Saturday, December 22, 2012

100th Birthday of Abstract Art

Sadly I received the last or next to last print edition of Newsweek this week. I received it as a gift in its newest slimmed down version but I've very much enjoyed it, especially for the essays from various political perspectives. I hate, positively hate, reading anything online. It reminds me of eating cotton candy and seems incapable of substance. Still that is the way the world is going and there's nothing I can do about it other than pay for the print subscriptions I enjoy.

The reason I mention this is that the latest issue had an essay by Blake Gopnik on a show celebrating the birth of abstract and non-objective art. As the article begins he mentions a now lost newsreel of 1912 that shows Art That Has No Subject!
Not since the Italians invented fully realist painting, 500 years earlier, had visual art made such a huge leap. Up until that landmark fall of 1912, fine artists had always assumed their work would link up to the world, one way or another.
Today many art lovers have forgotten how revolutionary this was. And yet to much of the population, including many lovers of naturalistic and wildlife art, it's as though it never happened.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley and Cornell I studied a lot of history along with studio art, which was my true field of study. I liked this as it seemed to confirm my suspicions about how art had developed over the years. In particular it was interesting to see throughout the 19th century a move away from detail, toward allowing more expressiveness in color, brushwork, composition. To me it seemed an inevitable separation of subject and method to the point where eventually method was stronger than subject and then eventually the subject was gone entirely.

I'm not about to say that this was good! It just seemed inevitable. I recently read a biography of John Constable, Even this beloved naturalistic painter seemed to move toward greater expressiveness in his brushwork.  Even Cezanne, whose letters showed that he wasn't trying to be an abstractionist but instead really portray exactly what he saw, made paintings where you couldn't help but notice the individual brushmarks,  the rich sense of color, and of course the composition. I could rattle through a list of 19th century artists and show how the great majority moved in this direction. Suffice it to say: Corot, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Degas.

Studying the history of 19th century art is almost like reading a mystery novel. There is constant suspense, at least in the good ones. That suspense is based on just one question: when will subject matter be completely  dispensed with? The answer seems to be 1912.

At top is a pastel drawing and collage of mine that I did at least 20 years ago. It is called April. I show it mainly because I  don't want to run into copyright problems showing the work illustrated in Gopnik's article. I'd be better off showing a Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian. But this is also appropriate because it wouldn't exist without the abstract/non-objective tradition.

My  work today is always a mixture of abstraction and naturalism. Even if it doesn't show in the work in my mind there is always a dialog if not a brawling argument between abstract and representational.

The wildlife art world that I inhabit now has almost no truck with abstraction, except I think with sculptors for some unknown reason. I constantly  feel an alien in that world because of my abstract background, almost my abstract DNA.

Gopnik quotes the curator of the show as saying that the true nature of abstraction was not abstraction though. It was the idea of the heart ot art as being 'unsettling.' This is a common thought. But one I  don't buy at all, and the reason I'm writing this post.

It is true in the sense that most art today, at least that which comes out of the art schools, gets  shown in the better galleries and museums, and has ignorant speculators masquerading as collectors lined up to buy it, does in fact see 'unsettling' as the recurrent theme.

But it's not. Do you  know what is unsettling today? Wildlife Art! Ask yourself when you have last seen wildlife art, or just plain art that features animals or the outdoors at a quality museum or gallery. I'd bet that you can't. No one can. Why? Because for all the supposed diversity, plurality, openness of contemporary art there is one thing that cannot be tolerated: wildlife art.

I'd offer a different theory of abstract art and the current state of art. As I said abstraction truly seemed inevitable throughout the 19th century. Artist after artist was pulled in its direction. But inevitably painting about nothing, just like writing about nothing or composing music about nothing becomes a dead end. It  produced great art. Of that I don't have the slightest doubt.

But all great ideas eventually lose their influence and get replaced or revised by something else. That something else today I think is the world of realism, especially the natural world. I know that this is heresy in the art world. And it's probably just as much a heresy in the wildlife art world where there's so little appreciation of abstract art. But art has always been very big. It ignores small minds and goes its own way. In 50 years my guess is that people will see that art struggled for meaning in the late 20th century and early 21st century and eventually  found it in a return  to subject matter, especially that of tne natural world.

One other thing that was not part of abstraction, in fact I think had absolutely nothing to do with it was irony,  the ennervated motivation of artists like Duchamp. It would be easy to say that irony is the true common thread of much art of the last 100 years and certainly of the last 50. But irony  truly is a dead end,  the cheap trick used by  clever people to avoid engagement in the world. I don't believe anything of worth, in art or elsewhere, comes from the unengaged. And that's another reason I think why an art establishment totally  wed to the ironic stance just can't stomach the true and honest enthusiasm many wildlife artists have for both their subject and the artistic media that they  use to  portray their subject. It is just too honest and heartfelt fo be acceptable!

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