The Aura of Abstraction: Why is abstract painting relevant in the 21st Century?
Why paint an abstract painting today? American abstract painter Laurie Fendrich pondered this question at the end of the 20th century and believed she was defending, in the advent of video, movies and television, the ‘most difficult-to-understand and irrelevant kind of painting that exists’ (Fendrich, 1997, p.1). In her defence of abstraction she offers a number of virtues including understated beauty and reactions against the overabundance of popular culture and the media.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932).
Despite these virtues there was lack of interest in abstract painting, indeed most painting, at the end of the 20th century. This was rooted in the invention of photography during the 19th century, which in itself questioned the relevance of all painting (Fendrich, 1997). The representational and relatively instant nature of a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from the 1930s is even more marked today with the arrival of iPads and smart-phones linked to the immediacy of social media and celebrity culture.
In 2014, the online news website “Buzzfeed” declared ‘no other picture matters’ more than the photograph of American celebrity couple Beyoncé and Jay Z posing in front of the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the western world.
Beyoncé and Jay Z standing in front of the Mona Lisa (2014).
(Left) Patrick Heron, Azalea Garden: May 1956 (1956). (Right) Terry Frost, June, Red and Black (1956).
Buzzfeed’s (2014) statement ‘no other picture matters’ implies a crisis for all painting, let alone abstraction. Therefore, why be an abstract painter today and more importantly, what is the relevance of abstract painting now? In 1958, art critic Denys Sutton (1958, p.3) described the emergence of abstract painters in Britain such as Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, John Hoyland and Gillian Ayres as a sign of ‘post-war restlessness’; painters were eager to ‘press ahead into little charted territories’, striving for ‘optimism’ and ‘positivity’ to ‘make one’s mark in one’s own time’.
I believe we – contemporary abstract painters, particularly those in Britain – are doing the same today. We are restless in the Digital Age, desiring optimism for both the genre and our time. Optimism is evident by the number of abstract painters in the Priseman Seabrook Collection and the many others working in the United Kingdom, embracing optimism and abstraction’s ‘content free status’ (Parkinson, 2015a). Some abstract painters are captivated by music, philosophy, memories and daily surroundings; others are fascinated by digital systems and patterns or immersed in process and improvisation; some painters work between abstraction and representation, while others delve in the behaviour of colour, form and space. Today’s charted territories are both separate and overlapped.
Are contemporary abstract painters pressing ahead like their predecessors? Perhaps not, as Parkinson (2015a) points out, abstraction today is no longer new, everything has been done before. Despite this, I argue that we are making marks in our own time by finding solace in the history of painting, combining previous ideas with today’s concerns and embracing or reacting against the technological accelerations of the 21st century. One thing that unifies us – particularly those in the Contemporary Masters exhibition – is the desire for the hand-made, painting with brushes and paint, using one’s hand and physical supports such as board or canvas rather than computers and touch-screens; we are immersed in the materiality of paint. This longing to use our hands stems from primitive humans and can be traced back thousands of years in cave paintings such as the Cave of Hands in Santa Cruz, Argentina.
Are contemporary abstract painters pressing ahead like their predecessors? Perhaps not, as Parkinson (2015a) points out, Abstraction today is no longer new, everything has been done before. Despite this, I argue that we are making marks in our own time by finding solace in the history of painting, combining previous ideas with today’s concerns, embracing or reacting against the technological accelerations of the 21st century. One thing that unifies us – particularly those in the Contemporary Masters exhibition – is the desire for the hand-made: painting with brushes and paint; using one’s hand and physical supports such as board or canvas instead of computers and touch-screens; we are immersed in the materiality of paint. This longing to use our hands stems from primitive humans and can be traced back thousands of years in cave paintings such as the Cave of Hands in Santa Cruz, Argentina.
The Cave of Hands in Santa Cruz, Argentina.
In his 1930s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production, Walter Benjamin (1936) discusses the shifts in perception and its affects in the advent of film and photography in the 20th century and argues that original works of art lose their aura through reproduction. Unlike reproductions, Benjamin (1936, p.13) declared that works of art in their original, physical states are tangible and therefore have an aura about them or as he puts it, ‘the work of art [becomes] primarily an instrument of magic.’
Today in addition to prints, books and newspapers, art is reproduced digitally and consumed through smart-phones and the Internet. We are constantly bombarded with pictures through electronic devices; moreover, art is often encountered rapidly in museums and galleries. I believe contemporary abstract painting is true to the aura that Benjamin (1936) argued encompasses original artworks. Abstract painting invites viewers to slow down, to ponder and observe closely. Psychologist Jordan Peterson (2017) asserts spectators gaze at paintings ‘in ignorance and wonder’, seeking meanings previously unknown to them. This is the relevance of abstract painting in the 21st century, a persistent aura which entices viewers to gaze, perhaps not in ignorance, but in wonder, contemplation and speculation, more so than a purely representational painting. Spectators are encouraged to find ‘alternative truths’ (Fendrich, 1997 p.4), offer their own associations (Parkinson, 2015a) or consider the complexities of imagination and reality.
Jackson Pollock, Convergence (1952).
Visitors looking at Jackson Pollock’s paintings (2015).
I often encounter the aura of abstract painting when visiting exhibitions. One example of this was Jackson Pollock’s Blind Spots show at Tate Liverpool, England, in 2015. Many spectators like myself spent a long time observing Pollock’s paintings, contemplating the meanings behind the splatters and blobs, gazing through the copious layers of paint and wondering how and why they were made. This process of examining and questioning still captivates abstract painters and spectators today. In our world of instant communication and ephemeral art such as installations, performance and video, abstract paintings are tangible and can be felt emotionally and physically; they have aura.
Charley Peters, Interference CMYK#2 (2015).
Although Fendrich (1997) believes abstract painters should reject digital tools such as cameras, computers and the Internet, some are using it to their own advantage including painters Charley Peters and Andy Parkinson. Peters’ process of drawing and painting is transformed by digital technology, encompassing virtual play. She interrupts the two-dimensional plane and modifies flatness, freezing the image and generating abstraction that reflects both anxiety and optimism of the screen (Noga, 2016).
(Left) Andy Parkinson, Wrap Around (2016). (Right) Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942/43).
Parkinson’s patterns and chequered grids are often interrupted with glitches or malfunctions. He reorders or modifies canvases that were once finished, then re-paints them, developing change and extension; the decisions as to what should happen are determined beforehand (Noga, 2016).
These examples share similarities with Piet Mondrian’s grid paintings from the 20th century. Mondrian was fascinated by New York’s enormous skyscrapers, busy street-life and neon signs – the metropolis made an overpowering impression on him (Elgar, 2012). Systems, patterns and digital data fascinate Peters and Parkinson in the same way Mondrian was captivated by the futuristic nature of New York. Parkinson (cited in Noga, 2017) works in ‘pattern and surface as opposed to “picture”’, mirroring Mondrian’s belief that ‘the emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object … the object must be eliminated from the picture’ (cited in Elgar, 2012). In these contemporary cases, the idea of the picture is eliminated to reveal the emotion of movement and optical interference, perhaps an instance of abstraction as beauty in the 21st century.
Julian Brown, Tattoo Lagoon (2017).
Another example of contemporary abstract painting is the blurred territory between abstraction and figuration – figuration being something representational, fleeting or otherwise. Natural forms, memories and philosophical thoughts are transformed into geometry or distinct shapes. The autonomy, purity, logic and order of abstraction adopted by 20th century movements such as De Stijl and Constructivism (Parkinson, 2015b; Elgar, 2012) are often melded with gesture and expression. Julian Brown’s paintings evoke this mixture, as depicted in his painting Tattoo Lagoon. Are we looking at half circles, speech commas, moons, or boats sailing? Although the title implies water – a lagoon – there is no ‘heroic quest’ (Parkinson, 2015a) for the answer. Instead, viewers formulate their own meanings.
David Manley, Bird Calls (2017).
David Manley’s paintings such as Bird Calls are also examples of how abstraction and figuration is blurred; his outcomes often show geometric and hard-edged and forms. At first glance, the composition in Bird Calls appears to be abstract: triangles, circles and a wonky square. Yet it could also be a picture of late summer in the South of France with birds flying around a sun, made up of layers of paint that have been altered over time.
Lucy Cox, Zippy Six (2017).
Although my paintings exist in the realm of abstraction, particularly geometric forms that play with the behaviour of colour, movement and figure / ground relationships, viewers have made various associations including sculpture, elegant figures and human arms reaching upwards.
Unlike purists such as Malevich who believed a picture’s realism consisted of only lines, forms and colours (Elgar, 2012), many British abstract painters from the 20th century such as Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Gillian Ayres moved between opposite poles of Realism and Abstraction (Sutton, 1958). Moving between poles still exists today; like their predecessors, some contemporary abstract painters are not irritated by additional associations; meaning is still ‘both invented and fluid’, forming part of our everyday experiences (Parkinson, 2015a).
Paul Klee, Castle and Sun (1928).
The 20th century painter Paul Klee worked in a similar way to David Manley and Julian Brown; he was a ‘masterful inventor’ of condensed signs and forms (Elgar, 2012 p.50). At first glance, Klee’s works appear to be colourful abstract compositions, but as the title of one painting Castle and Sun suggests, imagery also evokes representation with forms such as ‘castle’ and ‘sun’. Elgar (2012, p.50) believes Klee’s paintings are not pure abstractions; titles including Castle and Sun, High Roads and Byroads and Fish Magic, returns them to ‘figurative or representational order’. I argue that using titles like Fish Magic, Tattoo Lagoon or Bird Calls does not return paintings to such confinements; rather the artworks float between the two as if ‘fluid and tactile’ (Brown cited in Priseman, 2015). Fluidity is often a conversation between the viewer and the maker, an in-between state.
Going back to the original question, why is abstract painting relevant in the 21st century? Unlike Fendrich (1997) who believed it to be irrelevant at the start of the millennium, I believe its vibrancy and growing popularity in Britain today proves otherwise. Indeed, it is perhaps still the most ‘difficult-to-understand’ type of painting, but with the ever-increasing immediacy of technology, photography and celebrity culture, contemporary abstract painting is challenging and enticing.
Abstract paintings invite viewers to slow down, to speculate and seek out both their own truths and the painters’ intentions. For the painter its diversity or ‘content-free status’ (Parkinson, 2015a) and the ability to work between poles make it compelling.
I believe there is still optimism for the genre as there was in Sutton’s (1958) time, if not more, especially in Britain. Abstract paintings are the pictures that matter, not celebrities standing in front of the Mona Lisa. The aura is as strong as ever today; a realm of diversity and complexity; a symbol of our time.
Written by Lucy Cox, September 2017. ©
Benjamin, W. (1936) Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Translated by Underwood, J. A. London and New York: Penguin Books.
Buzzfeed (2014) No Picture Matters More Than Beyoncé and Jay Z Posing In Front of The Mona Lisa. Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonvingiano/happy-to-be-in-paris?utm_term=.xdaoVqqmj#.lf98Qxx96 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Elgar, D. (2012) Abstract Art. Edited by Grosenick, U. Cologne: Taschen.
Fendrich, L. (1997) Why Paint a Painting at the End of the 20th Century? Available at: http://lauriefendrich.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Why_Paint_a_Painting_at_the_End_of_the_20th_Century.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2017).
Noga, L. (2017) Imperfect Reverse. Exhibition held at Camberwell Space, London, 18 October – 18 November 2016 [Exhibition catalogue].
Parkinson, A. (2015a) Contemporary British Abstraction. Exhibition held at SE9 Container Gallery, London, 28 February – 18 April 2015 [Press release].
Parkinson, A. (2015b) Geometry: Wonky and Otherwise. Exhibition held at Deda, Derby, September 3 – November 7 2015 [Exhibition catalogue].
Peterson, J. (2017) Bible Series X: Abraham: Father of Nations. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y6bCqT85Pc (Accessed: 5 September 2017).
Sutton, D. (1958) British Abstract Painting. Exhibition held at Auckland City Gallery, Auckland, May 1958 [Exhibition catalogue].
AP Photo / LM Otero (2015) No Title. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3325693/Exhibit-Pollocks-black-paintings-opens-Dallas.html (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Beyoncé (2014) No Title. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/u0yC5Rvw8X/ (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Brown, J. (2017) Tattoo Lagoon. Available at: https://twitter.com/julesfnbrown/status/851699511789580288 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Cartier-Bresson, H. (1932) Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Available at: http://100photos.time.com/photos/henri-cartier-bresson-behind-gare-saint-lazare (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Cox, L. (2017) Zippy Six. [Photograph]. (Lucy Cox’s own private collection).
Klee, P. (1928) Castle and Sun. Available at: https://www.wikiart.org/en/paul-klee/castle-and-sun-1928 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Manley, D. (2017) Bird Calls. Available at: http://www.davidmanley.co.uk/index/Recent_Work.html#2 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Mariano (2005) Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cueva_de_las_Manos (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Mondrian, P. (1942/1943) Broadway Boogie Woogie. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadway_Boogie_Woogie (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Parkinson, A. (2016) Wrap Around. Available at: http://www.priseman-seabrook.org/collections/21st-century-british-painting/ (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Peters, C. (2015) Interference CMYK#2. Available at: https://www.charleypeters.com (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Arts Rights Society (ARS) New York (1952) Convergence. Available at: https://www.albrightknox.org/artworks/k19567-convergence (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
The Estate of Patrick Heron (1956) Azalea Garden: May 1956. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/heron-azalea-garden-may-1956-t03107 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
The Estate of Sir Terry Frost (1965) June, Red and Black. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/frost-june-red-and-black-t00829 (Accessed: 20 September 2017).
I will be presenting this essay at Jiangsu Art Museum in Nanjing, China, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Contemporary Masters from Britain: 80 British Painters of the 21st Century’ at Artall Gallery, Nanjing (also known as the Jiangsu Arts and Crafts Museum).
The Contemporary Masters exhibition is touring across China – the first showcase was held at the Yantai Art Museum (July – August); other hosts include Jiangsu Arts and Crafts Museum (aka Artall Gallery) and Jiangsu Art Museum, Nanjing (October – November), and the Tianjin Academy of Fine Art, Tianjin (December 2017 – January 2018).
Jiangsu Art Museum was built in 1936 and is China’s first modern national art museum.
“This fabulous museum had a massive and lavish extension in 2013 with a brand new, dramatically modern exhibition block added next to its traditional, temple-style hall. Alluring displays [include] Jiangsu landscape painting, ancient calligraphy (…) sculpture and much more.” – Lonely Planet China travel guide, 15th edn.