But is it art? Abstraction

In earlier postings on the “But is it art?” topic I looked at conceptual art, broadly conceived: the spawn of Marcel Duchamp, you might say. There’s another strain of art that has famously given rise to the query: abstract art.

An anecdote, from years ago at a reception for the opening of an exhibition of abstract art at the Columbus Museum of Art. I was contemplating a painting by Morris Louis (one of his Stripes series; see below) when another gallery-goer, looking disapprovingly at the offerings, remarked to me, “The rot began with the Impressionists”, conveying (I suppose) that when the Impressionists moved away from strictly representational art, the long slide began that eventually produced Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollack, and all the rest, including Louis.

I don’t know why people like this guy go to exhibitions like the one we were at, but I slid away from him and went on to a CMA poster sale, at which I bought a reproduction of a (large) Louis Stripes piece.

Notes on Louis and then very briefly on abstract art.

Morris Louis. From Wikipedia:

Morris Louis, born Morris Louis Bernstein (November 28, 1912 – September 7, 1962), was an American painter. During the 1950s he became one of the earliest exponents of Color Field painting. Living in Washington, D.C. Louis, along with Kenneth Noland and other Washington painters formed an art movement that is known today as the Washington Color School.

… All of the Color Field artists were concerned with the classic problems of pictorial space and the flatness of the picture plane.

… Morris Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1962 and soon after, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1962. The cause of his illness was attributed to prolonged exposure to paint vapours.

Except for some biographical details and the sad note about Louis’s having probably been poisoned by his own artistic materials, the article is framed entirely in terms of the concepts of art criticism.

More detail along these lines in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (Metropolitan Museum) piece on Louis’s Altpha-Pi (1960):

After a visit to New York in April 1953, where they saw the recent paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, Washington-based friends Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland began to similarly stain raw canvases with diluted pigment, rather than apply it with a brush. Experimenting with different painting techniques and media, compositional formats and canvas sizes in the nine remaining years before his untimely death (from lung cancer), Louis produced an astonishingly large body of work. These paintings are divided into three basic series: the Veils (1954–60), the Unfurleds (summer 1960–January/February 1961), and the Stripes (January/February 1961–summer 1962).

Alpha-Pi is one of about 150 Unfurleds he created, generally on mural-size canvases (this one measures over 8 feet by 14 feet). In all of them, irregular rivulets of different colors flow diagonally down toward the lower center of the canvas, but never quite meet; the center of the unprimed canvas remains blank. Heavily diluted, the poured colors soak into the canvas, becoming one with the surface, and maintain the flatness of the modern picture plane. Color retains its optical purity (since it is not used to describe or define something else) and there is no sense of narrative, image, or perspectival space as in traditional painting. Eschewing illusionistic references, the artist forces the viewer to focus solely on the painting’s formal elements—color, size, and shape and the vibrant, light-filled space they inhabit.


Then a Stripes painting, Number 1-68 of 1962 (reproduced here to give some sense of its size):


Then Wikipedia on abstraction:

Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality. The arts of cultures other than the European had become accessible and showed alternative ways of describing visual experience to the artist. By the end of the 19th century many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.


One Response to “But is it art? Abstraction”

  1. Peter Mendelsund | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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