Sunday, February 24, 2013

Inventing Abstraction

When meeting an abstract painting, my first reaction is usually “What are you saying?!”   When I attempted an abstract painting for the first time, it dawned on me that I did not even know where to begin; it is so much easier to paint something real.  Why is it so hard to appreciate abstract art?

My Aha moment came when we went to the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York on Feb 17th on the 100th anniversary of the legendary 1913 Armory Show in New York City when modern European art was first introduced to the public in United States.

As one walks into the gallery of this special exhibit on MoMA’s top floor, you are greeted by a 1910 painting of the master artist Pablo Picasso (see photo below on the left, sourced from Google Image).  If you try to search for a clue to figure out the subject of this painting, you may barely identify an object at the lower center of the painting that looks like a mandolin.  The rest of the painting however looks more like mumble jumbles no matter how pleasing and appealing to our visual senses.   If I tell you the title of this painting is “Woman with a Mandolin”, you may possibly convince yourself and others, after the fact, that the forms and lines above and behind the mandolin could be a woman figure (could it be a man?).   If I show you a pre-cursor entitled “Girl with a Mandolin” that Picasso had done earlier in that Spring of 1910 (see photo below on the right), does everything make more sense to you now? 

It became clear to me then that the main reason I could not decode completely this important work (and most other abstract paintings) because there is almost nothing in the painting looks familiar to me (based on MY knowledge and experience.)    That is, if the artist and I do not share similar experience and can’t communicate in some common languages, and if there is no supplemental information or “translation”, how could I possibly hope to understand what the artist is saying through his/her work?  Indeed how is this any different from other situations when we are confronted with something foreign and outside of our expertise or experience?  With such a realization, I no longer feel intimidated.  I realized that I can in fact do better.  I can learn a little more the context and the language of the artists to communicate with them through their work.

The painting “Woman with a Mandolin” was fittingly placed at the entrance of this exhibition because it was a bifurcation point in Western modern art.  It represents the furthest Picasso had gone in his works in terms of the level of abstraction. While many artists had continued to pursue abstraction in various ways at the time, Picasso chose instead to add back more (fragments) of figurative representations (or what he called “attributes”) to his subsequent works including those that defined Cubism, the most influential art movement of 20th century.  One of his famous quotes was that “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something.”  Many art historians had noted that Picasso believed strongly in maintaining the connection between his work and the things in real world.  

Turning to the right after viewing Picasso’s “Woman with a Mandolin”, one sees another historical painting - Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 “Impression III (Concert)” (see photo on the right, sourced from Google Image).  Again, if you did not know the title nor the context of the work, it would be extremely difficult to guess what the objects of the painting represent.  With the help of the title, most viewers would probably have guessed correctly the large black form in the painting is a piano and those smaller slim figures are orchestra and the audience. 

But what about the big yellow patch that takes up almost a third of the canvas?   It turns out this warm bright color depicts Arnold Schoenberg’s music.  Kandinsky, being the leading theorist advocating abstraction at the time, had actually been struggling to create abstract painting.  The breakthrough came when he attended the concert of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet Op. 10  in Munich on Jan.2nd, 1911.  What Schoenberg had achieved and demonstrated was a new type of music that is atonal.  In particular, the last movement of this string quartet has no key signature and is devoid of diatonic harmonies found in traditional music (thus again, unfamiliar to most).  Inspired by the new style, Kandinsky sketched out that evening the painting Impression III (Concert) that demonstrated abstract visual presentation of color, form and lines can be “ just as abstract, emotional, and spiritual as Schoenberg's music!”  How is this any different from the story that Steve Chu got the idea of his Nobel Prize work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light when he saw snow flakes coming down from his office window at the Bell Labs?

One might question what is left if one pushes the process of abstraction to the limit through reduction, simplification and indirection?  Some artists did exactly that.  Not only narratives can be absent, colors can be removed, forms can be reduced, lines can be dropped, and title can be “untitled”.  In this exhibit, Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 painting White on White serves a good illustration of abstract works that show “pure artistic feeling rather than on visual depiction of objects”.  How far is it from the ultimate “nothing represents nothing”?

Nelson Goodman discussed the term abstract on Grove Art Online: “Since an abstract work is one without representation, or more generally denotation, the question naturally arises what an abstract verbal or linguistic work may be, a text that says nothing, a story that does not tell a story, a poem that does not speak of anything. Like a picture that does not picture, these works are deprived of a normal denotative function and refer directly by showing rather than saying, as by exemplifying patterns or expressing feelings…”  As a student of art, I certainly feel more comfortable with Picasso’s ideas on abstraction.  If ALL familiar forms are removed and the links to figurative representation of objects are absent, what are we left with?   What and how could I communicate beyond the mere raw emotion with others through the work?

Of course, abstract art in a broader sense is not new and has been in existence since the early days of the human history.  It has been and continues to be reinvented all the time in many corners of the earth in varying contexts, media with different tools.  One example is a recent calligraphy work by Dong YangZi 董陽孜in Taiwan (see photo below).   Can you tell what the characters are?  How critical is it?  I was told that Art comes first!  Indeed, it is no different from in music where music comes first.  How critical is the lyrics when you first hear a song that touches your nerves and evoked your unknown emotions?  Did you enjoy some Italian operas any less because you did not understand Italian?

What I have also learned from the exhibit is that the development of abstract art did not happen as a result of few geniuses dreamed up an approach and style in isolation from their studios.  The opposite was true.  The creative process was not unlike today’s races in bleeding edge applied science and technology.  Artists discussed and debated each other in bars, café and by mail from concept, theory to experiment.  They stood on the shoulders of masters like Paul Cézanne and challenged the tradition and the status-quo.  They explored and experimented; they competed and pushed each other to the brink.  Their social networks were not limited to fellow artists as illustrated in the chart to the right from the exhibit. They included poets, writers, composers and tool inventors, a true inter-disciplinary venture as what we might call it today.  Whether you feel comfortable with abstract art, I think you would agree that it was an exciting period in history.  I think you will enjoy it more and more as you spend more time with it.

Talk to you soon!

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