#40. Harry Hay writes on Philip Guston, Henri Matisse and the Politics of the Idle.

Philip Guston, "Stranger", 1964

Philip Guston, “Stranger”, 1964

“Why am I like this?” Oblomov asked himself almost with tears, hiding his head under the blanket again. “Why?”

After seeking in vain for the hostile source that prevented him from living as he should, as the ‘others’ lived, he sighed, closed his eyes, and a few minutes later drowsiness began once again to benumb his senses… He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy… So he never arrived at the cause, after all; his tongue and lips stopped in the middle of the sentence and remained half open. Instead of a word, another sigh was heard, followed by the sound of the even snoring of a man who was peacefully asleep.

From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published 1859.

When David McKee gallery closed its doors in 2015, representation of Philip Guston’s estate was passed over to Hauser & Wirth, who celebrated this coup with an exhibition of his abstract work from 1957-67 at their gallery in New York, which is where I saw it in June this year. I want to make it very clear that this is not a review. The moment has passed and I have no particular desire to pick apart this grouping of works, which was mainly comprised of greyscales, floating ‘heads’ and the pure drawings he made in Florida while having some sort of an artistic crisis. The whole exhibition seemed to be accompanied by something of a concession that this is not really Guston’s best work, and that it is simply interesting to see the hints and suggestions at what would come later, what we are all yearning for, the return to figuration. This is really problematic on so many levels, not least the assumption that the late figurative works are any good, but that it also seems that the only way an artist’s voice can be ‘heard’ is by having something to ‘say’, and that the only way to ‘speak’ in art is to deal in recognisable imagery. But as fascinating as Hieroglyphics are, they are not paintings, and I question the extent to which any painting reveals itself through the conventions of language. Sure, it is subject to certain rules and conventions, but it is we who use language to understand what those conventions and meanings are. We interpret, but the painting imparts nothing directly. This is what Guston seems to struggle with in his later work, however open-ended the narrative connotations of his imagery may be. His frustration with abstract painting is well documented, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, then going into a frustrated fury about everything, and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid… Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” [i] I have some sympathy for this frustration, and yet many a painter before Guston has lived through equally tumultuous times, and yet still managed to remain committed to achieving their aims most appropriate to the chosen discipline.

Henri Matiise, "The Red Studio", 1911

Henri Matiise, “The Red Studio”, 1911

While in New York, I went to see the Matisse room at MoMA several times. On each occasion, but particularly the first, I was struck by the sense of relief his paintings gave me. This is in no small part due to the swathes of tedious early twentieth century art you feel obliged to wade through before getting to Matisse. I’m referring here to the ill-conceived and cringe-worthy theatricality of the Italian Futurists, the first year art school project standard banality of Duchamp’s Reseaux de Stoppages (1914), not to mention some truly awful Gustav Klimts and Marc Chagalls. You begin to feel stifled, as if everything after Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, including the whole Cubist project, had led art down some very spurious paths, either the reactionary and kitsch, or the ‘progressive’ and intellectual games of the Futurists and Duchamp, games both physical and linguistic in nature. Picasso and Braque’s interests and intentions aside, Cubism, when viewed as the widely practiced stylistic phenomenon that it was, begins to look very much like a game. So to step into a room that hosts The Dance (1910), Goldfish and Palette (1914), Red Studio (1911), The Piano Lesson (1916), The Moroccans (1916) and several smaller works and sculptures, is to feel cleansed, because in the midst of all these art games, and painters pursuing the developments of Cubism on no more than a superficial stylistic level, was a painter entirely committed to development within and particular to painting, heeding and accepting the consequences of Cubism, but reimagining them so as to extend painting’s possibilities and relevance and feel comfortable in the knowledge he was expressing himself and not mimicking others. But these paintings are uplifting not only because of the formal innovations, but also because they relay nothing of the deeply troubling events taking place in Europe at that time. They place us in exotic and idealised settings, Homeric utopias of festivity and desire, or by contrast, the sanctuary of the home, where the studio is, where there is art, music and family, rather than the aggressive posturing of politicians and soldiers. To me, these works feel more substantial and politically mature than any overtly anti-war expressionist picture (Guernica for instance), because they offer alternatives to conflict, all in ravishing colour and sensitive touch. Matisse makes real his felt experiences of his immediate environment by means that would maintain the painting’s relevance as an art-object. He accepts certain developments that restrict the possibilities of what he can achieve spatially at that time, and then embraces the challenge of how he can extract different form and space out of the ‘new paradigm’, meanwhile imbuing his work with its own potential to send a strong political message simply by virtue of being determinedly individual and true to his own experiences. The inevitable and involuntary politics of the idle, as portrayed by Ivan Goncharov in his tragicomic hero Oblomov, is by it’s very nature subversive, because it also undermines the efforts and activities of the political radicals who lay claim to subversion and circulate the maxim that evil only occurs when good people do nothing, forgetting that evil also occurs when people with the best of intentions fail to foresee the consequences of their actions.

If Goncharov had simply told us a story of an apathetic, idle man who is rude to his servants and incapable of action, squandering any opportunity he might have had at happiness, well, we may have been tempted to join in the chorus with so many of Oblomov’s detractors in the novel, who chastise him for his poor qualities and lack of ambition. But instead, Goncharov accrues the most painstaking and thoroughly monotonous collection of details, whereby every possible moment that could be extracted from Oblomov’s thought process is conveyed, and this allows us to experience a whole host of feelings towards Oblomov, shifting all the time between empathy and frustration, bringing him to life and continuing to animate him to this day. Similarly, had Matisse just naturalistically represented an image of middle class French living in the early twentieth century, we would be hopelessly bored, as if strolling through some Rococo wing of a museum, and condemn the work as ‘out of touch’. When an artist can show you a world that is on the whole conservative or comfortable but in a way that is anything but, then something truly special and confronting is occurring that forces us to readjust preconceptions or prejudices. The best word for this phenomenon is Realism.

Where are we? In what blessed little corner of the earth has Oblomov’s dream transferred us? What a lovely spot! It is true, there is no sea there, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no virgin forests – nothing grand, gloomy, and wild. But what is the good of the grand and the wild?

Does this opening passage to the chapter “Oblomov’s Dream” not also describe something of what Matisse is expressing in so many of his pictures, particularly his interiors. Not only the humility of the scene, but also the means by which it is achieved. There is nothing flashy about Matisse’s handling of paint, nothing grand, upsetting, romantic. It is interesting too, to think of this in relation to the following quote from Matisse, where he states “I don’t believe mountain landscapes can be of much profit for painters. The difference in scale prevents any intimate contact. A few weeks in the mountains are excellent, but as a complete rest from work.” [ii] It can be helpful to consider what Matisse chose to exclude from his work as much as what he put in, and I do not mean this in a reductive sense. Rather that he was prepared to recognise a certain level of exhaustion within particular avenues available to painting, and this may have simultaneously widened the possibilities by enhancing the focus on those that still remained ajar. Matisse was extremely discerning, prepared to exclude where necessary. This is very different to what motivated Guston in his late figurative works, often expressing a desire to be “more inclusive”, not in the sense of making the pictures more visually busy, but by refusing to accept that the figurative image’s capacity to generate meaning and function as art had come to be considered obsolete.

To be fair to Guston and his inclinations toward narrative and subject, Matisse was a figurative painter of a generation never expected to carry on the push to “pure abstraction”, and so his imagery is always going to have that advantage of being cooperative when it comes to establishing a sense of social purpose. My point however is not only that Matisse did not enforce this upon his paintings (I’m unsure as to how much of a concern of his it was at all), but also that we only recognise his work today and are in a position to unpack its possible meanings because of Matisse’s determination to engage with the realities of what painting could still achieve in a visual sense, and to not simply paint it any old way. “The artist’s essential core is itself a product of the civilisation that precedes us. We are born with the sensibility of a given period of civilisation and for that reason one can’t do just anything.” [iii] The pressures I would refer to in this case are of course the reality of the raised, parallel space established by Cubism, a possibility suggested but never literally enacted by Cézanne, whose figure perhaps cast the longest shadow as far as Matisse was concerned. Perhaps Matisse was stirred to correct the failings of the Cubist excursion in regard to just how much it extended and reacted to the spatial possibilities posed by Cézanne rather than lack of. Matisse did not retreat from the most pressing issues in painting that so desperately needed a mature head to guide us through. The pressures of Guston’s time were such that to paint a figurative space or image had become untenable. This is not to be confused with a kind of ‘peer pressure’ to simply pursue what was in vogue. I refer to the real and urgent pressure to make art that understood and attempted to meet the challenges of the time. And Guston did understand these pressures, having been a part of trying to meet the challenges the historical moment threw at him and his contemporaries. In conversation with Harold Rosenberg in 1965 he said, “To preconceive an image, or even to dwell on an image, and then to go ahead and paint it is an impossibility for me. I have often wondered why I find an image that is so easily recognisable to be so intolerable in a painting. My answer is that it’s intolerable – and also irrelevant – because it’s too abstract.” I find this quote to be very interesting, not only because it confirms Guston’s belief in the relevance of the kind of object based abstract art he was pursuing, but also puts his perspective on what is abstract in something of a reverse position to what is generally considered to be the aims of some of his contemporaries.

Guston in his abstract work is often reverting to a heavily reduced kind of figuration, as he also does in his figurative work. He doesn’t at any stage embrace strategies that would have made his work more ‘abstract’ for that time, such as those pursued by Rothko and Pollock, enacting their ideas to their most extreme and logical ends in their most renowned works. I will note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In America, I often found myself unconvinced by Rothko’s colour fields and Pollock’s drip paintings. I found Pollock’s Number #1 (1949) at MoCA in Los Angeles and One; Number 31 (1950) at MoMA to be particularly underwhelming not to mention mechanical, putting them in contradiction to his desire to “be nature”. However, other paintings by Pollock that I saw, particularly Male and Female (1942) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were fascinating if still figurative. The Rothkos from the same period were extremely of their time in their stylised Surrealist manner and overreliance on drawing. They were horribly dated and made me think that despite my preference for Rothko’s colour fields over Pollock’s drips, Pollock was surely the more naturally gifted artist.

Philip Guston, "Zone", 1964

Philip Guston, “Zone”, 1964

As for Guston, his most conventionally ‘abstract’ works are ones such as Zone (1954) or To B.W.T. (1952), where thick and predominantly red licks of oil paint cluster in the middle, criss-crossing vertically and horizontally before spreading outward, losing their intensity, fading to pinks and ultimately creamy whites and greys. None of these were at Hauser & Wirth, whose focus for this show was the troubled transitory period, where shapes made of black or dull contaminated colour float against generally grey backdrops, still tending to cluster towards the middle, quite strangely and literally assisted by the fact that the actual paint activity completely stops at least a good foot short of the canvas edge. Sure, he painted un-stretched which would have contributed to this, but to keep letting it happen so repetitively? I was quite baffled as to what he must have thought he was doing, given his preference for illusionistic space over literal declarations of the painting’s object-hood. A last attempt to remain attached to some semblance of a vanguard perhaps? At times I wonder whether in some way he thought himself a kind of Geppetto of painters, and that he was making the content of his work more real by refusing to acknowledge the limitations of the picture frame, and attempting to spare his painting the inevitable fate of remaining a mere work of art. Farfetched I know, but he spoke often of the Golems in Jewish folklore, these animated statues, and that he wanted to be like Rembrandt, because his portraits were alive, that they were Golems. “It’s as if he (Rembrandt) eliminates the painting plane, the plane of art, and gives us a real man, yet it isn’t a real man… I should like the image in my painting to be as puzzling and mysterious to me as if a figure walked into this room and we stopped talking and wondered: Who is he? What is this appearance?” Guston would also describe the sense of satisfaction he got when he left his studio and thought of his paintings as a whole bunch of people he’d left in a room back there. “The strongest feeling I have, and it’s confirmed the next day or the following week, is that when I leave the studio I have left there a ‘person’, or something that is a thing, an organic thing that can lead its own life, that doesn’t need me anymore, doesn’t even need my thoughts about it.”

We could do a lot worse than to hold this kind of ambition, and yet I am inclined to take issue with it, because I think a painting, in order to simply survive, has to strive to be a work of art and not just reality, and this proves to be a much more complex and intricate task of binding opposing forces together, than what is suggested by the notion of merely convincing us that something is there involves. I say suggested, because Guston clearly appreciated the level of artistry required of Rembrandt to elicit that response in him. But I think it could be misleading, because you could equally argue that Rembrandt, given the way he painted, is also making us aware of a kind of plane in art, as evidenced by the physical and sensuous passages of paint, and not just the effect of the image overall. Is this mysteriousness we experience when we encounter a Rembrandt portrait a result of his shattering of the picture plane? Or is it just his perfect reconciliation of material with illusion, illusion with art, as opposed to trompe l’oeil, which is all illusion, no art. When you encounter a piece of trompe l’oeil trickery, there is the initial sensation that the object depicted is real, and then you realise it is two-dimensional and subsequently lose all interest. When we look at Rembrandt, we know we are looking at a work of art, and that is why it holds us for so long. I don’t believe art has to ‘acknowledge’ certain conventions of the form such as material or the plane in order to be art. I don’t think any good art actually does ‘acknowledge’ anything, as the implications of this word are far too deferential and customary to be descriptive of something that ought to be a challenge to our preconceptions of art and life. It would be wrong to say that Rembrandt ‘acknowledges’ the material of paint. In converse effect, Anselm Kiefer ‘acknowledges’ his various materials to literal and lumpen effect, and to the eternal detriment of his work. Let’s just say that in Rembrandt and other examples of great art that have stood the test of time, there is a collision and synthesis between what is real; the paint, the canvas, and what is somehow more real; the imaginary reality made visible to us.

Perhaps Guston believed in the same thing, and perhaps he had a better way of describing it, a way that is more charming and imaginative. But in his idea, and his subsequent stated claims of ambition, he does reveal things that could have contributed to some of the deficiencies in his work. The equating of his paintings with “an image” for instance, goes someway to explaining the clustering toward the middle of the canvas in his work, ironically destroying the illusion and putting the work in danger of only being recognised in years to come as period pieces, as I think has happened to Cubism. It is a difficult yet necessary requirement of a painting to generate crucial and engaging activity across the support in all its extremities, even if that activity is of a subdued nature. To repetitively fail to enliven all those ‘areas’ or supposed negative spaces, not only creates dead zones, but also breaks up the coherence by establishing a hierarchy within the picture, resulting in parts that are more important than others, in Guston’s case manifesting in an implied figuration that does not live up to anything like what the best figurative art achieves in its equal distribution of attention to all parts of the painting. I am certainly not suggesting that Guston was unaware of the need for the work to function as art. He has said many words to the effect that he did recognise this necessity. In the same conversation with Harold Rosenberg he recounts, “Paul Valéry once said that a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning. In a painting in which this is a room, this is a chair, this is a head, the imagery does not exist – it vanishes into recognition”. And in conversation with David Sylvester in 1960, “In other words, without this resistance you would just vanish into meaning or clarity, and who wants to vanish into clarity or meaning?” Here Guston demonstrates an understanding that a certain level of resistance is required on the part of the material in the task of maintaining the plane of art. But I do wonder to what extent he entertained the idea that he did not want his work to operate as an object in any sense (sounds odd I know, given the way he applied his paint). I say it because I believe that the thoughts that artists entertain have all sorts of ways of revealing themselves in the work and that if Guston’s work gets lost at times, it could be due to a failure on his part to recognise the importance of its identity as an art-object, and it would be naïve to assume that vigorous application of thick paint automatically guarantees our recognition of that physical dimension.

In the return to figuration, there seems to be another assumption made by Guston, and that seems to be that pictorial space is dependent upon having objects occupy areas of the painting. The assumption is also present in the abstract work, but perhaps more pronounced later, when those objects become explicitly referential. He believed his work to be spatial, as did critics such as David Sylvester, who appeared to identify Guston as having married Renaissance depth with Modernist planarity. I understand this conclusion, but I don’t really see it. I see the space in Guston’s figurative work as a kind of cognitive space, where the viewer establishes distances between things based on the object depicted and where we think it ought to exist in the picture. There is something interesting about that, but it relies on too many assumptions for my liking and in any case fails to demonstrate actual spatiality of an inventive or complex nature between passages. Flat figurative painting is probably worse than flat abstract painting.

So Guston perhaps did not rise to the occasion, and through his shunning of the abstract project, so full of potential but largely undeveloped through the 50s and 60s, he somewhat inadvertently helped to usher in a whole new occasion, that occasion being a mood for a type of autobiographical painting that he probably would have been utterly dismayed by. So too the casual approach by later generations of artists who flip flop between abstract and figurative, seeing the two as mere resources, full of associations and useful tools and tricks to deploy in order to make ironic jabs or appear ‘open minded’, or just simply think that we have moved on from abstract/figurative, and wouldn’t want to categorise themselves so. There is also still, perhaps more than ever, a desire to say something important, or personal (important and personal being synonymous nowadays). There are all sorts of contributing cultural reasons for this, such as social media or the rise of identity politics at the expense of debate around collective issues. But at the core of it all, at least where visual art is concerned, Postmodernism emerges when Figurative art starts to exhaust its objective capacity to reinvent itself. It directed its attention inward, not only resulting in a cessation of promising developments in regard to the visual, but also at the expense of any continuation of an established level of finesse and quality in the handling of the chosen material, because the focus had shifted towards the personal story, the outside issues, the political statement, the philosophical significance. It had started long before Guston, or the 1970s. It starts with 20th Century Modernism itself, with the rise of the academic as artist, the infiltration of Post-Structuralist discourse (directed at literature for heavens sake) into thought on Art, and obviously Cubism’s dissolution of the figurative image, thence to Constructivism, with its grand utopian ideals, all this time having entertained Futurist claims, Duchampian games and eventually if not already in figuration, the relegation of paint activity in favour of ideas as pursued by Surrealists like Magritte, Dali and De Chirico, painting in as dead a manner as could be envisioned so as to philosophise with their brushes. The look of the thing is completely secondary to the discussion. And the discussion it seems has moved on from somewhat timeless questions of faith and morality, such easy things to ridicule, but is now focused on the transitory issues based politics of the day.

Philip Guston, "Pantheon", 1973

Philip Guston, “Pantheon”, 1973

I wonder to what extent abstract art has had a hand in all this, and whether or not it can or needs to be part of the antidote. Some elements of Postmodernism seem very much to be the realisations of what Clement Greenberg would have called the “Rear-Guard”. In this instance, those reactionaries who, unable to see the bigger picture, either hated abstract art, thinking it had robbed painting and sculpture of its meaning, or those with the best intentions who felt determined to pursue figurative art despite the lack of any promising way forward, falling into the “looking back’ project of appropriation and reference, or who just saw abstract art and Minimalism as the obvious full stop at the end of art history, marking the rise of performance and conceptualism. After all, abstract art proved a step too far for Guston, and he was actually trying to do it. What did I say earlier about the evils committed by those best intentioned individuals who fail to foresee all the consequences of their actions, or who simply can’t see past the immediate gain? He has turned out to be something of an inadvertent father of Postmodernist painting, with the “loose” narratives and intentionally clumsy handling. Think of his Pantheon from 1973, where the painting is literally inscribed with the names of his favourite painters, all hovering around a very stylised and dorky image of an easel with canvas, not to mention the unfortunate self-congratulatory connotations. Need I say more? But what interests me is that to whatever degree abstract art was one of the contributing causes to this current state of affairs, it could equally be continuing to act in direct opposition to it, threatening the academic approach to art by undermining the authority of those who require linguistic cues in order to explain it. It has the capacity to evoke a level of frustration in the extroverted and politically motivated that is equal to that of a Matisse painting or Goncharov’s Oblomov. These are of course not the reasons to get into abstract art, nor are they the ones that keep you in it necessarily, but it all adds up to something. The politics is noble because it is involuntary.

Henri Matisse, "The Piano Lesson", 1916

Henri Matisse, “The Piano Lesson”, 1916

Matisse responded to the challenges facing painting, which was to restore a spatiality within and concerning a set of irreversible developments that threatened to flatten painting, whilst remaining uniquely individual and true to his interests. Because he did this, we are familiar with his work today, and have an opportunity to think about the meanings and implications of the work, which includes what he depicted in it, that depiction being a life enriched by family, friends and culture, which is a powerful visual/political statement that continues to trouble ultra-leftists, conservatives and followers of postmodernist doctrine alike, who reveal much about their own insecurities by thinking the paintings bourgeois.

So why is it so different in Guston? Why can Matisse paint what is around him and it become universal and subversive, and for Guston to do the same and it be autobiographical and regressive? Guston was not one to paint pictures with overt political messages. Like Matisse, he made many works about idleness, or lying in bed, or procrastination. His daughter Musa Mayer in her book Night Studio, makes her own connection, although somewhat superficially, between her father’s East Coker – T.S. Elliot (1979) and Oblomov. All well and good, but this will not lift it to the level of Matisse, and unfortunately art cannot be justified by its subject matter, otherwise we’d still be painting crucifixions. I can’t help but think that had Matisse been in Guston’s position, he would have continued to pursue an objective and expressive abstract art with every fibre of his being, and that is probably the difference. That and many other reasons already covered, not least Matisse’s openness of touch as opposed to Guston’s hard opacity, the multi-directional spatial architectures in Matisse to Guston’s flattened horizontals and verticals, Matisse’s range of colour with inventive juxtapositions in contrast to Guston’s severely limited palette and tonalism, and of course the objectivity of Matisse’s observed reality translated into paint as opposed to the expressive but highly subjective outpourings of Guston’s very stylised visual imagination. Perhaps someone could argue that this was indeed Guston responding to the pressures of the historical moment. It won’t be me.



  1. All quotes from Guston are sourced from Clark Coolidges’s Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, 2011, 1st edn, University of California Press, CA, except where specified below.


[i] Guston P, ibid, quoted in Storr R 1986, Guston, “A New Figuration”, p.53, 1st edn, Abbeville Press, NY.

[ii] Matisse H, quoted in Cronan T 2013, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism, “The Influence of Others”, p.134, 1st edn, University of Minnesota Press, MN.

[iii] Matisse H, quoted in Cronan T 2013, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism, “The Influence of Others”, p.160, 1st edn, University of Minnesota Press, MN.


  1. Shaun,
    My ears were pricked when you brought this up back on the bunker thread. Perhaps it was at the back of my mind while writing this.

    One of the problems is that Postmodernism has set up for itself this sort of impervious shield to criticism, and you’re right when you suggest that if we don’t know what we’re aiming at, the target will be ever harder to hit. This will sound quite silly, but it is as if Postmodernism doesn’t want to be understood, because then we could be critical of it. So instead all the theory is written in the most bland and boring way possible. Who could seriously be bothered getting their heads around that much jargon? And it is not surprising that Clement Greenberg seems to be the most prized scalp for these people, given that the flair and directness his writing had sets him up as something of a tall poppy, and definitely when you consider that he wrote passages such as the following…

    “The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new “twists,” which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch.”
    (From Avant-Gardes and Kitsch, 1939)

    “All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch.” No wonder they all hate him, and want to tear down everything he appeared to represent. i.e. form.

    I don’t pretend to get Post-Structuralism or Postmodernism, but from what I can glean, we have writers like Derrida, Valéry, Barthes etc. putting forward the case that what an author really means can never be communicated to a reader. It is all lost in language. language is a construct. The reader brings his/her own subjective experiences to the text and creates the work for him/herself. I have problems with this, but can accept it up to a point and recognise that there is truth to this as much as there isn’t, but the key is that they were talking about language not art (I’m only picking out the authorship strand here, there is also Post-structuralist Feminism for instance, which is also related to language). One of the points I raise early on in the essay is that art is not language. Words have direct meanings, and can mean explicit things in combination with each other, whereas a combination of brushstrokes can never mean anything explicit in that sense, so trying to apply this thought to art already seems futile, because an artist is not trying to get a point across in the first place.

    You might understand this better than I do, Shaun, but it seems that the deconstruction of language has in art manifested in the deconstruction of form, eliminating the “resistance” of form and material, and supposedly increased the likelihood of getting your point across, because all you have to do it seems is say it. So funnily enough, the power of language to communicate is restored? I might be getting myself in a knot, but it seems to me that the Postmodernist debacle is one of the biggest knots we’ve ever seen, and that it just takes some scrutiny to reveal all the contradictions.

    You say Shaun, that “if we don’t ‘see’ ‘Post-Modernity’ reality as our reality; then the art that we make will necessarily fall outside of contemporary concerns.” I think just like Matisse, we need to be aware of what our reality is. But to many of his contemporaries, that just meant painting more Cubist pictures. I wouldn’t want to make abstract art that in anyway assimilates itself into the current state of affairs in the belief that it is being “relevant”. It needs to maintain a noble and disinterested position, and hopefully lead in that regard. But I am very interested as to what your thoughts might be as to how abstract art might be capable of playing a part in Postmodern reality. We do spend a lot of time on this site debating late Modernism, perhaps forgetting what the real enemy is, or is it all sort of part of the same thing?

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  2. I don’t see “Post-Modernity” as “our reality”, nor do I see the “contemporary concerns” at stake in Post-Modernism as genuine concerns unless you’re concerned with making fashion statements that quickly are eclipsed by the next fashion. Since fashion is basically a current articulation of conformity, I don’t really see why artists should be concerned with it either.

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  3. For me, the fundamental mistake in postmodernist thinking is to overestimate the importance and centrality of (non-poetic) language.
    Wittgenstein´s demonstration that this kind of language is necessarily a social construction has been used to elevate sociology to the status of an über-discipline, pulling the epistemological rug from under the feet of all other disciplines.
    Just as Harry has noted, the postmodernist system is fully insulated against criticism, since rather than meeting any objections, it “explains” them as sociological phenomena. It forms a closed (and therefore useless) system, similar to crude Freudianism that explains objections as neuroses or crude Marxism that explains objections as class prejudice or false consciousness.

    What is needed to restore sanity is the acknowledgment of an “interpersonal subjective”, not just in art but in all human experience.
    This is not something that can be held down in objective/rational/scientific language. It is “that whereof one cannot speak”, and it is real – more real than the objective world that we construct out of it.
    Speaking poetically (in an objective/analytical sense the following way of speaking has long been discredited) – there is some part of reality that prompts us to say “tree”, and although “tree” is a socially determined and variable concept that has no privileged connection to anything “out there” in reality, this doesn´t make the interpersonal prompting that started us off in any way arbitrary or irrelevant.
    Postmodernism sees only the “tree” – the social concept expressed in language but not the tree of our interpersonal, subjective experience. It skates over reality and denies any real basis for truth, because it regards the epiphenomenon of language as the real thing. Paradoxically it is the natural philosophical partner to scientism, echoing scientism´s “all of reality can be explained/expressed in language” with its own “reality is no more than the sum of what is expressed in language”.
    And it is the natural enemy of art, which (for me) recognizes and communicates a subjective, but interpersonal truth, independent of objectivity and language.

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    1. “How so! What thoughts are there that don’t involve us experiencing the world through language.

      What thoughts do you have that don’t involve you speaking to yourself in words? Point to one thing outside of language?”

      The experience of (good) music, painting, sculpture, poetry (even though it’s make with words); pity, compassion, tragedy, comedy, horror, terror, anxiety, fear, wonder, etc.

      Also, “thoughts that involve speaking to yourself in words” isn’t “language” according to your own definition: ” However, if ‘language’ is regarded as any form of ‘communication’, then maybe ‘language’ could include anything that allows the transference of something about the ‘self’ from one to another.”

      On “speaking to yourself in words”, please read Wittgenstein’s remarks on “private language”, Philosophical Investigations, starting at section 243.


  4. Baudelaire was a companion and supporter of numerous 19th Century painters, including Delacroix, Courbet and Manet. Courbet even painted his portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Baudelaire#/media/File:Gustave_Courbet_033.jpg and, in return, Baudelaire was an advocate for both his and Manet’s “modernity”. So far, so good. But not only was Courbet’s revolutionary “modern” art based upon a “renunciation of modern Paris, cities, and modern life”; but what’s more, Baudelaire was also a supporter of an artist called Constantin Guys, 1802 – 1892 (heard of him? No, probably not), whom he especially lauded as the “peintre de la vie moderne”, who “captured the fleeting charm of city elegance with equally fleeting strokes on the canvas”. A man very much of his time.

    Except he was crap: http://www.wikiart.org/en/constantin-guys . But yes, if you want a reflection of Parisian society in the late 19th Century, Guys is a better bet than Courbet, who was, at least to start with, something of an outsider and a loner. But then Courbet ends up as a major artist, a massive influence on Cezanne and all that follows, culturally, including Matisse. Courbet is important, Guys is trivial. Which one dealt with “contemporary concerns”? Is this Courbet, which leads us so directly to Cezanne, a “contemporary” painting? http://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-courbet/after-dinner-at-ornans-1849

    As Harry writes:
    “Let’s just say that in Rembrandt and other examples of great art that have stood the test of time, there is a collision and synthesis between what is real; the paint, the canvas, and what is somehow more real; the imaginary reality made visible to us.”

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  5. Just read this in an email from the Jack Tworkov estate:

    “In the “age of anxiety” surrounding the Second World War and the years of free jazz and Beat poetry, artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning broke from accepted conventions to unleash a new confidence in painting. Often monumental in scale, their works are at times intense, spontaneous and deeply expressive. At others they are more contemplative, presenting large fields of colour that border on the sublime. These radical creations redefined the nature of painting, and were intended not simply to be admired from a distance but as two-way encounters between artist and viewer. It was a watershed moment in the evolution of 20th-century art…”

    Faced with such rhetoric, it seems at times to be just as problematic a task to critique “high modernism” as it does post-modernism. These works, on these terms, becomes unassailable – they encompass everything, from “deeply expressive” to contemplative and “sublime”. You’d think they were the best paintings ever. Bullshit.


  6. “Carl – Could you give an indication of what “our reality” might be if it is not a “Post-Modernity reality”?
    It seems to me that even within the brevity of your comments you are clearly demonstrating that you are witness to ‘reality’ stemming from Post-Modern conditions. (That fashion thing is real, no!)”

    –If the core of Post-Modernity reality consists in something like the recognition that a speak cannot “really” communicate meaning to another, then I would say that “Post-Modern reality” is the same reality that has always existed since people began communicating – namely, the reality that people tend to shirk the responsibility for saying what they mean and meaning what they say. In that sense, post-modernism seems to me to be yet one more clever tactic for evading human responsibility.

    By contrast, modernism implies a recognition that the conventions (after the collapse in authority of religious, cultural and political institutions) that allow us to communicate (whether they be linguistic, visual, aural or otherwise) cannot by themselves guarantee that we will be fully expressed or fully understood. For that reason, humans must recognize, accept and bear that the responsibility is theirs alone. This has always been true and always will be true as long as there are human beings. The importance of modernism, as far as I’m concerned, is that it brings this “must” – this necessity – to the forefront. In so doing, it provides an ethical content to art that may not be evident, and that’s why I continue to be moved by modernist works of art even though modernism has long since passed out of fashion. Fashion doesn’t help me live my life.


  7. I can’t see too much wrong with this essay.

    Matisse is certainly an exemplary painter and deployed the resources of the medium far better than Guston, or anyone else for that matter. Matisse’s attitude to politics may seem insouciant compared to Guston’s. Yet Matisse was able to make great art out of this apparent insouciance while Guston, for all his commitment, managed only middling work.

    It seems demeaning to describe Matisse’s achievement in political terms. But he was obviously concerned with the idea of ‘the good life’, which is historically a political and philosophical subject. His oeuvre is a radical contribution to this discourse, in effect a pictorial version of the Republic, characterised by ‘luxe calme et volupté.’ The dominant themes are peace and freedom. Peace is what matters most.

    It’s hardly surprising that peace mattered to Matisse. He was born and lived in Flanders, an area that saw conflict and invasion in the late 19th Century as well as hosting the Great War of 1914-18. He didn’t just watch it on TV.

    His idea of peace was quite specific, involving work, structure and discipline rather than idleness. Learning the piano requires effort and practice, the studio is a work place, as is the home environment. Interiors are furnished and decorated with care and thought, creating a domestic atmosphere that must be cultivated and serviced. These different forms of labour make his world ‘real’ and viable, not a dream, and it appears to be a better world than the one we view it from.

    In Matisse’s pictorial Republic, peace is a precondition of freedom. Colour is liberated, able to move through the composition, increasing its territory, flooding across boundaries to maximise impact; this foregrounds the formal power of chromatic activity.

    Matisse blends the philosophy and politics of ‘the good life’ into a particular aesthetic experience. Could we to use his approach as a model in contemporary circumstances? As the essay argues, it would have to meet two challenges, abstraction and post-modernity.

    Abstraction implies an advance in artistic freedom. Matisse’s pictorial economy reduced the number of tasks to be accomplished in making a painting while maintaining visual plenitude. Abstraction goes further in dispensing with figurative conventions adherence to which over-determines formal decisions and over-commits the painter to include ‘meaning(s)’ to justify the demands implicit in figuration.

    I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see abstraction as addressing the notion of ‘the good life’. Malevich may have thought he was providing the blueprint for social arrangements in which this life could be lead, while the constructivists maybe wanted to set out the rational matrix on which to build a future community. These ambitions are perhaps political in the narrow sense, so seem outdated, but the fact they were linked to abstraction’s genesis may mean they can return in an evolved form suited to current circumstances.

    What we learn from Matisse is that the politics of the ‘good life’ has to be given a convincing setting, a ‘reality’. In pictorial terms the painter has to provide the ingredients out of which a world can be made to stand up. Early Guston paintings consist of elements that have no architectonic or tensile property and so can’t build a world.

    How does Matisse’s politics relate to post-modernity? The difficulty with this question lies in ever expanding definitions of post-modernity, which make it almost unanswerable. But one small aspect of the body of theory associated with the movement might be relevant, to do with irony, which seems to have been seriously challenged by the rise of fundamentalism. The destruction of the two buddhas of Bamiyan and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in 2001 were not the work of anti-foundationalist ironists, who might ultimately agree that their world view was provisional. And acknowledging this leads back to the twentieth century dialogue of war and peace.

    Additionally, the 2001 events and all the similar attacks since, are seen as aimed at modernity. The victims are assumed to be modernists, and that changes things. Any of us could end up dead because of modernism, and that makes potential modernist martyrs of us all, whether we like it or not. I don’t know if that counts as part of our post-modern reality.

    The concepts of peace and freedom and the good life still appear to be relevant, even more so because they are seriously threatened. What we need is a contemporary artist as great as Matisse to turn that into a new reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “When we ‘look’ and see a “tree”; it would surely be a meaningless experience without the word ‘tree’ to enable our ‘self’ to understand anything about that entity in front of our eyes.”

    Here is the first paragraph of a recent attempt by me to describe the effect of a photograph that is not capable of being verbally articulated (which never stops me from trying):

    “When I first saw the photograph (referred to as “the Gaza photograph”) on July 29, the effect was of experiencing something overwhelming, as when some part of reality, or the reality of something in the world, or of the world itself, seems to bend and outstrip one’s capacity to understand—in this case, as if what I knew or thought I knew about the world in which I live were fundamentally inadequate. It struck me that my understanding was wholly inadequate to accommodate what is shown in the picture, where “what is shown” is not a representation or interpretation but (a piece of) the world itself on a particular day. If we human animals are distinguished from other life forms by our ability to speak, an experience that leaves us speechless leaves us insecure in our humanity. A feeling of being suddenly insecure in one’s own humanity—or equally a feeling of being suddenly exposed as merely human, implying that the concept of humanness is essentially insecure or unstable—now seems an accurate description of my first encounter with the Gaza photograph almost two years ago. Furthermore, an experience that leaves one insecure in one’s humanity may be said to allow an insight into the essential inadequacy of the solutions that human beings have proposed to those problems that occur uniquely as human problems.”


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  9. Well you asked me to point, so I’ve done my best at pointing.
    You’re right that we spend a lot of our time in “language mode” but I don’t think you have to be a buddhist monk to slip out of it now and then. Carl has some good suggestions, and I personally have no problem at all with a wordless sensation in a situation that might be described by an onlooker as me touching sand.
    There’s no getting outside of language via theories and
    logical arguments, so I can’t offer anything positive in that direction.
    On the negatve side, it might help to point out the circularity of demanding “meaningfulness” and “understanding” for your encounter with a tree as an argument for the centrality of language, since understanding and meaning are both terms that are intimately bound up with language. The word “tree” can be understood, the concept of a tree can be understood, but what could ever count as understanding a tree per se? And what could ever count as the meaning of a tree?


  10. “Carl – I don’t know what you want me to say except to make comment about the ‘Gaza photograph’ in relation to your trouble to articulate how the image makes you feel, and my suggestion that a ‘tree’ in front of our eyes would have no meaning without the word ‘tree’ to help us understand what we had before us?”

    The word “tree”, and therefore that particular tree in front of our eyes, has meaning to the extent there is some point to talking about the tree. The word “tree” doesn’t give the thing meaning; our shared interest in talking about it (always on some particular occasion) does, because absent that interest, the word would not be part of our vocabulary.


  11. Shaun – “Wordless sensation”, like “language mode”, “push thoughts out of my mind”, “having the word sand enter our thoughts” and lots of other stuff we have both said are all concerned with private sensations and are necessarily poetic. To communicate at all, they must appeal to some kind of interpersonal subjective. Objectively they are nonsense (Wittgenstein: “a kind of cry”).
    What you or I say about what goes on in our heads is irrelevant to the validity or not of postmodernist thinking.

    I have the impression that post-modernism takes Wittgenstein’s insight concerning the impossibility of private language and the socially determined nature of public language to be an insight concerning reality.
    For me, it is an insight concerning the limits of (non poetic) language and the inability of language to properly “engage” with reality. Language is an immensly useful tool for society but it is no more than a tool. In no way (apart from through a circular definition of reality) does it circumscribe reality or the human experience of reality. We can try to communicate our experience of reality with art, relying on some kind of interpersonal subjectivity.
    “Postmodern art” seems to me to be something of a contradiction in terms, at least for a “postmodern reality” composed only of what can be expressed in language.


    1. Shaun – you’re quite right that the philosophy of language is a minefield for misunderstandings, inaccuracies and outright blunders. You can’t get outside of language by using language so every argument teeters on the edge of absurdity. I take it that this is why Wittgenstein developed his aphoristic style and always denied that his writings were theories. Looking back, I’m sure I could pick holes in most of what I have said.
      It’s true that I feel passionately about these things. It’s the main reason I started to paint.
      I’m glad that something came across. I’ve certainly had to comb through my thinking and have picked up some useful thoughts discussing things with you and Carl.
      Please don’t take any of this too personally. It’s rather too easy to sound disrespectful arguing about philosophy, and I do apologise if I have overstepped the mark.
      Don’t leave Abcrit. Discussion thrives on different opinions and it is arguments rather than people that stand to debate.
      Best wishes,

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Shaun,
    Thanks for responding in your comment from the 21st of September. Lots of Vitamin B in Vegemite, very good for brain function. A little more sunshine would be very welcome at the moment though. If I write clearly, it is probably a result of me trying to understand things for myself primarily, and to get my own thoughts in some sort of order. Also, I was reared on Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer, both very clear speakers, so I probably have ingrained into me a sort of natural suspicion towards anyone who tries to tell me that any adolescents’s take on Shakespeare or Goya is as legitimate as that of any esteemed scholar or critic.
    And that is the state of things, is it not? That any reading of a work is valid, no matter how far-fetched. But then there seems to be this other approach, that of Ai Wei Wei for instance, who wants his single intended meaning to register, and so almost everything that could create “ambiguity” is removed. This is not an intelligent way to counteract the tedium of having to endure plain wrong responses to your work, but then Ai Wei Wei is not an intelligent artist. It actually makes his art more ambiguous, because it has no purpose in and of itself, without its linguistic justifications. But then of course that isn’t a valid criticism today, because the language and the art are inextricable, and because form doesn’t exist, so you can’t criticise something for how it looks. No one here is going to try and argue down a pile of seeds or bicycles on a formal level, criticising their literalness or lack of spatial coherence. That would be plain ridiculous.
    Now that might sound like me championing some sort of a return to Modernist thinking, and determining the significance of works of art on purely formal terms. I’m not, and I think the essay demonstrates that, and it’s also why I’m interested in this discussion you’ve raised. You are right to say that “there are millions and millions of ‘postmodern’ entities in the world”. Are there not millions of Modernist entities too? It seems to me that a large portion of what is generally considered to be in the Modernist vein, is of a very dubious nature, and I don’t feel inclined to accept its canonical status simply because of the influence it has had. Duchamp, Futurists, Malevich, Surrealism… this kind of stuff can only be appreciated in relation to the context of the time, and this I think, goes for a lot of Abstract Expressionist work too.
    Matisse might indeed represent the height of sophistication in Modernist painting, and yet I feel as if by thinking him a Modernist, I’m throwing him in with all this other rubbish, to which he just does not belong. It all depends which way you want to look at it. Is Matisse the Modernist in the truest sense, and those that readily fall into one of the many “isms” are lesser Modernists, or something else altogether? Or are those “lessers” actually the Modernists, and Matisse is acting outside of all that to some extent, but still with acute awareness of what was going on. And when Picasso was asked why he and Braque ditched Cubism, he apparently said, “Because we were interested in Painting”, the implication being that Cubism is not painting. There could be all sorts of reasons why he really stopped, but it’s a great line.
    You see, I don’t have any particular allegiance to Modernism, but I do happen to want to see work made that is as exciting and relevant as truly great Modernists like Cézanne and Matisse are. Does this mean continuing with Modernist concerns in spite of decades worth of Postmodernist discourse, or dispensing with said Modernist concerns in favour of something that appreciates the Postmodern milieu, whatever that is? Neither sounds right. Nor would any approach that tries to synthesise the two. I do not think there is any such cross-roads, not least because I do not think artistic relevance must necessarily depend upon having anything to do with gaining wider recognition. I do not see any need to “appeal to ‘postmodern’ sensibilities.” So much bad art does this, and it won’t be remembered in decades to come, let alone centuries. Relevance is not necessarily won in the moment.
    I think it is worth noting that abstract art is relatively young and so yet to be fully explored, or at least I believe so. For that reason, I see value in just carrying on with the task of focusing on what’s at hand, what’s in your control, the material, what you can make it do. Let the rest take care of itself. That is what I was really trying to say about Matisse, that he achieves a greater variety of long lasting meanings, by putting the visual challenge first. We know he had an enormous interest in Philosophy and politics, but that comes through as a result of his individuality, not an attempt to prove it was there.
    As to language and “the tree”, I might leave that one to you, Carl and Richard for the time being, but don’t think that I find it dull. Far from it.

    I really appreciated your comment. You were right to point out that Matisse was the very opposite of idle. Suggesting that he himself was idle was certainly not my intention, though I don’t think you were suggesting I did that. More that the world depicted in his pictures is that of the “good life”, not an idle life. That is also true. I think I use “idle” in quite a positive sense though, and it had a lot to do with the character of Oblomov, who it could easily apply to in a negative sense, such is the realism with which he is portrayed. I think whether it is the good life, or an idle one, I was putting forward a case of there being a kind of accidental politics being enacted, and that this can only be done if the work is perfectly realised within the capabilities of the appropriate medium, and that there is something particularly striking and challenging about the portrayal of comfort and leisure in a way that is robust, dynamic and consequential. It forces a realignment of preconceptions.
    This is why I think that an approach to art that focuses very closely on “the basics”, that is, what you are using and how you can do it, is not necessarily a mere formalist approach, because you are trying to make something that can be long lasting, universal, “interpersonal subjective”, all that, and not just a nice thing to look at. I want a bit more. It is why I have sympathy for Guston’s frustration, but ultimately feel it was misdirected, and perhaps impatient, too eager to recognise meaning in his own work in his own time.
    I don’t really know if abstract art can generate the same amount of meaning as Matisse, in terms of noble political significance and the implications of the good life. My hunch is that it can, because our recognition of Matisse today has everything to do with his involvement with his work on a visual level. So all I’m really suggesting, is that artists would do a lot better to focus on what is in their control, within their grasp, right in front of them, instead of trying to over-imbue their work with politics. After that, artists have to continue to work to cultivate and develop their critical faculty, because “engaging with the material” is not necessarily enough either.
    Lastly, I thought your comment was really great at following up on a number of issues raised in the essay, but better still for contributing more perspectives to the discussion around those topics. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Maybe this is a bit off topic, but I’m not sure how helpful Matisse can be for abstract painting as it seems to me that the space in his pictures is almost always created or at least structured by a combination of essentially figurative means, namely perspective and the overlapping of recognisable things.
    You can see the two clearly working together in “L’Atelier Rouge” 1911.
    Without the figurative interpretation of the central area of “La Conversation” 1911 as a window or picture with a man’s arm in front of the lower right hand corner it jumps out way in front of the blue wall. The light blue flowers in “La Fauteuil Rocaille” 1946 are only saved by figuration from sinking below the area of red wall behind. The coussin bleu in “Nu au Coussin Bleu” 1924 becomes a hole without some kind of figurative interpretation.
    Overlapping of recognisable things is important for the spatiality of “Intérieur au Vase Étrusque” 1940. Without the jug handle to hold it back, the vase would jump right in front of the table, and the curtain on the left is similarly constrained by a corner of tablecloth. Under the table, where there are no appropriate overlaps available, the figure’s legs look seriously misplaced.
    In “Nature Morte au Magnolia” 1941 the two vessels on the left would change place without the overlaps involving the upturned bucket.
    Wherever these devices are not used, strange things start to happen. The placeless slippers in “Zorah sur la Terrasse” 1912 for example, or the queasy drapery in “Odalisque à la Culotte Gris” 1927.
    In “Deux Odalisques” 1928 the lower figure starts to disappear under the couch, particularly where the blue belt meets the yellow cover.
    None of this diminishes Matisse as a painter, but I think it does maybe limit his usefulness as an inspiration for space-making in abstract painting.
    Having said that, it seems to me that some of the large Hoyland works in the recent London show might have been inspired by the minimal use of perspective in “Porte-Fenêtre à Collioure” 1914.
    Does that negate the argument above, or does it make Hoyland’s work less abstract?


    1. On the contrary, it’s good to be back on topic after all that philosophy. I think this is a perceptive comment, and I’d really like you to carry on a bit more, Richard… any thoughts on how to make more abstract space in painting? How do you think you do it, if you do?


      1. I don´t like to think too much about what I´m doing when I´m painting, so space is a kind of welcome gift, though I won´t stop until I think it is there.

        Colours tend to react with other colours in surprising ways but if I´m consciously trying to get a particular part of a painting to move forwards or backwards, then it´s all the well known ways: warm/cool, convex/concave, regular form/frayed form, saturated/unsaturated, definitely not part of any background/possibly forming part of a potential (maybe only local) background, close to a complementary colour/far removed from a complementary colour, situated between two (other) complementary colours/not so situated, roughly textured/smoothly textured etc.

        On the whole, I would only knowingly use these things as finishing touches to eliminate holes and bumps in a painting that is nearly complete. I don´t know if a combination of these things can explain the space that can suddenly appear in a whole painting. It always seems very mysterious to me.

        I think that a clear overlapping of marks is mostly too strong a method of forming space in an abstract painting. It has to be combined with other aspects that work in the opposite direction: a cool blue on top of warm reds and browns, a streak of white that can be optically combined with other white marks to suggest a background – that kind of thing. Otherwise it will destroy the surface, in the sense of destroying the evenness of the “optical pressure” exerted by all parts of the painting.

        I´m more and more convinced that abstract space is also ambiguous space, not necessarily because the ambiguity is desirable in itself (though it does keep the picture “breathing”) but because the dual demands of surface and pictorial space, in the absence of any stabilizing figuration, would seem to make it inevitable. I think (hope) that most of my paintings end up with a “discovered” figuration that is just enough to reduce ambiguity and stabilize (quieten down) the space, while not preventing that optical “rippling” that happens when the eye moves from one mark to the next, bringing each mark in turn to the front of the picture plane. I think one could even find ways to justify this philosophically (I´ll refrain).

        You have suggested abandoning the surface, maybe as a way of escaping this surface/space/ambiguity dilemma. I would rather be looking for ways of stabilizing space/reducing ambiguity that retain the surface but rely less and less on figuration.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My avoidance as far as possible of the term “ambiguity” for the state of multiple meanings is simply down to its negative synonyms, such as ambivalence and equivocation. Those don’t really belong in good art, figurative or abstract. But your reasonings here are good, and I fully understand your use of the term, so long as we might understand it to mean “more than one state”, rather than “neither one state nor another”. I don’t, however, think that such a condition is limited to abstract art.

        And I don’t by any means absolutely insist on the abandonment of “surface” and picture plane, I only want to point out that the emphasis on it is overplayed in modernist abstract painting, probably because of often having little to offer in terms of content, spatial or otherwise; and that it might be an unnecessary restraint if it becomes a conscious fetish. Maybe the reconciliation of three-dimensions in two takes care of it anyway. What I can’t seem to avoid thinking is that the desire for spatiality ought to be greater than the desire for flatness. I like particularly what you say about the unconscious working-up of spatiality in painting and its mysterious arrival. I’m not sure that is the whole story really, but it seems to be as much as we know at the moment.


  14. Excellent piece by Harry.
    I’d like to hear a little more about the issue of politics and abstract art, to see whether there are any explicit connections between politics and the value of an abstract painting or sculpture. The political still seems to lie (mainly, wholly?) in the artist’s process, or external issues such as exhibiting, selling, promotion, etc. and so only indirectly connected to the value of the finished work itself.
    Harry quotes Guston’s questioning on painting abstractly (adjusting “a red to a blue”) in response to political/ethical issues in the world. But although reverting to the political figuration might be good for him, make him feel better, it won’t guarantee his paintings are any good (or indeed have any meaningful political nature and impact).
    Accordingly, a viewer with similar outrages may go along to a Guston exhibition and identify with the political messages and if so swayed may value the work. But equally someone with similar political views may go and see the exhibition and think that the paintings have very little to do with, government brutality for example, and think that it may have been better for the artist to go on a march, rather than paint.
    Of course if you loved the work and shared the politics you may find political value with the work but this doesn’t sound right to me; a gap between a work and politics remains.
    This issue relates to what for me underlies so much of the discussion on these forums. Just what are we valuing, and why, when we judge a painting or sculpture? On the subject of Matisse it is interesting to note the radical politics and bravery of his wife and daughter.
    Is it right to suggest that any intrinsic political nature of a painting or sculpture rests largely in the ‘alternative’ reality the artist has created, and implied? Can the meaning and value of an abstract painting or sculpture imply elements of a better world?
    But even that sounds a little strange.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks John,
    I suppose one way we could start would be to ask whether a work of art can only be good if it is political, and I’m being very open with what I mean by political. Or, is it possible that politics will undo a work of art? The latter I feel is true in many cases, or rather than undoing, undermines claims upon art or art object hood from the get go. I also feel that any wonderful painting or sculpture, must surely be of a political nature in some way, though this is much harder to describe. The artwork would by necessity have to be difficult. Difficult to make, and in some way difficult to comprehend. It has to convince us. We might be reticent at first, and unresponsive to what it is doing. We would need to look again and again, and all the while we are being altered. Our way of seeing the world is being altered.

    Of course, art is not the only thing that can change the way we see the world. We could go and live in war torn or drought afflicted parts of Africa, or work in a refuge, or just spend a lot of time with someone who is very different to ourselves, from any background or political persuasion. But it is remarkable to think that art can shape us in the same way that big life events can, slowly but steadily, almost unnoticed. And maybe that is not so surprising, because looking at art is just as much a life experience as any other activity we can participate in.

    Maybe making and looking at abstract art is political in the same way that it is political to simply be alive, present and critical. I don’t think we should attempt to find or make politics in a work by applying symbolic ways of reading it, like a gestural mark being “violent” or referring to violence. What would such analysis reveal anyway? How would it help us to understand, or even curb violence?

    One of the problems that I think plagued Guston and perhaps a lot of his peers, was an impatience to recognise the meaning of his work, and if you’re in a rush, you’re probably going to fall back on linguistic devices. There is a small Guston work called “Paw”, which he did in acrylic in 1968. It’s a picture of a hand drawing a line with a stick. Nothing else. Not really much to look at, and yet this is what Guston has to say about it in conversation with Clark Coolidge in 1972,
    “To go back to that painting of the paw, and we were talking about the state I was in when I did it. I remember very distinctly that it happened quickly, maybe five or ten minutes of painting. The right accent in the right place, and then the dots on the paw. Because the proportions it took began to push it away from the human and it became an animal’s hand, a beast’s hand. And against that salmon-coloured plane, indefinable, you don’t know what the hell it is, there’s no horizon line or anything. And when it was done I looked at it and my heart started beating and I started to get very excited, and I said, ‘Gee, that’s like the first hand that ever drew.’ In ancient Egypt or in the Valley of Ur or something like that. And then I started thinking about man and about the missing link, since we really don’t know what happened. I mean, what did the man’s hand look like, who first drew a line or wrote something or made a mark on a rock? Now, was it like a paw? Didn’t it look like a beast’s hand? It must have. Maybe it was half-beast half-human? I’m going way off here…”
    All of a sudden this pretty basic picture is made to have all this other stuff going on in it. This type of analysis is pretty contagious too. You can really get swept up by it, and maybe we ought to. Who’s to say that he’s wrong to have those thoughts? But it does take us further away from the activity in the painting. Very basic images have a propensity to do this to us. A can of soup becomes this great symbol for all things consumeristic, capitalist and desensitising. Ultimately, you don’t even need the soup, or the paw. You couldn’t really do this sort of thing with Tintoretto’s Annunciation, without getting all biblical and that would just be weird.

    Abstract art, for obvious reasons, is resistant to that sort of analysis. And yet a lot of contemporary “abstract art”, tries to assert some sort of political symbolism either through its facture or just basic visual/linguistic tropes, which never succeed in making me reconsider my world view. It’s usually just preaching to the converted anyway. Compare this to Dostoyevsky, who by virtue of having language uncompromisingly at his disposal, has shown me people who have done terrible and violent things, and then made me like them. At the same time, he can promote a return to a society that is less politically adventurous, more religious and conservative, and make it sound like a very wise course of action. It doesn’t mean I’m going to apply all of it to this day and age, but you come out of it with a wider experience of humanity, and you haven’t even left your chair.

    Perhaps painters like Guston or even Warhol are really just frustrated writers.

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  16. I think that the value of art for society probably doesn´t depend on an artwork having a particular message or effect.
    The important thing is that any kind of non-objective, non-purposeful, non-scientific communication takes place at all. This is where our humanity lies. Without it, the field is clear for a “reality” and value system based only on objective science, with its inherent values of control and prediction. The need is particularly acute in today´s world, where many neuroscientists, the transhumanists and AI apostles from Silicon Valley and various philosophers (Daniel Dennett in America, Thomas Metzinger in Germany) are working steadily to turn our perception of human consciousness into that of a complicated machine with all the predictability and manipulability that this implies. In their world the “Cogito ergo sum” becomes “I can be manipulated, therefore I exist”.
    Science is not the inevitable, complete or even privileged approach to reality it often claims to be. Its truth conditions are exclusively concerned with power (to predict and manipulate). Scientific discourse is no more than the communication of power, even though it masquerades as a neutral description of the world.
    Humanity needs other forms of communication alongside scientific discourse, and this for me is where art belongs and where its sheer existence comprises a valuable political fact.
    Here is Fairfield Porter writing in 1975:
    “For me, painting does not illustrate or prove anything; neither “realism” nor “abstraction” nor any other of the categories invented by journalists. It is a way of expressing the connections between the infinity of the diverse elements that constitute the world of matters of fact, from which technology separates us in order to control it and control us. The more effective technological control is, the more destructive it is. Technology is essentially totalitarian, and artists who collaborate with technology are technology’s quislings. Technologists are often idealistic, clever and insane. Painters are usually stubborn and materialistic.” (!)
    Porter’s “quislings” are the artists who deal in concepts and ideas. For me, the thing we are valuing when we judge a painting is its ability to communicate some direct quality of existence – manifested in an indefinable feeling of rightness and human presence.


    1. I’m surprised by such an anti-science and technology stance. I certainly don’t agree with it. You paint a picture of a very dystopian scientific community, out to control and manipulate. It in no way corresponds to my experience of that side of human endeavour, which is as humane as any other branch of serious human activity. Politics, of course, might twist and turn science and technology toward some darker purposes, something that can be used to manipulate and control – but that’s been true of the fate of some art too.

      Apart from anything else, I would not be here today to write this were it not for the advances of science and technology, as applied to medical knowledge and methodologies – and I suspect that few of the other contributors to Abcrit would be either. That aside, I have always seen science as a parallel endeavour to art, rather than it’s antithesis; it’s just another way of searching for real values and the “truth” about things, and all good scientists acknowledge its limitations. There is surely just as much human imagination and healthy enterprise abroad in the scientific community as there is in the art world, and there is certainly a great deal less bullshit. My views on the “scientific method” and its value are here: https://abstractcritical.com/note/objectivity-and-art/ in an essay that is also related to our Ab-Ex topic.
      See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you’re right about the positive aspects of science, and I don’t want to suggest that the world is full of evil scientists. Science can be beneficial or even essential to human existence, whether it is knowing the best place in the forest to pick berries or a good way to trap mammoths or knowing how to eliminate smallpox.
        On the other side of course are all the lives ruined or destroyed by the power that science gives us. Whether science is therefore good or bad or should somehow be limited is an interesting and important political argument but isn’t the argument I was trying to make.

        What I want to say is that science by it’s nature essentially objectifies the world and separates us from it as potential manipulators of it. It is power bought with a loss of embeddedness in the world. I think that Christian myth expresses this rather well with the expulsion from Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge.

        Art in the sense of a non-objective communication of how things are, keeps this embeddedness “alive” so to speak within society.
        And this in turn is crucial to our humanity. Something important is lost if we start to see other people or ourselves scientifically, as objects.

        And I suppose I do think that in today’s world the pendulum is swung far over towards the side of science (art reduced to irony!), with scientific reality largely unquestioned as the only truth. The claims for artificial intelligence and the explanation of consciousness are just extreme symptoms of this.


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