by David Tycho
Wassily Kandinsky "Untitled" watercolour on paper 20 x 25 inches 1910
It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a 30,000-year-old artistic tradition. So it went in 1910, when Russian avant-garde artist Wassily Kandinsky eschewed any and all subject matter by dabbing a few colourful, amorphous shapes onto a 20 by 25 inch sheet of paper. He christened the little painting Untitled, further obscuring his intentions. The plebs were not amused.
In 1910, Russia was ruled by a czar, Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Canada had recently grown from seven to nine provinces, Imperial Japan annexed Korea, and Orville and Wilbur Wright had just sold their patent for a flying machine steerage mechanism. I mean to suggest, with all due respect, that 100 years is a very long time—too long for everyone to still be holding a grudge, and long enough, one would think, for people to have warmed up to the notion.
But this simply hasn’t been the case. Ongoing suspicions surrounding abstract art were emphatically expressed when the National Gallery bought Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (derisively referred to as “The Red Stripe”) for a cool 1.8 million in 1987, a paltry sum by today's standards. To exacerbate the collective wound, the gallery went out and bought a maddeningly austere Mark Rothko four years later.
Barnett Newman "Voice of Fire" acrylic on canvas 1967
Shortly after the Rothko purchase, I was at my brother’s for dinner. His buddy and shop steward for the human race had read an editorial on the subject, and he was fighting mad. “1.8 million for a red dot!” he kept blurting out Tourettes-like at anyone within spitting distance. I neglected to tell him that it was actually a white oblong on a red background, which would surely have taken the wind out of his sails. Hindsight is so 20/20.
A new generation has come of age since the National Gallery purchases, but the young’ns are no more convinced than their elders. They can be heard murmuring at local Future Shops and Starbucks that abstract art is the Emperor’s new clothes, and that sympathetic culture ministers and gallery curators should be put in stocks and publicly humiliated at Yonge and Bloor. Okay, I didn’t hear them say those exact words, but I could see it in their eyes.
Critics of Kandinsky and his progeny fall into two camps, with a few agnostics in between. One small group claims that abstract art is sublime and encapsulates all the depth and profundity that cannot be expressed by any other means—that it is transcendental in its very nature. The other overwhelmingly larger camp is less than convinced because they “saw a monkey paint one on T.V.” More accurately it was a chimpanzee and, as everyone knows, chimpanzees have no prehensile tail, which gives them a higher position on Darwin’s roster than their dung-hurling hillbilly cousins. But I digress.
Abstract painting has been called everything from garbage, to a sham, to wallpaper, to eye candy, to fluff, to masturbation, to the sublime, to the apex of visual art, to an instrument of American imperialism. It has even been called the handiwork of Satan, but then again, so have Teletubbies.
One fact which cannot be denied by even the most vociferous of naysayers, however, is that abstract art not only flipped and flopped and fought its way upstream, it survived long enough to spawn in those icy, early twentieth-century waters. But those insolent fry, like their forebears, would not confess to their inquisitors, “You’re right, we made asses of everyone, and a heap of money, but now I guess we should get down to the serious business of painting street scenes, mountains and portraits. That was some ride, though, you gotta admit.”
A vote of confidence for the often-maligned style was forwarded when many artists who had first mastered traditional drawing skills later dumped realism for its sexier cousins, expressionism and abstraction. Kandinsky did. Mondrian. Picasso. Kline. deKooning. And here in Canada, Paul-Emile Borduas, Jack Bush, Harold Town, Gordon Smith. All claimed that abstraction was not only more satisfying, but also more challenging than their earlier realistic work.
Picasso said it took him ten years to draw like the masters, and the rest of his life to paint like a child. Kline and deKooning abandoned their careers as illustrators to explore abstraction. Kline had been skeptical of the movement until he saw one of his drawings projected so large on a wall that the image was reduced to its structural components, not unlike seeing pencil marks through a microscope. It occurred to him that painting did not have to describe things—it was a thing. He immediately cast aside his illustrations of New York street scenes and dove into explorations of black and white paint. (He also, like many of his cronies, dove into a vat of scotch and drank himself to death. They weren’t about to be outdone by any damn poets or jazz musicians.)
When questioned on their rationale for switching from realism to expressionism and later abstraction in the first half of the twentieth century, artists gave an answer that went something like this: An apple is an apple, and any representation of it on a flat surface created by manipulating viscous pigments seems pointless, or downright silly. The camera does an admirable job of documenting people, events, and even apples if the photographer so chooses. The painter’s challenge, therefore, is to do something else.
Abstract art seems obvious and inevitable when viewed in a historical context. From the mid-1800s on, the art world coexisted with an array of cultural, social, political and technological revolutions, and artists saw no reason why they should be wallflowers at the zeitgeist prom. Cameras were introduced in the 1860s, compact, portable ones by 1895, so painters stopped colouring within the lines. Cold, classical realism was usurped by emotionally charged Romanticism, which eventually led to those lovely impressionistic scenes of Paris, which in turn begot Expressionism, those angst-ridden, thickly painted social critiques favoured by the Germans. In many works the subjects were barely identifiable, and painting was on the threshold of liberation and independence.
Then, on that fateful spring morning in 1910, Kandinsky ploughed his last recognizable subjects into the very paint that had been giving art its form since Paleolithic times. He postulated that if music was an arrangement of sounds in time, why couldn’t art be an arrangement of forms and colours in space? A violin mimicking a speeding train may elicit a few smiles, but no one takes it too seriously. It is not obligatory to translate melodies and time signatures into words—most listeners simply savour the aural bouquet and perhaps hum along. But gallery-goers often feel unfulfilled or cheated if no explanation is attached to an abstract work. I once watched an elderly woman in a gallery vainly searching for interpretation of a rather splashy and drippy piece. With brows furled, she stomped past me, muttering, “He must have been abused as a child.”
For a century, abstract painters have had to defend their work as legitimate, reasonable, and if one considers the history of art, inevitable. Just look at Mondrian’s tree studies as they become increasingly abstract; these logical transitions contend that painting had no other place to go.
Earlier, in Monet’s haystacks, the hay served as a textured screen onto which the sun’s rays and changing light and atmospheric conditions were projected. This allowed Monet to focus not on a quaint, pastoral narrative, but on the forms and colours, rather, just as musicians had been doing with notes and chords for millennia.
Claude Monet "Haystacks" oil on canvas 1891
When Kandinsky saw a Monet in 1895, he grumbled, “It was from the catalogue I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion.” But the painting haunted him, eventually propelling him deep into an aesthetic as yet unimagined by Monet. Some of Kandinsky’s zealous contemporaries would leapfrog their mentor, eventually painting themselves into a corner, many would say, when Kazimir Malevich painted a black square on a grey canvas. To identify a thread connecting a Rubens of 1701 and a Renoir of 1901 is easy. The compositions, colours and paint application are different, but we get it: beautifully painted, voluptuous women. To articulate a link between a 1901 Renoir nude and Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, on the other hand, requires a remarkable command of artspeak and a liberal measure of balls.
Abstract painters soldiered on, some banding together with grand statements about how their art was spiritual, or how it represented a new world order, or how it was a revolution against decadent capitalist ideals. The Communists and later the Nazis just didn’t see it that way at all, frightening the subversives into fleeing Moscow and Berlin for the less tempestuous waters of Paris and New York. Upon arrival, of course, the paint-splattered refugees immediately took it upon themselves to aggravate everyone in sight. Even Clement Greenberg, the American critic who later championed the abstract expressionist work of Pollock and Rothko, initially warned that Kandinsky was “a danger to young painters.”
Some curious critics, however, began to cover the exhibitions, a few even to embrace the work as fresh and innovative. Brave dealers then followed, and eventually collectors. Life Magazine presented this insular art world to the American public in their article on Jackson Pollock in 1949. The writer asked, “Is he the greatest living artist in the United States?” The public collectively peed their pants laughing and lined their kitty litter boxes with the piece. Time Magazine later dubbed Pollock “Jack the Dripper”, but old Jack was about to have the last laugh. That is until in 1956 he got stinking drunk and drove his convertible into an elm tree, killing himself and a lady friend in the process. Take that, you jazz musicians.
Jackson Pollock painting in his studio circa 1950
Not long after Pollock’s death, in progressive art schools, abstract was the only way to paint, and in that fickle monde d’arte, the realists were pronounced nerdy, uptight anachronisms and subsequently barred from hip galleries and museums. The Dripper had posthumously exacted his revenge, and the hatchet would be buried, albeit in a shallow grave.
Good thing, because as suddenly as the movement’s fling with New York critics had begun, it lost that lovin’ feeling by the mid-1960s, with all that altered consciousness, peace and social revolution going on. A new generation of critics looking to make names for themselves exhumed the hatchet, declared abstract art irrelevant, hacked it to pieces, and searched for new things to talk about. After all, how much could one say about a field of blue bisected by a red line: “That painting is a field of blue bisected by a red line,” I guess, not really enough to launch a fledgling career on. Old abstraction seemed pretty benign when compared to locking oneself in a room overnight with a coyote (performance art) or covering a cliff with plastic tarps (conceptual art) or just imagining groovy things and being too anti-materialist to even make them (super-cool conceptual art).
Painting and in particular expressionist painting rose from the has-been ash heap in the 1980s in Berlin, Rome, New York and Vancouver, to name but a few. The painters weren’t generally abstract, but clearly slopping and dripping paint was cool again, perhaps as a counter to what had become dry, intellectual and visually uninspiring in art; those little photos of urban decay and all that text (photo-text art) always did look a bit anomalous on expansive gallery walls. But alas, abstraction didn’t fare as well as the figurative work. Some of the old guard in Canada and elsewhere hovered between abstraction and figuration, but their careers were well established and financial and/or critical success was virtually guaranteed by the 1980s, regardless of what they created.
A next generation followed suit but have been for the most part marginalized by publicly funded galleries. Hope for the abstractionists was restored, however, in April of 2007 when Barbara MacAdam of ARTnews wrote, “Abstraction is in the midst of a revival, flaunting its brilliant past as it reconfigures itself for the future.”
Despite the tendency of most contemporary art schools to dismiss abstraction as a failed, self-indulgent movement, I do see the occasional young painter bucking esoteric, post-modern trends and executing poignant and sensual abstract work. It comforts my all too often disenchanted soul.
I have had some of my most revelatory contemplations while looking at abstract paintings. It wasn’t always like this, though. While attending university, I too was dubious of abstract art, but through increased exposure and familiarity, I came to appreciate and eventually adore it. It was the same with sharp cheeses, robust red wines and jazz music. After acquiring a taste for gorgonzola, I simply can’t go back to Kraft slices, and after Miles Davis, Lady Gaga just doesn’t do it for me.
One reason abstract painting is so misunderstood is that so few of us have the opportunity to surround ourselves with enough of it to begin to make distinctions and evaluations. We trot by them in galleries, paying them visual lip service. About music, on the other hand, we make more informed choices. If we could hang a variety of abstract paintings in out homes for months at a time, certain ones would seduce us. The late Montreal painter Guido Molinari said that he liked to hang his large minimalist paintings low enough for people to dance with them. And as Guido and we all know, slow dancing can be sublime foreplay.
Whether we waltz with or contemplate an abstract work of art, the profundity is not only in the work itself, but also in our ability to focus on it in an uncluttered state of mind. Buddhist monks focus on their breath and approach enlightenment, or if they are distracted, they wonder what the cook is preparing for dinner or who won last night’s sumo match. On this level, the “meaning” of the work changes from day to day, from viewer to viewer, from context to context. Abstraction is timeless and universal, unlike many other types of art that are only relevant in the here and now, or conjure up nothing more than feelings of nostalgia once their day has passed. Campbell’s soup cans just don’t excite me, I’m afraid, although I do appreciate the importance of Warhol. I’d just rather reflect on the ethereal oblongs of Mark Rothko than contemplate a chicken noodle soup label.
So, for his audacity to experiment, to shake up the status quo, to attempt to visually express the verbally inexpressible, and to dare to be sensuous and soulful in a world filled with pat or intellectualized depictions of the human experience, we should raise our glasses to this bold man and to his unassuming yet monumental watercolour of 1910. I know I often do, along with a slosh of cabernet, a nibble of brie, and the spare notes of Miles. Here’s to you, Wassily—and may those delinquent grandchildren of yours spread their unruly seeds.