Still Musing on Abstraction

As a fine arts student I have constantly whined and complained about the endless studies on abstract expressionists and minimalists that arise in my course material. I have whispered to myself numerous times “I hate you Pollock”. When it comes to abstraction in art, I have seen my opinion shift through the development of my own art education and practice. Of course I understand this period of the canon of art history is important and influential, but I think I am finally starting to understand why I think it is important.

Musée d’Art Contemporain De Montréal (MACM) currently has two exhibitions featuring abstract art; “A Matter of Abstraction” and “On Abstraction”. Art galleries function as places of reflection and tranquility for me, so after a big weekend out I tend to retreat into the white cube. Last week while strolling around the MACM, I began to unpack my attachment to the abstract art movement; minimalism, process art, and abstract expressionism in particular.

I think the beauty and the essence of these works lie in the self-control of the artist; it’s harder to paint a single circle that a representational image. It is assumed in minimal works that the artists’ hand is discrete, but the less visual noise allows their hand to become far more pronounced. I have heard numerous people say, “That’s three lines, I could have painted that. That’s not art”. You’re right,  maybe you could have painted Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, but you didn’t. As mechanical as it might appear, there is so much precision and thought put into those three vertical lines.

Jean Paul Riopelle - (Landing, 1949)

It is impossible to fully experience a piece of art unless you are standing in front of it. In reflecting on the work of Jean-Paul Riopelle, at the MACM, I could see the movements that lead to it’s creation many years ago. The thick strokes and drops of paint present in the works of the abstract expressionists brought painting into a new dimension.

It ceased to exist as two-dimensional and became a moment in time. By placing the canvas on a horizontal plane, Jackson Pollock changed the dimensions of painting. Painting began to live in a new place and in a time of it’s own. The paint itself lives in space, not in the way its blended onto a canvas. These paintings are nearly time based, as they are the products of performative action.

In the last few weeks I have been contemplating material presence in art, and the presence of the artist in their own work. There is a direct correlation between the way the artist handles material and their presence in the final artwork. While an artist lives on through their work, it is much more inspiring to see the artist’s actual movements and hand in their creation. I think what really strikes me is the way an artist like Francoise Sullivan’s paintings can recall their own creation. The way the material is handled and how the technique is altered, demonstrates change in the pace and intent of their application. These techniques recall the artist, their hand, and their process. 

Fracoise Sullivan - Paterson (2003)

No matter what you put in a museum, it will develop an air of importance. Next time you step into a gallery, challenge yourself to stay 20 minutes with one piece of art. Take it in, look at the composition, the colors, realize all of the decisions the artist made in its creation. Maybe then three lines on a canvas will seem slightly more appealing.

We seem to forget that art exists as history, as well as image. Art tells the story very differently than the history books do, and maybe we enjoy spending time around these relics to experience the past in a more sensory way.

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One comment

  • Its worth noting that Abstract Expressionism in part grew out of government’s fear that art was becoming too radically political as early as the 1930s. As a result the growing alternative movement the National Endowment for the Arts was founded in the US in 1965 which almost exclusively funded apolitical art works – abstract expressionism.

    So while abstract expressionism is certainly interesting, some of it quite striking, it could also be considered a kind of censorship via selective funding.

    So I hear anyways. As with all art history this stuff’s up for debate.

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