      http://www.brucetimson.com
      Me and Marcus are running a foundation course in Totnes, Devon, which you would be very welcome to visit.
      My best wishes
      Bruce

  5. Pat Jessee said…

    Robert, I feel that you said it all in your line; “There are possibilities here that I can smell but not yet taste.” This is a deep feeling, I am exploring in my art and life. Comparing painting- or all art making is not unlike adventures in eating. When you first taste a new spice it is jarring- sometimes negative – and yet you revisit and soon it becomes your new favorite. Youlearn that millions of people have used it for hundreds of years. It doesn not make it less inportant for this reason. Each human, or lets say living thing takes from what is around it- even the air and makes something of it- often “new”. Looking for tastes of something new is an adventure which often – if you are open brings you around to a most ancient rediscovery-putting you in a timewarp. But that can be an inspiration in itself for the abstract- a realization of self as a part of an everchanging point(that grain of sand -eh?)Space Hubble updates blow my mind- abstraction occuring over and over -each unique yet a part of the whole-more to explore that we cannot yet taste but OH SO- want to. For me that is “the abstract I love” That feeling I want more. I love a fine realism piece – but it most always is the same – so I don;t need it aroaund me. But a piece that changes with the smell in the room, the light fomr outside, the music I play – living with me, shouting or crying -or loving. Thanks for a good Sunday morning read.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    Thanks all, a few things to pick up on…
    It seems to me, Sam (and Robert), that artists are going to have some difficulties expressing “the inexpressible life of the spirit”. How are they going to do that? More materiality or less?
    Having had a look at the Burri exhibition, I can only conclude that the “image quality… [with] …a kind of wholeness” is far more akin to the ghosts of art past than you believe. Burri is so tasteful; it all looks like an amateur art nightclass from 1959, where you take a few lines of force and some aesthetic proportions out of figurative art and transcribe them into something “abstract”; which seems to mean using some excitingly “non-art” materials (sackcloth and ashes) to disguise something which is really boring and flat, and so undemonstrative and inherently uninteresting that the duped viewer is forced to think it must have a spiritual message (if you are that way inclined), else why would the artist even bother. Yes, my mind is completely closed on this. Call me the Richard Dawkins of abstract art if you like, but I am anticipating that you’ll be invoking the Jewishness of Barnett Newman next as a validation of the spiritual in abstract painting.
    Actually, I exaggerate, because Burri is not quite that bad, but to suggest he has something new to offer abstract painting now, something you can’t quite put your finger on, is pretty close to codswallop (that cod again). Career-wise, he eventually arrived at a place not a million miles from third-rate Patrick Heron-type cooker-hob paintings, with a very limited palette and even more limited imagination. I can only repeat, let’s not go there again.
    I don’t want you to think I am uncritical of Gouk’s paintings, but my support of them is at least in part due to the fact that they ARE criticisable (though it is not easy), and criticisable very specifically, because they are far more “actual” in what they do (or fail to do) than Burri and most other stuff around at the moment. This, for me, is at least partaking of the real world and “what paint does” in it. Fancy having a go at that (specific criticism of the Gouk, I mean. Or try it on the Burri)?
    I’m going to invoke the “spirit” of Cézanne: “I am the pioneer of the artistic route that I have discovered.” I’m with him. He’s the guy who showed us all the advantages to being more abstract, and what that might mean; he showed us a vision of what art could be without subject matter. We still have not quite got to grips with that reality. But anyone working out of some kind of Cézanne/Hofmann/Matisse dialectic seems to me to have the possibility of being in the right region; and though you are right, Sam and Robert, to suggest that that is not enough, it is quite a lot.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I too love the Cezanne, Hoffman (?) Matisse tradition, and might place myself within it, but to make important work in that tradition it is necessary to make work that doesn’t look like that of Cezanne, Hoffman or Matisse.
      Burri’s work might have some qualities that recall a period style or bring back memories, as does everyone’s, but my impression, when I saw it in New York 3 or 4 years ago, was that it looked pretty fresh. It’s abstractness, as Sam suggests, lies in the way that it is neither thing nor image – or maybe both – still worth pondering.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      I’m not sure what Barnett Newman’s Jewishness has got to do with anything, but as it happens I do think he was, like Burri, a very good painter (regardless of where abstract painting in the future may or may not go). Though I appreciate frustration with appeals to the ineffable, it seems equally strange that what is good in abstract art (which surely most gain much of its power from the mysterious or the unknown – otherwise surely just paint things we can recognize?) is made directly equal to what is criticisable in it. Not that I would really equate sarcastic references to evening classes etc with ‘criticism’.

      On that tip I would say that my raising of Burri was simply to point out that it was work that I responded to, and that seemed, as not involved with a matrix of illusion, to be dismissed in Robin’s essay. It’s not really my position to say how artists approach things which are otherwise difficult to express – that seems up to the artists. For me Burri does something (which I felt I was sort of inching toward, though obviously not fast enough for Robin’s un-dupable objective vision) and does this, when it works, with just the right amount of material.

      Perhaps in some there is a little too much just-so-ness and others remain as just material, but for me, many of Burri’s images work. His black on black cooker-hobs, for example, far from being ‘boring’ achieve something definite, where many (certainly not all) of Heron’s seem to be involved in a kind of vague sensuousness. Extending the comparison (which is admittedly unfair as I’m comparing good Burris with bad Herons), could we say that Burri – through his formal skill in creating images or symbols, more than his materiality, which for me was unexpectedly restrained – creates a kind of confrontation with something unknown, where Heron seems to cover this up. Heron’s paintings allow one to move around, to judge the depth of a patch of colour against another but frequently I leave unsatisfied; as if all this activity simply hid the fact that there is no definite resolution, no force, nothing expressed.

      I find Gouk’s attempt to throw lots of things into his art exciting (and perhaps more and more is a very good way to go) but surely Robin you are not saying that his paintings are good simply because they throw more bits into the ring? After all that will always mean that there are more things to criticize, does it not? Imagine a single discrete unit in an abstract painting which we find expressive – of course it is difficult to say what is expressive about it. Does dividing it in two automatically make it more expressive? It certainly gives us more things to criticize, a relation to point to and talk about…

      Its interesting that Robin has evoked Cezanne – obsessed with portraying nature – whilst seeming to ignore my suggestion (which was certainly partly a devil’s advocacy – and contradicts what I say above about not telling artists what to do) that if you want to generate new and convincing matrixes of illusion an active return to the world – by which I meant the visible world, though I realize that still begs questions – could be more positive than the mining of recent abstract painting.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        OK no more sarcasm.
        Here’s the rub – I can’t quite imagine a discrete unit in an abstract painting or sculpture, singularly and in isolation, being either “expressive” or ever meaning anything at all. By definition, if it did, it would not be abstract. Parts in an abstract painting or sculpture do not stand for something else as symbols of that “other”, meaningful, thing. Thus, “a relation to point to…” is precisely it – abstract art is relational (if we can possibly retrieve that word from Bourriaud please), or it is nothing. I don’t see any other way for it to be meaningful. This is at the core of our disagreement, and we have arrived at a major discussion point, have we not? I would most doggedly state that relational issues are entirely at the nub of what matters to abstract art, and that leaves no room for your mystical matters.

        I guess this is one reason, perhaps the main one, why I find Minimal art more “literal” than it is “abstract” (and Burri is often quite close to Minimalism). I’m all for the idea of working towards wholeness in complexity, which seems to me immensely difficult to achieve (another really big issue), but that’s a different ball-game from a simple and redundant singularity.

        P.S.
        Cézanne’s true obsession was surely not “portraying nature”, which seems a very weak description of the extraordinary inventiveness of his art – which was, of course, ever and always, relational.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I agree, and that was one of the starting points of my own work, a denial of the logic that had led to the monochrome. Relations between parts means “composition,” and one of the goals of modernism was the look of non composition, literalized into the claim that composition must be rejected – another long story.
        A single thing can be expressive, but complex internal relations are more so. And though we like internal relations, external ones, between parts of the picture and the world outside art, cannot be prevented. But then there are many in-between positions (which I think is what Sam is looking for); one shouldn’t be absolutist about categories like inside and outside, which are fictions anyway. For example, a concept such as resemblance can be distinguished from depiction. What about analogy? There are “abstract” ways of relating a picture to the world, which can keep the modern (or modernist) project on keel without old categories.
        And the minimalists would have said that Burri’s work had too many parts, that it was relational like all European art.

  7. Sam Cornish said…

    It strikes me that the current Alberto Burri exhibition at the Estorick Collection could form the basis of a good counter argument to Robin’s desire (which I have some sympathy with) to firmly yoke, discarding all heresy, the physical materiality of painting to a ‘convincing matrix of illusion’.

    I found the exhibition (2 visits in with the feeling more are to come) incredibly powerful. It would be difficult, following Robin’s comment, to fully say what ‘works’ about it. There is certainly something like a mysticism of material in it, though in this case I would say only the insensitive or closed minded could dismiss this as ‘cod spirituality’. There is some illusion of things in space, but in many of the works this only plays a marginal role or none at all.

    Instead what Burri frequently does is create emphatically present, elegantly restrained material images, images without illusion. I think I am using ‘image’ in a personal way which is difficult to fully explain. What I want it to mean is something like a singular, summary and meaningfully visual coherence, but one, in this case, whose visual presence seems also to carry something of the intangible, invisible or imaginative sense of an image in poetry or prose, that conjures the immaterial out of the material (and perhaps vice-versa). Meaning in painting and success in painting here depend on (and make vital) something other than a ‘convincing matrix of illusion’.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      very interesting. You are reaching for something I’d like to have closer.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Thanks Robert. I’m not quite sure how best to phrase what I want to say. But an observation of another difference between Burri and Gouk might help. At the Gouk opening on Tuesday I overheard someone say that they liked paintings (abstract paintings) that they could move about in. By this they presumably meant where bit of paint suggested a structure or a series of spaces which led to and from each other. So that the experience of looking at the painting is a kind of journeying around it. Journeying through what Robin called a ‘matrix of illusion’. Burri does not do this (or does not often do it) and the image quality I spoke about before is a kind of wholeness. I’m not sure that makes anything closer…

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Just off the top of my head, late at night, there is a kind of abstract “image,” which is not really an image, because it is too factual and lacks illusion (as you say). What is it, what are its characteristics? It may have a symbolic level, but it’s not really a symbol. I’m trying to model this shape, and it sounds like you are too. It’s advantages are apparent, so it is a worthwhile effort.
      On my own blog I was getting close with some discussions of Fontana, but not quite there. You could look at the two or three posts either side of this one: http://newabstraction.net/2011/11/26/persistence-of-desire/

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Of course there are symbolic elements in Burri’s paintings; basic forms and snatches of recognisable things (eggs, faces, moons, horizons, crevices etc). But not in all of them. Part of me wants to say that his works which do not have illusion nor obvious symbolic aspects are effective simply because they attain enough of the other features which condition our responses to (art)images. Hung on the wall in a gallery, a limited surface with a kind of cohesion. Didn’t Greenberg and Fried talk about something similar? But that seems quite limited, to only get us so far. And maybe this is for another time…

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Of course with Burri we are not talking about what paint does, or at least not exclusively so…

    • Robert Linsley said…

      it is relevant in that we are talking about a way of thinking and making that gets beyond what Alan Gouk is doing, and that responds to the questions that Robin Greenwood raised, in other words work that is not stuck between the alternatives of literalness (conventionally geometric) and weak illusions. For me the grid, explicit or implicit, is the sign of derivativeness, but leave that aside. What you raised, interestingly around the work of a very good artist, is very much worth pursuing, but you’re right maybe on another thread. There are possibilities there that I can smell but not yet taste.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        This from a book on Russian and Greek ikon painting; “The word ‘abstract’, here is used to denote that ikon-painting deals not with matter or the concrete. It should not be confused with ‘abstract’ modern art, where the artist aims at breaking down ‘sense data; (matter) in order to provide a condensed and sophisticated comment on matter and ‘sensible existence’, this modern ‘abstraction’ often having the effect of obscuring the immediate appraisal of the form. The ikon-painter might be well be said to reverse the process. For he strives to build up and ‘epitomise’ the intangible, so as to reveal to us, in material form, the inexpressible life of the spirit.”

        The revelation in Ikon painting of the intangible through material, and the fact that this summary occurs turned away from the world (there is something private and withdrawn about his images) seems very applicable to Burri.

        On the contrary, Gouk, though he does not work in front of a motif, is primarily concerned with the breaking down of ‘sense data’ into a condensation of sensible existence. This is Robin’s matrix of illusion. It needs emphasizing that the sense data Gouk breaks down is channeled through the past history of modernism – Cezanne / Hofmann vs Matisse / Heron; he faces the world – constructs his ‘matrix of illusion’ – through their work. The show, which I thought a good one, is perhaps hampered by this – its problem is not that the paintings look like cooker hobs or horizons, but that they often look like already known abstract paintings (exceptions to this known-ness mainly come in the smaller paintings http://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?artist=2&group=57).

        This point relates to the discussion Robin and Craig are currently beginning. It is interesting that both of them seem to be both struggling to situate themselves in relation to the recent past of abstract painting, one in a mode of confrontation, the other in a more free and easy manner. In this they both seem linked in seeing abstract painting itself as the predominant resource for future abstract painting. In work where a convincing ‘matrix of illusion’ is important (and Burri demonstrates this does not need to be the case) could renewal not stem from a more direct approach to the world?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Sam, I agree with you about Gouk’s work, at least as best as I can see them from a distance. I also like your response to that and the suggestion you make at the end of your post. The problem of course, though it is a very productive and interesting one, is what is meant by “the world.”
        Going further I would like to express my disappointment with any art that is content to shuffle, mix and recombine past achievements. Of course all art has to have a stance toward the past, and no art can avoid repeating some aspect of that past, but there is a qualitative difference to be asserted, an attitude and an ambition.
        Your thoughts about the “abstract,” the immaterial and the tangible need more treatment.

  8. Robin Greenwood said…

    Thanks for the enthusiastic comments. There must be a lot of people who disagree with this article, and it would be good to hear from them too.

    To pick up on Craig Stockwell’s interesting question, “Does painting still believe in progress?”, I think the answer must be “No, painting doesn’t” (i.e. there is generally no consensus amongst painters) – but I do. I think the model of art as a linear progression is long dead, and rightly so, but I think progress in painting and sculpture is possible in two ways. Firstly, as suggested in the essay, that by a process of continuous comparison with what went before we can at least prevent ourselves from standing still or going backwards in terms of what works and what doesn’t work in art. This is dependent upon some kind of broad critical dialogue or dialectic developing around what “works” in visual art; good examples of such a discourse are rare, and unrelated to the “interpretation” of art, which abounds. It relies on artists being as objective as possible about what they are achieving, and being tough on themselves (maybe, since critics seem to have abrogated this responsibility, with the help of others – friends, fellow artists) about their actual attainments (as opposed to their intentions, which are often what is focussed upon in discussion). This is hard work, but it is good work.

    Which brings me to the second, and perhaps more personal notion about progress, which is the idea that each and every painting or sculpture that one makes should strive to make discernible progress from the previous one. This is not only dependent upon having some kind of vision of the future of painting and sculpture, but is pretty impossible to achieve all the time. Yet it seems to me that even an attempt at such an approach would inevitably lead to more “progress”, both personally, and across the discipline; in any case, one can at the very least use such an ambition to resist the contemporary pressure to build a narrow personal canon or restricted mode of working, where one repeats oneself ad nauseam. This latter approach, which is now more prevalent than ever, with young artists encouraged to form a professional style before they have even left art school, is in the long run damaging to both the individual and the discipline.
    Robin Greenwood

    • Craig Stockwell said…

      Thank you for the thoughtful response, I appreciate the human tone. The thoughts about progress are common to most of us, as a kind of daily response…it’s hard not to attempt to better one’s efforts. This is certainly what we ask of students. And yet, what is a vision of painting that one might imagine if painting were to progress? I was just reading Raphael Rubinstein’s article in Art in America about “Provisional Painting”, “To Rest Lightly on the Earth” (AiA Feb. 2012)…”Last paintings appear within a narrative about the end of painting, an art history that believes (or believed) in a certain progressive logic: they occur within an esthetic dialogue in which artists feel compelled to finesse or outmaneuver art of the recent past. Provisional painters know that such conditions no longer prevail, and yet they don’t want to give up the sense of difficulty that energized the painters of last paintings, such as Ad Reinhardt.”
      I think that we’re not on entirely different tracks. The vision of painting I enjoy is of a much diminished activity that has within it the potential to play and re-play interesting acts. This is also, in parallel, the vision I carry for how to live, free of grand designs.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Interestingly, this conversation can find an echo in Richard Shiff’s recent book on De Kooning, called “Between Sense and De Kooning,” if I remember rightly. A thorough analysis of an art of “non-progress.”

      • Marius said…

        I just stumbled upon this interesting exchange. There is a natural progress in an artist, even if he doesn’t seek it or quantify it. It’s easy to become aware of such a progression in retrospect, by looking at prior work and realize you used to “stop short.” This might not even be visible externally, but internally it’s as obvious as aging. There is obvious maturation in De Kooning’s work but he was a kind of God of chaos, always seeking to obfuscate himself, to deny the obvious impulse, and getting increasingly better at it. And I’ve always thought that his practice was related to his developing Alzheimer’s. I don’t know which caused the other but definitely related in my view.

    • Anthony Boswell said…

      Yes, regarding professional style, I once remember a conversation I had with the historian and curator John Golding. The way into painting, regarding abstraction, is one where time and exploration and maturity is required, and seldom going straight into it is not the way. Personally, I have made my way into abstraction over the course of years because it needs the discovery of hidden motives and meanings, things that themselves are abstract in nature. Students often cannot learn this in their early careers. Maybe this is one reason why so much of abstraction falls into the decorative, commercial and pastiche.

      As far as progress, with oneself it again needs the maturity of self, the personal progression from learning to discovery of the nature of ones work. Progress as far as painting is concerned falls in my view to the return to modernist values, where New York and St.Ives formed the basis of abstraction with great emotional depth, something that became missing so much after it and why modernist painting is so relevant in todays practice. I am starting to hear of artists now who may be realising what I have believed for a long time, that to move forward one as to look back, because the progression of abstraction and so much other art as nowhere new to go.

      This approach does, however, require the work now being original, sincere, and not an imitation of modernist works. The progress to kickstart abstraction needs artists to look deep enough to enrich the work with an emotional depth that resonates with all, thus giving the opportunity for the canvas to bridge the gap between art and life. The problem with the halt in progression of painting is because of working ones way in to a corner, the task is also to find ways to keep discovering ways forward and balance on the edge of ones absolute rather than going fully into it. Progression requires resistance.

    • Noela Bewry said…

      Only just read this post . It absolutely says it all in regard to the way artists should approach work.
      Possibly the way to overcome the pressure from galleries to keep artists locked into creating more of the same saleable pieces [and the artists' need to sell work] would be to have two strands of work going on. One devoted to personal progress , the other financial.

  9. Alex Smusiak said…

    Fantastic. Great insights.

  10. Mike Ryder said…

    Is there any chance of “in the studio” Video or maybe an interview with Alan Gouk

  11. jenny meehan said…

    Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
    Hip!
    At last I have found something inspiring, amusing, and intelligent to read!

    Thank YOU!

    There’s no easy way forward, yes, just hard graft, but at least some glimmers of light in your thoughts which are very refreshing to me, so thank you for sharing them!

  12. Darryl Hughto said…

    I’m definitely in favor, as I suppose painters have always been, to use what properties my painting materials possess, using these same properties as my palette. I’m not sure I am willing to subscribe to “For painting, however, stuck as it is (in order to be called painting and not become sculpture) with a medium on a ground”. I agree it’s about what the material does, AND the magic is in the material. It is worth pointing out that it is embodied in the material, it being what we get from the art. One of the conditions is the magic, the illusion, that the act of painting can’t help doing. As Hofmann pointed out, you can’t put dot to plane without creating an illusion of space. It’s what one does with that magic that counts. One does. There is no one size fits all. The plane is the magic to painting, not the paint. The paint is simply what ever you put on that plane on either side. This magical relationship is the essence of painting.
    I think it’s time (is this a decade recycler?) to remind that all painting is abstraction. There is one exception that is very difficult to achieve. To be strictly itself, i.e. non objective painting, a painting that refers to nothing outside itself, and is therefore “real” by virtue of being what it is, the painting must avoid allusion. Illusion is okay to be or not to be if you can avoid it, but to be without reference is a little trickier. Even Kandinsky sometimes looks like amoebas and protozoa. I think we have to come up with new ways to describe the old sixties paradigms about the differences between painting and sculpture. It doesn’t matter too much to the experience of it but it would help order the rhetoric when we discuss.
    and yes, almost assuredly, Gouk and others will continue to catalogue the study of painting and it’s intriguing ability to fascinate thrill an express something uniquely human. And whether these are truly abstract, real or other expressions they will constitute the history of painting and “the Search for the Real”.

  13. Craig Stockwell said…

    This leans still heavily on the notion of progress. Does painting still believe in progress?

  14. Ann Knickerbocker said…

    I love this… it is an affirmation (or a re-affirmation) of the strengths and “duties” of abstract art, encouraging and instructive. I am firing up my studio’s heater and intend to go out there and explore… Thank you for this wonderful essay.

  15. Julie Caves said…

    I agree that graft is the best way of figuring it out, making lots of good stuff.

  16. Sue Post said…

    This is brilliant (I quickly adopt a British accent when I smell one). What Mr. Greenwood writes could be my credo:”the recognition that paint can carry more potency and meaning through its use as a designator and articulator of form and space than it can by any literal demonstration of its real-world properties.” And my own experience in grad school and afterwards even mimics the suggested course, of effectively cycling through Pop, Color Field, Hard Edge, Op and Post-modernist styles,in a succession of epiphanies, on my way to something that felt more personally authentic.

  17. Jay Zerbe said…

    excellent and valid analysis that is much needed these days.

  18. Paul Behnke said…

    Thank you for this article and putting down so well what we all think about and struggle with.
    Also thanks for introducing me to Gouk’s work.

  19. Seamus Green said…

    Hear hear!