The single most widely practised mode of decorative conceptual art in the world today, and everywhere possessed of a well intentioned dreary sameness, is calligraphy as abstraction. Whether it’s Chinese, Arabic or Persian, the common mistake is to assume that it matters what the words say. Of course it might matter if we’re looking for literature or text based conceptual art, or even information, but then in that case the beauty of the forms does not necessarily give them aesthetic value. Every elegant hand-produced shape is not automatically a work of art, and if calligraphs are grouped formally – into regular shapes, like circles for example – that doesn’t make them into abstract art.
It’s hard to trace the origin of the modern idea that certain kinds of writing with a brush combine in one gesture aesthetic values and meaning. It might be traceable to Ernest Fenellosa’s famous but misleading essay on Chinese calligraphy. It might also be that, in the west at least, the era of the typewriter made the hand drawn quality of the calligraph seem inherently artistic. But certainly a calligraphic modernism or calligraphic abstraction appears to be unavoidable in some cultures as a way to access western art while staying grounded in local traditions (see Iftikhar Dadi, Rethinking Calligraphic Modernism, in Discrepant Abstraction, ed. Kobena Mercer, MIT Press, 2006). Personally, I deny the need to maintain any traditions, as well as the assumption that one must learn from the west; abstract art is a cosmopolitan practice belonging to anyone who wants to take it up, there are no requirements or qualifications necessary, just intelligence and a certain psychological distance from one’s original context.
I realize I’m being a bit reductive, because there are countless ways to incorporate writing in art, and many of them are very interesting, but calligraphic abstraction comes at the problem from exactly the wrong direction. Calligraphs are not abstractions, but abstraction can have a calligraphic quality, and the great example that first comes to mind is the work of Jackson Pollock. What matters is that though resemblances may occur – to figures, other images or words – the gesture precedes any resemblance. Abstraction then becomes a mode of access to the source of both imagery and writing, and it often measures its strength by not allowing either of them to emerge. They are always waiting for a chance to come out, but abstract art holds tight the gate, letting them through or not as the occasion demands. Pollock’s work is then pre-calligraphic, and this is also how I understand the paintings of the important Indian modernist Vasudeo Gaitonde (1924-2001), and why I find them attractive. The curving, semi-animate shapes that he distributes in uneven lines across his surfaces are letters or words that have yet to take form, just as they also suggest simple, unarticulated animals – worms or amoeba for example. In this a comparison with Rothko is valid, not with his well known, fully resolved brushy colour fields, but with the works of 1947, which one art historian has compared to the “primordial soup” of evolutionary biology, works that generate forms of uncertain meaning and function – but it’s the generation that matters, not the uses we might find for them. Meanwhile, the negative areas inside the curves of Gaitonde’s forms appear to be just coming into view as unfinished repetitions or mirror images of the positives. These works are at the point of transformation between positive and negative, just as they are also grids that are not quite firmly rendered, and a palimpsest of spaces that don’t quite emerge from behind each other. Every formal aspect is at the moment of emergence or beginning, and though none of them are unusual features of abstract painting, they are exceptionally clear and sensitively realized.
A work that is more a fountain of possibilities than a collection of finished gestures, of initial hints and suggestions rather than fully articulated concepts, is a beautiful thing, but it also has a political value. National and religious ideas and ideals are, by definition, always finished. The reason is that for religions and nations both, all meaning was present at the beginning, at some moment in the past. Theology and history – thoughts about religion and nation – are attempts at interpretation or recovery of pre-existing truths, and cultural wars – wars of interpretation – are struggles for possession of those truths. The most radical and creative interpretations are heresies because they threaten to make a new beginning, but that is also the great ambition of modern art, especially abstract art – not only to start over, but to rest at the creative beginning, at the source of both art and religion. It’s pretty conventional today to claim that philosophical and social systems are “narratives,” stories that we tell ourselves, but I suspect it’s also unlikely that most people allow the acid of that insight to act on their own beliefs. And though we often hear that artists are the inventors of the fictions we need to live, the truly heretical and blasphemous nature of that claim probably rarely sinks in. Gaitonde’s art might be esoteric for Indians who believe that building temples to Rama will renew the nation, but that would be his good luck. Most art hides its radicality behind its entertainment value; abstract art can use its seriousness the same way, but an adequate criticism has to stay grounded in the fact that artistic creativity as origin is not just a theory. As the great critic Theodor Adorno put it, the only origin is ephemeral life, and so the best kind of abstract art is inherently heretical, because it refuses to accept that the origins of culture, meaning, art and identity are in the past, where religion at least would have them. Gaitonde’s pictures are significant examples of modernism then because they are emergent, they don’t just represent emergence.
The above text is an excerpt from Linsley’s forthcoming book on the present and future of abstract art. There are more thoughts by Linsley on Gaitonde at newabstraction.net. A retrospective of Gaitonde’s work will be held at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York this October.