#45. Ms. Ellen Knee writes on Twombly’s Sculptures; Strategies for Painting; Rauschenberg; Imperfect Reverse; Peter Hide; Heribert Heindl/ Richard Ward.

Cy Twombly, Victory, 2005

Cy Twombly, Victory, 2005

Cy Twombly Foundation Gifts 5 Sculptures to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

‘Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the museum, said, “Like the artist’s ‘Fifty Days at Iliam,’ this remarkable group of sculptures evokes the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War and offers a profound meditation on both classical history and the nature of modernity.” He added, “They represent an enormously important addition to our holdings of work by this great artist, who is a key figure in the history of contemporary art.”’

They obviously think very highly of Twombly at the Philadelphia Museum, as they seemingly do in museums all around the world, but as Carl Kandutsch recently asserted on Twitter, he is a vastly overrated artist. And how exactly, one might reasonably ask, do these dull sculptures evoke “the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War”? Is it a case similar to the politically wishfull thinking behind Motherwell’s Elegies, only with far worse work?


more Twomblys

more Twomblys

More here: https://www.artforum.com/news/id=64547


Larry Poons, "Cousin Durrell", 2005

Larry Poons, “Cousin Durrell”, 2005

The Art Newspaper reports on an exhibition of American and Belgian painting, on only until 16th November, at Vanderborght and Cinéma Galeries/the Underground in Brussels, which is curated  by Barbara Rose. Quoting from her  essay: ‘Minimal reductiveness can now be seen for what it is: a transitional step in the history of art, one necessary in order for painting to gain new freedom in favour of the play of the imagination. This new kind of pictorial space is allusive and not literal. The picture plane is recognizably flat, but on it, or in it, float any number of individual visions of a space that is neither that of the academic illusionism of the past, nor that of painting as a strictly literal object. New interpretations of texture and space, with their connotations of both tactility and metaphor, obviously vary from artist to artist.’

So what’s new about “allusive”? Looks like “academic illusionism” to me (writes Ms. Ellen). There has been an interesting exchange on Twitter, again involving Carl K., debating the merits or otherwise of Larry Poons. Might be worth continuing here on Abcrit… and comments on the rest of the work in this show would be interesting.

Rose’s essay here: http://theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/exhibitions/many-strategies-for-survival-barbara-rose-on-painting-after-postmodernism/


In anticipation of the Tate’s big Rauschenberg show starting 1st December, Blouin Art reports on Robert Rauschenberg at Salvage at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris:



Charley Peters, "Plexus_rgb_2-0-2015, acrylic on canvas

Charley Peters, “Plexus_rgb_2-0-2015, acrylic on canvas

UAL provides a report on the symposium at Camberwell, Imperfect Reverse, which involved Natalie Dower, Katrina Blannin and Charley Peters (amongst others) in a discussion on human values and their relationship to systems art:



Peter Hide, "Tablescape", steel, 75"H.

Peter Hide, “Tablescape”, steel, 75″H.

Sculptor Peter Hide, once of Stockwell Depot, now in Edmonton, Canada, has an exhibition (in Canada) and a new book.

A statement from the website reads:

Peter Hide is one of Alberta’s most important artists.  His work has been described by the art critic Ben Street as the “mutability of form meet[ing] the permanence of matter; somewhere between the two is a moral truth about the demise of the body and the desire to sustain it.”

Pics here: http://www.scottgallery.com/artists/peter-hide

And book: https://www.amazon.ca/Peter-Hide-Sculptors-Life/dp/1926710401

So what is this thing about the body in Peter’s work, and how abstract is that? Another erstwhile Stockwell Depot sculptor, Katherine Gili, has a show in Ealing, London, which also has strongly figurative tendencies: http://media.wix.com/ugd/e32d86_1e5d13822a6f488594fd4d3f187911a8.pdf

Maybe Mr. Gouk could comment on this one…


Heribert Heindl, untitled, 2012

Heribert Heindl, untitled, oil on chalk ground, 2012

…and finally, Richard Ward writes a short commentary on a work by German painter Heribert Heindl:

‘Rows of thinly brushed, dark purple-brown ellipses on a creamy white ground.

Repetitive and regular enough to suggest some organising principle. Soft and uneven enough to exclude thoughts of a crystal or the graded perfection of a fish’s scales.

Perhaps the pattern on a tree’s bark? But these ellipses come to an end, abruptly, where the space runs out.

Something human then. Traces of another life. Like a little mosaic of shells on the beach or two stones balanced improbably on a rock.

An abstract and self-reflecting intelligence, delighting in pattern, aware of finitude.

And this, its record – concise and poignant like the outline of a hand, spat with red pigment onto a cave wall.’

Richard Ward.


  1. Great to hear about the Peter Hide book—and the Katherine Gili show.

    Very nice catalog online for the Gili show. Happy to see her drawings. They are NOT bad. They’re honest, intelligent—maybe too “intelligent”/brainy—and kind of naïve/uneducated at the same time. She seems to be clinging to some kind of idea about articulation that doesn’t allow her simply to put volumes in space—and an “idea” about drawing—an “idea” that seems to be shared by a lot of Abcritters, an “idea” I don’t understand—that drawing is all and only about literal representation: that’s not what drawing is for, say, de Kooning.

    I saw Liz Gerring’s new dance “(T)here to (T)here” last week. I thought of Gili’s sculpture watching Gerring’s dance.

    Alastair Macaulay says Gerring’s “mix of purity and athleticism is strong, clean, bold and exciting. It fluently combines modern technique with a postmodern and quasi-analytical scrutiny of pedestrians and athletes. But the mind that shapes the choreography is warmly modernist: scientific but also passionately and infectiously in love with movement.”

    Apollinaire Scherr begins her review: “New Yorker Liz Gerring, aged 51, approaches choreography with an uncommon purity for her generation. As with her elders Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham, neither story nor worldly reference intrudes on the parallel universe she creates from movement.

    “And yet there are the dancers, who could not shrug off the drama of being human and in the world if they wanted to. The nearly hour-long “(T)here to (T)here” begins and ends with two of them, the former Cunningham trouper Brandon Collwes and Gerring stalwart Claire Westby, from whose distinct styles the dance’s lexicon seems to have emerged. Collwes offers a meticulous disassembly of the body into discrete moving parts, as well as a spacey detachment, despite the animal immediacy of abrupt starts and stops. The magnetic Westby’s joyous slashing of arms, buoyant leaps, swishy hips and coltish prances evince a childlike faith in movement as headlong freedom and fun.”


  2. I’m going to say a few words about the Barbara Rose piece. There’s always something that irks me about assurances that painting is alive and well, and look, here are the painters who are doing it oh so well, responding to the manifold challenges of the digital age. It all sounds a little bit like… “Make Painting Great Again!”

    And Rose’s evidences as to why these artists are making great paintings don’t seem to carry much weight. That they use texture? That they are spontaneous? That they want to expand the imagery of painting? That they do not see the plane as either a field of illusion or a literal object? These are all cliches that get thrown about quite a lot. They are so broad that they can be applied to just about any painting. Even with the post painterlies, thin stains of acrylic on raw cotton still leave a particular texture. I don’t necessarily disagree with these ideas or aims for a painting, but you have to be more specific.

    Of the three images provided, I found the Poons the most interesting. That said, I really did not think much of the Bannard and the Ghekiere, which looks like what I might have imagined the inside of a computer to look like when I was eight. But perhaps Carl and Robin would like to chip in here with some thoughts on Poons, for I am certainly no expert. I’m only somewhat familiar with three distinct phases of his work and it hasn’t ever been of much interest to me. The “mudslide” works seem very predetermined if that makes sense, and so perhaps “Cousin Durrell” felt more improvised. But the more you look at it the more repetitive and formulaic it seems to become. It just goes through the motions, this sort of curling patterning gesture recurring across the whole length of the work, the brown acting as a kind of backdrop, guaranteeing a sense of deeper and somewhat figurative space, particularly when it meets that brighter yellow section bottom right, which with that snaking black form, large by comparison to the plenitude of smaller marks, creates a shift in scale that supports the reading of a third dimension, though one that feels very familiar and for that reason reassuring.

    The whole article and the exhibition it is about, seems to want to reassure us. Rose writes, “I have no idea whether in a hundred years their works will endure. This exhibition is a wager that they will.” Also, a lot of her apparent admiration for Poons seems to be very tied up in some idea that he stands in unique contrast to “Greenbergian dogma”, and this appears to be based on his refusal to participate in the show at LACMA, and on very thick paint application. I think we might need a little bit more to go on than that.

    Other than that, I think Rose writes very openly and clearly, and I don’t want to scoff at her enthusiasm for these paintings and what she thinks they are achieving. I just happen to think that needing to justify the continuance of painting in the age of the digital has become one of those curatorial trappings.

    On another note concerning Cy Twombly, I visited the Iliam galleries while at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Has there been a worse, more pretentious and more overrated artist than Cy Twombly. I mean, what the hell?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you’ve nailed “Cousin Durrell”. Despite being an attempt to make an all-inclusive, cover-all-the-bases, not-too-scarily-abstract, tip-your-hat-at-everything-but-especially-isn’t-impressionism-wonderful sort of painting, it is – and Poons remains, right from early doors – “repetitive and formulaic”. Always lessons to be learnt, though, aren’t there? Especially as we pick our way carefully towards a more abstract art. We know we don’t want to go THERE. From what I’ve seen of these recent Poons in the flesh (and Jacobson has shown them in London, as well as his older work occasionally), they are pretty weedy. They totally lack PRESSURE!

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  3. Just for the record, I liked and was influenced by Poons’ 1969-70 pictures, just before the “Elephant Skin” pictures (Fried’s coinage)– Polish Mix 1970 ( Museum of Fine Arts Boston) precisely because they were not formulaic, not dependent on “process”, and because though influenced by the gel wielding phase of Olitski, they were more painterly and improvisatory, slapdash and chancy. Poons can be seen in that 1971 film, Painters Painting tugging to release one from the floor of his very messy studio, where it had got stuck. He was only two years older than me, a new kid on the block. The Elephant skin pictures were more tidied up, with a lot of attention to cropping, avoiding “leaking” around the edges etc. They were shown at Kasmin’s gallery in March 1971. Howard Hodgkin said to me at the opening –” You don’t actually like these do you?” But I did, though not as much as the earlier ones.
    Tony Caro brought Poons to my studio. I was painting on the stretcher, lifting the an as up to allow thin washes of fairly solid oil paint to run down in overlapping curtains , distantly related to Morris Louis. Poons got very excited, hopping around — ” there’s so much going on in them, maybe too much. I just love your blues and pinks,” Poons said. A month later my pictures were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, where Michael Fried saw them, and again simultaneously at a Forum at St. Martins which Fried also attended. He said “they’re the best I’ve seen in London, but there’s too much simultaneous contrast in the colour. You must go to New York, where you’ll be forced to,become original. If you stay here you’ll be painting other people’s paintings for them.” Very ironic, in view of what happened.
    When I first went to New York in April 1972, I met Poons again at a party in Clement Greenberg’s apartment in Central Park West. Poons gave a little start when he saw me. I wondered why, but found out soon after when I went to the opening of a show, curated by Kenworth Moffet at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, a show of recent American Abstract colour painting, and there was Railroad Horse, just acquired by the museum, in which Poons was doing all the things, running thin paint vertically in overlapping curtains, that I had been doing in London, and on Fried’s advice had spent the rest of that year getting rid of in favour of a more harmonious and darker colour.. Fried was at the show. I tackled him about it, not knowing that he had written a very praising review of these new Poons pictures in Artforum. I said “he’s doing all the things I was doing last year.” ” Yes,” he said, “but his colour’s better”. And that’s all that seemed to matter.
    Does any of this really matter now?. Poons got thoroughly stuck with what rapidly did become a formula, and by 1980 the “process” had degenerated into a thick solid wall of dull colour. Whereas , after a brief flirtation with the coal shovel pictures of 1978-79, which are not done by “process”, but adjusted and worked in the paint, Wild Orchid and In the Wake of the Plough for example, my style has developed in ways far beyond the all -over fixation which dogs so many American painters, following on from Pollock’s Lavender Mist, Eyes in the Heat, etc. but You’ld need to do a bit of research to find that out. So Poons is welcome to his little Pyrrhic victory.

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  4. P.S. Perhaps if you put up my recent Baltimore Oriole and Mandalaysian Orchid, and compared them with Poons’ recent efforts your readers would be able to judge for themselves their respective merits. Why is everyone going on about Poons in any case? Oh I see, it’s because some old has been of an American art critic is trying to create yet another false trail for painting in the technological age!

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  5. Regarding Cy Twombly.

    A painting is a human utterance, as is a sculpture, a piece of music, a musical performance, a sentence, a gesture, a photograph, a wood carving, and so on.

    To say that something is a human utterance is to say first that someone did made it, and that it makes sense. Making sense means having a point; an purported utterance that is pointless is also senseless, i.e., nonsense. Such is the difference between speaking and grunting, making noises. In other words, the meaning of an utterance is a matter of its being meant, and its being meant is a matter of it being worth saying. It follows that making sense involves accepting responsibility for meaning what one says and does. Modernism in the arts lays this condition bare; the convincingness of a modernist painting or sculpture depends on nothing more or less than the artist’s willingness to see it through, to take on the responsibility for meaning everything that is put into the work. (Post-modernism purports to be astonished at the fact that words in and of themselves, apart from being sensibly used by human beings, mean nothing – as if this were some sort of recent discovery rather than the meaning of King Lear’s tragedy in the play that William Shakespeare wrote in 1606 – concluding that this fact releases us from human responsibilities rather than forces them upon us.)

    My objection to Twombly’s work is simple: I don’t see the point. I was introduced to his work by some academics who saw his scribble paintings as having something to do with Jacques Derrida’s theories about writing. Maybe they do, but that fact doesn’t alter my sense that Twombly’s work is pointless. A painting that illustrates a theory assumes that illustrating can take the place of expression, meaning for being meant. Timothy Rub’s evocation of “timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War” provides an illustration of the way in which mock gravitus can be used to intimidate and stifle genuine attentiveness to the truth of one’s own experience.

    So many themes and concepts are jammed into Barbara Rose’s essay that it’s hard to know if or where to intervene. Here are some quick observations.

    The idea that photography threatened to or did kill off painting has become so entrenched as to acquire an aura of accepted historical fact. But it contains a huge assumption, namely, that one art with a medium unique and distinct to itself competes with an entirely different medium of expression. It would be more accurate to say that the invention of photography responded to the same crisis that result in modernist painting, namely the exhaustion of human attempts to recover the world by representing reality. (Abstraction would have become an aspiration for ambitious painting even if photography had never been invented.)

    In the same paragraph Rose refers to “digital technology” which “appropriates, recombines, and recycles images in often surprising and novel visual combinations that create flashy, momentary, instantaneously consumed images that shock and awe.” I agree that something has happened in our culture that threatens the continued existence of painting and every other art; that this something is expressed in “digital technology”; and that its symptom is an apparent inability for anything to hold peoples’ attention, that not only have we all but lost the capacity for private experience (crucial to the continued viability of art as such) but the idea of privacy itself has become a commodity. But this phenomenon is not the result of photography and photography didn’t produce “digital technology.” By conflating the two, Rose betrays her academicism, her failure to put a finger on what it is she’s trying to discuss.

    I feel that her essay sort of falls apart following the thumbnail history of modernism. Her discussion of Larry Poons, for example, is repetitive and not enlightening in that she fails over-emphasizes the importance of texture and relief and ignores Poons’ use of color. She therefore misses the way in which the tension between the literal and the abstract, which I believe lies at the heart of Poons’ efforts.

    I feel that Rose’s academicism as displayed in this essay allows her a sense of optimism that I (while an outsider) don’t share.

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  6. One would only speculate, like Rose and many before her, that photography – or these days digital technology – might be in competition with painting if one confused the discipline of painting with the delivery of images. Photography and digital media get a large part of their meaning precisely from the fact that they ARE about delivery of an image – of something else in the world.

    Painting, however, whilst being able to be projected in degraded form as an image by other media, gains the greater part of its meaning from the factors and values that make it far more than an image. These values start from the fact that all parts of a painting are made by a human hand, and continue all the way to asserting each individual painting’s quiddity as a real object that has its own, actual, specific place in the world. As we all know, and keep on repeating, seeing images of paintings, here or elsewhere, is a poor substitute for being in the presence of the real thing. Why? Because paintings are not images.

    The irony about the work of Larry Poons and a number of his contemporaries, stuck at the arse-end of Greenbergian/Friedian conjecture as they were, and continuing in Poons case right up to his recent work, is that, unlike many artists, he and they absolutely did (and do) know the difference between painting and image, but their knowledge of that difference drove them down the path of attempting to find all of their content and all of their meaning in those processes (like sloshing paint about) and attributes (like flatness) that are unique to painting, in the belief that they would thus deliver all the content and all the meaning required of the discipline. Sadly (or perhaps gladly!), it’s not true.


  7. To say that paintings like Railroad Horse or others of Poons’ work of the early 1970’s , or my Wild Orchid for instance are nothing more than “sloshing paint around” or about “flatness” is just plain blindness and obdurate denial. While Robin goes on finessing his hair splitting definitions of “spatial” and “depth”, he can’t see these very properties as they show themselves in the very paintings he traduces in this blanket dismissal. Poons’ paintings of the poured curtain period are actually quite varied in their spatial result. What seems to stick in Robin’s crop is that what space they have is created by colour, and not by thrusting shapes into recessional three dimensional illusion, as in representational painting. Meanwhile over on Brancaster the same issues that Poons and I faced 45 years ago are being revisited , as anyone who is committed to colour painting must.


  8. “Photography and digital media get a large part of their meaning precisely from the fact that they ARE about delivery of an image – of something else in the world.”

    This sentence contains a misunderstanding of what a photograph is. The word “image” implies representation, one thing (the image) standing for another thing (“something else in the world”). Were that an accurate description of a photograph, then Barbara Rose and others would have a point because the photographic process could be said to provide a more accurate or complete image than paint on canvas. (This is basically the conventional wisdom: The invention of photography, by virtue of its superior capabilities relative to painting, forced painting to abandon representation.)

    But a photograph does not provide an image of the thing; rather it provides the thing itself – but for the fact that it doesn’t exist. That’s why photography was never in competition with painting, which was driven to abstraction for reasons of its own.

    “These values start from the fact that all parts of a painting are made by a human hand, and continue all the way to asserting each individual painting’s quiddity as a real object that has its own, actual, specific place in the world.”

    I think this sentence also contains misunderstandings that are more difficult to describe. It’s true that the value of a painting exists by virtue of the fact that it is made by the human hand (i.e., it is what I called an “utterance” that must be meant in order not to be meaningless), but it is not true that a the value of a painting is based on its “quiddity as a real object” – unless you’re talking about buying and selling paintings, say, as an investment. The value of a painting (or any work of art) is rooted in its being different from other real objects (beds, chairs, skyscrapers, gold coins, etc.) and the difference is that other real objects are not meant in the way that paintings are (if they’re any good). Modernism happened in part because at some point in our history the difference between works of art and other things in the world collapsed for reasons that are obscure (at least to me), and it was at that point that painters sought to preserve the art of painting in the only way they could – by making abstract pictures.

    “…but their [Poons’ and others’] knowledge of that difference drove them down the path of attempting to find all of their content and all of their meaning in those processes (like sloshing paint about) and attributes (like flatness) that are unique to painting, in the belief that they would thus deliver all the content and all the meaning required of the discipline.”

    I don’t agree that Larry Poons pictures are about “process” any more than, say, Morris Louis’s pictures are. Nobody knows much about the processes used by Louis to make paintings and it doesn’t really matter. I believe that in modernism, the only thing that matters is the end result, regardless of the processes that produced it.

    Finally, I think it’s about time Robin provided a real concrete example of “content” in an abstract painting or sculpture that doesn’t have to do with “attributes that are unique to painting.”


    1. Should be fairly easy to provide an example of content in a sculpture that doesn’t have attributes that are unique to painting… (sorry). But seriously, it’s not that those attributes aren’t often in the mix. The modernist “narrowing down” of painting occurs when they are the only focus. If you want to see abstract content being talked around (it’s difficult to talk directly “about” it), just watch some Brancaster. Watch the tentative searching for human values over and above “process”, and in denial of flatness and other conceits.

      Brancaster – which incidentally (Shaun) would quite happily continue without Abcrit, just doing what it’s doing, only better, year by year – does not, in my opinion, revisit very much of the stuff that happened in the sixties and seventies, and if it does occasionally touch down there, it’s off again with something new. For example, I don’t recall anything from back then touching upon anything like the careful and modulated balance between colour, tone, space, movement and light that is the hallmark (part of the content, even) of Hilde Skilton’s recent abstract work, and the focus of the discussion which attempted to get to grips with it.

      And by the way, what would be the attributes and processes unique to sculpture?


  9. In response to Robin and Carl. — yes indeed Impressionism is wonderful — suggested viewing this week — Monet’s Boulevard Des Capuchines, 1873, Pushkin Museum Moscow, Pissarro’s Cotes Des Boeufs National Gallery London, and Bonnard’s The Terrace 1918, Phillips Collection, Washington. I believe the air fares are favourable at the moment. And to Shaun — do your homework, do some research into my writing and painting before you start typing.


  10. Should have gone to Specsavers! I’d suggest that Poons’ pictures –Needles 1972, Chrysler Museum of Art and Tantrum 2 1979, from the recent Barbara Rose exhibit in Belgium, are worth another look. This last one is the same proportions and almost exactly the same size as the pictures of mine he saw in 1971. There is no clogging up of the surface in these ones. But I’ll stick with the Pissarro.


  11. I’ll be happy to review Kathy Gili’s show when I come to London in mid-December, but only if you put up Baltimore Oriole and Mandalaysian Orchid and compare with Cousin Durrell .


  12. Shaun — I have tried to explain what I am looking for in painting so many times that I am blue in the face. And none of it will either justify my paintings or convince anyone of their worth. I don’t know what paintings of mine you have seen, or where you could have seen them. They are hard to locate at the best of times. I suspect you have taken umbrage at something I said in that video. Beginning by quoting Matisse does not in the least mean that I have nothing of my own to say or paint. And similarly because I am a fan of Hofmann does not mean that my paintings are derivative of Hofmann if you take a broad look at them over a span of years. He is only one of my influences. But enough about me. Since Robin seems determined not to let you see what I am doing, why I can only guess, I suggest looking on Facebook and Google. If you still think I am nothing but a follower of Hofmann there is nothing I can do for you. But please don’t use your difficulty with my writing as an excuse for rejecting the paintings. (Again I don’t know what writing you are thinking of ), but might I suggest a reading of Alan Davie – The Phenomenon of Expanding Form on Abstractcritical as an antidote to some of my perhaps more arduous pieces. By the way I do not write as an art historian, but as a painter engaged with the current problems in painting. Are you saying that a love of Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Pollock etc is not of any help when trying to do something personal, and reaching for the depths that are within you, just as they did?


  13. Hi Shaun, I have just been looking at some of your engaging, questioning comments on Tony Smart’s Brancaster Chronicle and was struck by your point that you felt there are two areas you find interesting when considering abstract art which are not covered by the Brancaster discussions. What are the areas you feel are not being addressed? And could they be applied to discussions on AbCrit ? Apologies if you have already stated your case and I have missed it.


      1. This is from another website on Poons:
        “the artist tacks a long roll of canvas twill to the wall…and begins to paint in scattered energetic bouts working near-feverishly along the unfurled roll. Inventing and finding coves of foci, massing strokes about freshly-made gestures or suddenly-discovered past ones, Poons instrumentalizes chance (the very hallmark of Abstract Expressionist painting) as he moves along the canvas causeway.”

        Well, they all say that, don’t they. Sounds a bit like ebb and flow, surge and undertow…
        Actually, the Poons remind me a lot of the way Gary Wragg paints… but that’s another story.


  14. The reason why Poons’ pictures, Needles 1972 and Tantrum 2 1979 suggest an affinity with Impressionism, even if superficially, is not just because of their warm/cool high-keyed colour, but because their broad zones ( or “hedges”) are at one and the same time physically present (Fried’s presentness) but spatially operative and ambiguously located relative to one another. — that is how colour works if given room to do so. And the speckled, spattering detail adds to that outcome. Railroad Horse is perhaps the freshest and earliest of these pictures — fresh from my studio that is. I know, because I’ve actually seen it. It is about seven metres long by the way. If ever there were pictures that infringed the etiquette of the Greenbergian canon, it is these Poons’ of the early 70’s.
    His elephant skin, or custard pie pictures of the year before were near monochromatic, (he seems to have suppressed them as none appear on the net) centralised puddles cropped to focus on the spread of what colour there was, agonising over where the picture ended, or “leaked”. So why he got excited at mine was because they showed a way to get beyond the all-over picture by breaking open the curtains and to allow stronger colour to hold larger zones. The phrase extrapolated from Matisse that seems to bug Shaun (from that video) is that colour needs surface area to operate at full strength. The more room is given to colour, and especially modelled colour, the more the surface of the picture is emphasised, while its spatial potential is enhanced. But it requires subtlety to bring off.
    You can see these issues even as early as in the Pissarro Cote Des Boeufs, 1870’s and in Monet’s Boulevard Des Capuchines1873,. The elaboration of volumes, tree branches, bushes by tiny touches of coloured strokes creates incipient relief at odds with the homologous continuum of surface which the picture as whole is moving towards. Tree trunks stand out in relief against the spatial implication of the whole image. Pissarro later rejected divisionism for much the same reasons, plus the greying effect, in favour of a more full blooded acceptance of “depth” depiction and definite colour in the Late Boulevards. And so,on through to Matisse’s Fauvism.
    The beauty of Fauvism is in its “utter directness” — the painter is allowed to make a clear statement –put the colour down and let it be , without elaboration or equivocation –let it make its mark without fuss or second thoughts. —Enter Heron’s Azalea Garden 1956 and on into abstraction. There are of course alternative voices. — Bonnard for instance. His “inspired timidity”, a counterweight to Matisse’s directness.
    By the way, it is not critics, curators or collectors or the market who will decide the fate of paintings like these. It will be painters who will decide. The tragedy is that today’s Young painters have lost not only their moral compass but their aesthetic compass as well ( the art theory industry has them in thrall). They no longer know which way is up. No algorithm will ever produce anything as exciting as Pollock’s Lucifer 1947.


    1. “The elaboration of volumes, tree branches, bushes by tiny touches of coloured strokes creates incipient relief at odds with the homologous continuum of surface which the picture as whole is moving towards.”

      There’s a whole world in that “at odds”; that duality, if you like, that tension. And where does it go? Is it a world that is now lost to painting?


      1. A question if I may Robin (indeed also to Carl and Alan).. You refer to the tension that Alan Gouk pinpoints in Pissaro’s Cotes des Boeufs. I’m wondering if you recognise any comparison (at least in principle if not quality of achievement) between the tension described in that particular Pissaro and the ‘tension between the literal and the abstract’ that Carl Kandutsch believes lies at the heart of larry Poons’ work. Has that Cotes des Boeufs’ tension possibly re-surfaced so to speak in Poons or any other abstract painters, prominent or otherwise
        Between the literal and the abstract would seem to be an impossible but rather enticing place..


  15. Hoyland was in New York in the early seventies wasn’t he. Was that one really done in 1970.? But the fact remains that it was the visit to my studio that triggered the change in Poons’ methods from painting on the floor to up vertically. I know cos I was there. Mine are definitely 1970. Of course the official version of Poons’ change is attributed to Greenberg’s suggestion, obviously!


  16. Hofmann says that Renoir understood the depth problem (which is a colour problem) to,a high degree by instinct. How much more is this true of Bonnard? . Take a look at his a – ma- zing La Palma, also in the Phillips Collection, Washington. Bonnard tends to be forgotten in all this cerebral stuff about abstraction etc..I wish had the air fare and the time. Maybe next year, send in the clowns!


  17. Wait till it happens to you.Then you’ll know whether it matters or not. I’ve already said it doesn’t matter in the long run because Poons got stuck with it. Don’t be so far fetched.


  18. Carl’s point on Twitter is interesting – that all of these poured paintings “are attempts to come to terms with the greatness of Louis’s Veils”.

    Maybe, if the Veils are “great”. They were certainly thought of as great by lots of artists back then, and still are by many. I would maintain that these follow-on paintings are (also) mostly attempts to retreat into “process”, in an avoidance of having to discover or invent more interesting and engaging abstract content of a less literal kind. But then I would say that.


    1. In my relatively uninformed amateurish opinion, Louis’s Veils (together with Pollock’s paintings of the late 1940s and early 50s) represent the height of accomplishment in 20th century American painting. My most powerful experiences with visual art have been in the presence of those overwhelming pictures (both those from 1954 and the later ones from ’58-59), and in fact seeing them was what led to my being interested in art in the first place. These pictures pretty much define what “abstract” means to me. I wish I had the courage to write about them.

      Thank you for posting those very strong pictures by Gouk. I have never seen one in person. I have seen some paintings by Larry Poons, and without knowing much about the man, it seems to me as if the vertical orientation of the “thrown” or “poured” pictures represent a response to the “lightness” of Louis’s vertically oriented Veils, which weightlessness has to do with staining and the illusiveness of large expanses of color, especially when colors are layered AND stained as they are in the Veils. It looks like Poons was striving for a similar lateral expansiveness by way of color, but also countering that with physicality and weight, which is brought to bear by throwing paint at the tacked up canvas and letting gravity do the rest. That’s the tension – the illusiveness of color (which is not so much layered as in Louis as it is thrown together, often in a single strand of the cascading gooey pigment), and the physical implications and associations of weight and falling.

      I think Louis’s decision to abandon the Veil format, without really exploring the options it opened up, and move on to different formats shows the kind of artist he was – deathly afraid of becoming mannered (like certain “Abstract Expressionist” painters), and totally committed to his life’s project, which was so sadly cut short.

      Finally, I suspect (thinking about Pissarro) that Louis was probably very interested in Impressionism and it would be fascinating to try to understand how he used impressionist effects to make his pictures.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Terry,
    That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think I know the answer as regards painting, and I doubt that I would agree with Carl about such a tension existing in Poons, because I think on the whole he feels like a pretty flaccid painter. Maybe Alan or another painter can say more on tension in painting, of whatever sort.

    But I do think that exactly that tension exists for me in abstract sculpture, between the literal and the abstract, and I’m both for it and against it. There is a sort of literal-ish tension of metaphorical physicality, which I think certain semi-abstract sculptures might use, which might be more or less analogous to the body, but I can’t get along with that very happily. For me the tension in abstract sculpture lies somewhere in the spatiality of the work, rather than the physicality; in how the illusionistic space of the sculpture, as its pulled about and distorted by the non-structure or anti-structure of the sculpture (because I can’t any longer think of abstract sculpture as a material structure) resolves itself (or not) with the actual, literal space in which I and the viewer exist – and of course, in which it literally exists too. But that space, if you follow me, is NOT where it exists sculpturally.

    I have to say too that this condition of tension is by no means something that abstract sculpture naturally falls into without a lot of effort and much failure. What it invariably wants to fall back into at every moment is the slack old literalness of objecthood.

    But this is on the edge of my thinking. I don’t yet see – though I’d like to – how it can apply to abstract painting, and yet it appears to be a natural condition of good figurative painting, between spatial depth and surface, three-dimensionality and its resolution in two, which we have discussed before. There does seem to me to be a sort of similarity to how the tension might operate in both figurative painting and abstract sculpture, though that might be going too far, and a pointless analogy.

    But quite where and how that duality and tension and its resolution is located in abstract painting continues to confound me, I have to admit. Maybe it is an issue really worth having out on Abcrit? Maybe it would help to think of examples of abstract paintings that people do think of as having some kind of tension from a resolved duality of some sort… Colour and shape don’t seem to have the makings of it, so it’s got to be more than that…?

    Good question.


    1. Thanks for this Robin. A lot to digest in your reply and I will try and come back on it. I certainly have been at that place that you describe as”the slack old literalness of objecthood’ in relation to making sculpture but perhaps still feel that some sense of what an abstract sculpture ultimately is will lie at least partly in our perception of what it imparts as an object above and beyond its physical ‘made’ qualities. To achieve sculpture that doesn’t have allusions to or suggestions of literal objects such as machinery and structures or the human figure and so on is of course where it gets tricky for the maker and also for anyone attempting to connect with it..


  20. The only way you can do that is having the sculpture/anti-structure float in the air, because otherwise if it is free standing it will remain and have to come to terms with its physical, material structure, whether you like it or not. And viewers will sense that there’s something amiss otherwise. No wonder you’re in such a pickle. The dodo only has a stance because it is held up by hidden wires, otherwise it is just a pile of bones. Hidden wires, magic glue, bolts?. Get real. Sculptural,structure is not consonant with physical structure, but it has to convince on that level too, otherwise it is just a chimaera. Or a failed sculpture.


    1. There are two possibilities here. Either what I’ve written in my short response to Robin is just gobbledegook and I should be thanking you for your response for throwing some revelatory light onto my dark sea of unreal existence as some sort of item floating in an ocean of vinegar or you have misinterpreted what I have written with your conclusion that what I have said can only lead to some sort of ludicrous floating end-game for abstract sculpture. I completely agree with your view that free-standing sculpture has to come to terms with its physical, material structure but, with respect, that is so dazzlingly obvious that it’s almost not worth saying. As I said (and I accept that I didn’t fully expand this point) I believe that it is also important to understand that over and above but yes also, through those considerations sculpture has to achieve some sort of identity as an object (perhaps Robin’s content’ ?)’and not just be a concoction of material, physical stuff that succeeds only in the sense of fulfillingg pre-determined ‘literal’ criteria.


  21. “But I do think that exactly that tension exists for me in abstract sculpture, between the literal and the abstract, and I’m both for it and against it.”

    As a general philosophical point, I think we need to be careful about the dichotomy “literal” vs. “abstract”.

    In the so-called “age of science”, everything that exists exists literally, as an thing in the world. There is not another category of objects that exist in some other way (“abstractly”).

    This phenomenological fact of modern experience produced the conditions out of which modernism was born (in painting, those conditions are called “realism” – Courbet leads to Manet).

    In my understanding, modernism represented an aspiration to salvage a kind of human experience (once provided by religion) in which certain things in the world could be seen and valued other than as objects (of commerce, as scientific evidence, etc.). The abstract never really overcomes once and for all the literal, but the term does indicate a kind of experience that CAN happen with works of art. (The religious connotations of this logic are alluded to in Fried’s formulation, “Presentness is grace.”) But when it does occur, it is always in tension with the literal – hence the importance of the idea of “conviction” in the experience of modernist painting and sculpture. Even the best abstract works can suddenly (when conviction – or, from the artist’s viewpoint, inspiration, lapses) strike us as mere objects, no different from any other. In other words, the tension between literal and abstract is never really resolved, so it’s a matter of keeping faith (notwithstanding passing fashions like post-modernism, etc.).


  22. Interesting that sculpture comes into this debate now.
    This is what I think at the moment which may be relevant.
    There seems to be a problem between something literal and something abstract. If one takes the view that abstract in its most talked about meaning is something to do with non-representational and more saw abstract as a condition to do with freedom for other conditions say space and three dimensionality etc. to work together and ultimately come together leave one looking around for the glue so to speak in a non-literal form.
    Abstract requires that the new sculpture be non-literal non-representational and not in relying on outside forces to hold the experience together.So we are talking of a non-literal structure i.e. no cross referencing to the known structures of the world and I would suggest that I know that to exist already in the new sculpture of today. That would be illusion in that nothing that the sculpture does is actual or literal.
    Further to this I would like to suggest that one could at least consider to start to think of the word abstract in two ways one being the standard hook of painting and sculpture which purports to be non-representational and another more interesting use of abstract when rid of the dependencies of representational art and brought into dialogue with physicality three dimensionality etc. a new role emerges of abstract as a force for building new experiences.


  23. Thanks for the reply Shaun, I think it is very acceptable to discuss what is in front of everyone during a Brancaster Chronicle and to voice approval or not. I don’t feel abstract art is being ‘conquered into submission’ during the discussions , I wonder what made you feel that. The last point in Tony Smart’s post encapsulates the impetus for making abstract work, namely as a ‘force for building new experiences’. Would you find it more relevant if the physical process of working was explained in greater depth? It is really helpful when people react to what has been created and as Robin has said , sorry for repeating it again but, ‘one person’s problem is someone else’s solution’.
    As for drippy paintings, there can be a real attraction , I do like the rich colour in the Hoyland especially, but it feels like a way of working than can perhaps be indulged for a while but then moved on from.


  24. Just a question: can we bracket the labels ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ but keep the importance of history and cultural change? Perhaps, in a way, art works transcend these categories we attempt to place them in?


    1. Well, context is relevant as our own philosophies, ideas, values, will influence what, how, we see: and this is Abcrit not Brancaster.
      As far as I am aware there are many modernist views. I’m no expert but aren’t there ideas within modernism that challenge prevailing views, realities, etc? Isn’t there, in modernism, an element of what post-modernism is all about? So, it gets complicated to define and compartmentalise eras, works, theories, etc.
      My interest is how issues of context might help how we make and judge art. Simple compartmentalising or categorising is not that helpful, although we all fall into it.


  25. First you said you had never seen one of my paintings. Then you reeled off a list of other painters they reminded you of. Now you think I have something of the post-modernist in me. Let’s face it, the post-modern eye is as lazy as yours, and like you, has the attention span of a gnat. Too lazy to finish an article, too lazy to see what’s original in a painting. And you want a verbal précis of what I’m about. Descartes and Kant my arse. Frog off!


  26. I’d be quite happy to be labelled a “post-modernist” were it not for then being associated with a pile of absolute crap art and architecture. Sam Cornish keeps telling me I’m a modernist whether I like it or not, and that I can’t do anything about it, world without end. Better do as John P. suggests; ditch the labels and talk about the work.

    I’d quite like to get back to talking about the sculpture issue, because although we mostly talk about painting on Abcrit, I think abstract sculpture is a more interesting and possibly more enlightening topic (for me, at least).

    The business of how a sculpture stands in the world, which Alan (quite rightly, in a way) takes me to task for, is something I think about a great deal, and Tony and I often discuss it privately, as well as directly tackling the subject often over the past few years on Brancaster. Despite me now suggesting that an abstract sculpture is not a material structure, I have over the years probably over-obsessed about sculpture’s relations with the floor. What I now propose (and I think it concurs to some extent with what Tony says?) is that, yes, of course you have to make sculpture stand up in the world without smoke and mirrors, it has to convince; but if you make that consideration the “raison d’être” or main content of the work, you will end up with something that is mainly concerned with its “configurational” aspects, i.e. a structure that is, in essence, some kind of figuration (in an association with something else in the world, albeit figure or object). The content of the work needs, in my opinion, to be about more, much more, than the proposition of how it stands. The latter needs to be dealt with, but I personally would prefer that it was dealt with “naturally” (which might need a lot of consideration), and not in any way privileged as content.

    As a good example, Mark’s best work of the two sculptures he made for Brancaster this year was generally considered a great success by all, including Mark (and Alan too, online), and perhaps in contrast to his previous works, which focussed so much on how they held themselves up in the battle against gravity (engaging though that battle was), did not have much to say about how it stood, but was just naturally “up”. This is what Mark had to say on the Brancaster site back in August:
    “The instability that Tony refers to is visual instability, not physical or structural instability. This is also linked to Anne’s comment about the lack of any obvious construction or support. In turn this is all summed up very succinctly by Robin’s phrase “predetermined functionality” or the lack of it in this case. For me, the crux of this talk is that abstraction can be freed up by getting rid of functionality in all of its manifestations, not just structural but also compositional, cause and effect, which Tony refers to as storyline at the end of the talk.”
    I’d say the “tension” in this piece had nothing to do with configuration or material structure. I’d say it was Mark’s most abstract piece. And I’d agree with Tony that “abstract” is the key to sculptural freedom.

    There is an analogy with modernist painting here, which I’ve partly made already; over-consideration of the essential properties of painting (flatness etc.) lead to a dead-end. So painting is flat – so what! What else is it too? And similarly, so abstract sculpture stands in the world – so what! What else does it do? Lots, I hope. Things we haven’t yet dreamt of, and that don’t yet exist.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. It is annoying and confusing that the comments are coming up out of their correct time sequence. For instance my comment about “stance” was not a reply to Terry Ryall, as he seemed to take umbrage at, but to Robin. And to Shaun — it’s odd that you should use two Idealist/ rationalist/ Enlightenmentish philosophers to shore up the chic cynicism, slick technocracy and “parlour despair” (William J Curtis) of post-modernism’s nihilist trashing of all values. Descartes and Kant are a lot more subtle than your undergraduate gloss. Didn’t bother to finish them either, did you!


      1. Robin perhaps it would be better to preserve the integrity of this thread (and ease some of my embarrassment!) if you erased my two replies (the rant and the typo apology) to Alan’s comment given that it was not in fact addressed to me.Aoolgies to you as well. I”ll just get my coat.


  28. Yes, give him a retrospective. The world needs more foam. I remember being sent time and again to Signals gallery in 1964/65 from the British Council by its Director Lilian Somerville , because she couldn’t bear the man, to see the foam sculptures and all that kinetic art from Latin America, the stuff that Guy Brett used to champion. The Tate probably have a shed load of it somewhere. For some reason the young bloods out of Cambridge seemed to think it was cutting edge, the way so many now think of the technological flux. And then there was old Harald Szeemann’s “When Attitude becomes Form”. Medalla was probably in that for all I know. The British Council is a very different place now of course. Yes indeed . Give him a retrospective at the British Pavilion in Venice. Long standing service medal,to “conceptual art”.


  29. “We should not be asserting a hierarchy in saying, this person is a winner above and beyond anybody else,” she told BBC Radio 5 live’s Colin Paterson.

    “The context of the world’s political landscape is changing so drastically,” she went on.

    “Amidst that, the art world has a responsibility to uphold an umbrella of egalitarianism and democracy and openness.”

    The art world has a responsibility to follow changes in the political landscape, such as the draining of any and all integrity, meaning and hope from public discourse, election of reality TV stars to run the world, and so on. But of course, everyone’s a winner and even those who lose get a nice prize in the form of a pat on the back and some hollow talk about egalitarianism and openness and other bromides.


  30. Harald Szeemann’s is the man credited with launching the idea of curatorship as an art form in its own right, with consequences we are still living with. Unfortunately artists seem only too willing to comply, and offer up on demand.
    There’s the “post-truth” politics of Breitbart — the “post-medium specific” art of the curatorial consensus. It’s all linked. It’s all a wind up, (as Cathy Newman elicited on Channel 4 news) , all a tease to the serious minded. Only sheep fall for it. Don’t rise to it.
    By the way, there is an amusing refutation, if refutation is needed, of the idea that time and space are subjective, in that little mix-up between Terry’s and my comments, he assuming that mine referred to an earlier one of his, when in fact his one actually appeared later. Unless that is we all exist in a parallel universe inside Robin’s head. Hard to think of a Shaun Collins emanating there. But enough of this tom-foolery. I’m off.


  31. When someone says that painting or sculpture “must” reflect the post-modern “reality” of our time, they are telling me that I MUST submit , MUST conform, to something that strikes me as unreal, that fills me with the nausea of disorientation in a world where NOTHING is true, where people like President Obama wins a Nobel Peace prize for public speaking, where countries are destroyed and millions of people are made into refugees in the name of “human rights” and “democracy” and “freedom”, where wisdom consists of the “appropriation” (i.e., recycling) of worn out slogans and clichés that have long since lost any meaning, where I am under a moral imperative to NOT resist the pervasiveness of compulsive consumption and commodification of experience, where meaning and significance is “always already” deferred and out of reach, where the difference between the authentic and the disingenuous is “undecidable”, where striving is pointless and hope and faith are considered naïve and outré. As all of these things become more pervasive, more universal, and harder to resist, art and seriousness become that much MORE important as perhaps the only way to maintain attentiveness to the value of my own experience in the limited number of days I have left on earth.


  32. Poons v Gouk brought up to date for the AbCriterati: Ms Knee seems to have snuck into Mr Greenwood’s writing room and made free with his style


  33. Who wants absolutes?

    Do you think perhaps that the difference that you refer to in the Post-everything world of art, compared with even the most limited phases of the recent past of modernism, is that artists don’t any longer work to any kind of visual imperative whatsoever – in fact, they (and you?) wouldn’t even understand what was meant by the term – but work instead to the fulfilment of their own subjective and nuanced interpretations of fashionable conceptual and philosophical criteria, which in fact have no real connection with the long and wonderful history of real visual art.

    We are Post-visual. Well, I’m not, but perhaps you are?


  34. Shaun,
    “Visual imperative” I suppose means something along these lines: despite taking decisions and making adjustments in painting and sculpture for all sorts of different reasons, serious visual artists are driven to make the work come together, make sense, and work as a whole by criteria that are arrived at by looking (how it looks/works) rather than by conceptual preordination. These criteria are felt to be compulsive and inescapable; they are what drive the direction of the artists’ work. Yet these criteria can be wildly different in different artists – for example, the seemingly relaxed and loose assembling of parts in some Manet paintings compared to the obsessive finessing of every last fitting together of detail in certain Cezanne still lives – but both examples exist in the same world of visual sensation and judgement. They are related, no matter how apparently different, by an endeavour to make something that “looks good” (which is a weak way of putting it, and something we can argue over endlessly, and is certainly not concerned with absolutes), and which connects them with, and makes them comparable to, the whole of the history of visual art.

    By contrast, conceptual art and much Post-modernist art, e.g. work such as Helen Marten’s, are not connected to the history of visual art in quite this way, other than historically, and there is not really any point in trying to make a visual link or a comparison. Marten’s criteria are only very marginally visual, if at all, even though she is described as someone obsessed with the craftsmanship of beautifully made objects. Such works as hers, with no visual ambitions other than to “Surreally” collage together anomalous and weird literal objects and materials, are in themselves anomalies in the history of art; such anomalies have happened before, though perhaps not so universally. Such things will pass, hopefully, and a reconnection (or continuation) with all things visual will be made. I think maybe “continuation” is a better, more realistic word than “improvement”.


    1. Sure things are different from 1950s New York. You may have noticed I’m quite critical of a lot of that stuff. I want to move on with abstract art, but not at the expense of what is visual. That’s my thing, you have to suit yourself. I’ve said enough.


  35. “It’s almost impossible to be specific, and this really gets up the noses of people who want absolutes in life.”

    I would like to seize on Shaun’s use of the word “specific” here. I think that the importance that art has in our lives – it’s value, why it’s worth doing and taking an interest in – has everything to do with specificity. (And no definition of art that fails to account for its importance and value to us humans can be a definition of ART.) It seems to me that no other kind of thing in the world is specific in the way that a work of art is specific because our interest in it is in just THIS thing, right here and now, why it is EXACTLY as it is to a specific person, namely me or you or whoever is experiencing it. (The experience of art, to its maker or to its audience, has to do with selfhood and its achievement.) About a work of art, we ask, “why is it, in every detail, the way that it is?”

    Try describing your interest in a sculpture by Michelangelo or Rodin, or a painting by any great artist without being specific in your description. Impossible.

    I have no idea if Jeff Koons (for example) is considered “post-modernist”, but I can describe a Koons sculpture without being specific. Similarly, I can describe an art work that is meant to illustrate some theory or other without specificity because I’m really describing the theory and all theories are general or they aren’t theories at all. I can describe a Duchamp without specificity for instance.

    This leads to the thought that if it can be described without specificity, it’s probably not a work of art – meaning, it doesn’t elicit the kind of interest or have the kind of value that has always been associated with great works of art. Art has to do with experience (making or viewing) and experience is always specific.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I agree with most of that, though I think it is impossible/pointless to say what is and what is not art, only what you think is good or bad painting or sculpture, and perhaps why.

      Not sure either that all theories are general, but perhaps it’s right to say that all art that illustrates rather than embodies a theory, or anything else, will lack specificness.


    2. Do you not think it possible that Michelangelo and Rodin had, as fellow human beings and artists something in common with us that is more fundamental than either their or our contexts? And that that something more fundamental will still be there in artists of the future whatever their contexts will be? In my view those who value context above all else in their creative pursuits should understand that the dynamic of context alters and fast in our modern age. Fashion and novelty become kings, the things that have to be kept pace with in the pursuit of vain, shifting relevance. .


  36. Robin, I agree with your first sentence entirely. Saying why an art work is good would be to say why and how it is art at all. (I should have written: “a theory [not ‘definition’] of art that fails to account for its importance FOR US… is not a theory of ART…”).


    1. I don’t think abstract painting can compete with a truly fine landscape, but the process of working (in the abstract) is so different and points to a freer, expansive improvisation and engagement that can make the pursuit very compelling.


      1. I don’t agree with this Noela. I think that some abstract paintings (like some impressionist landscapes, including a good portion of Pissarro’s) are overwhelmingly beautiful. I have no reason to believe that abstract art cannot compete with any art of any time and any genre, although I suspect that “compete” is not a very useful term in understanding the power of which art is capable through the ages. I wonder why it is that most discussions of impressionism tend to marginalize Pissarro in favor of a few more prestigious names. Could it be that Pissarro’s paintings are so incredibly effective at portraying deep space while at the same time gathering their effects at the surface, and this runs counter to the standard story of modernist painting?


  37. Carl I feel a landscape offers something so different from an abstract painting that it cannot ‘compete’ with it, so I am not really disagreeing with you. I also think I am approaching the whole thing from the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘viewing’ point . However, I can probably bring to mind more beautiful landscapes than abstract paintings, but of course a lot of good abstract paintings aren’t about looking beautiful.


    1. Perhaps beauty isn’t a particularly good criteria, and it certainly isn’t the only one. Then again, pressure, tension, intentionality can all be “beautiful”, though not necessarily in a conventionally “aesthetic” way.

      Carl rails at “competing” with figurative painting, but it’s a spur to up the game. Maybe that’s just for artists, but in my mind, abstract sculpture has already sidelined figurative sculpture by doing more spatially than it ever could do. Maybe it’s true for abstract painting too and I just don’t see it yet. But you look at that Pissarro and it’s such a rich, complex, coherent thing…


  38. A quick comment or two.

    There’s more space between the shoulders of one of Bruce Gagnier’s figure sculptures than there is in all England. Artists ARE competitive—just like politicians, just like everybody—but they’re a little different too: the “game” they’re playing lasts a long time, and maybe there are no sidelines, at least not for the important players. Spatiality is important. Specificity is important too. I sent Carl’s comment about the word “specific” to Bruce. Here’s the reply I got:

    “This is very original and powerful . Very much to the point and an entirely new way to describe the problem. sometimes perhaps when people are in difficult positions in Art , take on problems that are not wafted in the wings of success, they must think harder than the smooth ones and often as in this come up with important answers. Bravo to whoever wrote it! We want to be specific, absolutely so and the problem is made even more difficult when the content around which the forms must wrap themselves is evanescent. Thanks for sending it. I think my large figures are becoming more specific but the specificity can not be explained in a simple sound bite. This kind of writing with is singular focus is rare also rare is the daring it takes to bite into the problem so directly.”

    There are one or two people in the world who might not know Bruce. Here’s a link to a nice introduction: http://www.arteidolia.com/interview-bruce-gagnier-christine-hughes-donald-martineaw-vega/#sthash.lZwdxaVD.dpbs.

    Lots of great stuff in this “thread”—“competition” between abstract and figurative, between abstract and literal, between painting and sculpture—getting closer to the “competition”/”tension” between form and content too. . .


  39. Keep em coming. Only eighty odd to go to equal Bunker on the A.E.s. Pity it’s all so “abstract” though. Some of the worst painting in the world is highly “specific” and in its spatial depth, without having any emotional “depth” or formal strength. All,of this talk is mere speculation unless you point to examples. I agree about that Pissarro , of course I would, but you have yet to account for how that depth is compatible with abstraction in painting, a question I have been wrestling with for many years, but in paint, not in words.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But you have suggested, have you not, that abstract painting can work spatially “outward”, into the room, rather than back into illusionistic space.

      Seems to me in that great Pissarro that we physically understand the lie of the land and the space/distance involved and believe in all that simultaneously with believing in the coherent visual organisation of the painting’s two-dimensionally. So in effect the physicality of the landscape is made visual, and the duality/tension is (almost) resolved.

      And in most abstract painting that goes for deep space/holes, it just rankles…


  40. Only in America would Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase have been considered radical or avant-grade — an academicised misreading of the genuinely plastic art of Braque and Picasso’s cubism, combined with a trompe l’oeil rendering of stop motion photography. (See his early academic portraits in Philadelphia). Duchamp was one of the few “painters” to be influenced by the science of optics, which he discovered can only be represented diagramatically on a flat surface, I.e. Illustrated. Hence his last 2D work, gifted to Walter Arensburg, housed in the Philadelphia Museum is just a compendium of graphic devices, so much like the post-modern , post-pop idiom of Polke, Oehlen and co. The only solution was to stand aside from seriously engaged painting and sculpture, and pose as a superior intellect, pipe and slippers, with the banality that anything in the world can be viewed aesthetically, which every painter already knew, but which the great public seemed and still seems to regard as a revelation. Hence Turner-prize art!


  41. A letter in this weekend’s Guardian from James Hall linked Duchamp and his crappy last work “Etant Donnes” with the worst of the Pre-Raphaelites (Duchamp apparently identified with Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World”). The crap goes round and round.


  42. “Her refined craft and intellectual precision address our relationship to objects and materials in a digital age,” said Simon Wallis, Director of the Hepworth Wakefield, speaking of Helen Martin’s winning work.

    Perhaps the wrong kind of specificness?


  43. There is a clear demonstration of the mechanics of how spatial illusionism/cum/ rich surface tapestry of Monet’s Nympheas is created — in a ridiculously heightened colour detail of the central portion (squarish) of one of the Orangerie paintings (a dark one) available on Google. At the same time it shows its kinship with the perspective of his early Boulevard Des Capuchines 1873 (Pushkin Museum), and Pissarro’s late recapitulation on that theme in his own late Boulevards.
    The whole right hand zone of this detail has a subtly disguised perspectival recession accentuated by the gradually enlarging of the wonderfully animated brush-strokes from its inward most projection to its “nearer” areas, (just as occurs in Matisse’s Baroness Gourgaud and Interior with Phonograph). Then the left hand zones pull away and out from this recession in broad swathes of atmospheric colour in aerial perspective. And all this achieved without breaking the rich tapestry. The surface is thus claimed as physically real, present, palpable and stamped with the unique touch of the artist. This is where “presentness” originates. And without a hint of literalness.
    But to do this now would be to imitate the inimitable, and immediately to be sensed as pastiche. This is the dilemma for abstraction, has been for quite a while.


  44. Going back to Côtes des Boefs (there´s an incredibly detailed version at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_C%C3%B4te_des_B%C5%93ufs_at_L%E2%80%99Hermitage – keep clicking on the image… ), it seems to me that most of what Pissarro is doing in a painterly (and perhaps therefore abstract) sense is working AGAINST the figurative space.
    The warm white of the almond blossoms (?) at the lower right helps to bring them forward compared to the cold white of the building directly behind. Here Pissarro is working WITH and accentuating the figurative space.
    But there are loads of instances that go in the other direction:
    Look at the green patch in front of the almonds – it is distinctly cooler than the green visible through the stems. Here, I imagine, he is getting the bottom of the painting to recede slightly in order to preserve the flatness of the picture plane.
    The strong verticals of the trees would normally push whatever is behind far into the distance, but here they are disrupted everywhere by tiny incursions of the background. This is particularly noticeable in the sky, where white and blue are forever overlapping the browns and yellows of the branches. (Soutine does this very obviously in his tree paintings.) Wherever this is not enough, traces of warm Naples yellow and pink are worked into the sky to bring it forward.
    The two saplings in the foreground establish an important part of the figurative space but are held back by little overlaps in a similar way. And following the left-most branch of the first sapling, see how it is almost savagely pegged back by a part of the house wall above the blue door. So effectively that the trunk of the tree alongside needs a reddish brushstroke at this height to preserve the space between house and tree.
    The distant trees on the far right actually run over the branches of the foreground saplings in places.
    There are lots of other examples, but I´ll stop there. It seems to me that it is this “painting against the figuration” that creates the tension and duality between space and surface. With the figurative image pulling strongly into the picture´s depths, it is straightforward (though not easy) to create a painterly resistance to preserve the surface.
    In abstract painting, this overall pull is missing and in order to create the same kind of tension between surface and depth the artist has to use very similar painterly devices in BOTH directions. This can very quickly become confusing and/or incoherent. I think this may be the main problem when it comes to abstract painting and spatiality, and maybe also the reason why many give up and resort to chasing only flatness or only space.

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  45. Amazed that you can see all this from a reproduction on the screen, but I expect you have it pretty much right. I never look that closely at paintings –prefer just to go with them as a whole. I think what you are talking about is what Pissarro calls “passage”, the colour definition of areas taking on some of the lustre from adjacent areas. If ever I was asked to do an Artist’s Eye selection at the Nat.Gallery, this would be one of my centre pieces, and then I might have a chance to scrutinise it the way you have. Or have you been to see it recently?


    1. No, not recently, and I’m sure there’s lots more going on with surface texture etc. but I think you can see the things I mention when the resolution is large enough on a screen.
      Thanks for calling attention to Pissarro and this picture. I wouldn’t have looked otherwise.


  46. If I’m understanding Richard’s post correctly he is suggesting closer inspection of small areas of the painting (what you refer to as ‘the exercise’?) in order that we might get a better understanding of how Pissaro is manipulating the illusion of space through the use of colour. It is not difficult to understand why and how (the latter being the point of the exercise) this would be of interest to abstract painters who don’t want to directly exploit what you refer to as our normal day to day perception of space but who also see insistence on flatness as either a dead-end or just boring. I’m not an experienced painter but what Richard is describing so illuminatingly seems pretty much to equate to the ‘push pull, spacial feel but it is just so enriched by virtue of the fact that it is a figurative painting. .


    1. I suppose the question I would ask is what are those other factors (leaving aside for now the question of their relative importance) that act to convince us of the space that Pissaro has created in that particular work. If as, I’m inclined to believe, those factors are inextricably linked to figuration, our perception of recognisable ‘things’ ( the identities of the different features the way that they physically relate to each other and also their psychological effect on the viewer) then the implications for abstract painting would have to be measured with some caution. That is running somewhat against the current enthusiasm in relation to the possibilities that might be taken from his vision as realised through his technique but he was a figurative painter doing things ( no doubt in a very distinctive way as others have detailed rather better than I could) that were pertinent to figurative painting.


    1. The discussion linked to above from MOMA is based on the “Cezanne and Pissarro” show of 2005 at MOMA, which I saw at the Musee d’Orsay in 2006. Pissarro pretty much matched Cezanne, stride for stride, no mean feat. Though the Cezanne above didn’t travel to Paris, there were some fantastic pairings. Well worth getting the catalogue. Both had great paintings by the dozen, but Cezanne had nothing to match Pissarro’s climbing path, “Chemin Montant, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise”.


  47. Whilst specificness doesn’t guarantee anything, it IS one of the things that I have felt to be lacking in a lot of abstract art.

    This is what I wrote in 2011 for “High Abstract”:

    “…more complex, more specific, richer in human content”. Unlike a lot of criteria by which we judge art, they seem plausible and modestly objective, at least in the first two of the three; and the third, the achievement of “human content” is such a great ambition for abstract art to have. Abstract art, it seems to me, has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into “human content”. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality.”

    Maybe we are past this…?


  48. “I wonder why it is that most discussions of impressionism tend to marginalize Pissarro in favor of a few more prestigious names. Could it be that Pissarro’s paintings are so incredibly effective at portraying deep space while at the same time gathering their effects at the surface, and this runs counter to the standard story of modernist painting?”

    A very interesting observation by Carl, and one that I found myself wondering myself a few months back when jotting down some thoughts on Pissarro. Late works by Cézanne, such as a number of his Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings are much more spatially raised than many of his own earlier works, and certainly more than Pissarro’s own from the same period. Every dab, mark and facet could be read as level with the plane, which history will tell us runs straight through to Demoiselles D’Avignon, Cubism and all the further variations, reductions or continuations of this methodology.

    On a personal level, I can sort of do without some of the late Mont-Sainte Victoire works, in favour of the strange perspectives and relationships of “Plaster Putto” 1895, https://www.wikiart.org/en/paul-cezanne/still-life-with-plaster-cupid-1895 , and obviously a whole host more of his works.

    But Pissarro continues to dazzle me right up to the end. There doesn’t seem to be a decline, and yet he is seen as a far less “important” painter than Cézanne. And as Carl points out, Pissarro’s paintings “gather their effects at the surface”, whilst still portraying deep space, which is what I think happens in Cézanne too. So is it because the tapestry is not as frontally asserted as in Cézanne? Pissarro’s paint quality I tend to find thicker and crustier than Cézanne’s more thinned and integrated skin. So perhaps the frontal presence of Pissarro’s work comes forward not so much in the kind of organisational ability we see in Cézanne, but through a kind of attention to materiality (obviously of a more subtle and sophisticated nature than that which the term so often applies to today). The materiality is so subtle and always well and truly in the service of capturing the effects of light and perception of space. This is a very difficult thing to take up, and Cézanne’s approach perhaps offers a clearer path to follow in terms of resolving spatial possibilty in two dimensions. Cézanne is very universal, and for that reason we can perhaps borrow a lot from him without feeling imitative, even though his style is very distinctive, very much his own. Pissarro is less obvious and to attempt to follow his approach could be very embarrassing. Curly, crusty paint can look very amateurish, whereas the cooler reserve of hard edged blocked in colour tends to be associated with professionalism. These are both stupid ways to think about painting, but I’m trying to understand why the tremendous achievements of a painter with a reputation as great as Pissarro’s can still seem somehow sidelined, and that that might have something to do with the sophistication of his work, and willingness of subsequent painters to try to understand what is at work in those pictures.

    In both Pissarro and Cézanne there is something sublime happening that cannot be re-created by another hand trying to do the same thing. But where the successes of one might be promoted and pursued over the other, might lie somewhere in Cézanne’s organisational prowess, which could be construed by others as a kind of systematic approach, and so therefore imitable to some extent. Where would trying to emulate Pissarro get you? Somewhere pretty bad in all likelihood. Perhaps the recent Poons works could be an example, or even the cack-handed Clyfford Still as a sort of highly minimalised version. With the other path, if you follow it through to its reductive end, you can always hide behind the universality of straight lines, thin paint and blocked in colour, nothing to declare and nothing to criticise. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Still, I find it interesting that his paintings seem so much more open to criticism than Rothko’s, which I find almost unable to critique, and that troubles me about him, though this takes us slightly off topic, and to a place we’ve been before. Personally I’m quite happy for us to keep talking about Pissarro. I actually feel like this is getting somewhere. What oh what is going on in his pictures, and what lessons could it hold for abstract painting? We definitely do not want pastiche.

    I do not have a problem with wanting abstract paintings to compete with Pissarro or Cézanne, but I can understand the objections to this, and why many contributors here would not want to see things that way. From the perspective of appreciation, it is probably unnecessary. But like Robin said, as an artist trying to make abstract paintings, the idea of trying to compete with the best figurative art has been helpful, for me at least. We could call it a strategy, but that would belittle the fact that I actually believe in this approach, and it fills my life with a great deal of meaning and sense of purpose, to try and match paintings that I hold in a great deal of regard. It’s good to hear all the other arguments against this too, because it makes you ever more wary of the pastiche road, and every firm belief should not come without serious doubts.

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    1. Very good comment by Harry, in reply to lots of other very good material.

      Thinking about what Richard said, it occurs to me to wonder if the “open-ended” manner in which Pissarro painted (which could also apply to Cezanne) allowed for continuing subtle changes over a period of time (days? weeks?), pulling the surface and the space together/apart by minor adjustments made after due consideration, a heightening or loosening of the tension between those two factors by an intuitive balancing of different parts of the picture. That is quite a different mentality to the notion that Impressionism is an outdoor, “alla prima”, single-hit kind of working.

      Quite a lot of abstract painting and sculpture is too rigid or too fast in its approach to allow for this kind of give-and-take to happen. You would think, though, that the manner in which Poons approaches his later work would allow for some degree of working-in-depth, but it doesn’t seem to. The work seems to remain in a kind of no-man’s land of unconsolidated, impulsive, primary gestures.


      1. What you say, Robin, about speed in abstract painting without ‘give and take’ is something that I felt looking at some of the work in the AbEx show at the Academy. I felt, maybe, some artists seemed carried away by the innovative way of working and were happy to just leave things wanting . I am going again to see if I still feel the same way.
        I think you may be right about Pissarro and other Impressionists continuing to work on paintings in the studio to pull things together, some had stacks of canvasses for different times of the day to keep the ‘en plein air’ thing going.


  49. Perhaps one of the reasons Pissarro is sidelined is that his inquisitive and experimental disposition led him into dalliance on the one hand with Seurat’s divisionism, and on the other, competition with Millet’s pastoral idyll of toiling farm girls (see Millet’s duck pond with nude picture and Pissarro’s copy), and a number of nude bathers pictures of problematical quality, often omitted from surveys of his work unfortunately and hard to locate. Too big an issue for now. See my article Pissarro Artscribe No 27 , 1981.
    He therefore tends to be seen as uneven. And the examples Carl has shown thus far miss out on his major achievements — the early pre-impressionist Pontoise period, La Cote Du Jalais a Pontoise, 1867, Metropolitan Museum, the late harbour studies at Rouen and Dieppe, The Stone Bridge at Rouen, Nat. gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Parisian Boulevards.


  50. The Millet is The Bather 1863. Who wouldn’t want to copy it ? And see Boulevard Des Italiens Afternoon 1897, and others of the Bridge at Rouen , different times of day.

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    1. Some good and relevant images of Harry Hay’s paintings on his Twitter feed. Feels like they could be the kind of abstract work that takes on board the points made in Robin’s post of 22/11/16 at 9.58am (screen reproductions permitting).


      1. Can’t really say about Harry’s work yet – we need to see some! – but I think the business of repeated change and alteration, if such it is that makes the Pissarros such a rich and rewarding experience, is for me writ large in abstract art.

        In abstract sculpture, as far as I am concerned, everything is up for grabs at any time, in every part of the work, and anything is possible. In sculpture, I can turn everything upside down (which you can in painting), or cut a part out completely (can’t do that in painting without leaving a blank) or take a piece from the bottom and move it to the top (hard to do in painting), etc. That’s on top of all the minor tweaking, and an extreme example of looking and changing, looking and changing; but I think it’s a natural state of abstract art. In fact, it probably isn’t abstract if this is not happening.


      2. Thank you for thinking so, Noela, but hopefully you can decide in front of the works themselves before too long. I was wondering whether it could be more useful to consider what Robin wrote about Pissarro and Cézanne in relation to one of Anne Smart’s paintings. Not because I would describe her paintings as “Impressionistic”, but because they strike me as being very much about that give and take in their facture, and the tightening and loosening of tensions across the surface. And because many Abcrit contributors have seen her work, we could get some very informed takes on these paintings in a way that is relevant to this discussion.


  51. “What Richard says is really interesting, I just hope it’s true!”

    I agree that what Richard says is interesting, but I don’t think it’s true—not completely true anyway. I don’t trust my memory of Pissarro’s Cote des Boeufs, Pointoise. It’s kind of fun trying to look at the painting through the computer, but kind of maddening too. I’m happy to accept Richard’s reading of the back-and-forth between the picture plane and depth though. What troubles me is Richard’s talk about Pissarro working with or against “figurative” space. It’s a 1960s/1970s way of talking about paintings. It’s “false” in that it’s anachronistic.

    I just looked at my copy of Pissarro’s letters to his son. It’s full of underlining, but I don’t remember a thing about it. I don’t know how Pissarro thought about/talked about painting—don’t know how Corot or the Carraccis did—but I bet it wasn’t too too different from the way Richard talks. There is one difference though: they never thought about what we call “abstract art” (I bet).

    In many ways that’s not a big deal—but Carl brought up the word “specific.” As Alan says, some of the worst painting in the world can be described as “specific.” When “specific” means simply a literal/mechanical/boring accumulation of details—it’s not a very exciting word/idea.

    “Specific” gets exciting (for me) when I ask, what is the artist being “specific” about? I think that’s what excites Bruce Gagnier too. I thought it was what excited Carl, but now I don’t think it was.

    Back to Richard: as I was saying, most artists from the beginning of time, artists whose work has ended up in (pre-contemporary) art museums, have worked the way Richard describes: there’s something basic about it, though it’s kind of being forgotten today. (You could say all good artists have worked abstractly from the beginning of time. Many people today are saying only evil formalist paintings fill our museums—and for that reason all museums should be burned to the ground.) As Richard says, Soutine worked more/less the same way Pissarro did—BUT why is a Soutine so different? Is Soutine a better painter? Is he more “advanced”? Is he more “specific”? I’m sure these questions can be answered intelligently by people more intelligent than I. I just want to suggest that Soutine was “specific” about something different from what Pissarro was “specific” about.

    Alan mentioned paintings by Monet and Matisse a while back. I think Alan was referring to Monet’s Water Lilies: Setting Sun. I think I remember laughing at what Alan calls “the ridiculously heightened color detail of the central portion” when I saw the painting in Paris a long time ago. It certainly makes me laugh now: it’s so potent because the painting’s so specific. Alan’s analysis is great. I just want to bring in Bruce’s words: “the problem [the difficulty of being specific] is made even more difficult when the content around which the forms must wrap themselves is evanescent.” I don’t remember ever seeing Matisse’s Baroness, but in reproduction the painting seems to me to be a mess—not to be specific, not to be in touch with anything specific—“a flat sign,” Bruce might say: that the sign said “Matisse” mattered to the Baroness or her husband, but now that they’re dead the sign’s essentially dead too.

    Robin brought Cezanne into the discussion. Maybe Cezanne was “specific” about his “petites sensations.” Maybe Pissarro’s ups and downs have something to do with his ups and downs with “specificity.” One thing about that MoMA Cezanne/Pissarro show Robin mentioned: the bibliography in the catalog does not include Alan’s GREAT essay on Pissarro. Alan’s essay is more important than that catalog.

    I’ve never seen an Alan Gouk painting, but from reproductions I sense they’re “specific”—they’re about something, something “evanescent,” but something “real”—something more “real” than the word “abstract.” I haven’t seen much Larry Poons’s work. (The discussion here of his work was very specific and useful.) It’s unfair of me to say all his paintings flat signs saying “abstract”—but that’s a danger Abcritters might keep in mind. And it might be useful to keep my friend Bruce Gagnier in mind too: he’s competition!


  52. Forgive me, but what’s the point of being specific if it’s evanescent?

    Of course Pissarro wasn’t in his mind acting “abstractly”, but what he did might nevertheless relate to what we (us abstract artists, I mean) are doing. I’m not sure about what Richard said either, because a) I don’t trust that reproduction and b) Richard’s theory equates being more abstract with being flatter. But I like his observations about the “painting/reproduction” and the possible implications of how Pissarro worked.


    1. I´m not sure about your b).
      What I think I´m saying is that figuration is in itself a powerful tool for creating and modifying depth in a painting and not just the result of that creation and modification. Abstract painting dispenses with this tool so that painterly devices (form, hue, saturation, relational qualities etc. etc.) have to create the depth and simultaneously establish the surface on their own. I don´t think that this is impossible or that it necessarily implies more flatness, but it´s certainly a challenge.
      I agree very much with the “minor adjustments made after due consideration”. It´s astonishing what a few square millimeters of paint added or scraped away can do to even a large and very informal looking painting.
      And this is just a wild conjecture, but maybe the impressionists, by breaking up the smooth, continuous surface of the old masters and escaping the rational demands of painting objects while retaining figuration via sensation, were in possession of more methods and freedoms for creating/adjusting depth and surface than any painters before or since.


      1. Yes, OK, I agree with all of that. Except that, as Patrick Heron pointed out, it was Constable who first broke up and into the surface.

        The question then is, is the “challenge” of making abstrtact painting more spatial by these particular means, that have been developed in figurative painting, worth it, and a good way for abstract painting to travel? Does it then make it a sort of faux-figuration? It’s certainly gives it a very distinct path from that of abstract sculpture, much more continuous with its past, whereas abstract sculpture seems more and more like a great rupture from figurative sculpture.


    2. I think the illusion of light in Immpressionist paintings creates the illusion of space as much as colour play, and that is relevant for painting but not for sculpture. Light rather than space feels like something that could be used in abstract painting without creating a ‘faux figuration’ .


      1. Here is a quote from Clement Greenberg’s 1957 essay, The Later Monet: “This same fidelity to his sensations permitted Monet to confirm and deepen Impressionism’s most revolutionary insight, which has also been its most creative one: that values – the contrasts and gradations of dark and light – were indispensable neither to the representation of Nature nor to the integrity of pictorial art. This discovery, made in an effort to get closer to Nature, was later turned against her, and by Monet first of all.”


  53. Regarding “specific”, I certainly didn’t mean to say that anything that has the quality of specificity is good art. I was responding to Shaun’s comment that he had “nothing specific” to say about post-modern art (forgive me if I’ve mischaracterized his post), and it occurred to me that one can describe a post-modern work without being specific, whereas a non-specific description of a modernist work (e.g., Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland or Anthony Caro) is not going to be useful.

    I asked myself, ‘why is that?’, and my answer (to myself) was that everything, every specific detail in a modernist work must be meant for it to count as art at all. To me, that is the essence of modernism – that is, what it means to make or experience something as art at a time when everything seems to defeat the very possibility of art as such. (Post-modernism seems to imply a sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude, a wink and a nod to the viewer of the sort invented by Marcel Duchamp, acknowledging, from an imaginary position above it all, that nothing is really meant, nothing really counts other than cleverness, and so on.) I suppose the ultimate example of specificity in this sense would be Frank Stella’s early series of copper and silver shaped pictures, in which the alteration of any detail would be to create an entirely different painting. You can’t get any more specific than that, but this is not to say that Stella’s pictures are better than anyone else’s.

    Then I went on to ask myself if specificity in this sense is characteristic not just of modernist art but of all art – and my answer was that it is. It’s just that modernism brings all of this to the forefront, lays it bare so to speak, because in times past everyone knew what it meant to make a painting (a landscape, portrait, still life, etc.). There was a tradition, and the tradition said that anything satisfying established criteria would count as an instance of the medium, even if a poor example of it. In the absence of such a tradition, the artist has nothing to rely on except him- or herself, the willingness to mean everything that is put into the work and mean it with the same seriousness and intensity that is discernible in the old masters. Isn’t this what abstraction in art is about? Why else would anyone bother?

    For the past few months I have been writing a couple of essays about the concept of “intention” in photography (where a machine does a lot of the work) and my argument is that everything in a photograph is meant (even if it was captured by accident) in the sense that the artist is responsible for everything in the picture. I believe that this is true of art generally, and that’s why specificity is important. To truly “understand” or appreciate a painting or a sculpture (not just modernist) would be to understand or appreciate why every specific part of it is the way it is and not some other way. An art work that has quality will withstand and indeed invite and demand that sort of scrutiny because the making of it required very specific decisions at every stage of the making, beginning with conception and ending with the decision as to when it’s finished.

    I don’t think any other kind object or human action in the world is experienced in this way; in every other realm of experience, there are excuses for why something didn’t turn out as intended, why it wasn’t meant THAT way, but in art there are no excuses and that’s the source of art’s value, why we care about it as we care about nothing in quite that way.


  54. Harry, yes Anne Smart’s paintings do seem to encompass the ‘pulling the surface and space together/apart ‘ that Robin was talking about , and I feel John Pollard’s ‘facture’ is about looking, making decisions and change, but as Robin also says it is the natural state of abstract art. Also what I find quite amazing about Anne’s paintings is that one can experience the fabulously rich complex surface but as you move around them they change, there are different colours on each side of a paint passage, and when viewed from a distance the tonal qualities bring yet another spacial experience to the fore.
    I look forward to seeing your work Harry, are you having an exhibition in England ?

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    1. Nothing concrete as yet, Noela. But I am certainly intending to come to London with some paintings next year. I’ll keep you posted, and would likewise be very keen to see your own work if at all possible.


  55. With you, Robin, on Constable.
    I don´t think that space/surface is the whole story by any means but I agree with your objections to “just surface” and I think that the insufficiency/unsatisfactoriness of “just space” is amply demonstrated by several of the de Kooning paintings in the RA exhibition (“Whose Name is Writ on Water”, the “Parkway” landscapes) where, in Noela´s words, he was “happy to leave things wanting”. There is surface in the texture of the brushstrokes, but fully unintegrated, leaving unconnected marks swimming around in a void.
    His other paintings prove, to my mind, that he very well (even sublimely) could when he wanted.
    For me, that just leaves “space AND surface”, which has a long tradition, but maybe there are still innovative ways of creating/reconciling/combining these in abstract painting.


    1. Richard you have mentioned space and surface as constituents of abstract art but what would you say about light? Going back to Anne Smart’s paintings, especially ‘Everlong Waited Here 2016’, it has the surface and space but also light emanating from everywhere, not just from a particular source. Light is key for landscape painting as it brings everything to life and makes the image a credible space.If we are looking to bring elements the Impressionists used, as well as any other landscape artists, I think considering the role of light within an abstract work could be very important.


      1. Yes, I agree. And light in painting seems to be a whole, big, mysterious, untameable theme like space in painting.
        Your point about it not being from a particular source in Anne´s painting is exactly right I think. Matisse has that too.
        I don´t know how it is for you, but I feel even less in control of light than of space when I´m working. It´s probably something that quickly gets lost or changed in reproduction too.
        A really good subject for discussion.


      2. Hi Richard, oddly enough I find I can grasp the notion of light more easily than space in abstract work. I get it in relation to sculpture because the space is there to be seen, but in abstract painting it seems rather illusive. I know what I am looking for with light, it is related to tone , you just need to squint if not sure, but with space, where is it? Is it a thing that happens when dominant colours are placed next to each other, the ‘push pull’ thing? I see the space when it is there as an area to set off other passages (looking at John Pollard’s pink addition to one of his recent paintings) but sometimes not sure if non literal space is so easy to identify. Perhaps what I see as space in an abstract painting is really flatness?


    2. Also I think the space I mentioned seeing in Anne’s work might have had a more literal feel from a distance, to my eyes, , maybe not what was intended, but still a strong experience.


      1. Maybe you should try looking at Albers’ Homage to the Square to get your eye in. I believe these weren’t conceived as artworks but as demonstrations of how colours interact to alter each other and to make space.


    3. Richard I feel the spacial effects in the Albers squares are due to tonal relationships rather than colour interactions. When the colours have close tonal properties the space diminishes. So again it is the light that creates the space.


      1. That´s interesting Noela. I´ve never seen it like that. They are abstract and they are very spatial and their tonality certainly isn´t chiaroscuro. I still think a lot of them are working with warm/cool variations of a single colour and with contrasts of hue, but tonality is certainly playing a big part too.
        I suppose the test would be to reduce them all to monochrome and see how the spatiality fares.


  56. I forgive you, Robin. Bruce’s writing is a challenge. You can read his sculpture the way you read Shakespeare or Alan Gouk. The “words” on the “page” are enough: you just have to “read” them carefully. You have to make more of an effort with Bruce’s writing, give it “the benefit of your doubt.” And recognize it comes out of 50 plus years of drawing, painting, and sculpture: the guy has something to say—even though he says it awkwardly.

    But your question seems sillier than Bruce’s awkward formulation. You ask, why be specific about something that’s evanescent? Isn’t that on the order of asking, why paint a bunch of trees? Why make steel sculpture? The answer, of course, is, there’s a deep, human need to do these things.

    Carl, I wasn’t really reading your take on “specificity” as a criterion for “good art.” For me it’s just a word/idea that seems to excite you somehow. It excites Bruce too. “Experience” is another word/idea that has a “special” meaning for both of you. “Specificity” is also a funny kind of word—“funny” in the way “spatiality” and “physicality” sound funny when the Brancaster artists talk, the way “voluminosity” and “rhythmicity” sounded funny at crits with Louis Finkelstein. The words have “special” meanings. They make you ask questions.

    I have a sense that your thinking owes a lot to Michael Fried, maybe especially early Fried (though I’m sure you’ve carefully read his book on photography), and Greenberg. So does Robin’s and Alan’s. I’m pretty sure Bruce read at least some Fried/some Greenberg way back when—but he rejected them. He REALLY rejected them. It’s fun, at least for me, to think about your writing/thinking (and Robin’s and Alan’s) and Bruce’s now that we’re all older gentlemen: how much you all have in common, what the differences are.

    Fried is more/less the same age as Alan and Bruce. He’s changed too. I sent Bruce a copy of Fried’s new book, After Caravaggio. It’s terrific, especially the late chapter on Guercino. I’m not sure Bruce is going to read the book cover to cover, but he said he liked many of the pictures in the book. Bruce has read a lot of Charles Palermo’s new book, Modernism and Authority. Palermo is one of Fried’s many, brilliant students. Modernism and Authority is kind of about what an artist can rely on in the absence of a “tradition.” In response to the book Bruce has joked to me about there not having been much painting of interest since Picasso’s Rose Period.

    It’s that 20th century “position” that how you say what you have to say is more important than what you have to say that I was objecting to in Richard’s comment. All artists create space: that’s just part of the job: what matters is what the space is for. Alan says it’s for “emotional depth.” Bruce says it’s “to form the container which can hold the essence of the spirit.” I think they’re both right. You don’t create space, and leave it empty—leave it “abstract.” Certainly a great artist just can’t. In de Kooning’s parkway paintings, in his Whose Name is Writ on Water, “the volume of space is necessary to bring the form of the spirit into a state of otherness so that it is neither in or entirely outside the consciousness of the viewer.” Got that, Richard? Got it, Robin? (It’s from an old Bruce email. A general/“absolute” truth—not a specific reference to de Kooning.)

    Alan asked, who wouldn’t want to copy Millet’s Bather? He was joking (I think). (And Robin got the joke!) Hugh Hefner made a lot of money copying that image. Thing is: Bruce wouldn’t want to copy it. And Katherine Gili wouldn’t. It’s not that Bruce and Katherine have better taste than Hefner, not that they’re “better” in any way—just that they’re more abstract.


    1. Yes Jock, but maybe there are some containers that are more and others that are less suited to communicating Bruce’s “essence of the spirit”. Some containers might distort, obscure, confine or even destroy it. Others might sometimes allow a glimpse.
      I think you’ll find that that’s what we’re talking about here.


      1. Thanks, Richard. I’ll try to listen more carefully. What I hear now is “abstract” means No! No! No! But I can’t open my mouth without getting involved in some obscure argument between Thomas Aquinas and Bruce Gagnier—and Thomas Aquinas probably isn’t going to help a lot of people with painting or sculpture. Bruce Gagnier will though—trust me!


    1. Hilde Skilton says her paintings are NOT objects. Maybe things aren’t objects. Maybe The Thing is not an object. Somehow Hilde is more positive saying “not” than you are, Robin, saying “‘s.” But do NOT listen to me: I’ll tell you, deep down, you’re a figurative sculptor, a terrific one: the Rodin of Abstract Art!


      1. Hilde is right. The point is – why would she say that? And I say my sculpture is not an object, or even a structure. Or did you miss that? You quote Gagnier over and again, who is not only a poor sculptor, but appears to have very little understanding of abstract art. Your enthusiasm and support are very charming at times, as are your anecdotes, but you are skimming the surface of discussions, picking up on words to play about with. And your insistence over and over that what I and others do is really, deep down, figurative – as if you know something profound that we don’t – is becoming a little offensive.


    1. There are some big claims being made about Martin Mugar’s work here:

      “These complex forms within forms opened the door to the most recent paintings. The new marks look like more scribbles in paint, but they become so much more than just letters; each one is like a small sculpture. Each one is a small sculpture inside of the larger monolithic, monochromatic wall of a Mugar sculpture/painting. They are like figures. Like the figures on Rodin’s Gates of Hell. The way they nest inside the larger work, inhabit the larger work, allows for endless joy and adventure and expression and discovery. There is great drama there. Great passion. Great power and humanity and cosmic force. A great swirl of cosmic force that opens up new worlds.”

      Jock should go to town on this… actually, no don’t, Jock. But this sort of writing about art (and the art!) seems to me to be just as bad as the things that Martin criticises (Zombie abstraction, etc.) in his blog: http://martinmugar.blogspot.co.uk/


      1. “There is no overstating the magnitude of this breakthrough. There is no overstating the significance and magnificence of this breakthrough in terms of the larger oeuvre of Martin Mugar’s personal victory as an artist.”

        The author proves that it is indeed possible to overstate the magnitude, significance and magnificence – because he just did it.

        On the other hand, there is no overstating the terribleness of this sort of writing about art.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That articles reads like an exercise to see how many hyperboles can be squeezed into a page, sort of like an advertisement for fast food. Because it consists of a recitation of grandiose conclusory claims without any argument, it provides an example of the non-specific, i.e., really bad writing, based on really bad looking.


  57. Jock – Yes, certain words are important to me and they include “specific” and “experience”. The reason is that I despise what is called “theory”.

    I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University studying literature in an environment dominated by theorists. I knew Michael Fried was teaching there (writing what became Absorption and Theatricality) but I didn’t know who he was until the very end, when I accidently discovered Wittgenstein’s writing, then Cavell and Michael Fried, an experience that turned my thinking upside down and eventually led to my leaving academia altogether.

    I have been reading those writers along with Greenberg more or less continuously since about 1980, which is also when I began looking at painting and sculpture. Wittgenstein says (more or less): “Don’t assume that you know what a sentence means; look and see.” Assuming that you already know is theory; looking and seeing is attentiveness to, or valuing one’s own experience, and seeking clarity about that.

    I think that Fried’s early “evaluative” criticism is some of the best philosophical writing I have ever read. How is it that something that is little more than a careful (specific) description of an art work can rise to the level of philosophy? It must be something about the thing being described – the fact that it is not an object but a kind of utterance, something that is meant by a particular human being. In Wittgenstein, a specific description of a word and how it is actually used by us, amounts to philosophy, because it tells us what the thing referred to really is. Why – of what possible interest? – should we care about inventing new words, or attributing new meaning to old words when what we have in front of us is a complete mystery?

    Specificity means paying attention to what is directly in front of us, under our noses, yet somehow escapes our attention because it is so obvious. Under the spell of theory, I would try to see how a painting or a movie or a novel could illustrate some concept or set of concepts. That approach amounts to distorting my experience, refusing to let it teach me.

    This way of thinking forms my taste in art, why I like some things and not others.

    I think that Fried’s writing since “Art and Objecthood” has deteriorated (excluding his art-historical writing, which remains first class). Why? –Because in that essay he fell under the spell of theory. This is evident in the book on photography and especially in Four Honest Outlaws. For example, in the photography book, he insists on seeing photographs through the framework he developed for looking at paintings and a photograph is not a painting. In Four Honest Outlaws, insistence on viewing contemporary painting and sculpture through the old framework leads him to artists that I believe aren’t much good.


  58. As an instance of specificity and depth depiction that results in bad art, cartoonish illustration, yet it is clearly defined, I would cite Roberto Matta’s The Mirror of Memory in the Institute of Modern Art, Valencia, IVAM. compared with Gorky’s Summation 1947 (and the drawing for it, )which though obviously derived from Matta, is a much superior painting , frontal alignment and all. Why should this be? Imponderables of character, temperament and talent? You tell me, as Trump would say.


    1. The Gorky painting (or the image of it) calls to mind this passage from Mark Rothko:
      “Tactile space, or, for the sake of simplicity, let us call it air, which exists between objects or shapes in the picture, is painted so that it gives the sensation of a solid. That is, air in a tactile painting is represented as an actual substance rather than as an emptiness. We might more readily conceive it if we picture a plate of jelly or, perhaps, soft putty, into which a series of objects are impressed at various depths.”


      1. That’s a bizarre comment from Rothko. I wasn’t aware that painters attempt to represent air, which is invisible. The space between represented objects is painted in order to represent what is visible to the human eye between those objects, which consists not of air but of other objects. The plate of jelly or soft putty seems more like photographic plate, onto which the impression of objects are produced.


      2. He´s talking about a spatial quality that he sees up to and including Giotto, and which then disappears in the Renaissance. He relates this to the idea that our concept of space is not just visual but also tactile. The empty space of post-Renaissance painting only reproduces the visual properties of space. He thought it proper to include the tactile properties and saw the jelly/putty thing as a way of doing this.
        I think it´s interesting, because it seems related to the theme of (visual) space and (tactile) surface in a painting.


  59. Parable of the internet no.326: returning to Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage, 1877, Camille Pissarro, on Wiki and on Nat Gallery’s own website:

    Needless to say, neither is like the painting, but the National Gallery image is closest, though somehow too fuzzy; and as I suspected, the Wiki image is VERY enhanced.

    From Richards previous comments (which, despite what follows I still think were an excellent insight):
    “The warm white of the almond blossoms (?) at the lower right helps to bring them forward compared to the cold white of the building directly behind.”
    The almond blossom is really not white at all (and see below re houses coming forward)

    “Look at the green patch in front of the almonds – it is distinctly cooler than the green visible through the stems. Here, I imagine, he is getting the bottom of the painting to recede slightly in order to preserve the flatness of the picture plane.”
    The two areas of green look almost identical, except perhaps for slightly greater inclusions of blue in the lower area. True that because the two areas are very similar, some flattening occurs, but actually from fairly close range, there is quite a strong experience of figurative space under and through the almonds, as you connect the two areas together, as well as the third lesser area of grass above the almonds in front of the house.

    “The strong verticals of the trees would normally push whatever is behind far into the distance, but here they are disrupted everywhere by tiny incursions of the background. This is particularly noticeable in the sky, where white and blue are forever overlapping the browns and yellows of the branches… Wherever this is not enough, traces of warm Naples yellow and pink are worked into the sky to bring it forward.”
    This overlapping certainly happens, though I could see no trace of yellow or pink in the sky.

    “The two saplings in the foreground establish an important part of the figurative space but are held back by little overlaps in a similar way. And following the left-most branch of the first sapling, see how it is almost savagely pegged back by a part of the house wall above the blue door. So effectively that the trunk of the tree alongside needs a reddish brushstroke at this height to preserve the space between house and tree.
    The distant trees on the far right actually run over the branches of the foreground saplings in places.”
    I suspect that the reddish brushstroke belongs to the side of the house, the whole of which comes forward, and seems to me to do the opposite, fudging the space between house and tree-trunk. The two saplings, meanwhile, are very decidedly not arabesque in effect, but create a strongly volumetric space in front of the distant trees, despite the overpainting in parts.

    I’d say that the way the painting operates spatially changes quite a lot, depending on the distance you view it from. For example, from 10 meters the white houses come right forward. All these complications and it still hangs together as a great masterpiece. I guess these spatial illusions (I refuse to call them ambiguities) happen in real-life as well as in painting. In fact, such anomalies of space are exciting to me at the moment in the complex abstract sculpture I’m involved in. It’s the overriding of literal structure with compelling illusion.

    Definitely a great painting. There is so much going on that it could surely not have been done all in one session, but was built up over time, there is such a richness to the adjustments and variations.


  60. I’d say that neither of these reproductions represent the painting at all accurately, and that you are simply trying to out smart one another. However Richard’s take on the painting, excuse me, image of the painting does capture the spirit of what Pissarro is about, and it is not in the least the sort of forced intellectualism Robin is trying to impose on it. The whole idea of “passage” in Pissarro’s own words is to dovetail one area into another by infusing local colour with reflections of the colour from adjacent areas, and not something that one would readily see in nature, but which is necessary for the integration of the painted image. Of course the spatial,effect of a painting varies from the distance it is viewed from. That is a truism, but it only arises if the picture is plastic and spatial in intent, and of course these ambiguities occur in real,life, but only if one has been attuned to look for them by great painting. That’s how great painters, such as Cezanne and Monet, and Pissarro alter our perception of the world.


  61. Actually I prefer the heightened version, even though I know the painting well, because it shows up,features of the painting that one would have to work hard to discern in front of it. Isn’t it about time to recognise that nothing that is said about images on the screen has any validity at all, and that one is just engaged in phantasising about paintings , and sculptures, unless one is in their immediate presence.


  62. Why don’t you all meet up,in front of the picture and start all,over again. But is it going to make the slightest bit of difference to your current preoccupations as artists. I think not — it’s just a display of wannabe connoisseurship.


  63. It is Nothing if not comical that Robin should be lecturing me on Pissarro of all artists, since he has been my man ever since I first read his advice to young painters in John Rewald’s History of Impressionism sometime around 1968/69. In 1974, my article Principle Appearance Style, Studio International ,June, opens with an identification with Pissarro as the painter’s painter, and an example to follow for all aspiring artists.When I suggested the idea of direct comparison of our work with paintings in the National Gallery in 1976, which led via Caro’s influence to the Artist’s Eye series of exhibitions ( a very bad idea as it turned out by the time it degenerated to transcriptions in Encounters) it was Cote Des Boeufs and the Monet Grenouillere boating picture I had in mind. And my article on Pissarro’s retrospective at the Hayward in 1981 ( also given as a lecture at St. Martins) ends by linking Pissarro with Constable by way of a quotation from Roger Fry on Constable’s realism. Maybe that’s where Robin gets it from.
    Cote Des Boeufs was painted in 1877, the year in which Pissarro first began to assimilate the influence of Monet’s and Renoir’s technique of modelling by tiny flecks and points from small brushes (as opposed to the broader handling of his pre-impressionist style in The Hermitage at Pontoise 1867, and the Louveciennes period, when he and Cezanne cross-fertilised). There was a stand-out example of Renoir’s in the recent R.A. Garden show, The Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre, 1876, which I highlighted in the as yet unpublished article The Gypsy of Matisse, — ” the whole surface shimmers with multiple glazes of different greens”. So this is the context in which Cote should be assessed. The very choice of viewpoint from which the “motif” is regarded, i.e. a steep hill face veiled by trees is clear indication that the sort of perspectival depth so fully realised in the 1967 Hermitage pictures is no longer a priority, and that what Pissarro is after is a more fully integrated surface across the whole spread of the picture, aided by “passage” which does induce a greying effect, but not nearly as much as your reproduction would suggest.
    Cezanne writes to Pissarro as early as 1866 — ” you are perfectly right to speak of grey: it alone reigns in nature, but it’s terribly difficult to capture” .


    1. Against what? And in what way am I lecturing you? Why just you?

      I have absolutely no intention of belittling your contribution to the appreciation of Pissarro, mine or anyone else’s. No doubt it is part of your paranoid genius to always get the wrong end of the stick. Cheer up, or you might get the shit end, one day.

      But you were wrong about Constable. Just saying.


  64. Just to get us up to 190 comments, the perspectival element , such as it is in the Cote, consists of a low left raking recession towards a vanishing point outside the picture where the foreground lane exits the frame, and a gradual diminution in scale from the right hand saplings along the length of the almonds? and the small hedge by the lane , somewhat similar to the diminution in scale of the brushwork in the late Monet Orangerie detail I mentioned before. These Lilypad pictures also have a slight raking perspective in the way the groups of pads move into and out of the fictive space of the larger areas of water. When the Hong Kong Chinese copyists produce their versions for the reproduction market, they greatly exaggerate the raking depth to the point of resembling a photograph of the scene. Whereas these are the most Unphotographable of paintings, as is the Pissarro. Our human lenses do not and cannot see the world according the monocular imposition of the camera lens, nor do we see perspectivally, which always requires a rational imposition at odds with the blurred perception of space of quietistic vision. Perhaps this is the real tension in pictorial art — the gap between phenomenal vision and rationalised perception.
    For example, in “real life” we can’t see the ceiling and the floor simultaneously, but in painting we can, if only as a result of numerous accommodations by the artist’s eye and mind. And even the style known as photo realism requires a complex perception to bring about. My wife, a photographer, says that she prefers even a bad painted portrait to most camera taken portraits, one or two painters excepted, which I will not name here.


  65. P.S. I withdraw the remark that Robin is imposing an intellectual reading onto the Pissarro. He is just trying like everyone else to grasp what is going on in this phenomenally rich picture.


  66. Good heavens, a retraction.

    Alan perhaps didn’t grasp the fact that I had gone to the National Gallery and stood in front of the painting in order to confirm my suspicions about the Wiki image. I did examine it closely. Why wouldn’t I? But I had no wish to lecture him or contradict Richard’s insights, only to go and see what could be seen and report back. Hardly an intellectual posture. As I then said, neither image is really close to the painting, not least because, in all its complex effects, it does not operate AS an image.

    I would say that the strange spatial effects from different distances that I reported are NOT ubiquitous to all painting by any means, and therefore not a truism. In fact, because of room closures at the N.G. I had to walk through the room with Constables in on the way to and from the Pissarro. Such spatial anomalies do not occur in Constable’s paintings, in my experience; and whilst we are suggesting Pissarro might have looked for them intentionally, or at least welcomed them when they occurred, in his contriving of a complex spatial accommodation for both flatness and space, Constable certainly would never have done so.

    That’s not to contradict the very strong link between Constable and Pissarro, and the debt the latter owes to the former (just as Constable is linked and indebted to Claude before him), but the differences between the two painters are marked indeed. Constable’s spaces are never representationally anomalous in the way that Pissarro’s are, and read on the whole pretty convincingly as conventional depth from any distance of viewing. But even in a painting as apparently controlled as “The Haywain” (another really great painting, by the way), tensions and pressures are evident between the enormous depth of detail and the broad spatial conception of landscape under sky.

    But the Pissarro is very different, and its illusions and anomalies, and its “stand-up” perspective, are I suppose more “modern”. And, by the way, much as I like the idea of “passage” – “to dovetail one area into another by infusing local colour with reflections of the colour from adjacent areas” – I saw no evidence of that happening in “Cote”, in terms so specific to the application of the colour. But both painters have the ability to make works that are for the viewer, despite and because of their complexity, an uninhibited and fluid experience, wherein one can move visually/physically across the painting in an infinity of ways – “passages” indeed.

    Shall we reach 200?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Koons think looks to me more like mockery than a tribute – if only because so little thought and feeling went into the idea and design. I could go to the pharmacy down the street and find such an image in a Hallmark “get-well” card, which may be approximately how Koons came up with it.


  67. One can’t seriously doubt the achievements of Cézanne, Constable and even Pissarro but I’m not sure how applicable they are in present circumstances. They are nineteenth century painters, who are to some extent lost to us, a loss that enhances our appreciation. I don’t think Cézanne is ‘advanced’, or that the cubists did him any favours by converting his tension-based method into their blizzards of little triangles. Once they had ‘analysed’ forms almost to the point of extinction, they had to spend their pictorial energy keeping the shards together and had none left for compositional adventure. Cézanne’s composition is similarly limited, as if guided by an antique hand.

    Cubism’s options increased enormously when it turned its back on Cézanne, when it entered its ‘synthetic’ phase. Synthetic cubism generated a range of new forms by unpacking the old forms, deploying a process of abstraction. This consisted in breaking things into components rather than fragments. The new forms that resulted could relate to each other in unconventional ways giving painters much more freedom to decide where pictorial elements might go. They no longer had to be bound by tension that cramped compositional decisions.

    Perhaps Cézanne might still be relevant to painters who want to fill the surface with multiple small events, using variegated pigments, providing enough accents, breaks and textural variation to conjure a space, pictorial scenery which would have appealed to Diderot, into which the viewer’s eyes may wander. But these events have to be sustained through managing tension, essentially through drawing. They are not the building blocks of composition, and this effectively rules out formal innovation.

    Preference for this approach may come from ‘geometrophobia’, a fear of straight lines, combined with a positive interest in carrying on a painterly tradition. In that case Monet’s water lilies maybe better models than Cézanne and Pissarro. Monet is more advanced cognitively. Composition is not too prominent but his choice of subject allows him to organise small painterly effects to a greater purpose. He combines two frontal planes, one the receding surface of the water, established by the lily pads, passes through the vertical curtain of the reflected willows. Each piece of paint is not just on the canvas surface but also registers on one or other of the planes. You can’t escape into the space because mostly it’s hard to tell which plane the marks belong to, so the foreground can change places with the advancing middle distance, and vice versa.

    I think the water lily paintings demand a cognitive engagement from the viewer, suggesting that Monet turned the triviality of Impressionism into an art of the museums more progressively than Cézanne. Indeed the fact that Alfred Barr acquired several for the Museum of Modern Art in the fifties shows how in tune with the contemporary efforts of New York painters Monet’s series was. In ‘American-type Painting’, Greenberg praised Clyfford Still, who he thought had ‘resumed Monet’, whose late works ‘suddenly stand forth as more advanced in some respects than Cubism’.

    I don’t think those who currently favour the gestural field school of painting want to extend Monet’s cognitive advance, or explore the potential of Pollock’s radically post-cubist space. It’s more about building up a façade of highly animated, expressive paint activity into which larger pictorial elements, the sort you need to create formal relationships, are dispersed; in other words, analytical cubism.

    The alternative is to commit to one of the varieties of geometric abstraction, ranging from soft to hard, looking again at Still, Newman, Louis, Stella, and Noland. Innovation, in terms of abstract painting, which is a recurring topic on this site, will be very difficult even using the pro-geometric strategy. But in the grip of geometrophobia, progress will be impossible.


    1. It is difficult to paint good abstract work, let alone be innovative, but the pursuit of it, in whatever ‘style’ is chosen, is just something that has to get done and worked on till something happens visually. It is very relevant and applicable to look at how paint has been used throughout history, why not? You can work your way through art history gathering what is needed to help you make sense of how to use ‘expressive paint activity’ or geometry or whatever.
      It is easier to see the quality of good painting in a great landscape because it has known properties, light, space, composition, emotional triggers to places etc., so is an excellent learning tool, apart from being an exciting and overwhelming experience.
      I am not really sure what you are trying to say.


  68. Any small section of a Cézanne will have a patchwork of colour decisions – each one is highly specific and can lead out into different directions, they set up momentums and rhythms. The colour is working the space, making breathable factures. Monet has not the same intensity of colour functionality. If Matisse took his strength from Cézanne, that’s a pretty good endorsement surely, and Matisse never came up with cubism. Synthetic cubism led to design more than painting. Speaking of design , we get to Stella; colour is filled in. Noland explored colour relationships in harmonious ways – whilst his taste is exquisite at times and his colour of a finely tuned order, there are no forces of conflict at play. Louis (a totally different animal to either) has a completely “disinterested” sense of colour – there are forces, values. His stripes transcend the stripe as structure and are his finest achievements – bearing down on the role of colour as force more than the highly distinctive Unfurleds (each series a lot more advanced than any veil, which are seductive but just look too much like Art – and he knew it) Back to Constable, his tempering of colour across the whole surface was achieved with getting the most out of the least – simple pressures, found rhythms. I was lucky to have time with Constable’s The Leaping Horse at the RA the other evening and to the side of it was a Millais portrait of a little girl with ribbons – lots of careful – boring – depiction and then some gestural stuff on the ribbons on the dress – all made to look generic and pointless by comparison. Actually it made all the works in the rooms about it look offensive. I was actually irritated by the guffness of everything. Constable being a sort of clear air in the room. Like Cézanne, even the smallest patch of Constable’s brushwork was charged with intent. There you go – that’s all you need and its highly relevant and challenging to us today – the strength of intent just oozes out of these guys – Louis’s disinterestedness and approach to open colour and not Monet’s picture making (as lovely as it is – though Braque called him a half-wit!), nor Noland’s passive colour (as exquisite as it is) and not Stella’s brutal designs. You find your clues. Ballesteros’s seven irons are up there too….you just need to be geared to tune it to all. Forget any historical contexts or ‘schools’ (they are for children to learn in). It’s just paint put to work. If one’s head is in the story, one’s eye is not in the paint.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Emyr – would you please explain what you mean by Louis’s “disinterested” sense of color? You also refer to Louis’s “strength of intent” (which I agree with), so I am wondering how you reconcile strength of intent with disinterestedness. Finally, would you comment on how the Veil paintings “look too much like Art” and the fact that Louis “knew it”? What evidence is there that Louis’s decision to change his format was based on his sense that the veils looked too much like Art? Thank you.


      1. Disinterested – unbiased (often a word misused to mean uninterested) Louis saw colour not in decorative “pictorial” ways, but as facts of their hue, forces to assemble. Each colour preserving its autonomy in a pure way, yet competing with others in the work to achieve unity. The veils are essentially tonal, the black scrimmed pours unify and check back the previous glazes. They are quite ravishing things but they did not release colour which became his ambition. Look at his work in sequence. It is patently clear that his decision making is about getting away from picture making and bearing down on colour. The stripes get less and less theatrical too, more and more concerned with edge and transition. A tragic early death, as it would have been fascinating to see where he went next. There are loads of poured works, stripes, bands etc (I’ve done a few bands and stripes myself) and Louis is always lumped in with Noland and Stella (Noland is natural due to their friendship and collegiate approaches to solving handling problems as they saw them – though the late Sam Golden once told me that Louis used to say “Don’t tell Ken what I’m up to” – he made Louis’s paints. Stella is nothing like Louis, or Noland for that matter. It all becomes that sixties stripe stuff/ minimal etc and I don’t see Louis through that lens – never have. We are in a different time with new concerns now granted, but I feel compelled to look at anything from any era in any place and if I see one – make a connection. It is pointless dismissing stuff until its been wrung dry – great art keeps giving. You need to look and see some of the principles at play which will only be there if the work has the intent to get beyond the general. I’ve not got much to add to that really and don’t wish to get into a dissection of this. All I can say is I look at stuff and I make stuff. Sometimes I see Art, sometimes I make it, most of the time I don’t see it or make it. “Art” is never guaranteed to happen. The more hours you invest, the better the chances though. You just have to give it your best shot and mean it.


  69. I have searched hard for sculptural comment and have extracted the following:

    Alan no. 28: “…sculptural structure is not consonant with physical structure…”
    Robin no. 27: “…there is a literalish tension of metaphorical physicality, which …certain semi abstract sculptures might use…for me the tension in abstract sculpture lies somewhere in the spatiality of the work, rather than the physicality…”
    Tony Smart no. 30: “…there seems to be a problem between something literal and something abstract…no cross referencing to the known structures of the world…I know that to exist in the new sculpture of today. That would be illusion in that nothing that the sculpture does is actual or literal…”
    Robin no. 35: “…the content of the work needs…to be about much more than the proposition of how it stands…”

    Ah yes, SCULPTURAL structure, what is it indeed ?

    Of course a ‘sculptural’ structure is other than merely a physical structure. How many times has one experienced far more visual and emotional pleasure from some aspect of the man made world than from a pretentious array of ‘modernist’ objects parading dismally as sculpture? There is no point in aiming to further the art of sculpture if all one lands up with are ‘things’ that are mistakeable for the world of everyday objects. (A urinal is NOT a piece of sculpture).
    “…metaphorical physicality…” I would suppose that every decision made during the course of creating a piece of sculpture is a ‘metaphor’ for the experience, experience of the artist’s world, experience of the artist’s previous making, that generates the ‘idea’ of the piece in the first place. Our whole knowledge of ‘physicality’ comes from experience, both mental and physical of it as human beings; therefore all attermpts at creating a surrogate for it within, and part of, a piece of sculpture IS ‘metaphorical’. The ‘tension’ lies, surely, in the success (or lack of it) of these ‘metaphors’ conveying sufficient emotional thrills,, and sense, (physically) to justify their existence. Does their conglomeration into a ‘sculpture’ secure their place in the world as valid ‘poetry’ ? Are the physical conglomerations saying something distinguishable as being ‘sculpture’ and NOT anything else ?
    Sculptural tension may well lie in the spatial occupancy of the parts making up a whole, and indeed in the non occupancy of that space as defined by their separation and distancing from each other. However, SPACE, sculptural space, would not exist if it were not for the physical presence of material going up to make an ‘object’ in the first place. I would suppose therefore that sculptural tension is a multi faceted condition, created (by choice according to the sculptor’s aims), by ALL the factors that go to make up the sculpture’s ‘message’ (horrible word).
    I repeat, in agreement, that nothing a sculpture does must “cross reference”. However, how can what it does possibly be “not actual” ? The ‘actuality’ of a sculpture (successful) is not the actuality of the rest of the physical world or the things in it, but it is ‘actual’ nonetheless.
    Well, yes of course the content of a sculpture must be about much more than its manufacture, how it is put together, with what etc. ‘Standing’ however, is I think, a vital and crucial factor in the success or failure of a piece of sculpture. We are ‘subject to Gravity’ (Tucker), and ALL sculpture has to deal with it. Even ‘space’ is subject to gravity {Einstein), and it therefore remains a prime factor in the decision-making process of a sculptor. In fact ‘spatial tension’, in sculpture, is probably in part defined by an imaginary awareness of what gravity is doing to it. Certainly physical tension in sculpture is, (Rodin).


    1. Saurday night is often worse than Saturday night.
      Tim Says “Well, now we have got the semantic muddle out of the way, let’s have some proper debate on sculprure”
      Obviously he had a Saurday night too.


  70. Emyr wrote this about Morris Louis’s veil paintings:

    “Louis saw colour not in decorative “pictorial” ways, but as facts of their hue, forces to assemble. Each colour preserving its autonomy in a pure way, yet competing with others in the work to achieve unity. The veils are essentially tonal, the black scrimmed pours unify and check back the previous glazes. They are quite ravishing things but they did not release colour which became his ambition. Look at his work in sequence. It is patently clear that his decision making is about getting away from picture making and bearing down on colour. The stripes get less and less theatrical too, more and more concerned with edge and transition.”

    One the one hand, the problem with the veils was that they looked “too much like Art” and were too much about “picture-making” and there for that reason (relatively) “theatrical” and not sufficiently concerned with edge and transition.

    On the other hand, the shift to the unfurled and stripe formats represented a shift in Louis’s interests, not necessarily a realization that the veil format was artistically flawed – a shift to an interest in the qualities of color as such – including the facts that each color is absolutely specific and therefore excludes every other color so that more than one color cannot be in the same place at the same time. This is what allows us to “bear down on color” as such in the later paintings.

    But the second interpretation would not necessarily mean that Louis viewed the veil format as flawed per se, because the veils are also concerned with “edge and transition” – REALLY concerned with that issue. In the veils, a concern with edge and transition is expressed by means of layering various hues without value contrasts and the ways in which color alone can create pictorial space in the absence of drawing. The unfurled and stripe formats also created new problems that are at least resolvable within the veil format such as engagement with the literal shape and size of the picture edge and what to do with (i.e., the significance of) large sectors of unpainted canvas.


  71. Just catching up with Abcrit. Great stuff here.

    Want to report I got my copy of the new Peter Hide book. It’s terrific! Nice pictures, nice writing—very nice essay by Sam Cornish. Kind of shakes up my understanding of steel sculpture in the old T. S. Eliot Tradition and the Individual Talent way. One problem: no show to go with the book.

    As I was reading the Hide book I kept thinking of Alan Gouk’s thought/observation that Lipchitz’s cubist sculpture wasn’t 3 dimensional: it was 2 ½ dimensional. I never really understood what Alan meant by that, but it’s bugged me ever since I read it. (I thought it was in his early Proper to Sculpture essay or the early essay on Matisse’s sculpture, but I just reread those (great) essays: there’s stuff about Lipchitz, but not the 2 ½ dimensional thing. Maybe it’s in one of his steel sculpture essays.) Anyway now I’m thinking of Lipchitz’s cubist sculpture as having volumes that are 3 ½ dimensional and space that’s 2 ½ dimensional.

    Carl, thanks for your comments about the words “experience” and “specific”—and about Michael Fried, and Wittgenstein, and Cavell, and Johns Hopkins. I guess you were at Johns Hopkins before Hugh Kenner arrived. Kenner was my Michael Fried, the guy who turned my “thinking” upside down as an undergraduate. I didn’t study with Kenner, but I read his books. His prose is a bit cranky, but he reads/looks closely. Will have to think about whether or not his writing is philosophical. Kenner introduced me to the great poet/sculptor Ezra Pound. Pound introduced me to Gaudier-Brzeska. Pound wrote his little memoir shortly after Gaudier was killed—and Pound was still writing/thinking about Gaudier in the late Cantos.

    Final sculpture crits/final sculpture Brancasters/final sculpture semantic muddles took place at the Studio School a couple of weeks ago. Garth Evans orchestrates the crits. He does a great job. They’re all and only about sculpture. There wasn’t much direct talk about Abcrit or The Brancaster Chronicles, but several people at the crit knew several of the Abcrit/Brancaster characters. Bruce Gagnier has taken to referring to Alan Gouk as a raging saber-toothed tiger. Bruce takes Alan very seriously. Bruce gave out Xeroxes of Alan’s Hofmann essay late in the semester: that kind of thing doesn’t happen often. I had a print out of Tim Scott’s recent definition of “structure” in my bag during the crit. I almost took it out and read it to everybody, but there was too much blood on the floor by the time the right moment came around. Anyway it was kind of nice thinking of you all in England, and Tim in Sri Lanka, and Harry laughing in Australia, and Carl in Plano, Texas—all participating distantly in the crit.

    Liked by 1 person

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