#84. John Bunker writes on “Sea of Data”, at Unit 3, London

Installation, “Sea of Data”

Some Thoughts on Sea of Data Just Finished at Unit 3 London.

Most abstract artists I know use a digital camera as an archiving tool. Then they jump between social media platforms and websites to upload and promote their decidedly ‘analogue’ endeavours in the fine arts. Some may make a wink or a nod to the digital realm in a title or a blurry right angle or hard edged Day-Glo vertical in an artwork. But what if one starts to put this fast developing epoch defining technology at the very core of the creative process? It is one thing to mimic the look of the screen etc. It is quite another to make the computer the generator of imagery, of colour, of line- and all the other qualities we associate with the realm of abstract ‘painting’.

Ever since the computer’s earliest developments our cultural landscape has been littered with imagery to do with them. In fact there are a welter of cliches that permeate mass culture and high art concerning circuit boards, control panels, surveillance tech and the supposedly numbing effects of our image saturated consumer culture. Of course, recently, we have seen artists work that involves relational aspects of data collection, performative interventions using Twitter or ordering loads of ‘stuff’ on Amazon and dumping it in high-end gallery spaces. But in the idiom of abstract painting and sculpture, what impact could the encroaching digital realm of experience be having upon the production of work and the culture that surrounds that production?

Installation, “Sea of Data”

These are some the questions that come to mind while visiting Sea of Data curated by Simon Pike and showing work by himself Charley Peters and Ian Monroe at Unit 3 in Poplar. It seems that the two powerful art historical drivers at work in this show are systems art and the cooler aspects of pop. Of course there is the original complex nexus of forms of abstract art that have interacted with modernity in general and the utopian thrust behind the rise of the first machine age specifically. But our times are decidedly post industrial, post truth and still pretty much post modern. Systems art, constructivist art, under the rubric of geometric abstraction, have cast long shadows across our new media world view. This whole geometric edifice has seen a real resurgence in interest of late but I believe we are dealing with a new  digital image producing machine that Walter Benjamin could only dream of and for that reason, it is pop’s dalliance with reproductive techniques- either reproducing them in painterly form a la Lichtenstein or using technology linked to photography like screen printing or transferring imagery via solvents re Warhol/ Rauschenberg that feel more relevant here.

foreground: Ian Monroe ‘Bureau’ 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable

But having said that, even with screenprint and solvent transfers we are still aware of the inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies and accidents born of the human hand at work in repetition. It might be even more relevant to move things on  and look at some terminology from the 80’s like ‘simulacra’ for instance. Simulation infers the notion of a clone. It is not a copy that diminishes in quality as much as it is an equally perfect example of an original that can be endlessly reproduced in countless permutations ad infinitum until the very notion of the ‘original’ becomes meaningless. If we combine this idea with Michael Craig-Martin’s simplified inventory of deliriously rescaled and modified images of everyday objects, we may have some more clues as to the nature of Ian Monroe’s collections of sculptural components on show. They at once echo, in their, smart, easy going and machined finish, some of the elegant floor based ‘open’ painted steel sculpture of the 60’s. But at the same time they seem to have been compiled by random selections from the shelves of an upmarket online stationary warehouse. In fact all the  work here, in different ways, reference the screen based process of designing components. But Monroe suggests in the sculptural layout in the space, a sort of ongoing process of arrangement and refinement. Some of the components then go on to infer the ubiquitous furniture of office spaces and work stations that are built around the screen and facilitate the deep and unremitting engagement with it. Afloat within the arrangements are strangely outsized renditions of office equipment like the paper clip (a la Craig Martin) or the pen holder, the multi coloured tags of a filing system (very 20th century!) and of course, the ‘Sim Card’.

Ian Monroe ‘Dossier’ 2017, Mixed Media, 42cm x 36cm x 5.5cm

I think its fair to say that the work here in Sea of Data does not see abstraction and figuration as mutually exclusive categories. It gets more slippery when we start to talk about representations of abstractions. Maybe one has to ask why abstract approaches to painting seem particularly partial to invoking , flirting with, or in a way representing imagery from the screen? And if the screen is the main interest of the artists then why not make the work to be seen on one? Why transfer these representations of what we might associate with screen based imagery into ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’?

(left to right) Charley Peters ‘Fixed Time | Fluid Space’ 2017, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Aluminium, 50cm x 60cm x 2cm; and Simon Pike ‘Torrent’ 2017, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Panel, 80cm x 60cm

In terms of sculpture, to transform a screen based image into a ‘real thing’ in three dimensions still has a certain kind of primal magic about it just like the simple surrealist trick of turning the tiny and mundane into a marauding giant. The ‘thingness’ of the object- it’s reality as an object- takes the emphasis away from the issues of ‘representations’ and into the arena of uncanny physical presences- a process of alienation that has a long history in Modernism- and with the rise of these new reproductive technologies- has a particular new found aura right now. But I think it is quite different with painting. Modernist preoccupations with the hunting down of painting to a set of essential material properties, left a huge realm of visual opportunities writhing in its shadow. As a linguistic game of historical echoes, it is interesting to place the title of this show ‘Sea of Data’ against an influential American show from 1989 called ‘A Forest of Signs.’ One of the main premises of ‘A Forest of Signs’ was that the artists selected were the first generation to have ‘grown up’ with the day to day influence of television. But instead of photography and television being the harbingers of education and truth, the selected artists focused on these mediums as arch manipulators of information and emotion. Of course, now personal computers, Iphones and the high speed relaying and dissemination of digital images have taken this idea to a whole new level. We have moved on from dark and densely packed claustrophobic spaces of televisual signs and hardware to a sense of visual drifting on currents, eddies and waves of digital imagery and a much clearer fixation on the individual’s relationships with the screen- screens which are flat- screens which are mobile, wireless and super-connected, which can summon almost any kind of representation of any ‘thing’ from it’s unimaginably complex networks of data. But we will always have one eye open on what may lurk beneath these digital oceans. If we choose to dive deep what can this realm tell us about ourselves? Figuration has been constantly re-invigorated first by photography and now digital imagery of the body and beyond. But what about abstract art? It was artists like Halley, Goldstein and others from the Neo-Geo/Appropriation generation who forced abstract tendencies in art into new relationships with reality and with representations of that reality.

(left to right)  Charley Peters “Structured Content [BLKWHTPNKYLLW]” 2017, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Canvas, 50cm x 40cm. and
“Free Falling Through Time + Space” 2017, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Paper, 42cm x 54cm

Can the realm of the digital medium, when it is brought to bear on abstract painting and its histories, create new messages? And if so, what might those messages be? Both ‘painter’s ‘ here  invoke the idea of floating or immersion, and deny the gravitational aspects of paint’s materiality but they achieve this effect in very different ways. Peters’ long term interests in the history of geometric abstraction is countered by a will to atomise it, to turn it into a realm of seductive images and layers. Some infer cage like structures that block out what might lay beneath. In “Aggregate_Locality”, 2017, we’re reminded of those pixelated blocks that hide a face or some other body part in some hard hitting documentary. This atomisation of the picture plane is achieved by the use of spray paint and one is strangely reminded of the pulsating pearlescent pigments of some of Olitski’s more extreme colourfield works. But Peters’ goes some way in undermining the Modernist assertion of the picture surface. Illusion and materiality are held in a kind of suspended animation. It is interesting to note that we associate the idea of algorithms with modern day search engines and data collection but algorithms have been around for thousands of years and inform many foundational geometric underpinnings of picture making. I’d be very interested to see how her work on more complex algorithmic configurations would function on a much larger, immersive scale.

Simon Pike ‘Breach’ 2017, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Panel, 80cm x 60cm x 3cm

It is interesting that digital technology has produced such powerful manipulators of visual experience. The world of CGI, for example, has transformed the science fiction genre in film. Ever since its literary inception science fiction has become ever more entwined with science fact and modernity in general, with a particular penchant for apocalyptic narratives, on the whole, being the order of the day. And it is Pike’s work that brings a darker edginess to the show. Influenced by the design aspects of the latest breed of sc-fi block busters as well as the sinuous line of the early modernism of Art Nouveau , Pike uses intricately cut stencils to layer imagery that are interpenetrated with gridded formats that relate explicitly to the construction of digital imagery on a screen. Where Peters’ dissolves her surfaces and breaks them up with bright but cool colour planes, Pike builds up complex webs of striated paint. They at once create a dense and tactile surface but with rhythmic high key colour sequences, caught in a decisive whiplash line, and alive with the seductive energy and glow of the screen. The results are both hypnotic and visceral.

Simon Pike’s curation has managed to articulate an original play of historical precedents. Young artists against new media and old mediums against new messages. Sleek and sophisticated, yes, but with huge potential for real and darker bite.


  1. OMG, Abcrit gets DWDK!*

    Who knew that office stationary supplies were THE hot issue for abstract art? And only twenty years after they became superfluous in the paperless society. Of course, the trick is to make your redundant in-trays, analogue desk-tops and sundry bits of architectural metalwork line up across the floor – in a LINE! That’s sticking it to them. Very nearly punk! Add on the nostalgia factor for the over-45s and you have something that as near as damn it looks every bit the same as everything else.

    To quote John: “As a linguistic game of historical echoes, it is interesting to place the title of this show ‘Sea of Data’ against an influential American show from 1989 called ‘A Forest of Signs.’

    Allow me to quote myself in reply: “This game that you play… is that very game that Brancaster changes… What Brancaster does is hand back to the individual participating artist the absolute responsibility for every last thing that they do in their art, and every last thing that they think regarding why they are doing what they do. Brancaster takes away the game of excuses by artistic precedent.”

    I’ll stand by that, thank you very much, despite the opprobrium it brought down. This review is a fulsome effort at pandering to a middle-aged, middle-class version of what is fashionable, and nothing looks more out-of-date.

    *(Down wiv da kids)

    P.S. I was rather sorry to see the rigorously systematic painting of Charley Peters sullied with spray paint, even if “one is strangely reminded of the pulsating pearlescent pigments of some of Olitski’s more extreme colourfield works”, which I wasn’t, and I don’t like anyway, but hey, what do I know? But it would be interesting to hear from Charley in person again.

    P.P.S. I guess painting systems stuff can get real boring?


  2. After that giant curled turd of a comment you have the balls to go onto twitter and ask for a discussion? Wow! Sometimes, Robin, your lack of adventure and intellectual curiosity is astounding! John asked a few great questions here: “Can the realm of the digital medium, when it is brought to bear on abstract painting and its histories, create new messages?” and “…one has to ask why abstract approaches to painting seem particularly partial to invoking , flirting with, or in a way representing imagery from the screen? And if the screen is the main interest of the artists then why not make the work to be seen on one? Why transfer these representations of what we might associate with screen based imagery into ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’?” Maybe we can start there… If not I’ll keep my mouth shut and tell John that he’s made a real effort to get out of his comfort zone with this essay. And isn’t that what an artist’s job description demands. Well done, John.


    1. Thank you so much, Mark. Do carry on… say what you like. Why, indeed? Why transfer banal content from various media over to painting and sculpture? I have no idea. You tell us.
      I’d only offer the point at this stage in the exciting discussion that is about to ensue that painting and sculpture are not, and never were, about creating “messages”.

      Is the content here outside anyone’s comfort zone? Hardly. This kind of literal and diagrammatic stuff has done the rounds since the sixties. Where is progress in that?


  3. Thanks, Robin! But let’s unpack this first and put it aside to get on with things. You have stated you wanted abcrit to be about discussion, and I would think that discussion should be of a lot of different issues that face a lot of different artists. OK, you’re not particularly interested in this Modernist era, that’s fine, but shutting down the conversation or being rude to one of your own who has taken the time to write something interesting about something that’ isn’t so interesting to you is hardly helpful to finding a discussion.

    Usually I would refrain from these things because 8 out of 10 times we get extended dialogs about what is or isn’t Art and it all works it way back to Greenbergian theoretics. And that too is fine. But the point of being an artist, for creating change, for finding difference, is to understand, to use, to work, to change what isn’t Art until it becomes something that may actually be Art. Case in point is your recent work where you brought in new materials, consolidated the form and took them off the floor. Why? Why change anything if you’re happy with those ideas?

    Younger artists are involved in the world around them just as you were when you were young. And they have a different experience of life and culture. You participate in this world nearly everyday, and it’s hard to believe that you have nothing to say about it in your work. You use photography extensively. Was this part of the reason for the changes you made to your work? Were you seeing it differently from the lenses/jpgs? Did you change parts of the work from the look on your iPhone screen? When you post these images on twitter or instagram what is it that you’re seeing – the work or your image of the work? And if you are experiencing these sorts of questions then how does it relate to your Late Neo-Modern ideals – does it change your process and your materials? Just wondering out loud – OK enough of that…

    As for your comment about “messages” – maybe that’s not the perfect word for what John was trying to say – in which case I’ll let him clarify. But much of Western Painting has been about ideas and concepts. The Sistine is full of them – don’t take my word for it – just google. Maybe what John is expressing is that great art can be more than just the enjoyment of color, form and composition. It can be about “messages” – Why can’t we have painting, particularly abstraction, that moves beyond a formalist doctrine? Why shouldn’t we look at the electronic world and how it affects the way we see, changes how we understand things? Why not take not the banal images of abstraction that come across our screens and try to find out why they are banal, why there’s a glut of these banal images? Maybe in doing so we can get to something interesting.

    Really Robin, the snark does not suit your ambitions – glass houses and all that. Let’s see if anyone else joins in. If not we can continue on if you like, there’s a lot to discuss. That’s up to you.


  4. I think that John Bunker has done a fine job – as always, because his writing is invariably relevant to the subject, clear and lucid – of describing that these artists are doing, or think they are doing. The problem as I see it is that the artists themselves aren’t doing much other than trying to be relevant in a world that is for the most part experienced by way of “screens”. So they make art that refers in various ways to screens – including as John points out, making sculpture out of “work stations” that are centered on computer monitor screens. What the artists don’t do is attempt to ask what is a screen in the first place, and because they don’t do that, they create work that has political pretensions (because the work needs to convey a “message”- meaning that it has to persuade the viewer of something rather than, as modernist works do if they are successful, convince; conviction is not so much an epistemological concept as a religious one, having to do with faith rather than belief) but fails to take a decisive political position. (Taking a position would involve deciding, but in post-modernism, nothing is decidable; you can decide to see things that way.) What is a “screen”? We have movie screens, on which something is projected and therefore revealed, and we have barrier screens like fences, which serve to screen something out and therefore exclude and block access. The screens that surround us in the so-called digital age are mostly monitors of some sort or another. Their function is neither to reveal nor to block but to monitor and what is monitored are events; events are happenings, movements that interrupt stasis, or noises that interrupt silence by destroying it (and then allowing it to be restored).


  5. I really like your idea of surveillance, Carl. If we are “caught,” if we are constantly monitored then how does that affect how we see and what we understand? Most Americans spend 10 hours a day online moving through the net, and as they do they are captured by the programs that run beneath the images, news, business and entertainment. For instance I saw this video the other day which brings your idea of monitoring into focus.

    And you are right about the continuation of Postmodern theoretics in the work pictured above. It’s hard to comment because I’ve not actually seen this work. But in the photos it’s obvious to me that the images that have been pulled from the screen are somehow not fully formed in the real world. They are images of abstraction, abstractions of abstraction that are being made into image objects. These images can no longer move with the programs that generated them, they no longer exist in that space. And they do not easily settle into being physical objects on the wall – and I can bet this appropriation is a tough thing to pull off convincingly. I think John’s idea – “It was artists like Halley, Goldstein and others from the Neo-Geo/Appropriation generation who forced abstract tendencies in art into new relationships with reality and with representations of that reality…” is instructive. In other words we are still trying to decide what is real, what is reality in a world formed by systems and programs, and how do we understand and use those images, what do they mean and how do we paint that?


  6. Mark,
    I’ll ignore the sermon on my character. Water off a duck’s back. But still, I give you the chance to state your case. It’s not looking like a good one. You have to pick up these fragile-looking issues in this work and this essay and run with them, if you think they are worth it. Good luck. I’m happy to see others join in, if they wish. But don’t second-guess me. Don’t think you know what I think.

    “Formalism” is a leftover from figuration in much the same way as subject matter is. I have no interest in or use for either. There is no such division in the progressive abstract art that interests me, only content – what the work itself does. In fact, real abstract art denies any chance for such a division to occur.

    Your world view – and probably John’s too – is rather bound up with images and their metaphorical meanings (delivered by colour and form, etc.). But if you took the time to think about abstract sculpture for a moment, and the necessity for it to explore the limits of three-dimensionality, you would realise that images can have no bearing on that project. Abstract (?) painters like yourself might just learn something from consideration of that issue. What does it mean to work without images or messages or metaphors? How does one find meaning elsewhere, in the content… the visual/physical/spatial content that has to provide for itself all the richness and complexity needed to furnish a life of its own? Now there’s a true project for the intellectually curious, not faffing about with stationary supplies (go on, tell me it’s just a metaphor).

    Still… stick with your Snapchat screen images if you will. But I would only repeat that people have been doing this stuff since the sixties, talking the same guff, reeling out the same patter. It comes up in Abcrit every six months. Obviously, it has its attractions. But It goes nowhere.


  7. I think Carl is right. The issue here is not John’s piece, which I welcome, but the attempts of visual artists worldwide (specifically those aspiring towards painting and sculpture) to reference and somehow make their work about this astonishingly complex digital age.

    I think it is good to see John writing about art like this on Abcrit, even if some of its status as ‘abstract’ is more than dubious. John is clearly aware of that, and he is probably also aware that there is a lot to be gained from exploring this kind of work on a platform that only looks at it every so often, and it is good to see it getting some traction this time around. Good, because a lot of artists, often ‘abstract’ artists, think that this is the stuff we need to be dealing with. Others, myself included, would for the most part say that you need to keep that stuff out. A lot of artists, young and old, are probably a bit confused, and think that they have to somehow reference technology in the work in order to be or remain relevant. These are all reasons for continuing the discussion. It could be quite helpful.

    For starters, I wouldn’t want to see a situation where every artist out there is pursuing the kind of non-referential art that peaks my interest. Symbols and messages have been around a long time and don’t look like vanishing anytime soon. They can also be quite interesting, however, the Sistine Chapel remains an outstanding feat of human achievement regardless of all the biblical storytelling and symbols that Michelangelo weaved into it (inevitably so because of where and when it was painted), symbols and meanings that probably mean nothing or very little to the millions who still flock to see it. It survives because it is simply extraordinary.

    Whilst some may say we have become as religious towards technology as people once were to God, that doesn’t make it any more necessary to acknowledge technology in art as it would be to paint a crucifix today, or even paint on one, or make a sculpture out of it. Often when I encounter painting or sculpture that strives to be about the digital age, I will spare a thought for artists who actually work with screens, and are constantly trying to deal with the changing technology, trying to reconcile it with older programs or equipment that is already dated, and more often than not having their work severely compromised by the conditions of the venue it is screened in, as they try to give their work the best possible shot at expressing all the other stuff that is important to them. For them, the technology is not the deified content but the tangible and at times frustrating reality (but usually the content too, by default) .

    I also wonder what video game designers, the technicians who design all this evolving software, hackers and intelligence agencies would make of the rather hilariously quaint offerings of the visual artists whose digital knowledge often extends no further than the social media platforms they use to promote their work. In comparison it all looks like a form of folk art.

    This isn’t to say that art cannot attempt to address the conditions of this ever changing world, and indeed use it to your advantage! I seem to recall Alex Harley saying in her recent Brancaster that she’d been experimenting with 3D printing. Charley Peters’ work, whilst being hugely removed from my own particular focus, seems to have a tremendous attention to its surface/paint quality. I’m sure there are loads of instances of art, even abstract art that embraces these developments of the modern world whilst managing to give precedence to the form over the circumstances. An open mind is essential, it’s why the technology exists at all. But neither should we be so naive as to assume that because something says it is relevant that it is necessarily so.

    I recently had the great misfortune of seeing ‘Bladerunner 2049’. It’s jam packed with dystopian predictions about drones, data storage, artificial intelligence and autonomy, virtual reality, all to the backdrop of global warming and world famine. Everything you’d want, right? Urgent filmmaking? Except it really really sucked. Not even with all that money were they able to decisively approach and deal with the great moral questions of our time.


  8. I see that Herbie Hancock is still performing on electronic keyboards, big loud ones now, despite the fact that he sounds much better on a Bosendorfer or Steinway. His duets with Chick Corea on Piano are fab. The pressure to push technology is commercially driven, and to reach a large polyglot and undescrimihating audience. Why make it “what their work is about”? That’s just silly 😛.


  9. All good, but we await traction with the big issues. John is very good at this, saying stuff that seems real tasty, but in true post-modern style remains ambiguous. Harry has restated the case for airing the issues… let’s get on with it. What are they? Otherwise, it’s all weasel words.

    Sorry Harry, but I think “This isn’t to say that art cannot attempt to address the conditions of this ever changing world” is meaningless. You cannot get around the fact that it is the art that needs addressing, as painting or sculpture. We need more Descrimihation!


  10. When I said “This isn’t to say that art cannot attempt to address the conditions of this ever changing world” I meant just that. It is free to attempt these things, but that will not guarantee relevancy, and will most probably ensure that the art work becomes irrelevant in the future. The other aspect of what I meant is that where new technologies like 3D printing become available, and if it interests you, by all means give it a go, but in the hope of discovering some kind of content that is not tedious and all bound up in itself. Can the novelty be overcome?

    The issue here is whether or not it is possible to meaningfully talk about digital technology in art. I suspect not, at least for advanced painting and sculpture, where I believe imagery and therefore reference has become redundant. Other mediums that use modern technology are clearly more capable, and hopefully not as an end unto themselves.

    It’s worth airing. More descrimihatred!


    1. What I meant was that you have to qualify the phrase “This isn’t to say that art cannot attempt to address the conditions of this ever changing world” with the only possible corollary, that “then, such art would no longer be abstract.” Which is fine, abstract art is not for everyone. I would say that the art in this show is not abstract, though it’s debatable in the case of the painting, if you are so inclined. Certainly the “sculpture” is not abstract. Doesn’t that need saying?


      1. Certainly. The only work here that appears to be abstract are those by Peters, but the repros are pretty small. It’s telling that it is so often work that claims to have something to do with being abstract that simultaneously clings onto a figurative connection to the internet. Fear of irrelevancy I think, and a misunderstanding/underestimation of personal expression.


  11. It’s a bit like the claim that photography superseded painting at the end of the 19 th century. Whereas in fact it has taken photography over a hundred years to catch up with what a painter 👩‍🎨 like James Tissot was able to imagine in 1874. His The Ball on Board Ship (Tate Gallery) has an equal sharpness of focus from foreground to remote depth that only recent advances in digital technology have been able to emulate in photography. And what can be generated on screen is subject to what a manipulator can imagine. And in that, painters are far ahead. I’ve cited it before. Take a look at the painting in Valencia’s museum of modern art by Matta. Cartoonish it may be, but it foretells Pixar animated imagery by 60 years.
    Painting and the screen are not in competition with one another for any prizes worth having.


  12. Or look at Matta’s Burn baby, Burn , 1956 in the Los Angeles County Museum, and compare it with what Koons and Stella are digitising now. Is that really where you think painting is at?

    County Museum


      1. Hi Robin – I’ve tried to post twice – not coming up on the site! Lets see if this goes through! Here’s a C&P of the last one – talk about big issues!!!

        I’d like to continue with Carl’s idea about screens, because I think this is important. Because of my day job I spend most all of my time online. What begins to happen for me is that the information and images that I come across have no space at all – I am constantly looking AT things. I “exist” in many countries in many situations all at once. The images and information sort of fold over into themselves like churning a meringue. Images are arbitrary they don’t fill a screen. They do not “breathe” like a good painting does. George Hofmann saw this problem as fractured space and began to explore how that might work in making and viewing painting, or more properly, the non-space that was beginning to modify our behavior to vision. In addition unlike painting with a screen there is no surface, no ground for any of this to form on. We look at a glassine sheet, a lens if you like. Images aren’t made – they appear through the program and they are constantly generating through time until you hit the next link. And I think that is what these artists are trying to get at in the imagery.

        You’re right Robin, these are mostly banal abstractions, but that banality defines the world online. When you’re translating a painting from a screen shot or a jpg you are essentially capturing one moment in a running program. The image is leveled and made the same, one thing becomes exactly like another – if the program is not running, creating time, there is no visual rhythm in the image. The problem remains how does this kind of “still life” find visual life in the real world? There are many artists working this idea at the moment Petra Cortright, Mark Horowitz, Laura Owens, Richard Prince, etc. This translation of imagery has real physical consequences. What happens to these images of images once they are made physical? Do they, Can they be paintings, sculptures, Art? These artists may be trying to find out what that means both through imagery and through physicality and they should be allowed and encouraged to try. Painting is fighting to remain relevant and real in this new culture. Make no mistake – we are once again looking down the barrel of lens based irrelevance.

        One of the most startling visions that I found when I first came to NYC was to see a Mondrian in person for the first time. I was surprised at how different the physical object was from the reproductions I had seen. The paint was thick, the colors more muted, the edges and sides just funky and worked. None of this physical material translated in the reproduction – it was flat and blocky in photos. The lens does what it does, the reproduction doubles down and the online program does away with space, light, air, and time. To use Alan’s new word – the program discrimihates the physical object. And I think for painters like Christopher Wool who attack the reproduction, that physical attack on the reproduction is a way to reassert the physical nature of painting and paint.

        Carl’s idea about surveillance is really interesting as well. If one is surveilled, if one is tracked and coopted into the program, into the non-space of the program, then how does one see? As painters I would think that the freedom to see what we want and need to see if paramount. If every image coming your way is attuned to you, to your particular search history or buying patterns then how can one see? How much does one’s own choices determine what one actually sees online or anywhere else for that matter? Does Robin get ads for scrap metal yards? Does Alan get cut rate ads for gallons of acrylic paint? What I think Carl is insinuating is that game has already been determined by the programs and the images that we come across will never really be our own. But I’ll leave it to him to elucidate.


  13. I’m off to a long lunch. Not long enough to make it over to Unit 3, but I hope to get to two Hauser and Wirth productions: a Gorky show (Gorky was a friend of Matta’s), and what seems to be an early David Smith show of some kind. The visits will be more fun thanks to John’s article and the comments. Doubt I’ll come back blaming ALL the problems in the world on The Figure though. . .


  14. I think what we are trying to get at is not necessarily the technology, but what the technology does. How it affects us, what it does to us, how it changes our understanding of the world and our place in it. I’m sure you’ve noticed these changes.

    When photography first came to painting in the the 19th Century it changed everything. I would think that this is a given – especially for painters. It was a new technology that democratized lenses and the images from those lenses. Painters had to find a way to present that new reality and they did so by using photography – extensively. The first real documentation of this change is in Delacroix’s journals when he wrote about his famous dinner party. Alexi Worth wrote a wonderful essay on the discussion and the implications to painting and Art that followed. The point is aren’t we being presented with a similar opportunity right now? There is a change to how we use our vision and what we expect it to do. We are in competition with online imagery and we had better understand it if we want to remain relevant in art or we just continue to be bauble makers for rich douche bags.

    Even Cezanne – the god of Abcrit – was awash in photographic source material and his use of those images in his work can not be swept aside. The road to abstraction is paved with 19th Century technologies. The trouble is the world has a truckload of new ways to make lens based imagery work. I think Robin is right about sculpture – it exists – physically – which makes the idea of abstraction or abstract form solid in space. In painting since Greenberg at least – we’ve had the surface and the process as the road to abstraction – doing away with the 19th century technologies. But since the 1960s we have been deluged in images – without context or meaning. So as painters what on earth are we trying to get at in our work? Do we redefine space? Do we work with abstract form? Or are the anachronisms and conceits of light and space of another time? Are we forever lost on the surface playing the same process games over and over again? Maybe we should be programmers or at least see the painted object that we make like programmers – which is maybe part of the point of this show and John’s critique.

    None of you can deny that the way we receive imagery and information is irrevocably changed. All one has to do is watch how our programmed societies are operating – how those visions and programs are all economically based, and how those economies have invaded our studio processes. As John says we use these tools to archive, to post, to communicate and all of this innocent “business” is actually shutting down difference. I would argue that if we are to ever have an avant garde again this is the most pressing issue that we will have to confront.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. That does look like an interesting article on Manet – I will read it.

    But, a couple of big BUTS:
    All the artists you cite are figurative – Petra Cortright, Mark Horowitz, Laura Owens, Richard Prince. As too are Manet and Cezanne. That makes a difference. (Need I say that the first four are also bloody awful?)

    You have not addressed the issue of abstract art not being about images. Maybe you don’t get abstract art? Do you think the work in this show is abstract? Do you think it matters?


  16. Truthfully Robin, I don’t make those distinctions any longer. I know they are important to you but I don’t see the value in it. The culture has swallowed abstract art full throat. And all you have to do to see this is to go to one of those artist emporium sites online. Abstract art is as ubiquitous and accepted as any other kind of art. Abstract Art doesn’t have the value of difference in the culture that it once did. No one is shocked or put off by abstract imagery or abstract processes or things on a surface any longer. In other words abstract painting is part of our Economic Gobal Culture. Millions of dollars in auction dollars move this work through the institutions. In fact abstract art is now the preferred institutional art of our societies, especially since it doesn’t engage us in disagreements of content, though it may be engender disagreements of taste – ie, bloody awful. No one will be confronted by a flapping willie and so we have a safe work space. I don’t find the distinction between abstraction and figuration interesting any longer. For me it’s beside the point.

    But as an aside I will say these kinds of ideas of abstraction, abstract painting and imagery that the artists in this show are trying to address are being explored by artists that are extremely concerned about the physical presence of this kind of imagery in a real space. I will mention my friend Michael Zahn in this context. (We’ve already had a bit of a discussion about his work on twitter.) To see the production quality in the work, what we call the facture of the work, makes the theoretics and the reason for the work absolutely convincing. And Art whether abstract or figurative absolutely HAS to be convincing.

    As for imagery everything now is imagery. Once an “abstract work” is photographed and uploaded it becomes an image and that image determines our interaction with the work – both online and in person. The online world levels everything to images and information. And this facilitates not only communication but transactions of all kinds. For instance Urs Fisher squishes a piece of clay, maps it on the computer, uploads it to a production factory in China and then oversees the project through images and information. In the meantime there are lawyers and businessmen making deals to sell and show the work, money transfers online through bit coin transactions. The artist may then fly around the world to do some business in China and make a personal inspection of the work before it’s flown to a venue to be assembled by a crew that keeps in touch with the artist through FaceTime and email. So what is abstract here – the expansion and transformation of the material, the transactions around the work, the communications involved, etc? Abstraction has become something different in our world and its changed what abstract art actually does.



    1. Mark, as you probably very well know the process of up-scaling a maquette ( ‘squish of clay’ even) to a full sized work has a very long-established history in relation to both stone-carving and bronze-casting. All that computer technology has done is facilitate that process in a different way, it hasn’t changed the fundamental principle. Of course describing the contemporary process with the use of sexy key words like upload and mapping perhaps make it seem different, more relevant, new even. Throw in an exotic physical location (in this case China) for the production of the scaled-up piece and the false impression of a whole new and more dynamic ball-game is complete, With regard to painting I don’t think that screen based technology has changed fundamentals either. Using different/new ways of arriving at a completed work gives no built -in guarantee of either qualitative success or relevance any more than working with traditional media would automatically condemn an artist to a failure of ambition and contemporary irrelevance. Everything hinges on the quality and conviction of the work produced, whatever is driving it. No doubt the computer has opened up possibilities and that is to be welcomed, however, it won’t make the production of abstract art any easier. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of making good abstract art that has led to a rejection of the distinction between the figurative and the abstract? The fashionable embracing of the abandonment of that distinction (in favour of perhaps ‘Figstraction’? ) should not deter would be abstract artists from exploring what the modern world offers but the pitfalls are the same whether you are dabbling with watercolours on paper or a mouse and a monitor.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Hi Terry! Glad you’ve joined in! I totally agree – “Everything hinges on the quality and conviction of the work produced, whatever is driving it.” I also agree that abstract art (or any really good art) is not easy. And you’ve caught me out – I do like talking sexy with contemporary key words!

        But regardless of any of that – what John’s article is discussing are the changes to the world around us. “Figuration has been constantly re-invigorated first by photography and now digital imagery of the body and beyond. But what about abstract art?” Yes exactly – what about abstract art? Shouldn’t these changes in our reality, in how we function in society, factor into the making abstract art? OK here’s a very obvious example – Newman and Rothko asked this kind of question back in the 1940s. They both claimed that it was impossible to paint figures or still lifes after the atomic bomb. Isn’t this a technology objectively changing the focus of painting? Yes, I know – nothing changed in the real world, but for those artists it changed how they approached and thought about their art.

        So on a different stage of history – How does one paint in the face of constant communication, constant surveillance, the constant flow of economic society, all of it non-physical, unreal, but all pervasive? Any of us can discount this in any way that we like, but these things have real consequences in the real world. They are visibly available to us. A couple of examples that might bring in Carl’s observations above – all machines are controlled and control in the same way. Your car, if it’s new, is more than likely computerized and connected. Right now there is a new store in Washington state being developed by Amazon that has done away with cashiers – soon to be deployed across the US. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5EsCcUqMQ At the link the company says that they use something called “computer vision” – and for an artist that paints – I want to know what the fuck that is and how it affects and changes our vision.

        We are allowed just a glimpse of this power through the screens and programs that we live with and carry with us. Isn’t that a subject worth examining, a subject worth painting? Abstract or Figurative or Figstraction who cares? A new world is coming into focus. I take art and painting very seriously, and I think it has a responsibility to understand our culture and to push art history forward. I believe that this moment isn’t a time for nostalgia, but a time for innovation and I’m willing to look for it anywhere.

        And again I’m not saying the literal translation of what is on view on our screens will do this. I’m saying we need to examine the differences in our thinking and how we see the world around us. I don’t want to deter anyone, any artist, from following their inspirations. My tastes, after all, are catholic. If something is good – I can get past myself to see it. But that doesn’t preclude the fact that I believe we spend too much time looking backwards, making small adjustments to old dogma. Yes, use ABEX, absolutely, but make it relevant, take into account the nearly 70 years since its acceptance, understand and use the history, but also have a hard look around at the world we exist in. Make it new – as Pound said.

        And in these times, I apologize to you Terry, for those “inappropriate” sexy key words. I don’t mean to offend.


  17. Due to Australia’s cheapskate and incompetent government, internet connection in this country remains very much figurative.


    Mark, the greater the account you give of our relationship to screens and images, the more I feel as though very little has changed. You talk about how much thicker and evident the paint is in Mondrian when you encounter it at the museum than when you see it on a screen or in a book. Loads of Australian painters who were doing hard edge abstract stuff in the late 60s and 70s will tell you that when the Americans saw their work they were stunned at how tight it was. The Aussies had been looking at all the stuff as plates in books, not realising how many imperfections there were in the flesh. Okay, so it contributes something that could be seen as a unique take, but all in all you’d have to say it’s a case of an over-reliance on technology leading people astray.

    Little has changed, there’s just more of this stuff to lure people into thinking that they have seen something when really they haven’t. What remains important is that artists make the effort to actually go and see stuff. Physical effort, in and outside the studio is paramount.

    Humans are very good at creating obstacles for themselves. We put up barriers and screens so as not to actually confront the reality of what another human being has done. Remote viewing is a problem, and I think it’s probably necessary for artists and curators to think of ways to discourage that. But even for those who do attend the show, how often will you see people lunge for a catalogue or a list of prices, or head straight for the booze, just to postpone or put up a screen between themselves and something that might actually reach them. In museums, people spend more time reading the plaques than looking at the paintings, and then they just snap it on their phones. Box ticked. Another screen erected between the individual and the world. That is not something to make work about. That is something to utterly challenge and overcome. Art, when it is clear and not shrouded in sarcasm or desperate attempts to be understood, provides a moment where you actually feel connected to the world, as you observe another person’s attempts to make sense of it. That is why abstract painting and sculpture can remain relevant, because it doesn’t need the repellant baggage. Rather than it needing to be “confronting”, it is how we actually connect with other people, which is one of the hardest things we can ever do as human beings. Pandering to our most basic compulsions to shut out and repel experience is not the way to go.

    P.S. The real issue if we want to get real about it, is that all this data surveillance is diabolically pervasive, and no amount of avant-gardism is about to stop it. That’s what social movements are for. It’s a human rights issue.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Harry, I do agree – it is a human rights issue. Again I’m saying that we do not have to use the images we find online – though many artists do and that’s the choice of the artists – I’m saying use the ideas, the theoretics behind those images to understand what our vision is becoming, how its changing how we see and what we see. The early Modern painters confronted their challenge and we need to do the same.

      That’s very interesting about the Aussies and I think Robert Hughes made a similar observation in one of his essays – that in the 50s and 60s Aussie painters were getting their ideas about contemporary culture through reproductions etc. (do you see this work, is it interesting, does it begin new dialogs or bring new ideas to those times?) Alas, I think that remote viewing is the predominate way we experience art these days. For those of us who can’t afford to follow the fairs, catch all the shows, etc., it’s the only way to stay current and involved. And incidentally this is how business is done, how shows come about, how art is exchanged, how ideas are broached.

      But I do disagree with your idea of what work should be about. Work can be about anything the artist would want it to be about. That is freedom. If the artist wants to examine an idea that human beings care more about snapping a photo than actually seeing something then hats off to them. What matters is if the work is visually exciting, if it has resonance as Art. As for repellant baggage – I like, very much so, Caravaggio’s work and Tintoretto’s Titian’s Michelangelo’s etc. There are myriads of ways to connect to people and sometimes those experience may be awful but great as well.

      Sorry about the Aussie internet – I feel your pain – Time Warner/Spectrum sucks!


      1. Mark,

        I saw some examples of this work just last week at the National Gallery of Australia. Artists like David Aspden, Sydney Ball and John Coburn were on display. Not only is this work super tight, but extremely flat and opaque. It would seem that the thin washes of paint that give a luminosity to much work from the 60s was not really coming across in reproduction. The saturation of colour achieved by Hoyland for example, may have been mistaken for thick, smooth flat paint rather than numerous washes. The legacy of this work seems to be a continued interest in geometric abstraction in this country amongst numerous groups of artists, some being steadfastly committed to it. However, many of today’s artists revere Malevich as some kind of demigod, and in my opinion mistakenly believe that making geometric abstract work in twenty first century Australia somehow makes it about Russia and social upheaval. Pull the other one!

        I read the essay you linked about Manet. It was very interesting, and I rather think it supports much of what I stated above. By all means use these tools (who doesn’t btw?), but understand too that the strength of Manet’s art also stems from his involvement with painting’s own rich history. Worth writes…

        “Manet’s manner of depiction, however, was not uniform; it was instead flamboyantly variable. This inconsistency, as much as the presence of errors themselves, distinguished Manet from his Salon rivals. “The strange thing,” Castagnary wrote, “is that Manet is as soft as he is hard.” Other critics shared this bafflement over Manet’s “inequality of execution,” his singular unevenness, the way he shifts from “slip-shod” to “well-handled” passages, the way he “pleases and displeases at once.” (23) The key point, though, is that in this respect Manet’s paintings were more like the traditional paintings he admired. Titian, the artist Manet emulated most often, is perhaps the most strikingly capricious of the old masters, capable of shifting–as he does in the Fete Champetre , for example–from the foreground’s superb naturalism to a casual, almost careless handling of background vignettes. (24) The odd sketchiness of the Espada bullfight, of the Dejeuner ‘s rear bather and of so many of Manet’s foreground/background disparities, may well have been intended as a reversion to this kind of hierarchical attentiveness. Manet may have seen incorrectness in specifically historical terms: as a form of archaism, a return to the variability of prephotographic painting.

        Manet’s prolific and puzzling allusions to earlier art (to Titian and Raimondi, to Velazquez, Goya, Murillo, van Dyck, Chardin, Watteau and others) make sense as emblems of a kind of conservatism, as efforts to cast his painting’s dissident facture as not new, but old. If that’s true, the three chief hallmarks of Manet’s early style–frontal lighting, variable facture and historicism–were elements of a single polemic, a polemic whose target was the postphotographic naturalism of the Salon. We tend to think of Manet as subverting tradition, but, in fact, he may have been trying to defend it in the face of photography’s ascendancy.”

        Doesn’t this strengthen the case for in the flesh viewing of abstract painting and sculpture that is made intuitively, on the spot and in response to the unique behaviour of the material(s)? The challenge is to make great art, and I think it rather vague to reel off the notion that art can “be about anything”, and that it’s how it’s done that counts. That kind of freedom is also oppressive. It’s what we currently have and it’s going no-where.


  18. This is not the cuddly teddy bear I know as Robin Greenwood. It must be a sinister online fabrication!? It must be a Russian bot sent direct from the Kremlin to cause a disruptive rise in bad feeling, extremist views on tech in art and spread fake news about the 1960s and 1980s…..

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Some terrific and intelligent comments from Harry and Terry. I suspect, Mark, that you won’t be taking them on board any time soon. Maybe you should? Maybe you should get out more? Turn off the computer?

    I’m going to quote myself again, I’m afraid – bad form, I know.
    “…art of the highest order acts (often inadvertently, but no less pointedly) in part as an analytical critique of the accepted norms of contemporary taste, and not as a co-opter of them.”

    Of course, you are quite free, Mark, to take no interest in the attempt by some to make high-order art that gets beyond what is trivial and fashionable in contemporary life. But I think on the whole your interesting ideas have been put to the sword here.

    And if you are intent on promoting idiots like Urs Fisher as role models for young artists to aspire to, then you are guilty of being highly irresponsible. But then, you are real clever, and you won’t actually ever say what you really think about any of this stuff. You only throw it out as a smokescreen of intellectual fog.

    Yours truly,


    1. Seriously, Vlad. I truly worry for you at times. Everything is in black and white, either you’re with me or agin’ me. You’re like my Aunt Rose – suspiciously looking over her tea cup and daring me to pick up the macaroon. Ok then – it’s yummy!

      I am not promoting anything like Urs Fisher. I am however pointing it out. I also understand why he’s important to those in power. And so do you. I know you secretly google this stuff if for no other reason than to get that cranky old guy juice flowing in your veins…

      And again I have not actually seen the show. I am looking at the photos and reading John’s thoughts about it. How can I judge in the first person? Have you seen it? I doubt it. But if you insist – I don’t care for the paper clip. I think the Caro computer station needs some more thought. I think the work on the walls is competent, but not ground breaking. As for a real discussion about facture, color, light, value, volume, space whatever – these pics do not cut it. I can comment on the photos themselves if you like (they suck by the way), but I don’t think that is the art. It’s unfair to be that judgmental in my evaluation of these works from something that I haven’t seen or can not see. This discussion has been about the ideas and issues that John brought up in his essay.

      What I will say is that these artists need to think more about the issues and questions that John elucidated and they need to develop their ideas accordingly. A few more long discussions in cafes or coffee houses or whatever place they hang needs to happen. Try out a few thoughts, etc. This is one show – and one show is not a finality. It’s not up to me to discourage these artists – I too am an artist and I want them to succeed, just as I want you to succeed. Not black, not white – see?

      And really – stop quoting yourself and drink your tea already…. I’m still alive and kicking.

      Love and Kisses,
      Your adoring nephew


  20. I agree absolutely with Harry Hay on Manet. James Tissot, Whistler and Manet all come out of the same set of background influences and studio practices, and Tissot, like Matisse came from a family that traded in fabrics, silks, and Islamic patterned materials. But , partially influenced by Ingres, he developed a seamless trompe l’oeil fastidiousness of well nigh photographic precision, in which you do not see the paint unless you look up really close, and then what you see is a complex set of skills to suppress the fact of paint. The Marquis of Miramon and family (Musee D’Orsay) is a masterpiece of this genre. This is the turning point. Manet reveals a franker sense of paints materiality, and the fact that we do not see with near photographic exactitude equally across the entire presented image. Hence his blurring of backgrounds and shifting viewpoints. And then Monet took this further, outdoing him in the great Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, where we see firm form creating brushstrokes forming “dress” before we see the fabric the dress is made of (a Tissot specialty). And so on…..Painting is still concerned with what we actually see , or can see, with both eyes open in face of the real world out of the window and especially away from the screen.
    Meanwhile the museums have become the custodians of a cabinet of curiosities of virtual reality, the very trend the Impressionists turned their backs on when leaving the Louvre behind. Manet faces both ways of course, and that makes him a subject of eternal fascination. Perhaps the first time the electric light bulb appears in painting is in The Bar at the Folies Bergeres. Does this make him a technocrat? Of course not. Does it make him more “relevant” than Monet or Cezanne.? Of course not. Get away from that screen and get a life.


    1. Hi Alan! What is it with you guys and screens and get a life? I’ve seen the lengthy debates here on abcrit. You must be plastered to your computer typing furiously for hours on end. You might just take that accusing pointing finger and turn it around on yourself.

      Look, we are trying to find new forms, new experiences of painting. You are an old master. You’ve been involved in making abstract paintings for decades, you came up when abstraction was still anathema to most people and to most artists – especially in GB. I applaud your bravery and your resolve. You have earned your work, your place and our respect and admiration. But things are different today. We have other issues, other responsibilities to painting and to vision. I know there are things we can learn from you, but I dare say you may learn from us. That’s how it goes.

      George Hofmann is an older artist who involved himself in current issues facing abstract painting and it changed his work and his attitudes towards vision. It’s astounding and inspiring really. He never once said anything like “…you kids get off my lawn!” He got involved in the conversation. Here’s a link to George’s short essay on the subject – http://www.georgehofmann.com/fractured-space – I would pay money to see a real discussion between you and John if both were amenable – about these issues and how they might impact painting and vision – and I’m not talking about a fight, but a real thoughtful exploration of this time and these technologies and their impact on us. Younger artists would be thrilled I would bet on it. Maybe Robin could set that up – live facebook it or something like that, then brancaster it or podcast it. Use the technologies – Just a thought for Robin, excuse me, Vlad, to sneer at…


  21. Yes indeed. I’m off to do some welding with my MIG welder, a piece if technology that allows me to make certain junctions between pieces of metal in a way earlier types of welding wouldn’t. However, I shall not be making an image of my MIG welder. That would be a (rather nifty and 60’s type) piece of conceptual art. Maybe that’s where you are at, Mark – maybe you are a conceptual artist. How is the painting going, by the way? You have surely talked yourself out of it by now.


  22. I thought this morning with a fresh mind I could read all the comments written above, but I just able to scan them. So forgive me if I appear off topic or redundant. I will jump in with a few thoughts that I think are relevant. I believe the art world has fallen off the rails many times over the last hundred or so years.None of this stuff in the show that John has reviewed is really new. Several experiences have kept me on track, which implies that going off the track on occasion is maybe a necessary part of the process as long as you keep looking for the essential in painting, which for me is embodied in the experiences I will now describe.The first experience that reinforced something as being central in art was the viewing of a painting by Hsei Kuei or Xa Gui,southern Sung, at the Nelson Atkins Gallery in KC Missouri. I was taking a class in the history of Chinese art and wanted to write about a certain painting by the above artist for my term paper. I felt compelled to see the painting itself and not rely on the reproductions in the text book.(relevant to our discussion!).I was in New Haven CT at the time and it was impossible to see the painting in KC during the semester.The prof let me delay the writing until after the semester. I drove all the way there in the days of $.99 a gallon gas and $13 motels. The painting or ink on cloth “blew me away” as us hippies liked to say back then. The values used to paint the trees were manipulated to create fog.A boat created a lake. In each case one thing became two. It was magic. So little,just marks on cloth and I was having a metaphysical experience out of Parmenides. In the collection of Asian art which is substantial there is a Guan Yin sculpture that seemed the yin match for the yang of Michelangelo’s David. It released all the pent up energy of the human body. Great art has to have that sort of effect on you.Of course you have to be attuned to it.Taking the class in Chinese art probably implied a readiness.The next semester I took a class in Art and Magic in the Renaissance where Botticelli and Piero were shamans channeling in their paintings neo-platonic energy from the higher realms to the earthly realm(sub-lunar). I forget all the esoteric terms.

    Another experience was a show at the MFA in Boston in the mid-nineties that paired Impressionist landscape with their Salon counterparts.(two very different visions of reality happening simultaneously) It was so clear that art in the Impressionists was regrounding itself in another level of understanding of optical cognition. Shifting from the rods to the cones or in other words from black and white to color and from volume that chiaroscuro creates to an optical mechanism that goes beyond perspective and is more structural leading to Cubism. I came across an essay by an art historian named Baxandall who said something to the effect that all good painting has to be grounded in the inner optical experience of the world.It was clear that the Salon artists were too enthralled by the outside world their values created.
    Here is the essay:http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2012/11/i-published-this-on-my-blog-awhile.html


    1. Since we probably don’t know all about the complexity of what creates the optical experience there is room for artists to explore that in their work. Cogitating on notions of what is a screen or making everything you look at an object of art is probably a dead end.And lazy to boot. Or Hantai thinking that the ground is the canvas when it is inextricably and optically attached to the figure. Where is the painting when you are looking at it but inside your head.But there is no reason we can’t be wrong for generations. The best Chinese art was probably Sung northern and southern and was never surpassed.Somewhere Robin mused that maybe abstraction was going to suffer the same fate of mediocrity for several centuries.


  23. I’m reminded of that oleaginous tub of lard, Waldemar Januszczak , of whom John Richardson said he was the most odious person he had ever had the misfortune to deal with, spending hundreds of thousands of the BBC’s and our money to try to prove that the Impressionists’ innovations were the result of advances in technology, to wit hogs hair brushes with metal ferrules, and the portable easel.
    When I made my copies of Cezanne’s Gardner Vallier in the Tate, and Manet’s Bar, in the old Courtauld, in fact I had to acquire the finest of synthetic brushes to replicate the smooth flat strokes of Cezanne, and his delicate transparent glazes. Not a streak of hogs hair bristles in sight. (And Renoir continued to use sable brushes, or squirrel perhaps). So too with Manet, who manages a great variety of textures without any sign of the sort of fat hairy strokes you may find in the later Monet, though even here it is unclear how he achieved that dry matt stumbling that makes the surfaces of the Nympheas so spellbinding and so difficult to emulate even now. Some say he dried out the oil from the paint on newspaper before applying it. Todays oil paints are too full of oil and additives for my liking.
    And the impressionists did not paint out of doors half as much as is claimed, and portable easels were available to the Barbizon painters who preceded them by decades.
    There was one scene where the rotund Zanuzczak is clambering over rocks at Etretat, with difficulty, and throws his portable easel down a rocky shoreline as if to demonstrate its utility in such circumstances. Can you see Monet doing that to a precious easel? In any case the positions from which Monet painted do not necessitate clambering over rocks in this way. What a fraudulent thesis, and a waste of time and money to the aggrandisement of this enemy of painting.


  24. Not forgetting the scene where he explains what a galette is by chomping on one in far too close up of his teeth, and shows us what dancing involves by dad dancing in a greasy leather jacket with a gal dressed up in period costume, like what Renoir would have done, not.


  25. Yes Monet did use hogs hair brushes from quite early on, amongst other methods of applying the paint, of great variety of touch. And what did Constable use, I wonder, not only for his sketches, but for the six footers as well?.


  26. “How does one paint in the face of constant communication, constant surveillance, the constant flow of economic society, all of it non-physical, unreal, but all pervasive?” asks Mark in reply to Terry.

    Turn off the switch in the studio?

    I’ll say this for you, Mark. You don’t give up easily.


  27. Hi Harry,

    I think we are on the same page with Manet. “Doesn’t this strengthen the case for in the flesh viewing of abstract painting and sculpture that is made intuitively, on the spot and in response to the unique behaviour of the material(s)?” Yes it does – for any kind of painting. I also agree about the conservative aspects of his work. And the way you describe it – his use of previous other styles and techniques – sounds a lot like the stated intentions behind a lot of Postmodern work – so yes, everything old can be new again if the artist is willing to find a new way to use those histories. And your observation about his “secret” use of new technologies I think says a lot. Why would he object to anyone knowing that photographs were used? I think you might have a few interesting answers!

    Well, I think I’ve tried Robin’s patience and good graces for allowing me to comment here and rib him a bit. He’s been a good sport, but it’s time for me to leave the party. So, I want to sincerely thank him and you fellow Brancasters and Abstractionists for the discussion. And to John – great article – hope to read more on the subject from you.

    Abcrit can be a lot of fun and one of the few places like it on the internet. Ciao signori!


  28. “Manet’s prolific and puzzling allusions to earlier art (to Titian and Raimondi, to Velazquez, Goya, Murillo, van Dyck, Chardin, Watteau and others) make sense as emblems of a kind of conservatism, as efforts to cast his painting’s dissident facture as not new, but old. If that’s true, the three chief hallmarks of Manet’s early style–frontal lighting, variable facture and historicism–were elements of a single polemic, a polemic whose target was the postphotographic naturalism of the Salon. We tend to think of Manet as subverting tradition, but, in fact, he may have been trying to defend it in the face of photography’s ascendancy.”

    I can’t see Manet’s paintings, or the works of any great artist, as in any way a “polemic.” In fact, to describe art as “polemical” is more or less to say that it’s academic, which Manet’s art is not. (The art described in John Bunker’s essay would be polemical if the artists had the courage to say something clearly (as opposed to simply alluding to various facts of contemporary life), so their work doesn’t even rise to the level of academic.) I don’t think of Manet as “conservative” or on the other hand as subversive. I think he was trying to make serious paintings at a time when it wasn’t clear how that could be done. The criteria for serious painting were found in the work of the Old Masters who came before him, hence the allusions to their work.

    I also suspect that most discussions of the impact of photography on 19th century painting are mistaken in that they rely on the assumption that paintings and photographs are or were in competition. I think that photography was no more in competition with painting than it was with, say, music or novel-writing. Painters eventually stopped trying to represent objects in three-dimensional space not because photographs could do it better (photographs don’t represent anything as a matter of fact) but because the painterly conventions involved in representing objects (and landscapes and the human figure, etc.) could no longer do what they were supposed to do, namely, form or discover a connection between the painter (and viewer) and the world. Therefore, new conventions had to be found. If these conventions made paintings that looked very different from the Old Masters, that was because the art of painting, like any other form of human expression or communication, could not survive by simply repeating what had already been done. This process has nothing to do with either conservatism or subversion, both of which terms characterize art that is properly called “academic”.


  29. Hi Carl,
    I wouldn’t call what Manet did a ‘polemic’ either. Neither do I think that he needs to be classified as conservative or subversive. But I did think that the rest of the quote from Alexi Worth was relevant as it points out how Manet’s contributions had a whole lot more to do with his involvement with the art of the past than with any attempt to be ‘up to date’. The idea that painting and photography are or have ever been in direct competition is indeed thoroughly overstated if not false altogether.

    Mark (if you’re still there),
    I wouldn’t want to second guess why Manet may have kept secret his use of photographs in the studio. But my gut feeling tells me that it was unlikely to be out of some grand and enigmatic design. It is highly likely that knowledge of it may have seen him criticised as something of a ‘cheat’. In any case, it doesn’t matter, because his paintings didn’t arouse suspicion until many many decades later, and even if they had, they remain great paintings in many cases, un-reliant on technological/historical context in order to be appreciated. My point about him not wanting to put this knowledge out there was more directed at today’s situation. He didn’t need anyone to know just how ‘up to date’ he was for his work to be taken seriously.

    The lesson from Delacroix’s game with the cards is also instructive. People had become somewhat accustomed to the ‘correctness’ of photography, and were responding less positively to the ‘inaccuracies’ of past Masters’ works. So what does Manet do? Rather than pander to contemporary taste, he goes the other way, amping up the ‘errors’ and ‘inconsistencies’. This unique individualism is clearly recognised by Cezanne, who has perhaps done more than any other painter to account for how Modern Painting has panned out.

    Thanks for the chat, Mark.

    See you in the Matrix.


  30. As a coda, I maintain that by far the most radical work around, and the least banal in the way the material (be it paint or steel or whatever) is inventively organised, is work that shuns any engagement with the wacky world of images that Mark thinks we need to take on board. Banality breeds banality, and the artists he gives as exemplars of the new engagement are banal artists. And I think Carl has the last word on the work in this show: “…doesn’t even rise to the level of academic”. Spot on.

    It’s been an interesting and intelligent discussion, but as is often the case with “interesting”, I’m not sure it makes much of a contribution to our understanding of abstract painting and sculpture now. Brancaster Chronicles, which to an outsider can look, I’m sure, like a boring grind, continues to be the place where progress and development has real traction.

    And I wonder what John B. really thinks…?


    1. Re-reading my own comment, it seems rather ungracious after all the graft that people have put in to this feed. However, I can honestly say that this kind of discussion has no impact at all on what I do in the studio, and I’d be quite surprised if anyone said any different. By contrast, I was more involved in Emyr’s article from a few weeks back, where he wrote honestly about some of his thoughts and feeling about serious issues in his work. Nobody really took up the thread of it, perhaps because it’s harder to discuss than sexy internet stuff, but whilst I was not exactly moved, I was certainly “taken” somewhere by it – somewhere that felt real. More real, even, than me and Alan pontificating about Cezanne/Matisse.

      In my idle daydreams I sometimes fantasize about how advanced abstract art, rather than appropriating all this trendy guff, could bypass not only the whole internet thing, but also the heap of steaming crap that is now the artworld. If Mark would like to discuss strategies on that particular project – i.e. connecting in new ways with real people – he’d be more than welcome.


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