When is a mark meaningful? What makes an arrangement of form or colour more than just a pattern? Not that there’s anything wrong with pattern, but how can you get your work taken seriously if pattern is all that it consists of? Jason Gaiger mentions this problem in his book ‘Aesthetics and painting’, which I am working through slowly but steadily:
“The pioneers of abstract art, including Mondrian and Malevich as well as Kandinsky, were acutely aware that their claim to have produced work that could be experienced as significant depended upon maintaining continuity with the tradition of easel painting. If non-objective art was to hold the interest of the viewer and to satisfy the demand for new forms of complexity and simplification, it had to be viewed as a picture rather than as a pleasing decorative pattern.” (p62)
This was the biggest problem to be faced by the first abstractionists, and continues to be a fear for contemporary painters. What is it that enables us to interpret a manifestly 2D sign in a 3D manner, when devices such as perspective are not in use?
Kandinsky often used movement as a factor (as above), both in the directionality of his lines and his use of colour. This in itself created a sense of space. As abstraction developed, however, spatial depth was done away with, and the Abstract Expressionists concentrated on canvases that were manifestly 2D, rejoicing in the flatness of their work, as Clement Greenberg spent much print explaining. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko achieved a great deal with their 2Dness. Yet this experiment with flatness was comparatively short lived. Maybe it was this lack of spatial depth which contributed to the opinion that painting had reached the end of its life, and would be superseded by other modes of artistic expression. Frank Stella wrote about this, in his book ‘Working Space’ (I think that’s the right title), and declared his view that it was this particular feature of abstract painting that was leading the genre into a cul de sac.
Sections of contemporary abstract painting have moved away from prizing 2Dness, and spatial depth is now a formal ingredient in the mix. This is important to me, because referencing archaeology inevitably means that my work is built up in layers, and works towards creating a sense of depth that will be allied to space and time. Some artists use a very shallow spatial depth in their work, but this prevents the composition from being mere pattern. For example, take the work of Frank Nitsche.
There is no use of perspective, and no obvious spatial devices such as would be used in representational painting, yet the work is saved very successfully from being merely decorative. I think it’s in his use of line, which emerges unexpectedly from a hidden reality just out of sight of the viewer, round the back of the painting somewhere. Colour plays a part as well. As Hans Hoffmann’s experiments proved, there is definitely movement created by the knowledgeable use of colour relationships. Nitsche uses these strategies to get away from producing work that can be reduced to the status of a ‘tie or a carpet’, and has therefore solved the problem that tested Kandinsky. I admire him for that.
I hope to learn from him. Yet I am after a more pronounced depth, one that will take the viewer into prehistory in some way, as far back as we can possibly imagine, not to just whatever exists behind the canvas. And I want to do this through painting and drawing, rather than through process. I want to put marks together in such a way that there is a going back through millenia. See, I talk about spatial depth as being necessarily allied to time. Is that a general perception, or is it just me? Is it depth, or is it movement that projects a sense of time? Or are the two allied? Either way, although I will try to take on board the visual language that an artist such as Nitsche employs, I also need other factors to make my marks as potentially meaningful as I would like them to be.
Barbara Hepworth writes about her attitude to landscape in these terms:
“In the contemplation of nature we are perpetually renewed, our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive, and if rightly understood, it gives us the power to project into a plastic medium, some universal or abstract vision of beauty.”
‘Beauty’ is such an outmoded concept these days. It is not my prime focus. Yet if I make work that has this side effect for some people, I will be pleased. The emphasis has got to be on the way the painting or drawing works as a whole. I wonder if taking a closer look at ‘nature’, in my case landscape in particular, will help? Not just at visual detail, but as Hepworth says, in a way that keeps our sense of mystery and our imagination alive. Perhaps those are the key words which lie behind a successful abstract image, that turns it into art, rather than decoration. I can see I’ve got such a lot to learn. After all, I don’t want to be designing neckties and carpets. I need to be exposed to the wonder of this great world we live in. Great! I love that sense of there being so much more out there for me to find out.