Monday, October 23, 2006


[This is not my last digression into the difference between illustration and abstract art. It is probably not even my second to last digression. But take heart, because the end is definitely in sight.]

The inspiration behind abstract art was bold and brilliant. As Holland Cotter wrote about the invention of cubism:
The day of pure optical pleasure was over; art had to be approached with caution and figured out. It wasn't organic, beneficent, transporting. It was a thing of cracks and sutures, odors and stings, like life. It wasn't a balm; it was an eruption. It didn't ease your path; it tripped you up.

The problem is, once artists cast off the shackles of the old standards, there was no consensus on new standards by which to determine quality. By 1918, the Russian painter Malevich, seeking the ultimate essence of painting, produced an all white canvas:

Fifty years later, the American painter Reinhardt improved on Malevich by unveiling an all black painting:

For peasants like you who might question the value of this kind of art, Reinhardt explained: "A fine artist by definition is not a commercial... or applied or useful artist. A fine, free or abstract artist is by definition not a servile or professional or meaningful artist. A fine artist has no use for use, no meaning for meaning, no need for any need." Got it?

Malevich and Reinhardt were conceptually interesting, but modern art had already turned down the path toward its current dead end. Years later, High Performance Magazine, the avant garde journal of post-modern performance art, published the following goofy article on the work of performance artist Teching Hsieh:

Since July when Hsieh announced that for a year he would not do art, look at art, speak about art or think about art , we have been unable to find out any more information.... Friends speculate that the piece grew out of the frustration he experienced trying to organize a one year torch carrying piece that required a minimum of 400 participants. Even after running full page ads in the East Village Eye and other publications, Hsieh was only able to come up with around 200 interested people, whereupon he dropped the idea and announced his "no art" piece. Fallout from the piece has been that he refuses to visit old friends because they have too much art on their walls, and avoids Linda Montano, his friend and collaborator for his last year-long piece in which they were tied together, because Montano is doing a seven year "art/life" piece in which everthing she does is declared art."

Don't believe me? Look it up. Issue no. 32

Obviously, neither Malevich nor Reinhardt nor Teching Hsieh ever read a poem by Stephen Crane (1871-1900):

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant--
What then?
Many artists have disrobed in the hope of consummating a relationship with the existential void, only to discover that the existential void ain't interested.

I agree with Clement Greenberg, one of the earliest supporters of abstract art, who wrote:
The nonrepresentational or abstract, if it is to have aesthetic validity, cannot be arbitrary and accidental, but must stem from obedience to some worthy constraint.

Without the constraints of subject matter, objective standards, technical skill, or even the limitations imposed by dealing with a physical object of any kind, the floodgates were opened to charlatans, profiteers and others who dilute the meaning and pedigree of art.

Next: a solution?


Anonymous said...

Malevitch has not produced a full white board. It's white ON white, there's a box inside it. You should see it...

And about the black on black : seek some info on Rodko.

David Apatoff said...

Arcanum-xiii, I would be interested in hearing whether you think "white on white" is different from plain "white" in any material sense. I would agree that if we are trading manifestoes about art theory, there are all kinds of intellectual distinctions that might be drawn. But if the work of art stands alone, what do you think?

Also, I looked up Rodko and I'm not sure how his art relates. Did you mean Rothko?

colin said...

Since I'm a big know-nothing, I went looking for Malevitch's work online. So White on White is actually a bluish-white square on a white background. Hm. Seeing a painting as a reproduced image on a screen is rarely the best way to appreciate it, I guess. It looks like a nice enough simple design, but I don't think it would make me yodel, even in real life. Black Square even less so. His quote on Wikipedia about the supremacy of "feeling" seems at odds with the lack of power in his most famous works.

But anyway, I won't go on, because I don't know much about the topic, and because I don't think this was really supposed to be a discussion about the merits of Malevitch in particular anyway.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, abstract art is like any other sort including representational, in that it is worthless if the viewer doesn't want to look at it.

I think you can really sum up the distinction between art-school bosh like "my life for the next year is art" and someone who does actual abstract art like Miro or Basquiat with that as a rulestick.

Unknown said...

I once sent a letter to a friend with "Ad Reinhart" written in the sender corner on the envelope. Inside I put a blank piece of paper and nothing else.

Anonymous said...

An artist friend told me this story-A rich man went to a gallery and saw an abstract painting. The gallery owner convinced him to buy it. Happily, he bought the painting at an exorbitant price . When he reached home with the painting, he noticed his 5 year old son was playing with paints on a piece of paper.On closer look, he was astonished/shocked that the picture his son jhad just drawn looks exactly as the million dollar painting he just bought;)

David Apatoff said...

Colin, I agree with you. I should add that I don't object to Malevich's inspiration to make a painting about the difference between warm white and cool white--separating and distilling the issue of color to its essence in a large painting. It's just that I don't think it is a terribly profound insight when there are lots of marvelous works of art in the world showing a very sophisticated appreciation for nuances of white (while accomplishing other things at the same time).

Anonymous, I agree with you 90%. Art is worthless if the viewer doesn't want to look at it, but sometimes the viewer has to be schooled to keep an open mind, to understand the meaning, to appreciate the issues being addressed. Sometimes art is hard work, but that's OK too.

Ape lad-- perfect!

Anonymous said...

Picasso said something along the lines of 'being able to draw as well as Rembrant at the age of nine' he then went on to say that it took him the rest of his life to learn how to draw as well as a child.The Canadian government bought 'Voice of Fire' (Barnett Newman) for 1.76 million (about seven hundred American dollars) and this purchase set off a massive furore. People all over the country were angered that tax dollars had been spent on a painting that 'their six year old could've done'political cartoons mocked the painting, there was an inquiry into the purchase and to this day people still shake their heads when confronted by the painting at the National Gallery. Personally, I kind of like it, I'm not sure I understand it, but I like it. Craig

leifpeng said...

David; I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying your posts and the related comments/debate/discussion (so much more constructive and diplomatic than the invasion of the Chris Ware Defense League was! ).

I'm beginning to think that works like Malevich's, Reinhardts, or Barnett Newman's must be "experienced" in person. My wife and I went to an opening of a friend's abstract works a couple of weekends ago and experiencing her larger-than life paintings in an outdoor setting in the countryside, as she intended them to be experienced, was profoundly moving - whereas I can imagine if I showed them to you cropped and inserted into the body of a blog at 3 by 3 inches they would be nothing more than "kind of neat".

Maybe that says something about an intrinsic limitation of abstract art: does the artist ( and the art ) ask too much of the viewer? Do you need a degree in Art and a willingness to travel to the location of the original and an open enough mind to accept the artist's intent to really "get" a lot of abstract art?

And maybe this also says something about the nature of illustration: since we live in a largely uneducated society with no training in esthetics and a desire for immediate gratification, illustration makes art accessible to everyone - even those who don't realize they're looking at art.

If you're willing to accept that premise, it only underscores how important is the role of applied art professionals to produce quality work - they are providing society with an incidental education in art!

Anonymous said...

David : yeah, I mean Rothko... sorry.

White on white is the end of a process, where he has gone to the max of it's thinking.
White on white is an absolute, the suppreme perfection in this. It's not done for the pleasure of it.
After this work, Malevitch has totally change his work! He has too.

Mondrian has study for 22 year his idea, with only three primal colour, white and black line - but still, everyone is different and the process is more and more refined. Until he has meet another element that he has to add into his reflexion (jazz and New York City).

Those piece cannot be seen alone. They're part of continuous process, the work is everything done to get to the last piece!

Anonymous said...

I like your blog, but you're a crumudgeon, and deeply unfair to works that you don't like. As Arcanum-XIII said, the Malevitch is two colors, and the brush strokes are vivid and obvious when seen in person. His painting is not flat color like the "color field" painters of the 50s and 60s, but a very busy painting with endless brush strokes.

On the same level, Malevitch is not 'pure' black. In fact, his paintings are near impossible to photograph because he typically uses insanely subtle variations of black and paints black squares in various formulations. Try looking at the pic in this link, which isn't black, to see what I mean. His paintings require more then a quick glance, and only then do you see that there are many squares of black within the larger black. After staring at the paintings for just a few seconds, the various black squares seem to change color and move (according to a physicist friend, it's because your rods and cones are saturated, and the subtle, but obvious differences, plays tricks with your vision). Ellsworth Kelly DID do what you're talking about, along with other 50s and 60s color field painters, but that's not what Reinhardt is famous for.

All that said, I'm not a fan of Malevitch's paintings - I prefer Klee's sense of line and color. I love Reinhardt, but I love optical illusions of all kinds.

And as you know, without those early innovators, there would be no artists like Searle or a great deal of the design we see around us.

And that said, I like your blog.

Anonymous said...

I meant to write that Ad Reinhardt's painting is not pure black, but I accidentally typed Malevitch.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with troy.
I saw Reinhardt's black painting, it has nothing to do with the pictures you get on the internet (where you are more likely to observe the artefacts of jpeg compression and the gross limitations of your lcd screen than the nuamces of black)
It is really a beautiful painting. It shows a lot of control and technique, as well as outright simple beauty, it flatters the eye, the perception, you like to look at it, it's just beautiful.