January 08, 2021
The moment we begin to talk about ‘abstracted art’ we enter the realms of anything is possible. So, to contextualise this discussion within a few pages rather than a hefty tome, I shall limit it to abstract art on canvas.
Fortunately, that medium represents the lion share of abstract art. The earliest acknowledged abstractions on canvas were European, and Scandinavian (Hilma af Klint). Russian born artist, Wassily Kandinsky. His art had both spiritual/intellectual and physical dynamics. “A point is a small bit of colour put by the artist on the canvas. It is neither a geometric point nor a mathematical abstraction; it is extension, form and colour. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, a star or something more complex. The point is the most concise form but, according to its placement on the basic plane, it will take a different tonality. It can be isolated or resonate with other points or lines.”
Mathematics and geometry are inextricable from Kandinsky’s approach and point of view. The moment an artist makes a mark on a canvas, the viewer seeks to interpret the artist’s intent. So, no matter how hard the artist tries to step outside the literal response, the viewer will see something familiar or significant to themselves, not the artist. The shapes and form found in nature are deeply etched into our subconscious; our amygdala, where instincts are born and nurtured. So, the challenge for the artist is to challenge that initial reaction; to transcend semiotic auto-response. The most successful artists are those who resist the temptation to reveal the secret within the artwork. Think about it, when you stand before a masterpiece of art, the most delicious sensation is when you exclaim, “How the hell did they do that, or why?”
Abstract art on canvas is the process of applying, invariably, a medium to the surface. Therefore, in most instances, the artist will choose paint of some kind; either water or oil based, or both. The process of application is determined by the density and viscosity of the paint. Paint brushes have long been the artist’s primary tool. But, palette knives, rags, sponges are also used. The looser the consistency of the paint, the more options present themselves.
Paint can be sprayed, squirted, poured and thrown on the canvas. To avoid the paint simply responding to gravity and running off the canvas, some artists, like Jackson Pollock and Caroline Ashwood are obliged to lay their canvases flat on a table or the floor, rather than stood perpendicular on an easel. Of course, other artists, will use gravity to move the paint around the canvas. Smudges and drips can be transformed into shapes and motifs with the tilt of the canvas. Pools of paint morph according to earthbound physics rather than the artist’s expectation. Don’t tell anyone this, but much of abstract art on canvas is borne of ‘happy accidents.
The artist, like Franz Kline, for instance, manage the process but place their creative ambition in the arms of serendipity and happenstance. Kline’s work is energetic and clearly spontaneous. Broad, aggressive strokes with a house decorator’s 4-inch brush or a rag creates bold, frantic black shapes on white; left to dry without retouching or finessing. What you see is what you get. It is not that the artist is reckless or uncaring about the outcome. It is simply the exploration process being part of the creation.
Experimentation in art, as in science. Articulation is neither a priority nor a goal. Abstract art digs deep into primal emotion. Stuff we struggle to explain or understand. So, the physical process of creating art on canvas is as much part of the experiencing of the art, as it is of the appreciation of it.
Mark Rothko spent days preparing for the creation of one of his monolithic canvases. Often requiring both himself and an assistant to achieve the result Rothko desired. He was fussy. Obsessive about the result. The finish had to be totally without blemish. No obvious brush strokes, not a single brush hair to be seen, no tonal shading caused by uneven distribution of the paint. Rothko’s assistants worked under great stress and pressure because if Rothko was unhappy with the outcome of a day’s work, it represented a waste of several weeks’ preparation.
Jackson Pollock was not so fussy, but he was equally obsessed. It is said that ‘there is a vibration and a rhythm in everything’. Science supports this. Pollock spent hours, days dripping, pouring and splashing paint, layer upon layer, on enormous canvases that required a barn as a studio. As he worked, he chain smoked. Cigarette butts have been unexpectedly left to mingle in the intaglio of his works. Perhaps Pollock didn’t spot it, or he felt it added to the mystique. But something else has been identified in his work. With the use of digital technology and scanning, the sheer physicality of repetitious movement of the artist has created patterns, signature fractals; determined not by Pollock’s vision, but by how far he could reach across the canvas, and by how long he could keep a specific rhythmic action going before he needed to reload his paint brush.
Young British artist, Chris Ofili also worked with paint. But he added other media to his palette; elephant dung, which was an unexpected ingredient to any artwork but, given that the subject was a portrait of The Virgin Mary, is gained lots of attention. Ofili’s Afro-Caribbean roots had a role to play in his choice. The result was the spectacle of ‘the affluent flocking to buy Olifi’s animal effluent’ at Sotheby’s Art Auction House in fashionable Mayfair. Since Kandinsky and af Klint kicked things off in the early 20th century other, even more notable artists have stuck stuff on canvas.
Picasso was a keen collagist; newspaper, sheet music, wall paper, all found a place in his own pursuit of abstract expression on canvas. Without abstract art, the world would be less interesting. “How on earth did they come up with that?” has been the desired response for over a century now. Of course, one can glean the same expression of wonderment when faced with a Michelangelo or a Hieronymus Bosch. The ability of an artwork and an artist keeping their secret is what keeps us visiting galleries and buying abstract whenever we can.
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