Abstract Critical

Improvisation in Abstraction

Written by Robert Linsley

Robert Linsley, installation of paintings from the 'Islands' series, Diaz Contemporary, Toronto, 2007

Robert Linsley, installation of paintings from the ‘Islands’ series, Diaz Contemporary, Toronto, 2007

It’s a cliché that Abstract Expressionism has some kind of similarity to or affinity with Jazz, but I don’t know of any attempt to make this relationship concrete. Are they at all the same, and if so, how? I think that the answer to this question makes clear one of the most important contributions that modernist abstraction has made to our visual culture today, namely that it has given new value to the temporal and placed improvisation at the centre of art.

All aspects of process are fascinating to an artist, but viewers ordinarily only care about the finished product. After all, that’s what they have to live with. One consequence of the static nature of any finished work is that it takes a bit of theory to recapture why process might be important, and therefore a certain amount of confusion gathers around the topic. Allow me to increase that confusion.

In classic modernism, say the work of Cézanne or Matisse, pentimenti and even quite radical changes of direction are usually visible in the work, and they speak to us about the artist’s adventure, how they struggled to arrive at a resolution and a satisfactory pictorial experience. This is the context for the work of artists like Pollock, Mitchell, de Kooning or Motherwell, for example, but they are really doing something very different, which could be called genuine improvisation. Typically, Abstract Expressionism contains nothing that says correction or second thought. The whole work is improvised, so there can’t be any pentimenti – abstraction of this type by definition has no recognizable image, hence no posited goal. There is no limit to test it against as it proceeds, no Mt. Ste. Victoire, no reclining nude. Every artist knows from experience that limits enable expression, and so this is also one of the weaknesses of abstraction in its American incarnation—open-endedness brings the very existence of creative freedom into question, because it forces us to recognize that it can only be measured against convention, and if the convention is that anything is possible there is no limit to exceed. The practical consequence of this dilemma is that finishing is very hard, but if we had a better understanding of what improvisation is, and what it is worth, difficulties of this kind might be solved.

As Allen Ginsberg put it “first thought best thought,” but pragmatically every artist knows that it often doesn’t work out that way. An abstract painter of the free, open-ended sort will often overpaint or rub out but it is impossible after the fact to determine if changes are an improvement. Every thought is a “first thought;” aesthetic decisions may succeed each other in time, but not in importance. This might be a hard fact for many to accept, but an artist like de Kooning had to live it, and it wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, I challenge anyone to prove that the stages of de Kooning’s works demonstrate any progress or improvement. He could have stopped anywhere and the result would have been as good.

Untitled, watercolour, 2009, 59 x 76 cm

Untitled, watercolour, 2009, 59 x 76 cm

Having said that I have to pause and revise—it may not immediately be apparent that the changes were improvements or that the final stage was the best and a necessary end. This is one of the most important aspects of the temporality of abstraction in our time, that works are made to be evaluated in the future, and the best present response to any work is a suspension of judgement. Past art worked toward a recognized standard of quality, discoverable in already existing art, in the canonical masterpieces. The new art aims to invent its own standards of quality, and this is how improvisation acquires superlative importance. For the most ambitious art there is no other method, because no other method can ensure an unknown result. The problem reduces to the relation between beginnings and ends. The improvised work can only be recognized by its end, but its end is by definition unknown, even to the artist—especially to the artist. If the end is known, then nothing new can appear, so much is obvious, but improvised art also tries to take a distance from known beginnings. Is this even possible? Logically, maybe not, but it can be done.

Having said that, I would like to pause for further revision. Improvisation does not mean pulling art out of thin air. It is a congerie of techniques that enable the possibility that the new will appear, the foremost of which is repetition—at least that’s what we can learn from Jazz. The Jazz musician/composer aims to create a music, and it is built gradually, over time, by constantly working through a set of motifs, repertoires, devices, mannerisms, techniques, so that the relation between the elements is incrementally changed until the whole edifice, a life’s work, stands apart—a unique construction. This is an eminently pragmatic and realistic approach, because it doesn’t set impossible standards of extempore achievement. Improvisation is more akin to normal living than it is to flights of virtuoso artistic skill. And yet, great improvisers usually are virtuosos, it’s just that they have set their own standards of skill. It turns out that skills are best learned in the act of creation, and so one’s artistic beginnings can be set by—education ceases to be determining. Beautiful and highly individual musical idioms may be based on unusual fingerings or “incorrect” voicings which have been mastered beyond habit.

But having noted all this I need to make yet further revision and observe that creation can happen ex nihilo, and such is the unspecifiable goal of improvisation. Luckily there is a way to resolve this paradox, and science can help. Science has shown definitively that something does come out of nothing, and even if quantum fluctuation—the random appearance of particles in empty space—has no direct relevance to anything human we should at least take encouragement that miracles do exist, and not be embarrassed to say so. Criticism will track every manifestation back to an antecedent form, but that is not a disproof of the new, it’s just a retrospective construction. Science has also found a way to get us from the cosmic to the human, through what is called “emergent properties of complex systems.” Without getting too technical, or repeating what should be evident in the language itself, a complex system—say a living organism for example—can have properties or behaviours that could not be predicted by an analysis of its parts.

Green Ocean, 2011, enamel paint on canvas, 152 x 122cm

Green Ocean, 2011, enamel paint on canvas, 152 x 122cm

At this point I remind myself that I am talking mostly to artists, so there is no need to belabour the obvious. The new is a qualitative distinction, and we musn’t let our reason, which cannot recognize the same, to argue it away. And yet the path of art is to work the material until the qualitatively new is objectively measurable. This might be the limit that improvisation cannot exceed, namely that in our culture novelty is not negotiable. There are too many artists and too much art—small moves won’t do. Improvisation has to be bold, and that is the qualitative distinction that matters. At least in the American idiom.   






  1. Bobby Boud said…

    To Robert Lindsey
    I was engrossed in your article. It said for me everything exciting art aspires to. My only comment would be that as an artist, I wonder if there can ever by absolute abstraction. During the course of a painting, memories come to mind, and no matter how loose they are, they seem to make their way into the work. So,perhaps even in the most expressive and abstract of works, there is some hidden record of reality and past observation or memory.

    Kind regards
    Bobby Boud

  2. Jeffrey Kurland said…

    Knowing when a painting is finished is the art of the art. Recognizing when a painting has arrived is tough.

  3. Katrina said…

    Why do you think that viewers usually only care about the finished product? Surely the viewer may also care about why and how the painting was done (the journey – theoretical or material) as well as the conditions: whether of the painter herself i.e. personal or the time it was painted, social, political etc. not to mention the intentions of the painter. If the viewer doesn’t ask any questions about all these things (or is unable to make judgements about form, colour etc.) then that is probably not their fault – our education system/the media is rubbish on art.

    What you have said about improvisation and painting is a bit mystical for me – miracles? – are you saying that ‘the most ambitious art’, therefore potentially the ‘best’ art has to be produced through improvisation? – because of this ‘unknown’ idea? Where does Bach fit in to this equation (Bosch, Bob Dylan, Max Bill, Lohse etc. etc.)? Furthermore, I don’t understand why artists – particularly abstract painters keep searching for the ‘new’ as if that was the only end game/some sort of thrill – what about ‘good’?

    (+ personally I don’t think that Jackson Pollock was really an improviser at all – I think he knew pretty much what he was doing and where he was going each time – he hit on something good, and using all his skills, knowledge and experience decided to pursue it.)

    Maybe I got the wrong end of stick?

    • Peter Stott said…

      ‘New’ is probably a misnomer, ‘beyond’ is probably near to it i.e. there is more to know beyond what is currently understood and improvisation is a method of attempting to tease that out.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Katrina, What is “good?” You must have an objective criterion, and originality or novelty is objective. It can always be measured against what already exists. Maybe you don’t think we need objective criteria, that it’s all subjective. That’s fine, but then there are as many “good” works as there are people to appreciate them. That might also be fine for you, but sadly not for me.

      • Katrina said…

        No I agree there has to be some sort of objective criteria. And there are a lot of different things that make a painting good: form/all sorts of aesthetic considerations, composition, structure, colour, mark making, scale relationships, use of material, intention, concept, intellect, references, quotations, confidence, experimentation………if you are a teacher surely you can discuss all of these things re abstract painting and you can see if something is working – otherwise what is the point of art schools? I personally think that ‘originality’ is low down on the list and it would feel ridiculous to be going into my studio with that intention. It is tricky to compare/use ‘art from the past’ eg religious painting to make considered judgements about the success of a painting today but why not? They were thinking about all those things I mentioned above as well as the spiritual/narrative – which is irrelevant to us now – unless you are e.g. a practising Christian. Looking at and reading about early Florentine panel painting has been useful for me recently – I could equally be trying to work out what is good about a particular Matisse painting. However, what is great is we now have got lots of 20th century abstract work to study now, and I look at it and think about it all the time…… ps the ‘subjective’ bit? I try not to be……when I saw the Anne Smart paintings (different from my own work – or maybe not…..) I could see even from dodgy cropped photos that they are really ‘good’ for all sorts of reasons – I do ‘like’ them too but that is not so important.

  4. Paul Reeve said…

    Thank you for an exceptionally interesting article and for the stimulating comments. One of the most clarifying articles that I have read for a long time.

  5. Martin Mugar said…

    I had the good fortune to work over a six year period in proximity to one of de Koonings “Women”.At the time I was working at UNC-Greensboro and the Weatherspoon which was not yet a museum was situated in a few rooms in the art building.So on the way to class I would stand and meditate in front of this work and wonder what made it work. The painting was purchased for$5000 and the gallery director was fired for spending so much on it or so goes the myth that has grown up around this painting.The first thing that this painting taught me was that de Kooning had absorbed the work of Braque and Picasso.I recall once looking at the “Les desmoiselles d’Avignon “and thinking WIllem ‘s work would never have achieved its grandeur, if this painting had not preceded it.Picasso had blown apart the volumetric world into shards that de Kooning could then use to construct his abstractions.I do not use the word construct lightly.The final surface that faces the viewer is an incredible event,a sort of crescendo of will and vitality but it is built on an armature that is taken from the cubists.I cannot say that any earlier stage was as important as this final event,but I doubt it. The events that remain from earlier stages of the painting interact with the strokes that are painted on top of them. They are driven by a sense of a whole, a kind of mood, that is behind the language of planes and lines and buoys them up . Every mark on that final surface is of absolute necessity .

    Order and disorder are a hallmark of Jazz.Coltrane takes a Rogers and Hammerstein song and deconstructs it.He moves away from it into chaos and then back into it.It is the underlying mood.We could not live our lives without this sense of the whole.Our breaking away is still beholden to it.All the intensity and painterly excess in de Kooning’s painting moves out from and is brought back into the language of Braque and Picasso’s still lifes.


    • Robert Linsley said…

      Martin, I think I understand the experience you describe, and I tend to agree that de K was working off cubism. However, this topic is contentious, and in a discussion on this site Richard Shiff was at pains to deny that very point.

      If de K aspired to repeat something he had seen and felt in cubist painting, he didn’t have a particular work in mind, because he didn’t want to make something that obviously looked like a Picasso, it was a more “abstract” ideal. He didn’t want to specify what that quality was – a resemblance on an “abstract” level, so a new kind of continuity with the past, one with originality built in.

      As far as improvisation is concerned there is a possibility to abandon even that, and that’s pretty well what Shiff is arguing for. Ends are the goals that one strives for, beginnings are the standards or ideals one has taken in from past art. To break with both is to be working only in the present, with whatever is at hand. This kind of steady-state, present oriented approach is what Shiff sees in de K.

      The sense of the whole may be yet another constraint, or it may be a more fundamental reality. I work with a sense of the whole myself, but I’m not sure how to take it, or whether it’s necessarily a good thing. Unity or disunity is an unanswered question today, so very productive for work. Many artists who contribute to this site are involved with collage, so they understand that.

  6. AMC said…

    I agree with the notion that improvisation is more about spontaneity than premeditation. Improvisation is both pragmatic and purposeful although the outcome for me is always impossible to predict. I think that what does it for me is an element of surprise. One that comes from having worked with all the variables in such a way that produces an unexpected and new result. One I had not seen before or at least do not remember having seen before.

  7. Ashley West said…

    Mmm!…this is an interesting one, and there are are so many angles worth exploring; where does one start? As an improviser in both painting and music, like Nick, it strikes to the heart of my practice – thanks for those interesting connections Nick – especially the one related to ‘quickness/life’. I’ll maybe throw a few things out for a starter and then come back later after more thought – maybe taking these questions into the studio. I agree Robert, the question as to whether there is demonstrable progression toward something that works better or could be considered more resolved in a De Kooning say, is an interesting one. I think this was raised in the latest issue of Turps Banana in relation to Frank Auerbach. I am working on a painting at the moment where, finding I am less concerned with ‘finishing’ yet another canvas, I seem to be content to keep going, burying statements, re-working. I am at a stage now where, as often happens, I start to ‘paint out’ an awful lot, and there is a question as to whether I am involved (as a last resort?) in a reduction of sorts, so I am left with something, that may be the result of a long process, and you can see evidence of that process, but does that make what I have arrived at necessarily more substantial? In other words, have I simply gone in circles? The process of searching (for something unknown, or a little further, beyond what I can at the moment conceive of) is certainly very important – often it involves a dismantling of the known or the promotion of chance or a fumbling around, within which I might find a new direction or possibility. This takes place in time, although in painting, while you have the temporal/spatial movement across the surface, you also have the possibility of re-working that which exists ‘in the moment’ as it were. In music it would be like having repeated goes at a passage in order to re-shape it. When I listen to such explorations in free jazz, I respect the process, but often, if I am honest, I don’t enjoy the result, and have a question about its significance. The music of John Butcher, Evan Parker, and Eddie Prevost’s AMM often suggests a descent into natural processes – fields of molecular, biological or geological activity. Anything of a lyrical (human?)nature tends to be avoided. On the other hand, I have recently been listening repeatedly to an album called ‘America’ by the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and have been stunned, not only by the improvisation but the beauty and poignancy of the result, which seems to elevate us to something beyond the medium used, while always grounded by it. Of course you get this with the later John Coltrane pieces, where he exploits his experience and technique to the utmost, but here they are ‘put to work’ I feel, rather than indulged in. There is an excellent and highly critical exploration of the nature of musical improvisation in Edwin Prevost’s book ‘No Sound is Innocent’. Coming back to painting, I wonder if similarly I respect the ‘breaking of new ground’, the focus on abstract relationships, the medium, the process, the improvisation in abstract painting, but how often am I truly touched by what it brings? I apologise (though not really) for returning to Diebenkorn again, but in those Ocean Park paintings you see a continual struggle to avail himself of what is required to repeatedly enter into this process of improvisation, but it is as if it is given credence by what he arrives at. And of course he is working within (and also against) the grid implied by the rectangle. Similarly I would hope that as I return to my painting I am able to open evermore to the possibilities that improvisation brings, but also the sensibility with which to discern significance. I wonder if for me there isn’t something in the balance between a kind of ‘classicism’ and automatism – as in De Koonings ‘Pink Angels’? One is using time and space to arrive at the timeless? a moment of recognition?

  8. Sam said…

    Should genuine improvisation (which can potentially occur in any artform) be distinguished from improvisation as theme or as subject-matter (which is a dominant type of abstract art, particularly painting within, as Robert puts it, ‘the American tradition’, but which has a long legacy within modern painting generally from Impressionism onwards, through Expressionism)?

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Sam, As Nick Moore suggests, this topic gets complicated pretty quickly.

      I think you are talking about the way that modern painting makes visible the artist’s process, but that’s strictly speaking not improvisation, though it may be hard to make that distinction. It’s definitely a necessary precursor to improvisation, if the latter is in fact a form that can be identified. It might just reduce to an attitude or a stance toward the material. I was hoping for something stronger than that.

      I keep harping on ‘American’ art because I was trying to build the link to jazz. As Nick mentions, there is a European tradition of free improvisation, and I did write some paragraphs on that, but cut them out as perhaps too digressive. The music of Derek Bailey, Han Benninck, Willem Breuker et. al. has strong roots in Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, but also in Fluxus, neo-Dada and conceptual art, as in fact Evan Parker once told me. Jazz and painting seem to have an affinity; ‘Free Music’ maybe more of an affinity with all the art world goings on of the seventies – which included painting but wasn’t dominated by it.

      But even so, real improvisation is much more than letting the brushstrokes show. It’s about exacerbating some kind of tension between the time of creation and the static picture. It might just be a matter of feel or style or attitude. Artists like Frank Stella put a premium on energy over finish, and that was one of the principles of Abstract Expressionism, largely lost in American art since.

    • Sam said…

      I guess my real problem is that a lot of improvised abstract art looks kind of the same (is Stella really improvising in the manner you describe above?); and so I don’t buy the idea that it is the necessarily the best way to create ‘new’ abstract art.

      Our access to the process of making, the restaging of making, as if it was happening in front of us, can be a powerful thing (though, like fading Cubist newspaper can appear strangely lost in past-time), but doesn’t this coming into being potentially act as a substitute or an ersatz newness? Indeed improvisation, in the sense of working it out on the canvas, seems to tie painting too much to the a very crude handling of its physical materials. Older painters also improvised but instead of improvising against a tub of paint and a blank canvas they had a whole complex of things to improvise in or against – beyond much more diverse and set expectations they also had a whole series of complex physical / artistic processes. Rearranging a set of figures with black chalk on paper is just as improvised as pouring paint onto a canvas, and just as likely to lead to the new.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        When we start talking about creative process, things can get pretty general pretty fast. I think even Poussin used to improvise, in the sense that once the larger structure was set he probably filled in a lot of details directly with the brush, without sketching them first. But it’s not a far-fetched idea to suggest that there is some kind of qualitative difference in post-war art that we might call improvisation. And if you are saying that it entails limitations, that the work loses something thereby, I agree completely. “Improvising against a tub of paint and a blank canvas” seems like a limited strategy right from the start. By the way, as he has developed Stella has become more like an old master than any other contemporary I can think of. He plans like an old master, but still keeps a space for improvisation, and yet maybe it’s more a question of energy than process.

        If you are alluding to my work, I would just say don’t be quick to assume that you understand what’s going on. The process for me is not quite the same as what I describe in the article.

      • Sam said…

        I wasn’t just alluding to your work. More later…

  9. nick moore said…

    Being a practitioner of improvised music and painting I offer the following thoughts on the subject.
    As with abstraction, there are various meanings of the word improvisation; with abstraction, as Barr pointed out, “the adjective ‘abstract’ is confusing and even paradoxical….because it has the implications of both a verb and a noun. The verb to abstract means to draw out of or away from. But the noun abstraction is something already drawn out of or away from ..” So, to abstract is to take an existing structure and reconfigure it; whereas abstraction is rooted in its own creation.
    In Jazz, improvisation can also be two things. The first happens in a set place for a specified time during a written structure and the improvisation also usually keeps within a set framework. It simply breaks out of the melody which is then returned to again (the head) – Cezanne or Matisse perhaps. Then there is the arena of free improvisation in which there are no boundaries. It is about spontaneous invention. The unpredictable. The parallels with painting are interesting. What Robert talks about as Abstract Expressionism, in its pure form, would be akin to freely improvised music. When you are doing it you don’t know where its going to go and the risk is that it may not work. With such music there is no going back and correcting it. It is of the moment. With a painting it can be reworked. As Robert notes, ‘beautiful and highly individual musical idioms may be based on unusual fingerings or “incorrect” voicings which have been mastered beyond habit’ and this is the beauty of free improvisation or the ‘sonic explorer’ such as Evan Parker.

    To ‘Improvise’ in the dictionary is ‘to compose, recite or perform without preparation; to bring about on a sudden; to make or contrive offhand or in an emergency’. Think of the phrases ‘making it up’ ‘starting at zero’ ‘out of nowhere’ ‘something from nothing’…all these can seem like clichés now, but still hold resonance. The essence of improvising, according to Enrique Pardo, is contained in the English word “quick” – in French “vif”; ‘Quick means “living”, “alive”, “lively”; it has gathered connotations of swiftness and speed, of being readily responsive and prompt to adapt. To “quicken” is “to bring to life”, “to revive”, “to animate”.
    For Kandinsky, ‘improvisation (was) a largely unconscious spontaneous expression of inner character’ or ‘non-material nature’…the interesting word here was largely..

    Related to this idea of speed is ‘Spontaneity’, described in the dictionary as ‘of ones free will, acting by its own impulse or natural law, produced of itself, impulsive, unpremeditated’.This was something like Klee’s ‘taking a line for a walk’, seeing what happens, not having concrete expectations. Then there is the poet, Dadaist and iconoclast Tristan Tzara, who stated “What we want now is spontaneity not because it is more beautiful or better than anything else. But because everything that comes from us freely without intervention from speculative ideas represents us.”
    This has resonance, the idea of allowing flow, having an open relationship with the painting rather than forcing it into something one thinks it should be. This also links with the idea of authenticity, being genuine and true to oneself and ones inner process, which is the nub of improvisation.

    But then being spontaneous is not about being compulsive, not the activity of simple repetition of certain elements. The Latin root sponte, implies free will, and this further implies an integration between reason and the irrational, not simply a negation of reason per se. Not a total surrender to the unconscious, but ‘an active surrender of the purposive, controlling, deliberative mind’ as Marion Milner put it, ‘a struggling to let something happen in relation to a chosen material, that malleable bit of the external world which can be shaped.’
    My work as a musician and painter are both rooted in spontaneity and improvisation, embracing chance and taking risks; my painting involves combining elements of chance and deliberation, (what in music John Cage talked about as ‘considered improvisation’) an exploration of energy and feeling through colour, a direct encounter (or series of encounters) with the material, embodying the sensuousness and physicality of painting as work. A bringing together of imagination and feeling.
    This process relates to the idea of spontaneity embodying vitality and freedom – and as Asger Jorn put it, “to escape the tyranny of reason.” The making process is at the heart of both practices, painting and music. The nature of improvisation brings with it an expectation; being new and original each time, being ‘of the moment’ or ‘in the here and now’. Yet it is an impossible task to be completely fresh and original at each moment – this is more like Zen! Maybe there are Zen-like qualities in the process of improvisation; something about the moment, nowness; based on a continual state of awareness of the choices one is making or choosing to make, and making the one that is right for now. It is about being in the work and doing what is right for the work.

    As for knowing when a painting is finished…that’s another story.