Saturday, January 13, 2007

Abstracts - Why?

"Any kid could do that."

"Wow. Maybe I should get some paint and slap it around like that, too, if you can earn that much money doing it."

"I don't get it."

A lot of people don't understand what they call "abstract" art.* If the art isn't about something they have no way to relate to it. I understand this, and I sympathize.

On some level, though, all good art has form and structure that could exist separately from the subject. The shapes, relationships, colors, rhythms, spaces, silences, sounds, etc. can all work without depicting anything we recognize. Modern art finally broke free of subject and found ways to work more directly with these aesthetic forces.

For those of you who love classical music think of it as being a bit like Beethoven's string quartets. Some of them get pretty weird, if you compare them to the large conventions and forms used in his symphonies and other works for mass audiences. He was experimenting more freely, without constraint, in the quartets - and they sound more modern as a result. I'm not saying his symphonies are "objective" or about anything - but his quartets are somehow purer ventures into the forms of music.

I recall a Christmas shopping trip to Albany, NY when I was about 16. I was able to leave the rest of the family and meet them later. After shopping I ventured out into the huge mall that runs under the four buildings that house NY's state government. The walls held a few dozen enormous non-objective paintings, the first I'd ever seen. I went back and forth for what I recall as nearly a half mile stretch, staring at them. I did not understand them, but I felt like I was trying to read a language that I recognized as my own. They scratched an itch I'd always had and hadn't known could be scratched. They were messages in a bottle and while thousands of fish swam through the same waters with me, I seemed to be the only one stopping to pull the cork and look at the paper inside. How could everyone else just walk past these - I wanted to stand and watch them like an incredible sunset, or some virtuoso performance. It was one of the moments that eventually led me to become a visual artist.

For me the struggle is that without real things I slide towards boring shapes, over simplifying everything so there is no energy on the page. So my non-objective pieces usually ARE abstractions of real things. Eventually I push the painting so far I can't find any trace of the original object, and I work hard to keep any other objects from emerging.

I've started a group of watercolor abstracts, using tape to mask areas and paint in layers. Eventually some areas have four and five layers of masking and painting done, so the surface gets fairly interesting.

Each of these is, for me, like a visit to a place where people don't live. I have to become something else to go there. Something lighter, as if I have to leave my body behind. And words don't work there. That's how I recognize that it's the same silent country where all my artwork grows, but it's higher into the hills. The air is a lot thinner and colder there, but the stars are brighter, and I can almost fly.

* When people use the word "abstract" they usually mean art without recognizable objects or subjects. Abstract correctly means that real objects WERE involved, but they have been simplified to their most general traits (abstracted), so they might (or might not) be recognized any more. Some non-objective art actually starts without anything recognizable, and thus it is not "abstracted" from anything. So not all abstract art is non-objective, and not all non-objective art is abstract. Non-objective describes the piece, abstract is more about the method used to get there.

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