Abstraction

Sean Scully in his studio

Sean Scully in his studio

Abstraction has been a point of departure in my work since the early part of my undergraduate training. Before becoming a student I was committed to what I thought of as realism; namely fantasy illustrations and comic books. At the time I equated “realism” with “detail”, for example, how realistically did the chain mail reflect light, how much detail was presented in the veins and muscular striations of superhero x. I was completely unaware of the abstraction involved in the way the human body (among other things) was represented on the covers of fantasy novels and in comic books – instead, I thought of these distortions as primarily related to the artist’s “style”. At the same time, I was hostile to, or rather ignorant of, modern art and thought that famous abstract artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock simply didn’t know how to draw.

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

When I started my training and began to learn about art history in concert with taking up painting for the first time, it took about a year to get over this prejudice. Eventually, I began to understand that modern abstraction was a choice, that it derived from certain historical conditions, that it was, in part, a reaction to 19th century academic norms, and that it involved a notion of honesty: to the materials of painting, to a fragmented and disorienting experience of modernity, and to the viewer of the painting. I came to see the illusionistic window of realism as a kind of deceit, and the emphasis on surface and material in abstraction as a forthright statement of fact.

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

My understanding of abstraction has continued to evolve, and I no longer see representation and abstraction as oppositional terms. In fact, in the last couple of years, I have developed work in both veins simultaneously. For me, this is not a question of hybridity or eclecticism, but of specificity. Each point on the continuum of representation and abstraction offers certain possibilities and forecloses others, and each choice for each painting is made in relation to those options.

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

The tradition that my work is based in, and the work of artists whom I find indispensable, definitely relies on abstraction. However, one of the drawbacks of abstraction is the tendency for its discourses to invoke notions of purity. It is not my purpose here to re-hash or counter these arguments, but simply to point out that purity of any sort in painting is a losing proposition. Further, I am dubious of the moral stance that is often taken up in relation to the refusals entailed by so-called non-objective art.

Although I admire the non-objective work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, to name only two examples, the artists that have really fed my thinking about painting (both abstract and representational) have proposed a more problematic relationship to the question of making paintings in general. The problem with purity is that it doesn’t allow for the messy, ambiguous contradictions of concrete existence.

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

For me, paintings have nothing to do with utopias, ideals, essences or other tropes of purity. They have to do with lived experience.  The processes and materials of painting are means to an end, specifically that of inquiring after some aspect of real life. It is therefore irrelevant whether a painting is more or less abstract, except to the extent that its relative position on the continuum allows that inquiry to unfold.

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

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