Comments on: David Webb: Fragmentarium 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: John Holland Wed, 13 Nov 2013 17:05:54 +0000 It makes sense, John, but I think the F-word is misused so often these days to include any discourse that centres on the visible. Context is one thing, esoteric symbolism or invisible subtext quite another.

I suppose I’m suggesting a greater degree of empiricism would be a good thing now in all art talk- when people make such wide-ranging claims for the ‘content’ of work, they should back it up with specific and real reference to the visible facts of the thing. That’s not much to ask, and it’s not formalism- it’s just taking the medium seriously and not treating it as an adjunct to verbal concepts.
Not that I’m accusing you of doing this particularly, it’s just that Webb’s work is a bit submerged in this sort of chatter; though I don’t know how much significance he gives it.

By: Pete Hoida Wed, 13 Nov 2013 09:50:59 +0000 Thanks for John Bunker’s Nov 12th post. As he mentions Meyer Schapiro it may be worthwhile drawing attention to a review in the current New York Review of Books, November/December issue no 18, where Julian Bell succinctly reviews “Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture” by Jed Perl. He develops this issue rather clearly.

By: John Bunker Tue, 12 Nov 2013 22:59:23 +0000 Hi John,
Personally, I am grateful when an artist talks about how her/his work may have been informed to some degree by a very personal set of historical (artistic or otherwise) and social contexts. I know this position is fraught with difficulties. And so it should be! I’ve grown up in a cultural regime that wants to smother us with ‘context’ and of course political correctness.

Emyr, in his perceptive review, very succinctly laid out some of the pitfalls that David’s approach to painting could encounter. After spending time with the work at dalla Rosa gallery I felt compelled to answer critiques made by people who had no intention of seeing the show but had already made their mind up as to its value. I realise that it’s not possible for everyone to see every show they might like to comment on- but it made me realise there is another issue smouldering away here! How do we talk about abstract art in an engaging and accessible way? How do we open the history of ideas up? Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann’s excellent article on the ‘Inventing Abstraction’ show at MoMA earlier this year highlights with real clarity how difficult this process has become.

Ben’s article was exciting for me because it seemed to hinge on a kind of very fertile seesawing tension between Alfred Barr’s famous streamlined diagram of the history of abstract art and Meyer Schapiro’s contention that abstract art is part of a more complex heterogeneous modern culture. It is…. ” too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems”.

In another thread Pete Hoida’s comment about ‘New Labour speak’ was very pertinent. By the ‘S word’ did Pete mean ‘Socialism’- as in how many times Blair managed to avoid saying the word? Well, could the same be said about how the ‘F word’ is used (I mean ‘Formalism’)? I think this is an interesting area for debate…….. Sorry, this probably doesn’t make any sense but WTH!

By: John Holland Mon, 11 Nov 2013 21:49:36 +0000 John- when it comes down to brass tacks, when it comes to being faced with the actual painting, where do you see identity politics? The artist’s interests and methods are one thing, but it’s the final result that’s the point.
That’s nothing to do with notions of purity, it’s just the facts of what you see.

By: Robert Linsley Tue, 05 Nov 2013 15:37:46 +0000 I’m not sure if abstract art is capable of the full range of expression. I really don’t know. The dream of abstraction, and the ambition, at the beginning, was certainly that it could. It’s worth trying. And I may be deficient in responsiveness. Certainly the demand for intelligibility, or meaning as we might put it, makes it more difficult to recognize what a work really is, or what it is doing. Above all, speculation should not get ahead of practice, though it does sometimes despite all best efforts. Everything I say is what my work has told me, and if I’ve failed I’ve failed to listen to the work. By that standard it’s wrong to expect art to offer up what we already know as feeling or expression, to present ourselves as the measure. Maybe it has its own sense of humour. In that case I guess I should retract the remark about laughter.

Coincidentally I just discovered a forgotten blog post from a year ago that says something about this.

By: Robin Greenwood Tue, 05 Nov 2013 14:02:39 +0000 Robert,
I understand better where you are coming from – quite a forbidding place. To return to where we started – if I could make a sculpture that made you laugh, would that be meaningful – or at least show that abstract art could be full of everything, as full as the best figurative art, including both humour and humanity? And warmth…? Or am I dreaming?

By: Robert Linsley Tue, 05 Nov 2013 12:12:05 +0000 If you insist, though the topic is getting too abstract, too general, too far removed from actual work. I cringe when I hear the word “meaning” because it seems like the last piety (to borrow a favourite term of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe). No matter how abstract art gets, how far over the boundaries of taste it goes, there is always “meaning” to make it all right and understandable. “Meaning” is reassurance for viewers who can’t follow the work where it wants to go. And they don’t have to know what the meaning is, just that there is one. If you insist on meaning in abstraction you are just delivering it over to conceptual art. And it’s unquestioned on every level by every kind of practitioner and viewer. Everyone assumes that meaning is a good thing in itself, like “the meaning of life.” Does your life or mine have a meaning? If it was a story written by some didactic author I guess it would. Why should we insist that an artwork have what you or I don’t? Because it makes us feel warm and content?

But I’m not disagreeing with anything you said in the last two posts. I set no limits on art and advocate no style other than my own. In practical terms I’m mostly concerned not to posit meaning ahead of time, and won’t interfere when the work delivers up something from itself. Meaning, or even metaphoric allusion, can’t be banned, but our attitude toward can change. We don’t have to waste our time dreamily expecting it will come.

By: Robin Greenwood Tue, 05 Nov 2013 10:48:12 +0000 I’d like to just continue my exchange with Robert… Are you really saying, Robert, that abstract art can only be meaningful if it has some kind of metaphorical allusion? And that in your opinion, abstract art should therefore be meaningless and content-free? And minimal?

This is a really important point! Can you not find meaning in things that are wholly or predominantly visual/abstract? Like, say, coming upon a view of an unfamiliar landscape, and how it “comes together” in the eye and the mind, becomes “of a piece” all of a sudden, feels “whole”? Does that not add up to a meaningful experience? Are we perhaps just arguing over the word “meaning”, or is this something more fundamental? I would say the “buzz” I might get from the sight of some great mountains, for example, (or the physically arresting sight of a great painting, before you even know what it is “about”) is meaningful in a deeper and more direct and “real” sense than any metaphor or allusion could be, at least in terms of “things visual” (I speak not of literature, etc., only visual art). Is this not similar to how abstract art might act upon us? Certainly it is – if only our “content” (visual) could be as rich and complex and coherent as those mountains; and how that content is achieved is surely the proper subject for this site. I rather think we define that word “content” differently too. Of course, there is a lot more complexity to the experience of both mountains and art. You can so choose to journey on, into the mountains… but I still think metaphor would be in the nature of excess baggage. You don’t need it for a memorable day out.

By: Sam Mon, 04 Nov 2013 10:32:57 +0000 Robin,

I don’t understand in how what a painting “does” can be separated from its quality as an image, from the fact that it is an image? Or what it “does” from what it looks like? Surely how it looks is an inseparable part of what it does? (on this note I share Pete Hoida’s skepticism about your claim never noticing subject matter of a painting).

Of course there is a problem of talking about painting just as an image or just as subject matter, but no one here is suggesting that this is what should be done (except from you?). The divide you suggest as so absolute simply does not exist, except as a long-running polemic, or as a willful act of blindness (perhaps really the problem is writing so polemically about what are v complicated issues).

It seems to me that if anything your definition is the mean and reductivist one (which does not mean that I respect that it may have a great potential for how you think about and approach your own work). The Brancaster Chronicles are enjoyable and interesting and their mainly formal slant is obviously one I have sympathy for and think is useful, particularly as a corrective to lots of vagueness about abstract art; it is also obviously even more useful for practicing artists.

But I don’t think that they encompass all the ways art can be approached or thought about. It seems to me their “objectivity” consists mainly of being able to point to things in the paintings on display – this is useful for the reasons I’ve just said, but I don’t think it is a surefire way of recognising or engaging with great art.

By: Robin Greenwood Mon, 04 Nov 2013 09:23:27 +0000 Robert,
Would you care to specify the meaning of any great art? To my way of thinking it is manifold. It is certainly not encompassed by subject matter. That doesn’t mean that it is meaning-less. Nor does it mean that we cannot attempt to talk about it, as objectively as we can (see Brancaster).

To state at its simplest, content in abstract art is what it “does”, rather than what it looks like (and for me this is true of all art). The artist’s search for content is thus a rather different and greater proposition than the creation of images. I’d go so far as to say that images must be “overcome” in some manner in order for a work to become either painting or sculpture, which are so dependent upon the physical facts of their existence for their meaning. Which is why reproductions (which are images) are not much use in determining the full meaning of a work of art. To me, the argument becomes very clear and unanswerable when you think about abstract sculpture (it would have to be some infinite set of images – ridiculous!), but I think it holds for painting too.

Painting as a “subset of images” (as per Sam) is a very mean kind of definition of painting. Maybe there is a reductivist truth in it, but it’s looking at the thing the wrong way through a telescope. I’m not sure it’s of any use at all.