“To be ‘new’ a painting doesn’t have to have been painted in 2018, or even by a living painter. What this survey and the comments show is that time, discernment and taste has not yet caught up with many of the paintings on display. A painting is ‘new’ if it opens up untapped resources for others that have been lying fallow or unnoticed, or if it reasserts the fundamental eloquence of the means, the simple elements of colour, line, plane, area-shape, facture, in a surprising way — (confined surprise, as Greenberg called it, not literal theatrical surprise -Seminar 8).” Comment by Alan Gouk on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2, 11.3.18.
“For something to be “new” in this sense, not only does it not have to be painted in 2018 or by a living painter, but it doesn’t have to be either modernist or abstract. Just saying.” Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.
“…a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a ‘new’ thing, but also a ‘now’ thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs.” [FIAC is a Parisian Contemporary Art Fair]. From a Poussin Gallery catalogue essay, “New to Sight”, by RG, January 2010.
“Hitchens spoke once again of how he felt torn between the inspiration he got from direct contact with nature and the increasing desire to let the picture have a life of its own – to deal with it purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” Ivon Hitchens, quoted by Pete Hoida in a comment on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2., 21.3.18.
Neither way, thank you. Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.
Speaking personally, I would be hard-pressed to put more than a handful of non-figurative modernist works into my own Musée Imaginaire of favourite paintings. More specifically, of all the many great paintings that I have stood in front of (rather than looked at as images – a crucial distinction, I think), I find that very few, if any, are “abstractions”; unless, that is, you would make the case that all art is an abstraction. In which case, “new” abstract art, as I would define it, would be the only sort of art that I would judge to have not been “abstracted” from anything at all, but discovered as a new thing by means of the articulation of invented abstract content. Miros, Gottliebs, Rothkos and Nolands have made little impression on me when I’ve seen them up close. Images of blobs, grids, rectangles (geometric or fuzzy) and stripes may look tight and sexy when miniaturised on screen, but a fifteen-foot beige-striped matt-stained Noland, or a six-foot splodge of Gottlieb, are not as much fun in real life; and late Rothko is absolutely no fun at all. I see a contrived formalism (often rather insalubriously combined with hints at a portentous subject-matter) in much of 20th Century abstraction and I don’t much like it. I like art that is perceived as far as possible as content, not as vehicle. That’s a problem for abstraction.
Cézanne or Constable? Constable takes precedence, and so to Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) of 1816-17, (Tate Britain), painted when he was around 40 years of age, but in effect an “early” painting, and one of his first biggish landscapes. I look at this painting every time I visit Tate Britain. Did he ever paint anything better? I don’t really know the answer to that, because I vacillate between this and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’), exhibited 1832, and normally also in Tate Britain, but currently in America.
Flatford Mill is a dazzlingly clear, light-filled, spatial painting, the first major example of Constable’s big career achievement – the resolution of believable distance in landscape with a coherent two-dimensional organisation (for more on which see Patrick Heron’s great essay Constable: Spatial Colour in the Drawings). The scene allows access and passage to the viewer at all points and in all manners, the space being complex yet complete. I love the massing of the big line of trees and hedge, bounded by path and ditch, that pulls forwards in one singular, complex, three-dimensional swoop, offset against the varied horizontal lines of hay-ricks, trees, field boundary and cattle. The river appears in the far distance, beyond this interregnum, and returns you to the waterway at front. The subject-matter is familiar home turf to Constable, but the content is wholly new. A walk around Tate Britain will show no precedent in terms of such keen clarity of spatial realisation. Gainsborough certainly doesn’t come near, looking mannered by comparison. Constable’s hero, Claude, is bettered already. And in that clumping of trees, is Ruben’s Het Steen even now a precedent?
Constable showed Flatford Mill at the Royal Academy of 1817, but when he got it back he repainted the tops of the trees and the sky. Which is very interesting, because the tops of trees and the sky are invariably where Constable shows a major aspect of his originality in a diminishing vertical perspective, a kind of inverted vertigo, pressurising the airspace above his horizontal land and waterways, and compressing and densifying the spatiality – and the physicality – of his paintings. Note in this painting how already the undersides of the topmost leafy branches reveal themselves, bending away, and how that movement is taken up by the stricken tree behind.
The sky in a Constable is rarely if ever a flat backdrop to landscape, parallel to the picture plane, but more often an integral horizontal force, parallel with the ground. Constable’s physicality does not comprise of a literal rendition of the strength of trees or of individual landscape elements, but embraces the pressure obtained across the whole picture by means of the piling up and interweaving of tensioned activities. Flatford Mill is a first taste of it, but this quality comes into its own in later works like The Haywain, 1821, (National Gallery, London), the very great Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1830-31, (currently on tour), and in particular, The Vale of Dedham, 1828, (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh).
The Vale of Dedham, 1828 is a prime example of Constable’s warping and buckling of space, across the whole canvas. Note the aforementioned swooping distortion of the tree-tops compared to the ‘frontality’ of the earlier work (below). I first saw The Vale of Dedham in 1990 on a visit to Edinburgh to see the Cézanne and Poussin exhibition, on a break from which I popped downstairs to the main collection specifically to find it. It was perhaps my first significant encounter with the greatness of Constable, whose work is fully able to stand its ground against both Cézanne and Poussin.
This earlier work is in the V&A, dated 1802. Back then, the trees grew in a well-mannered arrangement, without distortion, and frontally to the picture plane, against a flattish swath of vegetation, more of which is repeated bottom left. Competent though this is, twenty-six years later, from an almost identical motif, the most modest of pictorial foundations becomes something far more open-ended and complex. Now, not only do the trees arch backwards in the later work, but we can also pass between them, or on either side of them, back into the painting. And, of course, we can see with clarity for miles, to the Gothic tower of Dedham church itself and the Stour estuary beyond. The profusion of active detail, far from confounding the content, electrifies the space in surges of action and reaction. This is a painting that does far more than depict landscape, and it opens the door to a charged and broken, yet unified, surface in painting.
I saw this painting L’Estaque, View Through the Pines by Cézanne in the Lila Acheson Wallace Reader’s Digest Collection at Wildenstein Gallery, 147 New Bond Street (now Richard Green), in January 1986, where it had the stiffest of competition: Georges Braque’s Sunflowers on the Table, 1946; Camille Pissarro’s extravagantly composed Sunset at Moret, 1901; Paul Gauguin’s moody and Pissarro-influenced Port of Rouen, 1884; a really great Henri Matisse, Anemones and Black Mirror, 1918-19; and one of Claude Monet’s greatest late Water Lilies, 1917-19. Yet the painting that still, even now, transfixes my imagination is L’Estaque, View Through the Pines.
This is a tour de force of how to build physical space on a flat surface, how to feel space as a solid articulation between tumbling steep incline and canopy, with just enough sky to pile on the pressure. This painting belongs to a series of works made by Cézanne at L’Estaque between 1882-87 which are amongst the greatest of his oeuvre, and include Gulf of Marseille, 1883-5, from the Musée D’Orsay, but which I last saw in an exhibition in Marseille itself a couple of years ago, when it impressed me enormously for its locked-in focus, everything in exact relation; and Sea at L’Estaque, seen often at the Picasso Museum in Paris (since it belonged to Picasso), wherein the sea and sky in the interstices compete with the spreading branches for solidity and surface.
These are masterpieces, but L’Estaque, View Through the Pines is the best of the best, because of its handling of three-dimensionality and spatiality, tipping the viewer into the space of the picture, consolidating the buildings at the bottom so we don’t fall through completely… all resolved on the surface, a combination of tightness and flexibility, including the incredible top-to-bottom tree-trunk which does not divide.
Is Cézanne still relevant? Of course, and there is much to learn from him. If Constable invented the broken surface of things, Cézanne cements that breakdown forever into the content of painting, whereupon the means of delivering structure become a visible and an indivisible part of it. I don’t think we have yet got to the bottom of this, or bettered it, and it seems still so relevant to abstract art. If fact, it leads us directly to it.
This painting by Anne Smart I look at every day, since it hangs in my bedroom. I suppose I must look at it twice a day, at least. But I really look at it about once a week. The implications of how this painting is made is possibly the most radical thing we have recently seen in abstract art. I think where the radical nature of the work is rooted is in the mindset of how it is thought about from the first moment. Anne’s unorthodox approach to abstract painting, which has been building up for years, has led her instinctively to this point, and I think the difference she has made in rethinking abstract painting is really big, and should be fully acknowledged. But unlike a lot of abstract painting, I don’t think you can explain the difference as an aspect of facture. With facture, you get an almost literal demonstration of how the painting is made – brushstrokes, palette knife scrapings, etc. With this painting, just one of the things that makes it most compelling is that it gives away nothing of how it is made in the literal sense. It has, in a way, no facture at all, and yet it has a profusion of detail, detail that is paradoxically totally dependent upon how it is made. Strangely, it appears to have more detail when viewed from a distance of two meters than it actually does when up close; and all of this detail is absolutely exacting in what it delivers. Whereas so much abstract painting has lots of accidental eye-catching incident in the form of splashes, drips, drags and spotting etc., the detail in this painting is all carefully woven together and very deliberate. In a way, it is all detail, the whole thing – but some detail is big, and some is tiny. The thinking behind the work takes all that detail as content and compels it to be whole. Or rather, Anne works it until it becomes, by natural rather than contrived means, whole; and it is. Yet it was never, ever conceived as a whole “design”. It’s perhaps as far from design as has yet been achieved in abstract painting without falling into any sort of irrational random accidentalism. So yes, such subtle and strong “discovered” organisation is a very big achievement.
This painting to some considerable degree short-circuits the endless debates and deliberations on Abcrit about the nature of space in abstract painting – illusionistic, naturalistic, fictive, what-have-you. That the painting is both spatial and abstract I have no doubt. It seems to me too that it possesses the property that Simon Schama recently attributed to Bruegel’s Four Seasons on a recent edition of Civilisations: “visually inexhaustible”.
I see in this work a warping and buckling of space resulting in (or is it the result of?) pressure over the whole canvas. In that aspect, it reminds me of Constable a little. But for abstract art, this is a new way of thinking, in opposition to both semi-abstract compromise or formalist purity. I think this is a very, very good, perhaps great, example of art that is fully abstract, and it shows the potential benefits of having exactly that ambition, relative to delivering originality. Did I mention that it bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the modernist tradition of “colour painting”? True, you can find things that look a little bit like it – but not really… Nothing feels like it, because nobody to my knowledge has made an abstract painting quite in this way before – from the inside, out.
Speaking of originality, how about this:
Was there ever a more inventive spatial fusion. Tintoretto has a very different painting of the same subject-matter in the Louvre permanent collection, which is also dramatically spatial, having a strange perspective; but this version is something else. This may be my favourite painting… ever? Well, certainly one of Tintoretto’s best. It belongs in Vienna, but I saw it in the exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the Louvre in 2010. Make no mistake, I think Titian is a great painter (Veronese not so much), but Tintoretto blew him away. So much more spatial, physical, dramatic. Titian, by contrast, can look quite flat.
So how about the space in this? Weird, isn’t it? But the eye just rolls around the thing in some kind of continuous loop, dwelling on delicious detail after detail. Clever use of the mirror, between the two heads, but then there are so many clever parts to this work, you could just about mention everything in it. Huge changes of scale, fantastic small things, everything full-on but fitting in, no fudging… Everywhere looks great. Would that abstract painting could be so eccentric and fundamental at the same time. Perhaps it is already is.
It’s a very different kind of painting from the usual packed-out Tintoretto:
This is part of Tintoretto’s preparations for the large Paradise fresco, after he was awarded the commission to replace fire-damaged works in the Sala dei Maggior Consiglio (Hall of the Great Council), Venice. Tintoretto took over the job when Veronese and Bassano proved unable to complete. In fact, neither could Tintoretto, and the finished in-situ work was mainly the product of his family. This version, however, is thought to be by Jacopo himself, and I prefer it to the final painting, from which it differs considerably. This version is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, but I saw it in an exhibition devoted to the competitive preparations for the fresco, Tintoretto’s Paradise: a Competition for the Doge’s Palace, again at the Louvre, in May 2006. The inventiveness of this work is perhaps more typical of Tintoretto than the Suzanna, and no doubt derives some of its organisation from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, but as always with Tintoretto he outdoes everyone for imaginative content, indivisible from form.
This is from a press release from Alexander Gray Associates regarding a Frank Bowling show:
“The decisive moment of Bowling’s artistic development was his move to New York in 1966. Bowling’s painterly experimentation had led him to consider how abstract painting could be invested with social, cultural, and personal meaning without losing the essential and formal principles of painting. This lead him to move away from relatively straightforward figurative representation into more abstract work concerned with questions of form and colour.”
Here again is an example of the assumed “either/or” of meaning or formalism, content or form. You can – according to this hypothesis – invest art with content only if it is figurative content, because abstract art dwells exclusively within the terms of formal organisation, dealing, in Hitchens’s words quoted at the beginning of this essay, with the picture “…purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” What are those? Composition, proportion, the Golden Section, the endless echo of the pictorial rectangle? It’s no surprise, given such unimaginative endeavour, that abstraction fails to prosper in the hands of semi-abstract artists like Hitchens.
But turn this inside out. Abstract art needs abstract content precisely in order to prevent it becoming boringly formalist. And it needs content not just as an imposed inclusion into formalist structures, but as the wholesale and intrinsic thing itself, the thing that generates all structure. In other words, abstract content as abstract structure (just as figurative content can generate figurative structure, oh yes). To repeat, if your structures are facile and banal because they are engendered at the point of addressing the painting’s “own requirements”, your content is already dead in the water. It’s not a problem figurative painters ever had to address quite so frontally as abstract artists do, again and again, because there was always something outside of the artist/picture closed loop that preceded form – figurative content. There was always the intervention of some aspect of unregulated, informal – not to say random – reality, whether observational or imaginary, that came before its delivery by formal trope, and often that trope could be broken out from and discarded, if the content was strong – see Susanna above. In figurative painting, there was always something that required to be reconciled and synthesised through the medium, as per the way that Constable reconciled and synthesised the deep space and distance of his complex landscapes. Therein lies an involvement with a kind of improvised articulation that exists in febrile and developing tension rather than mannered and pre-ordained solution. But when it comes to synthesis and reconciliation in abstract art, well… you can’t do the reconciliation without the “something” to reconcile.
“The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. Ad Reinhardt
Minimalism is, by design, content-free art. Minimalism leads directly, indeed is a part of, conceptual art, and that, for our purposes at least, is the end of that. But minimalism is a compelling and pervasive aesthetic that runs through a whole strand of abstraction that doesn’t necessarily define itself as such. I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before, but I would now concede that there is very little point in arguing about the existence of abstract content in quite a lot of modernist painting and sculpture championed as paragons of abstraction, because, as I now acknowledge, there is very little abstract content in it. Taking Noland as example, horizontal stripes repeated top to bottom of a painting, or concentric circles in a target, do not lend themselves to any kind of interrogation of what abstract activity is going on. You have to get pretty nuanced to make a case for anything at all happening, except for the usual suspects of up-front or laid-back colour relationships. The case is made over and again that this is enough and more than enough for abstract painting. Not for me. And as Anne Smart once said to me, on being shown a book on Noland: “What’s abstract about a circle?” What, indeed?
By contrast, the more content in art, the more the potential of art. Content by no means guarantees great achievement, but lack of it minimises the possibility. What does it mean to have some kind of rolling and tumbling repertoire of energised stuff – either physical or imaginary – that is a repository of abstract content? Some would say that what is being discussed here is not content, but language – the personal language of the individual abstract artist, built up over years of experience. And although I don’t refute the part played by personality and experience, I resist that idea simply because language implies metaphorical expression. That would not be abstract. And abstract implies a somewhat more disinterested mode of operation than the usual and expected subjective expressionism of the semi-abstract.
It seems very hard for people to imagine abstract content, but I think that is simply down to a lack of precedent and a failure to think creatively in an entirely “abstract” mode. With practise, this is possible. Any unnaturalness soon fades. When the content starts to generate structure of its own accord, rather than being shoe-horned into some ideal “abstract form”, things start to fall into place quite quickly.
I have made my own case in the past for the idea that the more diverse and complex is the content that is synthesised by the artist, the greater the art. That seems to stand the test of my experience. But I agree that this use of the word “content” is contentious in visual art, and especially so when applied to abstract art. And there would be no point in adopting such a contrary position unless it is useful in some way. I believe it is. Such a concept, as applied to abstract painting, may well be superfluous to those who work quite happily without such intellectualisations, and it’s a pointless concept if it proves to be of no use to anyone. But John Pollard is a painter for whom it might well be relevant to his progress as an artist- which, over the past couple of years has been spectacular.
This is another painting I own and look at a lot. I have, therefore, had lots of time to make up my mind about it, and I think it is very good. At the moment it hangs – very interestingly, I think – next to Painter’s Song by Fred Pollock. I’m not going to make anything out of that comparison here, other than to say this: that the Pollard is full to bursting with great stuff to look at, stuff that is very inventive and – given the means of its delivery, with black outlines and three-dimensional-looking “things” – surprisingly abstract. By comparison, the Fred Pollock, which I think is a very good Fred Pollock, looks rather conventional and formalist, having as it does quite a contrived compositional delivery of its colour content. Because of paintings like John’s and Anne Smart’s, I now see the Pollock differently from how I used to. I see it differently because it is different. The ultimate comparative value of the John Pollard relative to the Fred Pollock may well be up for grabs, subject to personal taste and opinion, but the difference is not. There is something new afoot, which the Pollock does not partake of, but which the Pollard does.
This difference is in no small way to do with exactly how they are thought about from scratch, and how that in turn changes the way that the observer of this new art is engaged by it. It is to do with how the eye is moved, and kept moving, whilst the mind is set to work down steeply imaginative, demanding and varied pathways. This is all still “live” and yet to be really understood (by doing it, mainly) and written about, but the potential is very clear…
I’ll stop here, because some things at this point are ineffable… But I did find this passage by the American essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, writing about the experience of reading a (typically 19th C.) novel (Middlemarch, actually), which I for one would be happy to have transposed to the “ongoing” continuum of experience of looking at one of my abstract sculptures as they strive towards a more fully abstract three-dimensional complexity:
“The length of a novel, the abundance of detail have a disturbing and exciting effect upon the imagination; in a sense one reads on to find out “what happens” and yet what happens is exactly the most quickly forgotten, the most elusive. It is even difficult to know how to state the problem: is it psychological, simply rooted in biology, or instead, an aesthetic condition, necessary to the special effects of the novel? What seems to remain locked in the memory is a general impression, a selection of detail, a blur of interesting scene, the shape of character, and, above all, a sort of remembrance of how one felt when one was first reading the book [my emphasis]. The remembered exhilaration of the mind, pleasure of the senses, hang upon the frailest thread of incident, the dimmest recollection of language. You know you were fascinated, you were convinced – at the time, when you were deeply there, in the story, in the turn of phrase here and the observation there, the surprise, the resolution that pleased. Tracks, not very deep, laid down in the memory prompt us to assert merit and excellence.”
Elizabeth Hardwick, Reflections on Fiction, 1969, in Collected Essays, NYRB Classics.