Many years ago I was in a dinner party in California given by my cousin. She is an actor and producer and the company she invited was charming and witty and the conversation easy and friendly. I enjoyed it, and it exuded a slightly glamorous atmosphere too, being in a villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. One comment though has stuck with me to this day: It was when I was asked “Where are you from?” I answered without thinking, “Wales.” One highly impressed person leaned over to me and in almost hushed tones said: “Wow, that is the spiritual centre of the universe.” Now, I am a proud Welshman and I am always pleased if another nationality knows that Wales exists, let alone passes any kind of familiar comment about it, yet this comment was something I did not see coming at all. I smiled and nodded and thought about this statement… we clearly had very different experiences and ideas of Wales. I assumed he pictured a group of Druids, solemnly striding around a circle of stones, in touch with the forces of nature and the general turning of the universe; whereas I suddenly thought of my home town on a Friday night, when a fellow I was in school with burst into one of the pubs and offloaded two blasts of his shotgun into the ceiling. I won’t name names for legal reasons, though I doubt if he is reading this (and that is a sentence with one word too many). You could say his action was the result of a completely different kind of spirituality.
Artists tend to love Art. We go to galleries, exhibitions and openings. When we are not making Art, we are looking at it or talking about it. We look for it online, we participate in forums, symposia and generally surround and busy ourselves with as much of it as we can. It is our visual food. Yet can our love of Art sometimes be our undoing? Clement Greenberg once said: “The superior artist knows how to be influenced.” The question raised is: influenced by whom and – more importantly – in what way?
There are numerous collections of the “World’s Great Artists” in print and although there are sometimes highly debatable inclusions or questionable omissions in these compendia, we tend to have the usual suspects in there: Titian, Tintoretto, Goya, Rembrandt, Velasquez and so on. (What is also notable is contemporary artists would tend to have very different reasons for a particular artist’s inclusion, as compared to the actual writer’s motivation themselves.) The consensus can be at odds with the reasoning.
I recently reviewed the enjoyable Turner and Frankenthaler exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate for abstractcritical. In that show, there was a stand-out Frankenthaler called “For EM” (an adumbration of a still-life by Eduard Manet of a fish). Frankenthaler often did this – visually quoting the work of a great artist from the past, almost certainly one of the standard inclusions in the hall-of-fame tomes I just mentioned. On another occasion, she titled a painting “A Hint from Bassano”, Bassano’s “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” being the painting she took the hint from. “Mountains and Sea”, her most seminal work, deserves to be interrogated for its link to Mantegna’s “Agony in the Garden.”
Mantegna constructed a tightly woven undulating space with the rich rock strata pulsing through the picture, leading our eyes into the distant hills. The counterpoint is a right-to-left diagonal that crescendos steadily up to a group of angels wedged ever-so-slightly uncomfortably in the top left corner of the picture. The colouring, as in so many Renaissance paintings, sees rich primaries set off against the warmth of earths. A blazing band of a pink city adds the twist, cooling these earth tones and adding a luminous element that gets us from the red to the blue seen in the robes of the figures that people the space. The interesting thing about this work is just how synthetic it is – a highly implausible landscape and a dramatic distortion of scale. It still has the element of surprise about it.
In contrast to the tautness of the Mantegna, Frankenthaler (in “Mountains and Sea”) washes and swooshes her pigments in a languid-looking way, leaving roughly half the painting with untouched or barely touched colour. Against this ground we see those familiar wristy looping marks, with pink, blue and pale green dominant; the earth remains, but is now relegated to a single ochre wedge just off-centre, with the canvas hue acting as the key colour. We can clearly see the configuration of ‘mountains’, a general business centre stage and an oblique diagonal movement, all a la Mantegna. Frankenthaler, though, opts to send a blue (sea reference) out to the right hand side. This is a clever device as it anchors the whole painting and brings the space up to the picture plane. This painting has passed into Art folklore. It was colourfield painting’s “Moses” moment. The Promised Land was in sight, and it was Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland who entered. From this point on, being a colourist meant neutralising the layout, eschewing the gestures of Frankenthaler, which by comparison are much more related to the abstract expressionists. The ambition now became to give colour a freer rein through cool detachment. New acrylics were developed and the rest is, as they say, history. Suddenly Pollock’s fluency and mural sizes could be achieved and colour opened up. Stains were in.
Noland went on to produce a truly remarkable body of work, characterised by series after series of neutrally formatted paintings. He was always a painter who employed shape, and his use of cropping was intrinsic to his shaping. Circles became stripes with bands of colour finding their limits and edges. These developed into “The Surfboards”, irregular shaped canvases which, simply speaking, had more edges, more possibilities for these limits and more eccentric configurations. Then at the start of the nineties he produced a series called “The Flares”. Seldom seen works, they have all the hallmarks of great Nolands – clarity of colour, generous proportions, an inherent classicism and a satisfying materiality.
Materiality is a crucial issue. In the sixties Sam Golden, working for Boccour, had helped create ‘Magna’, the mineral spirit acrylic. So again, during the eighties, did Golden – with Sam now out of retirement – manufacture a breakthrough product – a whole new range of gels. Physicality was back and with a vengeance. Gone were the now tired looking canvas stain factures and in their place came new surfaces, from delicate glazed skins to ravine-like troughs formed by heavy gelled ridges. Oil paint could not compete with this. The Flares were cool, considered and ultimately Apollonian. They took shaping to new extremes, each part being a different section of colour, joined to its neighbour with linear strips of Plexiglas, which speak to the floods of colour as accent, ever changing their feel as they often switch edging from one panel to another during their arc.
Noland described these shaped works thus: “They are made with hollow core doors as supports, which gives them human scale. They become slabs, chunks, pieces of colour that I put together for pictorial works.” “The Flares” have a wide array of surfaces, from gloss to matte and varying degrees therein. Colour is asked questions: How much? What kind? What shape? What relationship, one to another? Formats are found rather than imposed. Everything seems up for grabs, yet all is reined in by the colour control and surface specificity. They make Ellsworth Kelly’s work look by comparison somewhat overblown and preconceived, in a limiting way. “The Flares” are in my opinion some of Noland’s greatest achievements. I vividly remember a stunning show of them that I saw in California in the early nineties (dinner party time).
One of these works is called “Homage to Matisse”, a three-panelled work with an understated simplicity. At once we can see the Matisse that is being paid homage to: the fantastic “Piano Lesson”, 1916. Matisse was flirting with cubism during this period and flattened up his works with iconographic severity. This was a work which greatly affected Pollock, with its confrontational flatness. Looking at the Noland, we can see how the green-grey-black relationship has been lifted out of the Matisse; the rose is now transposed to an edge, which acts to light and lift the side of the heavier grey; a blue edges the black and cools it accordingly; the green melts in and out of a fat ochre; these colours react with the blue and again through their infusion at the centre of the painting recall the warmth of Matisse’s grey. Each work shares a powerful diagonal structure. Noland literally cuts his through the painting and it plays against the bellied arc to its left, subtly creating a new “ghost” section. “Homage to Matisse” is cooler and more pinky in temperature than the original Piano Lesson – a subtle change of key, by one of the most significant colour composers in recent memory.
Noland has openly discussed the importance of taste, “but the right kind of taste”, and a work such as this comes directly out of a refined, well-educated taste. We can take for granted that his mastery of materials and his colour sense is of the highest order, but compared with others of this period it somehow strikes a more troubled chord. Making these kind of overtly quotational works narrows our experience of colour and seeks to literally choreograph our reaction to it. We can acknowledge context and enjoy the colour, but it doesn’t lead anywhere as exciting as it could, especially given the relative unpredictability of format in these works. Others of this series have magical colour chords with a rewarding volumetric tactility; they have an unfettered freshness about them by comparison.
Around the same time as Noland was exploring curved multi-panel paintings, his friendly rival Jules Olitski was making some remarkable heavy gelled and sprayed works which became known as the “Mitt” paintings. These were baroque in nature, souped-up lizard-skinned swirls of paint. The zigzagged scribble swishes of gel fizzled in and out of corners or up through the heart of paintings. A black coloured top-layer spray checks everything back into a fictive uncertain illusory space which, allied with new nacreous and interference pigments, has the added quality of opulence. Colour is subsumed into powerful gesture. Olitski was a master tonal painter who had a rich sense of colour rather than an out and out colourist, such as Noland. If Noland was Apollonian, then Olitski was Dionysian by comparison. These works were only possible as a result of Golden’s new acrylic paints. (We can find technological precedents such as the paint tube’s usefulness to the Impressionists and Golden as a company deserves an essay for their influence in much advanced abstract painting made since the 1960s)
It seemed surface could do no more. As a point of interest, it was these ultra non-flat works that so convinced Greenberg of Olitski’s stature as the “greatest painter alive.” “Greenbergian flatness” is a red herring; he just reacted to the times and what was in front of his eyes.
Where does one go after these? Back to colour, as it proved. With hindsight, it seemed quite a logical step to see large orbs and dollops of hand-splattered colour left in larger unsprayed and unchecked areas arrive as works after these “Mitt” paintings. It was as if he had come full circle to return to the early flat irregular discs in colour fields, which were first made in the sixties. The disc-like configurations are now revealed through his hallmark – intense materiality.
Olitski was a keen student of Old Master works. Rembrandt and Tintoretto are often referred to, a series of monoprints worked out of Tintoretto’s El Paradiso and called “The Paradise” being an overt case in point. There is frequently a numinous reference to his work too. The painting I wish to look at is an off-beat reference to Tintoretto’s extraordinary “Susannah and the Elders.” Olitski titled his: “With Love and Disregard: Susy and the Elders.”
This painting has a centrifugal weighting unlike the Tintoretto, who splits his picture space into zones. In the Olitski, there is a switch from yellow to a startling white in the top right, akin to the surprise of seeing the flesh of Susannah, which is cooled with a white, draped cloth. Both paintings compel you to look inwards, deep into the picture. Tintoretto, through the diagonals of water’s edge and top of hedge, and the perspective of the mirror that Susannah gazes into, reinforces this pull. It leads us to the second lasciviously-lurking figure. The closer figure’s circular bald pate creeps around the bottom left hand of the hedge, orb-like. It forms a rounded apex to a cone-like projection that culminates in the curve of Susannah’s body. In this work there are numerous details of delight: the “thieving” magpie, the roses on the hedge, the sparkling leaves cascading down the side of the hedge’s trunk. Figuration has so many possibilities for this kind of rich detail – all worked in here through a logical reasoning. They may be symbolic or allegorical, yet whatever their function the visual construction of the work takes precedence. They must work on the picture’s terms, first and foremost.
So what do we make of Olitski’s slyly laconic reference? Are we to see this as art to compete with an Old Master work? Is this modernist bravado? Has he reached a point when he feels he has the all-round game approach to visually accommodate such a reference? In short, has he got inside the Tintoretto and disembodied it, understood its order and logic? This was something he humbly discussed failing to do with Rembrandt’s “The Polish Rider.” Olitski: “I was going to get inside that painting. I was going to take it apart, open it up like you might an unusual sounding clock to see what made it tick the way it did.” If this was the intent again, it’s a heck of an attempt, that’s for sure. These works pack a punch when you see them in the flesh. Yet the speed within the work and that centralised pull undermine the ambition. Tintoretto was also a tonal painter, yet he gets a lot out of a little. The pared down colour, the chess like placement of incident, the steadiness of it all, pins us back and we are ultimately “out boxed”. You can’t pin this painting down. The Olitski by comparison is more of a beautiful hit, a sugar rush. Those galaxies of colour which so often swim around in their liquidity, merging and cracking, like tectonic plates on a sea of lava, have such a literal physicality that any more functionality is almost beyond them. Technically, blowers were used to physically agitate the paint and produce unexpected fissures and fractal-like forms. It’s ambitious stuff, and there’s a lot to marvel at, but that title does invite another choreographed comparison.
I want to believe that abstract painting can be as great as figuration, but this is a battle that must be fought on abstract art’s terms and not figuration’s. Paying homage feels like a white flag has already been raised, with content being delivered through context rather than visual functionality. Could we surmise then that making these homages is part of paying ones dues in some way to the great art of the past, to be seen to be part of its continuum; to ultimately be accepted on the same kind of revered terms; or will this work eventually become just another page in a book gathering dust on a shelf?
Can figuration really teach abstract art? Artists have always worked from those that inspired them in previous generations. For example, Picasso was famed for his re-workings of Velasquez, Cranach, Manet and others, yet he stayed in the realm of figuration. Once you cross the Rubicon, you must not turn back. We need to find better ways to challenge figurative painting. Compared to figuration, abstract painting is a relative pup, a toddler finding its feet, and as such is want to fall on its face from time to time. I am optimistic for its future though. Yet for it to truly move forward, I can’t help feeling that we have to stop trying to hang on to figuration, even in oblique ways. The relationship between what we see and what we make is a complex and fascinating one. I have avoided discussing sculpture in this article in spite of initially intending to, mainly because I realised it would need a complete article on its own, though my sentiments would remain unchanged. As abstract artists we need to tear out our own piece of the universe to wrap ourselves in. We need to get out of the gravitational orbit of figuration. As an art form, it has produced a cornerstone for all civilizations. Is it now too containing, though? Does it box us in? Maybe a couple of shots through the ceiling will allow us to see space anew. The possibilities are out there, but I don’t think walking around those ancient stones is enough anymore…