Abstract Critical

Gestural Painting

Written by George Hofmann

George Hofmann  After All, 1, 2014, acrylic on board, 48x38 in.

George Hofmann, After All, 1, 2014, acrylic on board, 48×38 in.

Gesture in painting has to be authentic to be any good (it goes without saying that all painting has to be authentic to be good) and that means felt by the artist, and this feeling conveyed to the viewer. And, to be authentic, it must come from inmost sources, whatever the depth.

The most recent overtly gestural painting in our history, Abstract Expressionism, did not “die”, as many think – it withered, or more accurately, was strangled, by superficiality: a superabundance of empty and meaningless moves on canvas swamped the art consciousness of the time, the result of incomplete understanding, superficial interpretation and lack of feeling: the real, deep, crude and unmanageable overtaken by the banal. This proved, really, how difficult it was to make this kind of art, not how unsubstantial its source was.

Other trends in art intervened, but human feeling does not go away: what we are seeing now in contemporary painting (and in the very little actual sculpture now being made) is often the result of feeling struggling to higher visibility again, confounding those who predicted all painting’s demise, and AbEx’s total death in particular. Some artists, like Amy Sillman, are tentative in their approach, while others, such as Ben Dowell, reveal how difficult the authentic is to achieve (real feeling is not always accessible feeling).

The significant problem we are facing is the want of real emotional understanding: we are not versed in this in society, and not schooled in its precepts in art; sadly, nothing much today prepares us to perceive in depth – except, perhaps, at moments of true horror in life, when we face the inexplicable and the unfathomable – in art not at all.

Perhaps those at the margins of society, and art practice as we know it today, have a lot to teach us; perhaps people in the Thirties and Forties were more used to want, to immediate and long-range threats, to despair and heartache, to overpowering joy at merely surviving (as many refugees did); and perhaps, today our society needs a real and widespread understanding of heartache, of joy, and of want, in order to learn to understand again.

Art had nowhere else to go, really, to be authentic in the 1930s and ‘40s than to abstraction and expressionism: in painting, the paths of Realism (as in Reginald Marsh) and Neo-Plasticism on close examination petered out, for want of strength. At that time a magical confluence of creativity emerged from disparate sources – Mexican, European, American – to produce new, and unprecedented, art, such as Jackson Pollock’s.

We can’t have the same confluence again, but maybe present-day conditions can bring about deeper understanding: in art, we have had the benefit of the crucibles of other movements, conditions in society are unstable, and, in painting, and in some sculpture, the search for authenticity seems to be on.

So the present is messy, but promising; our education remains to be deepened. As artists, this is our terrain – we have an obligation to lead.

22 June 2014


Not So Simple – Addendum to Gestural Painting

Lots of things are not so simple in contemporary art, and one of them is the current stall in abstraction that invites figuration.

On the one hand this is equivocation. On the other, it is perhaps a deep-seated need for human resemblance, missing since the expiration of the Renaissance influences of the figure, which lasted well into the 19th, and even the 20th centuries.

Even more so however, it is a sign of the always-present urge for corporeal depth in painting. No matter how shallow this depth eventually became in abstract painting, it was always there, even if only presenting the flat front of things.

The figure waned in the face of the power of real abstraction in the 1940s, but then abstraction itself waned; in the uncertainty of the present the figure has reared its head again, no pun intended.

The new figuration is not strong, but it is a sign of a search as well as of fears and doubts, proving, once again, how very revealing art is emotionally, despite everything.

1 July 2014





  1. anthony seymour said…

    Still inspired by all this:

    It seems to raise the ghost of the idea of the Culture Hero and in other words this is not the parsimony & artistic success of a Marcel Duchamp able to abandon it all and play chess…..

    However, what is troubling me is whether it is really necessary for the artist to be at all accountable and how unattractive or stifling it could be to expect artists to be responsible as it were!

    I wonder about Gary Cooper in that old film I recall from my childhood as Ayn Rand’s “The Architect” taking up the cudgels versus the collective philistines and altruistic yet sinister critics?

    Recently I read Rand’s actual tome and despite her political agenda, as a tale of a creator against the collective, it is inspiring!

    In any event, its good that Picasso did actually always lead (even through the very late work) and looking forward to the completion of John Richardson’s epic biography.

    It is also good to read T.J.Clark’s excellent philosophical discussion about the Blue Period through to Guernica in his new study, “Picasso & Truth”.

    On another note in terms of contemporary living artists, it seems to be people like Yoko Ono or Ai Wei Wei who would have most to give going beyond gestural painting…..

  2. anthony seymour said…

    Strange writing – my instincts are to jump on-side but its sort of fey at the same time…..

    Then there is the comedy of imagining name-dropping Pollock and talking about “feeling” or “authenticity” with fashionable & opportunistic people rather “getting-on” and “doing-well” with illustrational-cartoon-photographical painting at “art fairs” or new trustafarian-type “art galleries” run by vacant types with no interest in art who would think you are just “sad” to put it politely!

    What you say may be unsophisticated but full power to your palpable honesty and generous communication, which so many pro.s now would be incapable of comprehending or empathising, because its often very scary for them, but its easier to be smug especially if those the right side of the tracks already have all the money, which is all that actually matters.

  3. anthony seymour said…

    Excellent and disturbing, because its compelling and pertinent but the truth is hardly anyone getting on or part of it out there would actually understand or feel at all or whatsoever anything written here as none of this is anything at all that could possibly interest them in art or the scary bland future or so they are maybe vacantly over-confident or smug about!

    I mean if you say you think Pollock is a serious figure – most folks out there doing well and getting on in the galleries and fairs would think you are “sad” but frankly bigger fools them…..

  4. janet moody said…

    Am entering discussion rather late and as a new subscriber…….
    back to ‘authenticity’ I took this as referring to the ‘gesture’ not necessarily the work of art and as such I related it very much to the concept of Tao in Chinese painting.

  5. John Sevcik said…

    Deep feeling, the profound effect of great art on us, has always been present in the world, no matter the style or branch of art. Not every example of art reached that level, of course. Some are relegated to the categories of poorly made art, bad art, and decorative art. Of these, decorative art has suffered most from the high esteem we give profound art, and it was people like Vuillard and Bonnard who resurrected the beautiful into something also profound. The matters of human life accept that happiness is indeed as complex and needed as unhappiness, grief, suffering. And the story of human thought — the enlightenment and how it interacted with faith to actually work our way out of those crazy sectarian wars of the age of faith; these are also the matters of art. Perhaps we are too interested today in measuring everything by the standard of “I alone feel.”
    I find it interesting that when my students tell me what they are doing, with complete sincerity, it often doesn’t accord with what they are showing me in their paintings. But the wrestling between modes of mind are also interesting and probably an important part of the process of an artist’s development. I always recommend Sperry’s Nobel Prize acceptance essay about the brain for its clue to what emotion actually is.
    A few years ago I used to ask students if emotion is thought. It ends up that it probably is a communication of thought conclusions that must break through to other perceptual modes in the brain other than the one in which the emotion was formed — sort of a siren, or aria. Although we want powerfully true things in our art — the things we actually care the most about in life — those emotions themselves are probably created, as George Hoffman seems to intuit, by the experience of powerful things in life. But all those disturbing or emotionally jarring events begin as perception, thought, reflection, very immediately even emotion. But the brew of our time is the thing to drink, whatever it wants of us.
    One last thing, to resolve some of the tension still felt between the gesturalist and the realist — Pollock had subject matter, themes, great working titles. Often the drawing of something he was calling up lies under the eventual gestural and emotional painting. This wrestling, which George is doing sort of in public in his essay, is part of the path to force visual issues into the auditory part of the mind. As such, this crossing between modes of thought approximates the paths we wish emotion to jump with its conclusive and sudden impact. The terms of George’s debate seem to brook no compromise. Absolute and vague undefinable terms are brought forward to make an asault on the unknown depths. All to the good, but don’t count anything out, either in the history of art, or the artists working today. No one way of working is guaranteed to produce the results we are all drawn to. But commitment like George’s is probably a key to the endeavor.

  6. John Bunker said…

    This is a really interesting combination of articles and reviews on AbCrit’s front page.
    Why? Because I think the time is right for a reappraisal of the gestural impulse in abstract painting. But there has just got to be a different way to talk about it. I’d jettison notions of authenticity, originality, deepness or shallowness and replace them with the notion of ‘conflicted subjectivities’ which seems to get at something really culturally relevant right now that links it historically to post war abstraction which is being reappraised in interesting ways by the likes of historians David Craven, Kobena Mercer and Anne Eden Gibson.

    It seemed to be in the 80s that abstraction in general and the gestural wing in particular became very unfashionable in the art world. The emphasis moved to installation, better technology was developing in video art. Neo Expressionism dominated painting. ‘Identity politics’ seemed to be the term that caught the cultural drift of the time.

    But if 80s art had anything interesting to say to us it was to make us recognise that the sense of self is mediated by our changing notions of what society is ( take Thatcher’s malevolent quip “There is no such thing as society”) and the institutions that support that society- governmental, cultural and multi- national corporations , who trade in the buying and selling of identities, brands and ‘culture’- this includes, of course, ‘High Art’ of the ‘gestural’ or the ‘hard edged’ variety.

    These ideas have lead painting and sculpture into strange hinterlands of ‘tactics’,’strategies’ and ‘Institutional Critique’. Art making was no longer about risk taking on the picture plane but about risking the very idea of an ‘authentic’ artistic self. It became about playing games with identities, daring the dissolution of this ‘self’ in the new ‘culture machines’ being built by the likes of Saatchi, Jay Jopling, Gagosian and Serota et el. It was about negotiating complicities with the art market and the wider world of commerce- in the hope that it could be commented upon, debated or somehow questioned…. Well maybe.

    By the beginning of the 90s all these seismic shifts in the way we look at and ‘consume’ art were happening as the last vestiges of the utterly ideologically bankrupt Soviet Block disintegrated. I mention this because it is one of those strange echoes from history that returns us to the fascinatingly ‘conflicted subjectivities’ of 1st generation Abstract Expressionists. As a bunch of disillusioned leftists, the soon to become AbExs watched on as Stalin implemented his horrific reign of terror including the ‘Show Trials’ 1936-8 and his short lived pact with Hitler. All this deeply divided the artistic communities of NY. The idea of Socialism taking a foot hold in American life, a dream nurtured during the Depression years seemed to be rapidly evaporating and world war all the more imminent. There’s more to the protean developments in Ab Ex than ‘sweating out Cubism’! If we step aside from Barr’s and Greenberg’s antiseptic idea of historical continuities in Modernist art pre and post 45- then a whole new and exhilarating sense of creative chaos erupts across the post- war world. (A world much wider than a few western centres.) Meyer Schapiro gets much closer to the energy and issues at the heart of works being made with gesture and abstraction right across the world in the 50s in his ‘The Liberating Quality of Avante- Garde Art’ published in the summer issue of Artnews 1957.

    “Abstraction implies…a criticism of the accepted contents of the
    preceding representations as ideal values or life interests. This does not
    mean that painters, in giving up landscape, no longer enjoy nature; but
    they do not believe, as did the poets, the philosophers and painters of
    the nineteenth century, that nature can serve as a model of harmony for
    man, nor do they feel that the experience of nature’s moods is an
    exalting value on which to found an adequate philosophy of life. New
    problems, situations and experiences of greater import have emerged:
    the challenge of social conflict and development, the exploration of the self,
    the discovery of its hidden motivations and processes, the advance
    of human creativeness in science and technology.

    All these factors should be taken into account in judging the significance
    of the change in painting and sculpture. It was not a simple studio
    experiment or an intellectual play with ideas and with paint; it was related
    to a broader and deeper reaction to basic elements of common
    experience and the concept of humanity, as it developed under new

    From this perspective we can see, for instance, direct cultural assimilation by Pollock’s abstractions of Mexican José Clemente Orozco’s politically inflected art and painting techniques applied to mural sized canvases. We see dialogues being set up between artists of North America, Indigenous North America, South America, Black American artists, Afro- Caribbean artists generally, Indian artists, Japanese artists ( the list goes on!) plus the Jewish refugees of European conflict. The history of abstraction becomes complex and de-centred. Not a deadening incestuous hierarchical lineage, but exciting collisions and frissons between people and their art – a new art set to help them mediate and navigate a rapidly changing world. Maybe this is the kind of change of perspective that abstraction needs right now to rejuvenate itself. Spontaneity was courted then, not only as a way into the ‘self’ but as a strategy of rebellion against the rise of the new corporate, technocratic, instrumentalist US of A.

    It becomes less of an issue as to whether I like the hands off approach of Riley or the blocky repetitions of Scully or the emotional intensities of improvised gestural painting. It becomes more about historically contextualising the artist’s output- trying to understand why particular styles or approaches to abstraction appear as they do at particular points in history. It is interesting that even now there are definite opposing ‘camps’, for example, geometrically inclined or gesturally inclined work. I think this is all a bit small minded. Are we not past the point of taking sides on this kind of one-or-the-other mentality? One could argue there is a blistering visceral rigour and intensity to Riley’s art that stands up to much theatrical posturing from the gestural camp. One could argue that by restricting his vocabulary Scully is able to explore infinite variations in scale, size and colour to create complex emotional registers in his work. Others might think he’s got a ‘signature style’ that is unmissable in any context- a bit like a corporate logo, so much like any of his/our ‘Modernist Masters’ for that matter…..

    But it is Schapiro’s idea that abstraction “……. was related to a broader and deeper reaction to basic elements of common experience and the concept of humanity, as it developed under new conditions…” that should in some way be recognised and rethought by artists working with gestural abstraction now. How is it different in 2014 from 1946? What are the new relationships between self and societies? How have our conflicted subjectivities evolved? How does abstraction evolve to express them, mediate them, navigate them now?

    • George Hofmann said…


      • George Hofmann said…

        Your observation that great art needs “both deeply felt emotion and penetrating intellect” hits the nail on the head. How agonizingly difficult to achieve tho! At least for the lesser endowed amongst us.
        Still, I wonder if the feeling doesn’t trump the intellect. Is “Las Meninas” more thrilling because of the extraordinary geometry of the positioning of the figures, mirrors, doorway, the idea of devoting two thirds of the canvas to Air, or the breathtaking wish to do this?
        I think it is the wish…..
        The marvel, of course, in this painting is that in Velasquez the wish and the idea seem to be one….

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      John B,
      Very interesting. But I’m not sure what to do with “interesting”. Yes, you could argue that “there is a blistering visceral rigour and intensity to Riley’s art”, but would you? Would YOU? If you think that’s true, why not argue it? I don’t think you would get that far. Nor do I think it is true to say that “Scully is able to explore infinite variations in scale, size and colour” when in fact it may be more pertinent to point out his very lack of variation. You can’t have it every which way, John. Are you arguing these points, or not? I kind of agree that it doesn’t do to take sides on, say, geometry versus gesture. You seem to be saying they are both valid, I seem to be saying they are neither sufficient in themselves (and the best of your own work has both!). Great art seems to me to need both deeply felt emotion and penetrating intellect; anything less on either side and it is unbalanced and lacks “humanity” in its fullest sense.

      So we might agree not to take sides, but not agree that anything and everything, in all its disconnected post-modern singular aspects, is of value. I’m not sure what my “conflicted subjectivities” are, if I have them, or whether I share them with you or anyone else, or how they are evolving. If I’ve got them, I’m not sure I want my art to express, mediate or navigate them. It has other things on its mind. But what you say is interesting…

    • John Pollard said…

      I admire your search for the political/ethical in art, specifically abstraction, and I admire your continued visual ambition for your work.
      The problem is how the two issues/goals are connected?
      The best that I can come up with, at the moment, for the ethical/political nature of abstraction is that it encapsulates a way of being human which, in its process, embodies our freedom, responsibility, and meaning making nature.
      Some of this relates to my interest in existential philosophy. But existentialism has always had its own struggles with the political and ethical, some arguing that there is no existential ethic. Well, I think there is, but the link with a visual art is not a simple causal one. The struggle to be ambitious in our art, and if its visual art it surely has to be visual ambition, can embody an ethics of questioning, of commitment, freedom in creativity, authenticity in relation to a fluid self with all its “conflicted subjectivities” etc. Authenticity repeatedly calls us back to ourselves from a kind of lostness in the everyday. And artists can get lost in all kinds of ways: our historical canon, influential artists, politics, critics, etc.
      Yet to call the work of art itself “authentic” makes no sense, as it’s an object. It seems to have an important life of its own. Although, granted, it needs a subjectivity to recognise its objectivity.
      The art world will necessarily have its political and ethical struggles, but what do these struggles have to do with visual quality? And if they are not about the visual how do they relate to the art? This doesn’t mean they are not without interest but what if you create a radical political art, with a profound message, that ‘looks’ very poor? That wouldn’t be very progressive? Or, if it is progressive, in what way is it about the art?
      “What are the new relationships between self and societies? How have our conflicted subjectivities evolved? How does abstraction evolve to express them, mediate them, navigate them now?”
      All good questions John but I’m not sure where they will take you in terms of the development of your visual art. But perhaps they are mainly separate journeys that nevertheless have some dynamic intersections along the way. It sounds as though, for you and your practice, they are probably worth pursuing.

  7. Lin F said…

    Very exciting subject. My thinking is that authenticity is felt or recognized when it happens. Wonderful gift. No explaining necessary.

  8. Robin Greenwood said…

    Presumably Christie’s “authenticated” that Jeff Koons that sold for £30 million recently.

  9. John Pollard said…

    To Robert.
    I’d go for ambition in visual quality of each individual work and to keep on questioning one self and others. Focusing on originality could mean you take your eye off the ball (of visual quality).

  10. Robin Greenwood said…

    Whilst my heart says Mr. Hofmann belongs on the side of the angels, my head says he’s got this wrong. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether a painting or sculpture needs to be authentic to be any good (there are numerous examples in the history of art of very good – even great – works being rather close to preceding works by other artists), it seems to me almost inevitable in 2014 that if an abstract artist is reliant upon the resultant effects of a few gestures, they will in fact produce work that is not only pretty much guaranteed to be the opposite of original, but it will also be of a kind that is not particularly setting high standards or values. The methodology of always following blithely one’s feelings, however “deep”, is surely mined-out and redundant, a cliché in itself.

    We have been here before on abcrit. Mr. Hofmann’s “authenticity” is Ashley West’s “integrity” http://abstractcritical.com/article/sol-space-and-the-question-of-integrity-in-abstract-painting/ . I would maintain that it is of little help to discuss the practise of artists in such vague terms, no matter how heartfelt the exhortations. Far better to look closely at what the art itself actually does (though this is much harder) and try to work out how it might be made better. The painting illustrated looks similar to many works I’ve seen before. I cannot tell, looking at the reproduction, whether it has values beyond those familiar ones, but my conviction is that, as the other comment says, more graft is required. The only way to make something really original is to work on and on until you discover something new (or not!). To stop working at an early stage is the bane of abstract art. To develop a recognisable style out of such a foreshortened process is the height of inauthenticity. You cannot conceptualise originality.

    Sure, we all want genuine-looking, real, spontaneous art. To achieve that now might require all sorts of complex strategies, far beyond the accumulation of a few spontaneous gestures.

    • Sam said…

      I’m not sure about the equation of originality + authenticity

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Me neither, really; but what does it mean?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Originality is at least an objective trait, because it can be measured against existing art. “Authenticity” sounds to me like some kind of moralizing. I notice today a peculiar disease going around, the tendency to judge the character of the artist instead of the quality of the work. Maybe it comes from an inability to find criteria within the work. But then to be worth anything they would have to be original criteria. The capacity to make original work would seem to be linked to the capacity to see art in an original way. Failing all that, one has to fall back on moralizing about the artist – to decide whether they are genuine or authentic, or whether they feel anything, which hardly matters as far as I can see. Can’t be decided anyway.

        Originality is probably the only objective trait, at least for abstraction.

      • John Pollard said…

        Originality seems to be a useful positive term to use at times. However, you can also surely create original rubbish?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        To John – check the above mentioned blog post. Of course other criteria will be present, but originality is the most important, and it’s not as if we have a choice about that. We live in a world of 7 billion people, and millions of artists, and it’s still growing. Does that make it harder to be original? Maybe, but it also makes it necessary.

    • George Hofmann said…

      Going by illustrations, postage stamp size, is the very opposite of experiencing painting in the flesh.
      And all art is a combination , or recombination of all that has come before. Were cave painters”original”? Who knows what came before them, drawn in the sand.
      I still say, as I did, that authentic means felt by the artist, and that feeling conveyed. If it is in a few gestures, as in a cave painting, so much the better! And who is to say that can’t happen again?
      No one us talking about “conceptualizing originality” , a wholly academic idea if there ever was one….

  11. George Hofmann said…

    I so agree about the fluidity, and am glad to be reminded of that. It is a relief to realize that this flow is of the essence

  12. John Pollard said…

    I prefer a view of the self as active, fluid, always in the state of becoming and actively engaging with the world. Authenticity is then being true to this process and the freedom and responsibility that goes with it. Seeing ourselves as a fixed ‘inner’ thing which we then have to discover by digging deep within, and then express, seems less relevant for the uncertainty and wide possibility of creating art, particularly an abstract work of art.

    Of course we need to have a sense of who we are, including our values, characteristics, etc. And as we do not choose out of nothing we have to respond to our own personal and cultural heritage and for artists that means a whole lot of baggage.

    But yet, we can question ourselves and challenge what we our doing and why. This is why, for me, authenticity is perhaps most relevant for how we judge the quality of a piece of work, as well as the underlying creative process.

    In asking ourselves what we are in the process of becoming we open ourselves to possibility and change and this seems to be useful for an ambitious and progressive artistic journey. If we are always looking ‘within’ to inmost sources for truth and inspiration we are not freeing ourselves to the extent that we could. We need to be dynamically engaging with our work, both emotionally, intellectually, visually (and yes to more elbow grease).

    Of course any version of being authentic won’t guarantee the visual quality of a work of art: any philosophy, theory, any words, can only say so much of interest about art (but it is still useful to keep on trying as it still feels relevant).

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Well said.

    • George Hofmann said…

      I agree, of course. I do speak more tho to our present situation as artists. We have plenty of external stimulus, and responses to that, but less so, these days to the internal.

    • jenny meehan said…

      That’s very helpful indeed, thanks for sharing these insights. I love reading everyone’s contributions here; its always very engaging.

      I think it’s both drawing deep from within,(very important) but also considering all that is happening relationally/directionally also. I do see art working as a journey and exploration, and in this respect consideration regarding direction is fundamental. We flail around in the darkness and mystery of life, (not a bad thing) but we do need to locate ourselves and have some sense (meaning) and the satisfaction of bringing order into the chaos. I find what you are writing about with respect to identity/becoming very helpful. The formal considerations and assessment of a piece of art working/artwork will testify firstly to the author/creator and “ring true” or not. I like what Robin has said about not settling too early in the creation process. So easy to love that gesture/colour/whatever, so much…and settle for immediate effect… But the context and relevance, maybe the “voice” of something created, does have to have some significance, and resounding quality well beyond what it “means” to it’s maker. This maybe comes down to formal qualities and considerations, but also something less tangible. I tend to like assessing things on their formal qualities, yet the connection…Yes, this is an emotional/spiritual matter…And how something resonates with others is going to be very much to do with how it stands/where it stands/in the much wider narrative/discourses which it is part of and which go on around it. It’s always only a tiny fragment of a much larger, and much harder to define (impossible…organic…erm…without an surrounding bracket…type of whole!!!!

      I think I prefer the term “authentic” to “original”…because the origin of something is not really very tangible at all, where as the author/creator is an entity…(evolving, not fixed, but centred)

      Original speaks to my thinking as looking for the impossible, and something more detached from the self somehow.

      Mmmm, still thinking onwards, as ever!

  13. Craig Barnes said…

    Bravo, George! A nice delineation of the abstract dilemma. Just one cautionary note: the muse is ever moving and demands that you keep up or fall behind. If we think too hard about the dilemma we lose ground and risk taking our eyes off the prize.
    Mary said it best: What you guys need is less philosophy and a little more elbow grease.
    Obviously we need to hold our work up to the past and the present and of course there is no shame in postulating what the future might entail but let’s not forget that we are movers of plastic media and not just viewers of it.