#32. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and Continuity

Pieter Janssens Elinga, "La Balayeuse", 1668-1672

Pieter Janssens Elinga, “La Balayeuse”, 1668-1672

“Shakespeare’s pre-eminence is of course due to his extraordinary originality; but to begin to understand his originality, we have to interpret the word correctly. It does not mean that he invented a kind of drama that was quite different from that to which his age was accustomed, or that he invented new ideas for his dramatic subjects. It means that as part of his poetic talent and his imaginative intensity he possessed an unusual critical power. This, too, must be properly defined. He left no assessments of his own or of anybody else’s work, but a great imaginative writer must use criticism to test the vitality of the literary forms of his age. He tests them, rather than invents new ones… [in order to be] continuous with the imaginative expression that nourished him…”

 “In all these plays Shakespeare is not rejecting the accepted forms of theatrical tradition; he is revitalizing them by bringing them into relationship with the actualities of real experience.”

C.Gillie, Longman Companion to English Literature; The Great Age: 1590-1620; Longman.

Lucky Shakespeare, to have lived at such a time, when forms and precedents and high, ambitious, competitive achievement were strong, and the artform in question could thus properly express the deepest feelings of the age. I’m not sure in visual art we are in the midst of anything like such interesting times, but nor do I believe that we are in an age of shallow feeling that must be mirrored in the contemporary art we make. But it strikes me as something of a dilemma; we might need on the one hand to overturn all precedent in abstract art so far; yet we can’t presume to make painting or sculpture without thought or structure, about any old thing and from garbage; and so, on the other hand, sympathising with all the achievements of abstract art to date, even if we consider them only minor, we might wish to continue to attempt to make something of their precedent – but yet more real, more intense… better.

How could abstract art be better? I sometimes look at it and wonder how it could be worse. How very lame and tame it sometimes appears, in comparison even with much second rate figurative painting. Because of this, I often express opinions that rile the exponents of continuity. They are usually painters. They seem to want to make a case for painting being more continuous, from figuration, through nascent abstraction, and so to “proper” abstract art; and more so than in sculpture. We’ve debated this before, and I still don’t know the real answer. But I think if you are a painter who believes in that continuity (and I don’t personally know any sculptors who believe anything similar about sculpture), then I think you really have to make your case. By which I mean, compare yourself and your lineage with the best of painting of the past. And you have to really make a very strong critical case. I haven’t heard one yet.


Humour, sadness, elation, depression; pathos, ebullience, turbulence; love, hate, attraction, revulsion; pointing, pushing, pulling, cavorting; turning, tossing, tumbling, twisting; rock and roll, victory and defeat; all the elements, in fact, of intense human interaction and drama that were once the province of figurative art, particularly figurative painting – where they formed the pretext upon which was built a profound diversity of imaginative visual constructs – are seemingly no longer at the behest of figurative art, which languishes in states of mock-academia or faux-avant-gardism, by turns bathetic, mundane or grotesque… all that human content is now, surprisingly but necessarily, the prerogative of the abstract artist.

Of course, this is not true; not literally. But imaginatively? I think that abstract art of a high order ought to be able, through its greatest efforts at unity in diversity, to take on a sufficient depth and breadth of character in its abstract content to enable it to parallel much if not all of the manifold nature of human feeling.  To say that is to invite ridicule, both from those who see the limitations of formalist abstract art as quite sufficiently expressive (a kind of minimalised affective formalism which is able already to engender all manner of “feelings”, often in the case of abstract painting, through colour), and from those who don’t see abstract art as needing to do any such thing in the first place. I think there is such a need – I see no point to an art that has no human content – but it is not one that is met by vague feelings and subjective associations. The work needs to embody these values right deep down in how it is conceived and built, right from its beginnings, and right through to its last small detail. No need for metaphor or allusion; it can happen naturally and spontaneously, as part of the development of an uncompromisingly abstract methodology. There is, though, a need to discover or invent new territory. Whether that territory is a true break or a true continuation of the recent past in abstract art, we will have to wait and see. Such change is often a mixture of both.

But once abstract art takes upon itself a full measure of human content, the counter-intuitive sense of this proposition – of abstract content as human content – inverts. Remember, we are not trying to illustrate human values, we are trying to “make” them anew. The apparent realism of the ambition is to be entirely transmuted into plastic and spatial values. This in itself is not a new idea; psychological values have always been sought in, and made concrete by, the plastic and spatial properties of art, whether figurative or not. New and advanced abstract art just takes this further, and does so without subject-matter or prejudgement.

Spontaneity is at the heart of this process. The problem is getting the spontaneity into the finished work, rather than into the processes of creating it. The latter is the stock-in-trade of the abstract artist, but it’s easy; the former is much more problematic, since a spontaneous working-method in no way leads inevitably to a spontaneous end result. Strategies are required that are anything but spontaneous in themselves, in order that known formats and tropes are dispensed with and something new is discovered with each new work.


  1. First thought (without too much thought – as I am trying to be spontaneous). From the last paragraph re: “Spontaneity is at the heart of this process.”
    I wonder if the viewer’s ‘looking’, ‘reception’ and ‘reaction’ should be spontaneous? There’s the argument that the viewer completes the work of art. So I might strive to ingest the image (2D, 3D or time-based – depending on the form) without prejudice, favour or censorship/taste. In other words, the value of a given work-of-art at any given time is dependent on its context and the habits of acknowledgment.
    This really is typed up quickly.
    I’m on my way to the studio… Re-energised by Robin’s thoughts (above).


  2. Mmm… quite the pedant, aren’t you Shaun. I’m quite partial to a bit of pedantry myself.

    Para 2. No, because I’m referring to an ongoing debate that I don’t yet have a definitive answer to.

    Para 3. You might want to rephrase your own second para. You “might not” what? The grotesqueness of your revolting example answers both other points.

    Para 4. You’ll have to backtrack and read some previous essays. You’ll have to devise your own suitable methodology.

    Para 5. I could point you in the direction of some of the better work on Brancaster, which in my opinion does indeed invest itself with human content – though there is far to go. I could, but I won’t. Because you need to see it in the flesh. That could be arranged if you are seriously interested.

    Para 5. It’s an instinctive supposition, based on my experience, that spontaneity and abstract art are inseparable. You are free to think otherwise, but my examples above would support that supposition. Care or concern might well be in the mix, I suppose. Do you have examples of good and progressive abstract art that don’t engage spontaneity?


  3. “But once abstract art takes upon itself a full measure of human content, the counter-intuitive sense of this proposition – of abstract content as human content – inverts. Remember, we are not trying to illustrate human values, we are trying to “make” them anew. The apparent realism of the ambition is to be entirely transmuted into plastic and spatial values. This in itself is not a new idea; psychological values have always been sought in, and made concrete by, the plastic and spatial properties of art, whether figurative or not. New and advanced abstract art just takes this further, and does so without subject-matter or prejudgement.”

    –Although I find it hard to disagree with anything in this paragraph, I find it equally hard to make sense of it – it’s all so “abstract.” How could abstract art NOT take upon itself a full measure of human content, given that it is made by human beings? (Nothing is more human than the denial of humanity, of others and of oneself (which is why we have religion).) I still cannot grasp the notion of “abstract content” – as opposed to what? Non-abstract (e.g., “figurative”) content? If you attribute “abstract content” to a work of art, are you doing something more (or less) than finding it to have meaning and significance? And to find meaning in a work of art, are you doing something other than seeing it to have a point, grasping its intentionality – finding that each of its sensuous features is intended, so that the work doesn’t collapse into literalness?


    1. Well, Shaun has provided us with a perfect and extreme example of abstract that does NOT take upon itself a full measure of human content in the Richard Serra. No matter what Serra might intend or say, it is not made visual. As to the ‘meaning’, ‘significance’ and ‘intentionality’, I agree that all those words are another way of saying what I’m saying, with the difference that they can be so easily attributed to any work – even the Serra – by reference to the artists intentions or other consideration outside of the work itself, rather than what is embodied in the sculpture. So just as I’m arguing for “getting the spontaneity into the finished work, rather than into the processes of creating it”, so too I’m arguing to embody all those other human values in a visual, “abstract” way too.

      And as I’ve suggested, it may not be a matter of complete reinvention, but of critical evolution, by degree.

      The Serras, by the way, are also a good example of art with a “Wow” factor (see Brancaster) that goes on to give you nothing else – no dialogue, no search and answer, nothing but the literal “Wow”.


      1. In ordinary human action, the expression of intention is mediated (so to speak) by the existence of the world – duration in time, obstacles in space, other people’s actions, etc. – which means that it is essential to human action that it can go wrong, fail to embody or realize one’s intention. This is the basis of morality – to determine what we are responsible for doing and what counts as an excuse or justification.

        In art, the expression of intention is not mediated. The artist is responsible for every last detail and feature of the object he or she creates. Hence, there is no such thing as an excuse or justification. If an artist fails to realize his or her intention in the work, the work is an artistic failure (although not necessarily as a learning experience, which takes us back to ordinary human action). In other words, there is no such thing as a relevant “intention” that exists “outside of the work itself, rather than what is embodied in the sculpture.”

        To the extent that Richard Serra’s intentions are not realized in his work – which means, legible in the work – his work has failed artistically. (I am referring to Serra’s ARTISTIC intentions; he may well have other intentions in making his sculpture, e.g, to achieve wealth and fame or get laid. He may succeed or fail, but that is not an artistic success or failure.) To the extent Serra’s work fails artistically, I don’t really see it as a failure to “take upon itself the full measure of human content” as much as a failure to establish the kind of encounter with the medium of sculpture (as it existed at the time his works were made) that could realize his artistic aspirations. For example (for me), his cunningness in producing environmental (architectural) effects to move the viewer (like putting someone in a maze or under a tent), and his reliance on massiveness or monumental effects suggests that he’s taken the easy way out (at least in the few pieces I’ve seen in person).


  4. On the subject of continuity, there are several basic but far reaching painting conventions, shared to a greater or lesser degree by Titian, Vermeer, Constable, Cezanne, Matisse, Hofmann, de Kooning, Heron and many others.
    I´ve put together some thoughts on the human content they might embody, and some reasons why they are not suffocatingly “conventional” in spite of their demanding nature. For me it is the adherence to these (and maybe further) conventions that embodies continuity in painting.

    Rectangular format – the simplest 2D shape, reflecting gravity in the vertical and our sense of equilibrium and/or the orientation of our eyes in the horizontal (space dwellers might prefer a tondo). Contributes to artistic freedom, since acknowledging the rectangle imposes nothing that isn´t already essentially human on the artist.
    Difficult to cope with, forcing complex, expressive decisions unless sidestepped by all-over or symmetrical solutions.

    Pictorial space in combination with an integrated surface – the special, transcendent (in a non-mystical sense) property that only painting (no photos, no screens) can do. Reflects a host of material/immaterial phenomena, intimately bound up with human existence (body/mind etc.) Restricts artistic freedom, but if you´re not going to do this, then why not photoshop, why paint?
    Difficult to achieve, forcing complex, expressive decisions unless ignored completely or sidestepped by purely atmospheric depths.

    Spontaneity – in the sense of “undeliberated”, seems to me to be the very essence of abstractness. Things that can be thought out have already been conceptualized and are probably better treated in language. Painting has to dig deeper to justify its importance. I think this always-staying-a-few-steps-ahead-of-language is the sense in which the history of painting can be seen as a continuous progress. We´ll never know for sure, but a part of that which was spontaneous, undeliberated, abstract for Titian has almost certainly ceased to be abstract for us.
    Difficult in combination with other conventions.

    Clarity – ups the stakes for all artistic decisions, making them more demanding/expressive/revealing.

    Resolution – in the sense of “successful organisation” is simply what life does (I´ve expounded on this in another comment here). Reflects a basic human need and can presumably add subliminally to a viewer´s arsenal for organising / coming to grips with life.
    Difficult to do, forcing the work to be in Alan Gouk´s (approximate) words: “an instance of healing in a sick world”.

    There´s continuity in the sense that painters have always been dealing with these things but with an ever changing emphasis. Maybe the shift from figuration to abstraction is tied up with a mounting mistrust of language as a description of the “real” world and a consequently increased emphasis on spontaneity at the expense of complex and specific pictorial space.


  5. Carl,
    “If an artist fails to realize his or her intention in the work, the work is an artistic failure”.

    You make a very tight moral argument, but too tight for me. How is one to know the artist’s intentions? Do you know what Cezanne had in mind each time he took up a brush? I think not. I think even Cezanne didn’t know that. What is surely great about Cezanne is his ability to give “intentionality” to the work itself. It may be an illusion, but that’s art. We are not party to anything else.

    For example, what if the achievement of the work outstrips the artist’s intentions, or achieves a great deal of something good, but unintentional? What then?


  6. Some ongoing thoughts that relate in some ways to Robin’s piece.
    One can make both extreme arguments that every work of art is in one way original (it is itself, an object in the world) and also cannot be original (in that its existence and meaning is related and part of a historical process). Even where Robin implies a complete originality (I say ‘implies’) one’s own existence is ‘situated’ in a historical process (you might not want to call it a ‘lineage’ of course, and he may see its historical role as one of starting anew).
    Can we ‘bracket’ the past (borrowing from Husserl/phenomenology) when we judge a work of art? Can we let it, the individual painting or sculpture, ‘show itself’, ‘unconceal’ its being even (to borrow from Heidegger)? Can we at least question our own prejudices that we bring to a viewing of a new painting or sculpture? We can perhaps at least try, pretend even, and see what happens. The Brancaster format is good at encouraging this I think, because it gives the painting or sculpture a chance to ‘show itself’, even if this necessarily involves a person (a subject) to recognise its objective nature (I’m aware of the possible paradox here, but I think we sometimes have to acknowledge their existence).
    One of Robin’s focuses which I agree on is the insistence on engaging with what is in front of him/us – the work itself, what he might call an objective stance to judging art. People shouldn’t get upset about this, as you can of course think, discuss, ‘external’ stuff, and indeed this creeps in to the Brancaster discussions at times. I would say the creative process is part of this external aspect to the finished art work (another important area that people will disagree on). Of course the process is vital to each and every artist, and useful to discuss, but we need to remember the difference, the gap, between the process of making and the judgement of the finished work.
    “Spontaneity is at the heart of this process. The problem is getting the spontaneity into the finished work, rather than into the processes of creating it. The latter is the stock-in-trade of the abstract artist, but it’s easy…”
    Spontaneity is of course easy: the ‘con’ advanced by some writing and thoughts on abstract expressionism was relating the ‘spontaneous’ mark making gesture to the quality or worth of the work (this also involved a misinterpretation of existential authenticity).
    Recognising when spontaneity leads to something interesting and meaningful and integrating the spontaneous act into a visual positivity is another thing. But I don’t think the spontaneity is necessarily ‘seen’ in the finished work – how does something ‘look’ spontaneous? It might look energetic, or dynamic, and that might relate to the artists’ spontaneity but it also might not, it might have been planned. The tension between thought, consideration, planning and the impulsive, unusual, disruptive action is always there. I wouldn’t rule out a more planned, less spontaneous, successful work; on Robin’s terms how would I know?
    Coming back to the historical and temporality, where we are going is essential; rather than being simply a part of the historical process ‘pushing’ us from behind, can’t we be pulled towards something, however vague? How do we appropriate the heritage we inherit in a free, creative, and future orientated direction (borrowing from Heidegger’s notion of authencity?). While this stance cannot guarantee a good ambitious piece of work it may help with the process of trying.

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    1. I like what you say, John.

      I wonder, as the work we are involved in gets more complex, more coherent, more complete, and more abstract, and moves beyond the simplicities of modernist minimal abstraction, whether we can’t ascribe to it more and more of its own attributes and values (more human content, like energy, dynamism, but also spontaneity, intentionality – everything, why not?); give it, as it were, more and more of a “life” of its own – rather than talking about it in relation to the lives of (us) the artists?


  7. “whether we can’t ascribe to it more and more of its own attributes and values (more human content, like energy, dynamism, but also spontaneity, intentionality – everything, why not?); give it, as it were, more and more of a “life” of its own – rather than talking about it in relation to the lives of (us) the artists?”

    Yes, to the above: surely the value in creating a work of art is that it absolutely transcends oneself? Otherwise, aren’t we just being selfish and undemocratic?

    “as the work we are involved in gets more complex, more coherent, more complete, and more abstract, and moves beyond the simplicities of modernist minimal abstraction”

    Still working on what “more complete, and more abstract” mean.


  8. What you have done, Robin , in this curious piece of special pleading, is to suck up all the criticisms that have been made of your “position”, your didacticism, and turn them around as if you knew this all along, but behind it all is still the same old trashing of modernist abstraction, indeed anything before Brancaster, but in such art-theoretical obscurity that you can’t be pinned down to a coherent meaning. That’s why these responses are growing increasingly nebulous and philosophically orotund . And the conflation of the “future of art ” with the activities of Brancaster is bordering on the delusional. Almost every term of your argument can be disputed and debated ad infinitum without it making a blind bit of difference to anything that any painter or sculptor might do in the future. I thought that our quarrel might be over, and wished it might, but I’m afraid that your taking to the airwaves in defense of the indefensible is yet another example of the kind of sub textual bragging that is undignified in an artist, and better dropped entirely for the future.


  9. PS. And why in any case is abcrit being used as a self-justificatory arm of Brancaster. Surely if it is to have any credibility as a serious arena for the evaluation of art as it happens, or has happened, it should remain free of factional interests of any kind. If I have muddied the waters in previous comments it was only to point up some of the wealth of inconsistencies being paraded, (possibly including my own). No one is immune. But as Walt Whitman said ” I contradict myself? so, I contradict myself.”


  10. You know you’re in for along night when Heidegger is brought in to the equasion. Michael Fried did it in his awful book (recent) on “Why photography is so important as an art-form now” or some such.


  11. I have never regretted buying an IPad more than at this moment. I should never have responded to this “article” in the first place. What have the quotes on Shakespeare got to do with anything that follows? Indeed what has the rather pretty picture at the top got to do with anything either.? It’s all just rhetorical bombast. I apologise to Michael Fried for dragging his book into it. I might even have to apologise to Heidegger if I had ever read him or knew what he meant. It’s just that there’s a tendency to reach for his support when essaying the ineffable, which illustrates how far from the meat and potatoes of artistic discussion Robin’s piece and its comments have spiralled.
    You cannot be authentic on purpose (though inauthentic you can) ,nor can you be spontaneous on purpose. Honing or finessing such concepts leads nowhere. So ” getting the spontaneity into the finished work” is a revealing remark.
    As to “making a strong critical case” , for continuity in ambition etc. , that is not something that painters either need to do or can do. That is done by one’s paintings and one’s convictions of taste as manifested in them. As to the work of others, All you need to do is look at the right ones. I would list some of the key paintings which make the case for depth, coherence and meaning in continuity, except that Robin would accuse me of “linearity”. (There’s nothing linear about it). Take for instance the ten or so articles I have written for Abstractcritical, and the painters discussed in the T J Clark piece and the Matisse article on abcrit, on subjects which range from Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists, Mondrian and Nicholson, Jackson Pollock, Alan Davie, to name just a few, — it seems to me that as good a case as can be made for these issues is being made, coincidentally, and without planning, ie spontaneously, as shows came up, in other words without polemical or manifesto intent. But that is functioning as a critic, a very different though related faculty. (You can bring back the Shakespeare quotes at this point).
    In the end it all boils down to what you point to, and the relevance of that pointing to the task in hand.


  12. “Lucky Shakespeare, to have lived at such a time, when forms and precedents and high, ambitious, competitive achievement were strong, and the artform in question could thus properly express the deepest feelings of the age.”

    Oh so lucky indeed! I reckon Mr Cameron would be happy to suggest that “… high, ambitious, competitive achievement….” is still alive and kicking here in a 21st century UK, that is of course, in his own little bubble of delusional “One Nation” conservatism….

    “It does not mean that he invented a kind of drama that was quite different from that to which his age was accustomed, or that he invented new ideas for his dramatic subjects. It means that as part of his poetic talent and his imaginative intensity he possessed an unusual critical power.”

    So let’s go from Shakespeare to the great modern dramatist Brecht….

    “The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I’ve felt that way, too. That’s the way I am. That’s life. That’s the way it will always be. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him. That’s great art — Everything is self-evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that. You can’t do that. That’s very strange, practically unbelievable. That has to stop. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That’s great art — nothing is self-evident. I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.”

    This is a sensibility, I think, that “….possessed an unusual critical power.” But this faculty forces theatre- pressurises it- via the cruelty of the age- into new forms. This for me is Modernism.

    As for continuity? A shared set of values that extend untrammelled into the future?Haven’t those values been stretched to the limit by Modernism’s impetus, inflamed by modernity’s violent creativity and destructiveness (thus Brecht’s critical theatre)? In relation to notions of space and spatiality, I was reminded of TJ Clark’s musings on the subject in relation to Picasso.

    “Space, for instance, has a specific character for human beings which changes profoundly through history…”

    Clark goes on to say..

    “Our existing in a set of surroundings, our understanding of enclosure or infinity or proximity or continuity- all this is contingent. It is inflected by the totality of events. There is a “modern” space, for certain, and it is fundamentally different-in temper, in shape and extent, in the place it gives to the human-from that of Duccio or Velazquez….”

    TJ Clark. Picasso and Truth page 39

    After a century of violence and destruction inconceivable in Shakespeare’s time, we now bow down to global capitalism as victor, we’re all servants to the realisation of a neo-liberal future. So what of ‘spatiality’ now? Are we looking for new forms that both challenge, and by their very nature, change our perceptions of our world- that articulate our own historically contingent sense of space, colour and form? Could making abstract art be a most vital way to do this?


  13. I see spontaneity as a by-product of the resistance encounted when working with chosen materials. Intentionality finds resistance to it in the medium it works on. Resolution must be wrested from the material. In that process the meaning of a work is somehow locked in and liberated by it’s making and this resistance. I could argue that what the artist may actually want to achieve is pretty boring and repetitive. It is the resistance of the material that creates something new- that is yet to be known to the artist and viewer. It is how the artist deals with the resistance of the medium that is fascinating (that is why the artist returns to the material again and again). The better she knows it, the more she can court the power of the material to surprise rather than hammer it in to an already known shape.

    And while we’re on the subject of the performing arts, you know how the blood instantly drains from every creative fibre of the body when someone says “Come on! Be spontaneous!”? Or when the director picks you out from the group in an audition and says “Make me laugh.” A really good comedian puts you at ease- she seems to able to set the scene in which her narrative unfolds. How does she do that? Through a thorough knowledge of conventions and expectations- she is then able to confound them. Laughter! She creates maps of possibility from which she can take more leaps into the unkown, all the while, taking us with her as fellow adventurers. These maps come from improvising with chosen material over a period of time. But she will have a readily accessible archive of performed experience that she can instantly pull out at the impatient director’s request. She may create as part of her process a set of games (though the word ‘games’ doesn’t do justice to a quality of experience that occurs in the playing that runs much deeper than this word suggests). It is in these games that her initiative and endurance is tested. Her chosen themes and her performance or narrative style is pushed into different directions or pulled apart. All this is in the quest to find something new in a well worn subject or endeavour. During this time, her general alertness and sensitivities to the potential malleability of her materials are explored in depth and thus heightened. Every time she performs the conventions are tested by the set game or improvisation and the exploration extended- in the hope something new is found ( in the comedian’s case, laughter via critical thought, in the visual artist’s case, something visually powerful and enduring). Although I use another art form here, I think the qualities sought from spontaneity can be achieved by rigorously repeated exercises and plain old elbow grease in any art form.

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    1. Carl’s words: “the expression of intention is mediated (so to speak) by the existence of the world” seems to me to apply as much to making art as anything else, as one’s ideas/intentions come up against the realities of the medium and of what you can see happening as you work.


  14. Robin: I did not mean that in the making of art nothing comes between the artist’s intention and its realization in the work, but that the artist is responsible for everything that is actualized in the resulting work. (JL Austin more or less thought that what we mean by “intentional”, “intended” and related words (like “unintentional”) are less metaphysical events or things than ways of allocating responsible. While in ordinary action, there may or may not be excuses available for what happens, the artist’s responsibility to the work of art is absolute.

    An artistic medium presents both the means of and the obstacles to realization of intentions. But the point is that it is not open to the artist to say, for example, “well, I tried to do X but the paint just wouldn’t cooperate,” or “the words just wouldn’t say what I meant”. This is why the experience of art is, for me, exhilarating. I think it follows that insofar as an intention is not realized or fulfilled in a work of art, then that intention doesn’t count artistically. (The example I provided was Serra’s imaginary intention to make art as a means to get rich.)

    I tried to talk about this in the last part of my Noland essay dealing with Charles Ray’s sculptures.

    Disclaimer: Everything I say is said by a non-artist. I don’t presume to instruct the readers of abcrit, many of whom are highly accomplished practitioners, on anything, much less how they do or should make art.


  15. Yes, Alan: ”getting the spontaneity into the finished work” is indeed a revealing remark. It’s revealing that you question it. Go (re-)read the last part of Mark Skilton’s very first Brancaster transcription, on spontaneity and humility.

    Perhaps I do write crap now and then – and who doesn’t – but at least I don’t write egotistical, idiotic bile:
    “Where were Messrs Pollard, Williams, Smart , Bunker and co during the 70s,80s, 90s, or even the noughties when all the really progressive moves were being made in painting, that they should come crawling out of the woodwork now, under the misapprehension that bigging themselves up on the Internet equates to having a career.”

    Why don’t you tell us in detail about those “really progressive moves” during the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or even the noughties? I presume they all involve you? All sarcasm aside, it would be rather helpful to know all about them. The very idea that there were any “really progressive moves” seems at odds with your oft-stated position that abstract painting (yours, anyway) did not need to undergo any kind of a revolution in the way that our sculpture did in the eighties. But then, you are becoming renowned for your volte-face.

    Having explained how abstract painting made great strides back in your day, you can then go on to tell us about all the numerous great things that are happening NOW that are NOT covered by Brancaster… Well, there’s YOU, presumably, and… Have you actually looked at what’s going on in abstract art at the moment, in the big wide world? There is something very wrong in the house of late, late modernism, and, to my knowledge, the problems of abstract art are not being faced up to in anything like the manner that they are on Brancaster. If you know different, do let us in on it; if not, the delusions are your own.

    Finally, and most importantly, please take this opportunity to expand upon the issue of planarity in abstract painting and its relation to figuration – “shapes that refer to other shapes”, as you yourself so succinctly put it in a recent missive – that you neatly dodged on Brancaster, by way of all that subjective “ebb and flow” bollocks. I think it’s a really important topic, in painting AND sculpture. A lot is at stake here – do you get meaning from the allusive quality of shapes/planes (e.g. in the way you describe John B.’s collages), or do you try to find it somewhere else more abstract, and go forward from there?

    The Elinga, by the way, is a rather good second-rate figurative painting that deals with diffusions of light in a manner that puts paid to the pretentions of much nebulous and tiresome abstract painting – notably, for example, one of your favourites, Rothko. THAT is a case, I would argue, that you in your majesty have yet to make stick, comparatively and critically.


  16. John
    I think Brecht’s remarks are a criticism of conventional content and resolution in the theatre, rather than a criticism of the conventions of theatre itself. Issues for these coventions would be things like improvisation vs the acting out of a written piece, audience participation or not, presence or absence of a chorus or commentator etc., rather than issues of content and message.

    The idea that our concept of space can change with historical time is a fascinating one, though for me it doesn’t lessen the importance of spatiality for painting. It would be interesting to see Clarke’s ideas illustrated with actual paintings – I probably ought to buy the book.
    One conceivable contrast in the quality of pictorial space, which interests me at the moment is the difference between stable, specific space and unstable, ambiguous space.
    Figurative painting tends to have the former, while painting such as Patrick Heron’s “wobbly hard edge” works have the latter – each of the colour areas can be seen in front of or behind the others.
    The question is, whether fully abstract painting that combines integrated surface with pictorial space can ever have an unambiguous, specific spatiality.

    If every part of the painting can be optically fetched to the surface and there is no figuration to favour a particular spatial interpretation, then there will surely be several equally valid spatial possibilities.
    The question would then be: is this spatial ambiguity a positive (maybe even distinguishing) property of abstract painting – maybe reflecting something deeply human about ( for example) the ” space” occupied by conciousness? Or is it a problem for abstract painting, and must abstract painting therefore contain hints of figuration to stabilise the space, or else give up on the pictorial space / integrated surface thing altogether?

    I think “intention” ( like “meaning”, “spontaneity” and a host of others) is a kind of fata morgana created by our use of language.
    “I intend this” becomes ” my intention is this” and suddenly there is a thing called intention, which we therefore imagine to have properties that other things also have, such as location ( in the mind of an artist or in an artwork). etc.
    The question of whether spontaneity is to be found in the process or in the artwork seems to me to be misconceived in this way. Perhaps I could understand the distinction you are trying to make in some other terms.
    There is a sense in which we are all talking poetry or relating fables here and that apparent differences of opinion are only differences in two ways of telling a similar story.


    1. Richard,
      Points on Brecht taken. But I think once you start to question and scrutinise the “…..conventional content and resolution in the theatre…” then issues of content and resolution come under a new kind of pressure. Brecht made us aware of how power and coercion are harboured in particular ways of telling stories. Thus Brecht’s antipathy to the Stalinist ‘Socialist Realist’ agenda. His emphasis on formal structures that underpin narrative sets him apart and opens the floodgates for experimentation thus leading to the kind of innovations in improv, writing and audience participation that you go on to mention.

      I like what you go on to say about space but I’m also interested in how formal concerns in art can have political, social and psychological implications and how they manifest themselves at particular points in history


      1. Yes, I can see that, and that collage really is different to painting. Do you think that painting has oppressive structures?
        You might be interested to look at Raimer Jochims´ shaped chipboard paintings, for instance at:
        http://jackystrenz.com/artists/raimer-jochims/#image-2 or

        As far as my understanding goes, Jochims sees painting within a broadly Marxist view of history as the gradual liberation of visual perception. He arrived at his shaped paintings through the conviction that his colour gradients (which have their own theoretical justification) require a definite form, which evolves (with brute force and pliers) parallel to the painting.
        His densely argued theoretical writings suggest that he is aiming for a unity of form and colour that somehow relates to a Marxist vision of the end of history.

        Whatever the reasoning, I think that the shaped forms of these works help their contents to “do” more than they would in a rectangle.


    2. I don’t agree that Brecht’s theater involves “a criticism of conventional content and resolution in the theatre, rather than a criticism of the conventions of theatre itself.” On the contrary, Brecht as concerned with a revision of the conventions of theater itself, in particular, the conventions that constituted the audience as a group of people separated by ritual and ceremony from the drama unfolding on stage. If a traditional audience was constituted by its non-presence to the characters on stage (passive, sitting in the dark, in silence, etc.), Brecht’s theater counters that idea by making the dramatic characters present to the dramatic characters by making the characters aware of being observed, so that the audience can no longer simply assume its non-involvement in dramatic events. This structural revision of convention demanded a revision of “content and resolution” – in particular the sacredness of dramatic content which presents the fate of the state as bound up with the personal fate of kings, princes and other quasi-divine figures. History now demands the intervention of people – for example, workers according to Karl Marx’s vision, which Brecht evidently shared.


      1. Correction: “by making the dramatic characters present to the dramatic characters by making the characters aware of being observed” should read: “by making the SPECTATORS in in the theater present to the dramatic characters by making the characters aware of being observed…”


    3. Richard,
      I think John B. made a good analogy with the improvisational abilities of the comic. Another analogy would be a dancer who needs tremendous discipline and training to be able to give the illusion of spontaneous grace. Yes, these words we chuck about are to some extent “poetic” terms, but that’s because we are after art not literalism. As an artist, you need to distinguish between your own indulgencies of process, how you “feel” about what you are doing, and the nature and feel of the outcome in the work. Abstract artists are notoriously sloppy about that distinction.


      1. ‘Modern Dance’ is an interesting case in point. Being a choreographer complicates that point though. You are using the body and skill of dancers for ends other than just a show case of skilled set moves. It seems that the artists at the cutting edge of this umbrella term, almost had to re-invent dance for themselves. I’m thinking of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. They started to integrate other kinds of theatre and movement into their dance, such as martial art forms, Kabuki theatrical conventions, popular dance forms and what was termed ‘pedestrian’ movement- the physical movements and gestures harvested from everyday life.

        In becoming choreographers in their own right, they wrested dance from the rigours of formulaic ballet moves. By integrating other dance languages and improvisation into their training they developed highly expressive forms but also the potential for very abstract ones too.

        Why did they do this? Because the body was capable of expressing far more about modern human experience than the language of Ballet could muster- even with the great music etc! How does this correlate with the history of painting?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Twyla Tharp was another of those choreographers who worked in more natural-looking areas of movement, sometimes almost casual-looking. I suspect if you or I tried to do what her dancers did with such ease, we’d fall on our arses.


  17. I think Richard Ward suggests an important idea about the kind of spacial qualities in abstract work. He does have a point about abstract space being unstable and ambiguous, as opposed to space that is stable and specific in figurative work. I suppose rather than ambiguous, the space could be described as multi faceted or layered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not so sure that space is always so straightforward as is being made out in figurative painting; it can be varied and weird and inventive and un-naturalistic. However, I do agree that new kinds of spatiality might be imagined in abstract art, both in painting and sculpture, and that the ability to be read spatially in different ways is not necessarily an ambiguity. Patrick Heron wrote something about each major artist reinventing space in painting, I think in relation to Matisse’s work, but I can’t quite recall where.

      What I think is still an issue/dilemma/conundrum for abstract painting is the illusion of deep space. I think there may be (for me) a similar or parallel problem in sculpture with height (off the floor). Just as there are few abstract paintings that exploit deep space, so there are few really abstract and really spatial sculptures that get above head-height. I certainly had difficulty with that last year. I can’t help feeling that if both these areas were opened out even a little, the results would be exciting for abstract art. (No doubt Alan will think this ambition constitutes yet more pointless speculation.)


  18. I agree Robin, exploiting and ‘reinventing (deep) space’ must be a high (maybe even the highest) ambition for abstract painting and sculpture. I sensed the difficulty you were having in your 2015 sculptures which got up above head height. Something about looking into-and-up as well as into-and-down certainly throws up challenges. A challenge I’m sure you will not shy away from……….

    Bye the way, the Elinga is a fine painting indeed, I’d not even heard of this Artist…….to my shame. Great light in the painting, and a lesson in how to deal with the edges of a painting too. The ‘passage’ in the picture from blue clothing through the orange chairs with the green covered box between with the shadows is great. I REALLY like it.


  19. Reading Melville is an education in how far we are from thinking about the abyss and Shakespeare.Melville is still part of that worldview that includes heaven and hell, though not in equal proportions. I doubt that this notion of the tragic will ever become central to any modern aesthetic. It is not how our world works. The Modern world needs common currency to perform its day-to-day tasks. It has to be inert and function as multiples. I thought of how perfect Wade Guyton’s inkjet images function as inert units of printed exchange. At all costs the objects that the Wall Street hedge funds buy have to be drained of human feeling. And if there is any horror these days at the positivist and commercial bias of our artistic language it is only snarky and dandified. As for abstraction I find it kind of lazy. http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2016/05/shake-and-bake-aesthetics-in.html


  20. Here’s a quote from Patrick Heron’s 1955 essay “Art is Autonomous” which touches on a couple of relevant issues:
    “The meaning which a work of art has for society is not the same as the meaning that the artist was conscious of putting into it. This is because a work of art is not just a telephone exchange which facilitates straightforward communication. The work of art is in some profound sense an independent, live entity. It has its own life. It draws nourishment from its creator that he was totally unaware of having put into it; and it redistributes nourishment to the spectator (including the artist himself, for he also is merely a spectator once the work is completed)… That is why I say that to demand a certain result from art in advance is utterly to misconceive the central creative process itself. It is to suppress spontaneity; to batten down the hatches on the subconscious.”

    Any abstract painters with serious pretentions to make spatial colour harmony the all-consuming content of their work should make their way to the new show “Vibration of Space” at Waddington Custot in Cork Street. ( http://www.waddingtoncustot.com/exhibitions/102/press_release/ ). You could learn what to do, how to do it, why it was such a good thing to do – and perhaps why it’s no longer worth doing. Patrick Heron had it sown up in the 1950’s.

    Heron on song is very hard to beat at this game. Of the eight or so works in this show by him, four are beauties. They are best seen live, because all four are far better than their reproductions suggest, but I have posted images of them on Twitter @RobinGreenwood1

    These four works, from what is perhaps Heron’s best abstract period, 1955-65 (leaving aside the rather fine earlier semi-figurative work) prefigured much of the British abstract painting of any esteem and ambition that followed, with echoes as late as the eighties or nineties (in particular, Alan Gouk and Fred Pollock). Whether these Heron’s have been bettered as regards inventive, downright beautiful colour and exemplary brush-touch is hard to call.

    But, even though I think the Heron’s are very, very good, I think they fall short of being really great. That is because I think they are limited, both by their formatting (vertical or horizontal stripes) and by their absolute preoccupation with colour (at the expense of all else, including the ditching of the format). I’m not sure I see the point of carrying on in that direction. Nevertheless, if Heron’s works are now out of favour with a younger generation of abstractionists, it’s partly because the latter’s preoccupations are far narrower still. They often keep the format and ditch the glorious colour, or reduce the colour to a paltry “scheme”. Heron’s colour has real resonant depth.

    Of the other artists in the show, Soulages and Hartung do nothing at all for me (never have, never will) and de Stael only fires intermittently. Heron is, on this present showing, head and shoulders above the others, including even de Stael – but then the latter has a very slender selection of work here. There is though, on the whole, and even in the best Herons, rather more harmonic colouristic “Vibration” going on than there is “Space” or spatiality.


  21. I pretty much agree with all of Heron’s quote. On Robin’s comments on colour it is certainly an area of divergence between abstract painters as to where one’s visual emphasis lies. How much is it about colour? I imagine that no one would say their focus has nothing to do with the importance of colour/colour relations, but how colour relates, or what part it plays in other aspects-shape, texture, drawing, structure, configuration, add your own aspects-is open to question.
    And yes, Heron is generally about colour (“my over-riding interest is colour” 1963). But sometimes Heron puts more or less content into his paintings, perhaps getting carried away with the possiblities and the achievement of more complex colour relations? And I also wonder what he would say now about colour. Would he still say as he did in 1963, “Painting has still a continent left to explore, in the direction of colour (and in no other direction”). I haven’t researched whether his views shifted on this later on?


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