Abstract Critical

The Black Square, Part 2

Written by Charley Peters, Simon Callery, Onya McCausland

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929, © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929, © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art at Tate Modern starts predominantly as a show of painting, and there are many excellent examples of Malevich’s early vision and skill in the initial rooms of the exhibition. Works from the second decade of the twentieth century such as The Province and The Scyther demonstrate clearly his ongoing development of an original visual language. However, by the time we encounter the first of the two versions of Black Square in the show, the clarity of the exhibition’s focus has begun to falter. Sitting uncomfortably in the same dark room as a vociferous screening of the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun, whichis cited as having led to its conception, the 1923 version of Black Square is introduced in the exhibition notes as a work of ‘uncompromising power…one of the iconic paintings of the twentieth century’. Sadly, Tate presents little opportunity to see Black Square as a painting at all. The discussion of it as such is eclipsed – through its fixed positioning in the past – by the persistent contextualisation of Black Square as a radical idea and not much else.

The painting has some notable material features, with many of its physical qualities having shifted with age. During the years since its production the thick, velvet texture of the black paint has cracked to reveal the tired white ground beneath, erasing the stark contrast between the void of creation (the white background) and the material object (the dark square). Too often references to the physical act of painting in Malevich’s black abstraction are neglected, unlike discussions of subsequent black paintings by, for example, Motherwell, Reinhardt or Rothko. Black Square struggles to exist as a painting devoid of the context of its creation, a problem unfortunately reinforced by its presentation in the Tate show. By the time we see the 1929 Black Square in a compact re-staging of the The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 it has been reduced to little more than a pastiche of itself by Tate’s limiting approach to illustrating art history through experiential walkthroughs. When employing such a literalising strategy it is difficult to see Black Square as anything more than a focal point in conceptual art’s past, but its relevance today is less explicit. Perched high in the corner of Room 6 of the exhibition the painting now looks as inactive as a CCTV monitor with no signal. There are some great paintings in Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art but Black Square is not one of them. Like the aforementioned blank monitor Black Square now feels like little more than a canvas with the painting switched off.

Charley Peters

 

Malevich at the Hermitage. Photo by Simon Callery

Malevich at the Hermitage. Photo by Simon Callery

Turning a corner into another room at the Hermitage I remember my immediate excitement at seeing Malevich’s final and smallest Black Square. I had always understood his work within the context of one of the most heroic episodes in early C20th art involving an epic struggle between progressive artists and an increasingly brutish and suppressive political regime. Here I found the Black Square to have an undeniable forceful and confrontational character but scrutinizing the surface for clues to its importance was pointless and only drew a blank.

Clearly this painting, or rather, our attitude to it, is the result of an accumulation and accretion of projected meanings, interpretations, histories, mis-readings and mythologizing over one hundred years. They constitute the narrative that binds this black pigment – the accumulation and accretion is the painting as much as its physical fabric. How can an artist set out to produce a work with these qualities and this aura?

Well, you can’t. Malevich set out to do something very different. I am inclined to think the mechanism that drove Malevich to develop new forms for painting was not so much a confrontation with the oppressive political masters of post-revolution and Stalinist Russia but rather a confrontation with religion and the language of religious painting. This places Malevich within a mainstream of European painters at work on this project since the Renaissance. His courage and ability was focused on the high-risk process of dismantling and removing the image in painting without losing everything. I would place Black Square at the point where much is removed and much still needs to be done to compensate for the ghastliness of the loss of image.

That the painting has now been conferred ‘iconic’ status is unfortunate since that is everything it set out not to be. We must take into account just how much of Malevich’s energy went into dismantling and unpicking the vernacular of the Byzantine icon painting. A better term to describe those perfectly poised and receptive black surfaces of the Black Square would be ‘artefact’.

Simon Callery

 

Malevich’s Black Square was not the first abstract ‘monochrome’ painting but the time and place of its making ensured its position in the history of art. Formed out of an entanglement of cultural and political forces in the early years of the 20th Century Black Square is a reminder (if one is needed) that art is entirely bound up with its context. Context – for Malevich the stresses between geopolitical fault lines, huge economic disparities and the sense that technology would provide a better future (experiences not so remote today) – shapes the art that is made. Art is a product of its time.

Much has been said about the inexactness of the geometry in Malevich’s paintings, that they fail in their attempt at ‘pure form’ – as if handmadeness undoes ‘purity of form’ and dismantles what these works aspired to. But it is this ‘failure’ (if that is what it is) that is the most interesting thing of all. The not quite straight lines, the rough edges, the slightly course brushed marked surface, all perhaps imply spatial conventions still tethered to representation – foreground/background, in-front/behind, interior/exterior. Donald Judd wrote in 1974 that the ‘old abstract space’ of Malevich’s Suprematism failed to achieve ‘absolute purity of form’ – the tactile materiality and tangible qualities of one layer painted over another was too close to the conventions of cubism and was ‘not very spatial at all’.

The scattergun organization of forms in Suprematism is not the result of ‘necessary’ modular sequences or a set of ‘organising principles’ but rather a collection of arbitrary connections that tilt, fall, tip, merging and deforming. Their very precariousness (including the famous Black Square) brings these images closer to the unpredictable dimension of the tactile, tacky, sticky, cracked and crumbly humanness in painting. Even the rigorous reduction of colour does not reduce meaning but unlocks unruly fantasies of human consciousness.

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, and feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished.” Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

The utopian project has failed but fragments of thought persist and filter through time, one layer upon another layer, images, ideas and feelings falling softly as light. The ambivalence of Black Square has naturally accumulated over the passage of time – gradually shifting meaning and intention – the paintings’ obliterating iconoclasm has been tempered (it has itself become an icon of modernism, and its very originality triggered the opposite – serial repetition) and its revolutionary assertiveness has been rendered impotent. Now the discussion is academic, focusing on its effect on the trajectory of the history of art. Some lament that such a work can never be made again – that no painting could harbour such weight of expectation. Now, it is hardly even ironic that the author’s place of birth – Ukraine (land of borders) is (still) in a great deal of turmoil, and it is unlikely that any new technology will make things any better at all.

Onya McCausland

  1. Mark Liebenrood said…

    Onya Mccausland says Malevich’s Black Square was not the first abstract ‘monochrome’ painting. What was?

  2. anthony seymour said…

    I reckon my own painting is better than Malevich’s black square really!

  3. John Pollard said…

    If one’s politics include a commitment to freedom, equality, true democracy, challenging abuses of power, flattening hierarchies, etc it may be that an approach to abstraction that encourages and empowers the viewer to think for themselves about the meaning and value of the work of art, and lessens any authority outside of this individual, is a worthwhile political ideal.

    I have always found it slightly disconcerting when someone wants me to explain the meaning of a painting for them. This is an analogous process to the one I sometimes have as therapist when a client may be looking at me for the answers to their problems rather than as a facilitator to their own discoveries, abilities, answers, etc.

    So, perhaps one political ambition for abstraction means focusing on the visual qualities of the object and letting it have a life of its own when it is finished: less power to the artist and more power to the individual object of art and its viewer/s. We have to let the painting go……

    • Peter Stott said…

      I think your talking about transcendent form here, what a picture’s potential is, outside of any ideology; the greater picture within the smaller picture, as it were. But it’s highly unlikely that will affect politics and what it does, run a country and control and advise its populace, for better or worse. With my patent application I attempted out-think the media by claiming the next level of graphics technology. The image is central to all visual media, so any technology of image is critical in the battle to control the image’s power in the hands of the media. Of course, I failed. I knew it would fail as it stands because the maths to work out the idea, hasn’t yet been done. Computer vision research hasn’t got as far as inventing projective form/space values for 2D shapes, hence there’s no transcendental form realization in computer graphics or art, just simulacrumss, pastiches, the worst kind of imagery, a sort of living hell, thumping everyone who watches TV. However, the visual model I set out, can be applied to any imagery, including abstract art. If a knowledge of how transcendental visions become, becomes more widespread, then there’s a chance one can see through the media’s current power tools, see them for the empty drivel they are. That might lessen the media’s grip on the visual. That’s the political angenda for the 21st C, not little paintings by individuals. Even Guernica never stopped a single bomb being dropped, one has to accept the relatively little power art now has, in the political battle for the control of the visual.

      • Peter Stott said…

        In any case, if the graphic technology were to be developed, then the first thing that would happen is that it would fall into the hands of the media and big business. I tried to own it to stop that, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the computer algorithms to back up the visual model.

      • Peter Stott said…

        The media machine of now, actively promotes shows like Malevich, and promotes it via Tate Modern AS THE AVANT GARDE OF NOW, to de-balls art further and keep the power of the visual even more in the hands of the media. That’s how Malevich is political, as a pawn.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Like all this First World War stuff. “Lest we forget” hah! It’s all designed so that one will forget the present.

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Early this morning I passed by the installation by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London of 888,246 ceramic poppies. Spectacular and to-the-point, this is the modern-day installation equivalent of a commemorative statue. Installation or statue, both are able far better than abstract art to carry a forthright message of a social or political nature, either radical or conservative, since they have no imperative whatsoever to operate at a different level of meaning from the literal objects of everyday life. We all know what a poppy “means”, and we know why there are 888,246 of them; in the same way, we also know why there are rather dull statues of kings and generals on horseback dotted about London. The question is – to pick very a random example from the world of genuinely visual art, to which neither the poppies nor the generic commemorative statues belong – what do the dahlias mean in Monet’s “Garden at Argenteuil (The Dahlias)”? They commemorate nothing specific (perhaps “life” or “nature” or “blooming colour” maybe?), but in the end are more particularly meaningful than those poppies or statues, with a significance that is broad enough and long-lasting enough to communicate many different aspects of humanity, including politics – if, that is, politics is at least in part about addressing issues of dignity and freedom. Then, surely, art has a huge part to play in our relationships with other people, even (perhaps especially) when it is ostensibly apolitical. Such a picture as this Monet makes a humanitarian communication through nothing but the very specific nature of its visual structure, as invented and achieved by another human being, the artist. And whilst these matters are inevitably in part subjective, a striving for an objective “liberation” in one’s own art, as was the case in the Monet, is as radical a stance as it is possible to aspire to, pitting oneself against all the established order of academic thought and practise.

    Gaza is bleak, but imagine a world in which Gaza exists, but Monet does not; how very much bleaker still would that be? Monet adds immensely to our understanding of humanity without resort to obvious politics. I might surmise that his own personal politics were conservative, but his best art is surely radical and uplifting – far more so than Malevich’s “Black Square”, which I would maintain is an ultra-conservative and depressing painting, no matter what its revolutionary context or its creator’s political affiliation. It led Malevich nowhere beneficial to himself or his art, if the exhibition at Tate is to be taken as definitive, and despite Sam’s protestations, has not, in my opinion, given rise to any good art. Let’s remind ourselves that the purpose of abstractcritical is to try to find ways to improve upon how we make and think about abstract art now. There is no way that I can see that even an immense amount of contextualising will allow “The Black Square” to contribute to that. What has a black square really got to offer us, now, in the studio?

    What’s more, what has comment about its political context got to offer, other than a fascinating bit of history for our “weekend reading”? And I’m sorry to say, Patrick, that I could no more establish what your political persuasion was from looking at a painting of yours than I could determine what you had for breakfast that day.

    Abstract art, like the best figurative art before it, has an imperative to operate on a very different and far more imaginative and inventive level than those objects intended to commemorate events or promote party politics. Its meaning cannot reside in a message loosely attached to some academic form, but has to be discovered in the uncompromising excitement and coherence of the form/content itself. When this is achieved, it is always a “radicalising” experience for those willing and able to partake of it. To labour my point, I would insist that “Flatford Mill” is a far more radical painting than “The Black Square”, and of course manifestly more exciting, since it really does push painting towards the absolute furthest limits of its capacity to create a new and complex spatial reality – it is yet another of John Constable’s ravishing visual structures. I know, because I spent half an hour with it yesterday, looking at it as if for the first time. I also walked through the Malevich again, and looked for, oh… at least 10 seconds, at that black thing. It really does do nothing at all, near as damn it.

    • Peter Stott said…

      I’m sure Jonathan Lasker would disagree with you. The ‘Black Square’ offers the end point of a denial of the architectonic. Always a useful weapon for those that know they can never achieve a realization of transcendental imagery.

    • John Bunker said…

      You criticise the limiting aspects of politically, context driven art but isn’t this criticism, itself, ideologically driven verbiage in its own right Robin? It’s the good o’l politics of NO politics!

      We’ve had to put up with hundreds of years of the elites of various western cultures at once pontificating about the heights of which ‘humanity’ has climbed in art and, in the process, alienating the rest of us from it- thus cloaking their ravenous hunger for power (and finally their desperate need to hang on to it) in ‘High art’. (We are talking about what happened in the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century here but what has happened since with the world’s top 10% mega- rich and art in the last 50 years would be really interesting to discuss also!). Where do you think the Salon des Refuses (where Monet first encountered Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) comes from? They were artists fed up with academicism bred in the incestuous hot houses of feudal power. Even Renoir’s intent to paint the ‘real world’ full of the new young bored middle classes trying to get off with each other on Sunday afternoons was part of that struggle. Why mention only Monet? How could you be so ready to forget the radical politics that underpinned Courbet’s art and Pissaro’s art?

      You seem intent on managing some kind of a theoretical disengagement of the future of abstract art from its brutal birth (in the west anyway) in modernity. It’s a modernity blighted by alienation on an unprecedented level, slaughter on an industrial scale, technocratic expansion never seen on this earth before. You are trying to find continuities with some notion of the history of art that is pre-modern in some kind of nature- realm that comes straight out of the 19th century. You talk eloquently enough about the formal properties at work in Flatford Mill etc but does this not plainly mask a basic nostalgia for a kind of art that is just another facet of our history….? Of course Constable’s influence in undeniable on the Impressionists, and all this should have its rightful place in history, for sure. I guess your argument would be that it does not matter how relevant to society Constable is now but it should be vitally relevant to the monastic rituals of the abstract artist? I have to be honest, I struggle with that whole paradigm…..

      I’m after a relationship with history that is dynamic. My passion for art is part of that dynamic. History is always being re-imagined, re- thought by artists, thinkers and so on. I think that you are doing just that by drawing out comparisons between the figurative art of the past and mostly 20th century abstraction. But just how relevant is that comparison? I look at Black Square, for instance, as a moment of invention where the visual arts meet a catastrophic rupture in the side of a dominant ideology. (As mentioned above, an ideology of feudal power so entrenched as to be utterly unquestionable. But it was questioned! By the peasant, the new city dweller, the artist…..) To me this is fascinating time in history that is still impacting on our world today. Personally, I’m interested in how abstraction is bound up with that. As Sam has pointed out the Black Square’s influence has not gone away, the minimal genome has not gone away! I do not think a purely formal analysis of this work is enough at all. This is where you veer too close to the righteous conservative agendas of the likes of Hilton Kramer et al.

      • John Holland said…

        But how does the political intention of this abstract work now, actually, manifest itself? Where is it?

        If it is now the luxury delight of the new uber-elites of global consumption, is this radiacal political ‘content’ destroying thenm unseen from within, like a subtle cancer? Or is it actually just not there anymore, if it ever truly was- because art cannot (NOT should not) function in this instrumentalist way?

        The fallacy of any direct relationship between the political intentions of the artist, a perceivable message of the painting and the actual, visual facts of it, is constantly illustrated by the inevitability of any and all politically radical art being cheerfully embraced by its ‘enemies’ within a few years.

        What would be the more genuinely political act- to make an abstract painting with full radical consciousness, and then sell it to DeutscheBank, or to paint a lovely puppy sitting on a velvet cushion- and refuse ever to sell it, but instead to throw it at Rupert Murdoch’s head?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Well, you are right about one thing, John B, and that is every time I come to look at the work of Courbet or Pisarro – the latter being one of my very favourite painters – I do indeed completely forget about their radical political views. Silly me.

        So do please, next time I’m stood looking at one of your formalist collages (because in fact you are more of a formalist than I am) interrupt my contemplation to point out the left-wing radical political bits. I’m sure that will help me a great deal. (Did you forget to mention these at the recent Brancaster talk on your work?)

      • John Bunker said…

        No Robin, I’m probably a bit more interested in Modernity and its competing histories than you. I think that’s in my work. I talked mostly about the facture of the work in the Brancaster and mostly listened to what other committed artists had to say including you. I get a great deal from looking closely at the facture and the making of art. Like anybody else, I enjoy close engagement with the material properties of an art object. I enjoy listening to other peoples thoughts and insights on that- that’s why crits that focus on the visual aspects of an art work are vital for me as a maker (especially of collage) BUT these visual properties are not the be all and end all for me. You might see that as a fatal flaw, I don’t.

      • Peter Stott said…

        My patent application for an artificial imagination (see ‘Black Square part 1) was also political inasmuch as it was an attempt to destroy the media’s power by exposing a greater level of visual imagery, beyond the current level of graphics technology, so that nobody owns that level, I tried to own all of it, by claiming that further level and then give it away to everybody, so that the esoteric secret of art was no longer in the hands of the media. That’s the only way, nowadays, to be radical beyond what is currently happening. it’s unlikely one could achieve that with a painting, nobody is that good, augmented reality is needed to take visuality to another level. That doesn’t mean abstract art has lost its remit, the underlying aesthetic structure implicit in all advertizing and media dominatrix is still there to be explored with whatever means one has at one’s disposal. I’m at it, like the rest of artists. it’s all up for grabs.

      • Noela said…

        You need a political/historical/religious/etc context if all you get is an off square square.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Now that you mention it, J. B., I realise that not only have I overlooked the contribution Courbet’s radical politics made to the content of his work, but I’ve also made the mistake of ignoring the fact that in his youth he was a narcissistic, misogynistic, serial womaniser who in later life developed into an opium-smoking, prostitute-visiting, fat old stinker. In fact, thinking it all through properly, I realise there is a great deal I haven’t taken into account before rushing to a positive judgement on his talents as a mere painter. Were even his pigments from sustainable sources, etc., etc? By contrast, Pissarro seems like a nice old cove, so perhaps I should stick with him. As for that nasty misanthropic right-winger Cezanne – well, best avoided altogether.

    • anthony seymour said…

      invigorating to read this Robin – its like I always thought at art school in the mid-Ninties but everybody seemed to think I was being immoral painting as such and all the side-tracked chorus become stodgy, but at least Robin is engaged in a more worthwhile direction.

  5. John Pollard said…

    It feels like we are getting in to Monty Python Life of Brian territory: The People’s Front of…………..the Black Square?

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    Oh bloody hell, it’s a still life now… but is it a left-of -centre still life, or does it lean slightly to the right?

  7. David Sweet said…

    Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ works like a still-life painting. Had it been called ‘White Square’ the viewer would perhaps pay more attention to the geometrically truer quadrilateral that supports the central element. This would make the Malevich function more like a Mondrian and less like a Chardin. As it is, the black area looms like an object, demoting the white surround to the secondary role of the ‘table-cloth’. Following the easel economy of still-life, the four sides of the white, even though they combine to make a square, do not create a ‘shape’ (gestalt) to equal the visual force possessed by the black. Of course, the work is a radical contribution to the still-life tradition, but the feeling remains that what Malevich has painted is a picture of a square.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      An imaginative take on how a different title could alter the way in which a painting functions and our consequent perception of it. Malevich himself obviously saw the potential of this alternative titling strategy with his title for ‘Red Square’ of ‘Peasant Woman, Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions’. I’m wondering which painting tradition we might be led to by the contemplation of the alternative title in conjunction with what we actually see (without the aid of drugs of course).

  8. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you John,I do think its worth talking about seriously as for me ,painting is an ethical activety.I remember how important it was to paint on the day Blair/Bush bombed Baghdad ,doing something creative not destructive.I paint Abstractly Robin ,because its capable of expressing a complexity of emotion and thought,not available to other genres.Invention of image ,design/drawing/handling and colour, can move people for the better, fulfilling a need for optimism.Its a shame I havent yet managed to include humour,fun,real political anger and human involvement in a fragile world being ruined by greed and inequality .Thats still to come .

  9. Patrick Jones said…

    I was trying to construct a non-judgemental approach which takes into account all the life events that effect artists out of their control.The rise in studio costs in London have a devastating effect on many mature painters from whom you would expect great things at this juncture in their lives.The tendency to extreme judgement about individuals [see many critiques on this site] and the importance of the heavy crits [stand up slaggin off] is a peculiar english off shoot of Greenbergs studio crits,which were largely positive ,if limited. The recent Brancaster chronicles have been different in tone ,more constructive ,less party line.Charles Wheelers association of Cezanne and Albers on Painters table is a new approach about colour.The cave painting I saw contained images related to food gathering,something of universal importance hard to ignore.It is a tragedy of Abstraction that we cannot talk about Palestine effectively to stimulate direct public action without reverting to social realism

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Perhaps you should revert? Why not, if that’s what means something to you?

    • John Holland said…

      I would second Robin’s comment- if your real desire is to comment specifically and immediately with contemporary political and social events, why do you feel the need to do do it through abstract art at all?

      It seems a bit like a footballer lamenting that he can’t score goals on the subject of government housing policy. If you really want to get involved directly in political discourse, politics is the most effective place to do it, I suspect.

  10. Patrick Jones said…

    As a student I was told politics and Art dont mix.I now see this as a dangerous lie. I cannot conceive of the Black square without its political context.Whatever Malevich was going thru personally ,there was first of all a political situation,secondly political action in terms of meetings etc.then an emotional/intellectual outburst in painting.Talk of artists going into decline is VERY Greenbergian[he reckoned we got ten good years].They find themselves in context,which they do not usually control.I find the cultural critique of “what does it mean to us now”as tho the black square dropped from Mars unannounced,completely uninteresting .Artists respond to pressure with statements using their craft/skill etc.Its personal ,political in intent and lastly cultural in its effect

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      You agree with Onya then Patrick, that “art is entirely bound up with its context… Art is a product of its time.” Well, of course, that is true, but only in an academic sense, and in the sense that the art historians will understand. But great art – even good art – transcends its time and its context. How else can carvings or paintings from 20,000 years ago still speak to us, in all their humanity, when we know nothing of their circumstance? The visual potency of great art is to me a far more liberating and radical kind of statement than anything that contingent politics can provide.

      • Sam said…

        You could argue that the multiplicity of interpretations listed before was proof the square has transcended its time, after all most of these, with the exception of Patrck’s, have little to do with the situation Malevich painted it (or them) in

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I suppose you could, if you were being perverse, but ask me again in 20,000 years.

      • Sam said…

        Less perversely, and with a slightly different understanding of context, I don’t think the square needs to have proved to have transcended its time. The number of artists who produce works within Malevich’s slipstream proves its tIme is now. Whether that is a good thing is another question…..

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Perhaps to help us decide, could you list the works produced in this slipstream? For brevity, you could just stick to the main masterpieces.

      • Sam said…

        What I mean is that many people – including on occasion yourself in non polemical mode – can accept, naturally as it were, minimal painting. I don’t think the success of the square is pure hype, or ‘context’ but because to many people this sort of thing makes visual sense, gives satisfaction. I share some of your problems with it – I dont think it is the best way forward – but it is a living tradition. I like what David Evison said about the pleasures of modern painting, and i think there are unique qualities to it. I’d put forward Barnett Newman’s Vir Herocius Sublimius as a masterpiece (whatever that means)

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        You are right – I can accept minimal painting, in context(!). That context is the 1960′s, when it (minimalism) definitely was worth a try. Not now. So we are either connoisseurs of the recent past (a really vain thing to be) or living in the present, working for the future, trying to match up to something much bigger and longer-lasting.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Some sound like medievalists still arguing about flat Earth theory. What about the future, that of no interest? My ‘Black Trazezoid’ on Saatchi art and the Patent App.
        (Black Square Part 1 hasn’t gone away, you know).

        The idea is out there now, the architectonic future of ‘abstraction’, new dimensionality for old, regardless of those who wish to usurp abstraction with politics, gender issues, feminism etc.

      • John Pollard said…

        The exchange between Robin and Patrick on politics and art is extremely important in many ways.

        I have sympathy with Patrick’s position. I, too, am a political person; politics, ethical issues, are everywhere and so it makes sense to question the political/ethical dimension of abstract art. But, if you take away the politics of the art market, and you are left with the abstract work itself, where can the political meaning and value possibly lie?

        A political representational painting will tend to have a pretty obvious message, even if it has to be explained to us. It may even move the viewer towards embracing that message more intensely, maybe it can even change a viewer’s mind. Of course this can only say so much about the ‘visual’ quality of the work.

        But what about an abstract painting? Where’s the politics, the ethical values, in a ‘subjectless’ work? The painter and critic might appeal to all sorts of political meanings and intentions but if we care about the visual we always comes back to whether something works, as a visual object. The political argument/message we may want to construct in connection with the object will stand, or fall, on its own merits, not the art’s, if the art is visual. One may object, saying that the political message is part of the art, but for me this devalues the poor art object, as if it can’t stand on its own visual qualities.

        If there is a politics in abstraction it may have something to do with our ability as human beings to create and also appreciate a created formal object on its own, and our own, merit. And if abstraction says something important about human existence, the freedom to create, to bring into being, to manipulate and transcend, and appreciate this new material relation, to develop our own visual skills and ambition, then maybe this is pretty good, and maybe political, if your politics is bound up with these kinds of notions.

        But when you go down the visual judgement line, the art work as individual object in its own right, you have to be resigned to the fact that someone with objectionable politics could have created this wonderful abstract painting in front of you. And the stranger standing next to you in the gallery admiring the qualities of this abstract work may have dodgy political views too. For me, the politics of abstraction is uncertain and highly questionable.

        But it remains important, I think. It would be good to hear more about politics and abstraction. Robin, you mentioned in a conversation with John Bunker on this site; “Is it possible to have a political abstract art? Imperative, I’d say.” I am assuming you would say that most of your arguments on abstraction/art have a political side but perhaps you (and others) should say more, explicitly, about this?

      • Peter Stott said…

        John Pollard, there is a political side to abstraction, the power of the visual in the hands of the media, the visual karate currently pulverizing all TV watchers to submission. That visual power is the media aping transcendental form. They can’t yet realize the transcendental form of ‘God’ because there isn’t the graphics technology to do it. What we have is a simulacrum of it; the ugly sisters trying to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper, so instead of Eros, one has bathos and pathos, aiming to destroy the transcendental and yet be it at the same time, for example, images of war, superimposed on one another. Every edit, every camera shot, every fade from one scene to another, all there to represent themselves as God, to claim the power of the visual for themselves. They also do everything in their power to de-balls art in order to keep the power of the visual in the hands of the media and not in the hands of artists, who are all divided as a group, as the art market, museum structure, plays one artist off against another, fighting amongst themselves, while politics and the media present a united front, as one advert seamlessly joins the next and one doesn’t any longer know when one TV program starts or finishes.

  11. Ron Johnson said…

    Why should anyone even hang it? Why should there be a wall to hang it on? Visual art is to look at and maybe to express something. These days there are seemingly endless possibilities of media and things to look. Holograms, digital media, computers allowing most of the world’s knowledge to be held in our hands. Microscopes for the small things and Telescopes for the large, drugs that change perception, closing your eyes and even dreaming. And even great museums and galleries showing the effort man has made to make a mark. And if all that fails to titillate your sensuous nature then all you need to do is open your eyes. If that is what the artist wanted to convey, then he should have tried harder.

  12. Robin Greenwood said…

    It’s a very good point. I tend to think of all really abstract art as being in some way relational (though not necessarily in a Greenbergian sense) and, despite Dan Coombs claiming the exact opposite, I am unaware of any but the very barest minimum of relational components in this work. I certainly think that geometry (even wonky geometry) is not inherently abstract.

  13. Peter Stott said…

    Is a black square abstract? What is abstract about a black square? Just a thought…