John Pollard

#98. Harry Hay writes on “The Cringe” and Australia’s Peculiar Relationship to Abstract Art

“Would you Pay $1.3m for this?”, Herald, 17th Dec, 1973.

Heavy, with the Weight of History

On the 27th March 2018, I contributed a comment to a long and smouldering debate on Abcrit, following the publication of Alan Gouk’s tremendous Key Paintings of the 20th Century: Part 2. The comment read as follows:

I’m in no way suggesting that we are yet to see an abstract painting. I’m saying that there is no appetite for that as an un-compromised artistic pursuit in our current prevailing culture. Rather paradoxically, we have a situation where there are more “abstract painters” than ever before, but just as so many of these painters are capable of pulling off some rather good paintings, many are just as capable of drawing a smiley face into one of them the very next day. This is because there doesn’t seem to be any sense that a critically engaged audience is watching. Casualism is to a great extent born out of a perception that no one actually cares. This is very different to the climate that gave oxygen to the painters in your survey, Alan [Gouk], and from what I can gather, quite different to the critically engaged times you yourself came up in, able as you were to exchange ideas and have your work seen by the likes of Greenberg and Fried. The tide may already have been turning then, but it is at its lowest ebb now. The fact that we have to resort to google to try and find new or interesting artists is a massive indictment on how far things have fallen, and how isolated we all are.

Actually, I made this comment on the 28th of March, because Australia is about eight or nine hours ahead of England, despite the general lament that we are ten to fifteen years behind in regards to everything else. Australia is no stranger to isolation. The illusive Southern Continent, that last piece of the imperial puzzle, a vast and sporadically populated landmass surrounded by endless sea. This is a place people were sent to so they would disappear. As Robert Hughes wrote in the Fatal Shore:

… transportation got rid of the dissenter without making a hero of him on the scaffold. He slipped off the map into a distant limbo, where his voice fell dead at his feet. There was nothing for his ideas to engage, if he were an intellectual; no machines to break or ricks to burn, if a labourer. He could preach sedition to the thieves and cockatoos, or to the wind. Nobody would care.

Eerily familiar. Barbarism aside, the most significant difference today, as I see it, is the repeated assurance that our voices matter and will be heard. The world has shrunk, so they say, and we’re all supposedly much more connected, and yet it feels as if we’re all just shouting over the top of each other, silencing ourselves in the process, creating a new breed of repression. In colonial Australia, repression was the local currency. We have always felt like this, and it contributes to the manifestation of The Cultural Cringe, that peculiar, archaic but ever present inferiority complex, the reverence for the ‘homeland’ suffered by post-colonial nations but particularly Australia. It’s a complex that has impeded our cultural development, devaluing everything we make here in favour of almost anything from Europe and America, because of our insecure and guilt ridden view of ourselves, born out of the knowledge that this isn’t really our country.

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#97. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and its Discontents.

Paul Cézanne, “L’Estaque, View Through the Pines”, 1883

“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.

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#61. Harry Hay writes on Brancaster Chronicles at the Heritage Gallery, Greenwich

Brancaster discussion in progress, 10th April 2017. Photo John Pollard. Film of the discussions will be made available to view on the Brancaster Chronicles website (Branchron.com) shortly.

Brancaster Chronicles at Greenwich, at the Heritage Gallery is open 11, 12, 13 and 18, 19, 20 April 2017, 10am-6pm. https://branchron.com/news/

I paid my first visit to Maritime Greenwich in 2010. I was in my first year of art school, aspiring towards figuration and rather disinclined to pay much attention to abstract art at all. Turner was my favourite artist, and so I was rather drawn towards seeing some of the world he depicted. The uniform that Nelson died in after his wounding at Trafalgar is particularly resonant in my mind. It is hard to reflect, almost impossible in some ways, on how we get to where we are. How many moments are there along the way that lead us to change course so drastically, for we hardly seem to notice it as it happens. Some may say that the divide between Turner and abstract art is not such a huge leap. Well it certainly feels so in reflection. If we fast forward seven years, my reason for returning to Greenwich couldn’t really feel more disparate.

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