15th September - 9th October 2010

Robin Greenwood:
Abstract Sculpture and Painting





Robin Greenwood: Abstract Sculpture and Painting

Some notes on form, meaning and interpretation.

The heads of two of London’s biggest art institutions, Nick Serota of Tate and Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, were reported last year to be in agreement on the future of our art galleries and museums: "Our future lies on the web, say museum heads", published in the Guardian, 8.7.09. One can see the attraction; the on-line world-wide dissemination of information about the British Museum’s historic collection; and the ease of access to Tate’s interests in conceptual and contemporary art, which are on the whole compatible with new forms of media. When it comes to painting and sculpture, however, the value of the internet tumbles to almost zero, becoming mainly a source of information regarding background and times of physical access to such art, with some dubious backlit reproductions. No mention was made by either party of the shortcomings of not being in the physical presence of the work itself - disadvantages which make finding meaning in visual art close to impossible.

Serota was further quoted on the Guardian website as saying of Tate that “In the past, there has been an imperfect communication between visitors and curators. The possibility for a greater level of communication between curators and visitors is the challenge now.” If there is to be a “communication” involved in any interaction with Tate gallery, should it not be between the artist and the visitor? Is not the curator’s job surely and simply to facilitate that process, rather than be the source of it, or indeed even editorialise it? What’s more, in the case of painting and sculpture, the physical presence of the work itself is a primary requirement for the meaning of the work to be “communicated”, if that is the right word. What is certain is that the meaning of a work of visual art is not to be found on a label next to the work, or on a website, or indeed in any kind of contextualisation or mediation or interpretation. The meaning is in the work, which is the point of visual art.

To quote the late, great Bryan Robertson, "Art is many things but it is not primarily a means of communication as we normally understand that utility. There are easier and certainly less laborious ways for one person to express an idea directly to another than by painting a picture or making a sculpture. In itself, the action would be unreliable. Conversely, no written or printed document, film or TV program, the proper media for communication in the usual sense, could ever convey with any compensatory degree of accuracy the true imaginative quality of Piero's Baptism of Christ or The Moroccans of Matisse. For media is an intermediary device: concerned with visual art, it uses inaccurate or irrelevant language; finally it involves falsification.”

Modernism during and since the 1950’s, comprising of the reductivist formalism of Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction, and the post-modern anti-form conceptualism in all its many variations which eclipsed it in the 1970’s, can be seen as the two opposing sides of a single inevitable trend towards the literalism of our age. Even the eminent Clement Greenberg, great modernist critic though he was, advocated the literal condition of flatness as an ambition for advanced painting, though stopping short of endorsing Minimalism. He was perhaps correct in identifying flatness as painting’s default state, though it is hard to see how this supposed purity makes it better than the compelling condition of a fully integrated plastic and spatial complexity. Similarly, Anthony Caro, an artist highly favoured by Greenberg, and the creator of much of the best sculpture of the 1960’s, was an early champion of the notion that anything can be sculpture. On the anti-form side, Joseph Beuys, in similar fashion, declared everyone to be an artist (In direct contradiction to which it is interesting to note how his cult of personality is his biggest legacy). Whilst one might enjoy the sentiments of both views, neither of these truisms has benefitted visual art. Neither achieved real freedom for sculpture, which was presumably their worthy aim; on the contrary, they helped to drag sculpture down into the maelstrom of literalism where it now languishes. “Literal” being the antonym of “creative”, it is the destroyer of properly visual content in art. Yet literalist art, despite not really being properly visual, has attained recent popularity because it so easily begets a superficial and popular explanation of itself, in the manner of an everyman’s interpretation. This is generally thought to be “what it means”.

Whilst some of the freedoms won for sculpture in the Sixties were real, they are easily confused and conflated with the literal state of “objecthood” which so many sculptors took on board at the time, often by simply calling anything they did “sculpture”. These freedoms can now be seen to be bound up with the much more difficult and complex task of finding a fuller, more imaginative three-dimensionality. The potential for such a truly liberated abstract sculpture is huge, and the possibilities for new and expanded plastic and spatial values so potent that weak form will not contain them; nor will illustration, nuance, mild sensibilities, good taste, literalism or conceptualism – or even, I might add, figuration. All these can be left behind. But complexity, uncertainty, and difficulty come with these freedoms.
As far as painting is concerned, I incline to the rather anti-Greenbergian notion that the convincing realisation of deep “plastic” space is painting’s greatest accomplishment. I’m thinking maybe of the best of Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens, Poussin, Constable and Pissarro (see especially the late series of the quays and bridges at Rouen); indeed, there are many painters of serious ambition who have, since the spatial gains of the early Renaissance, imaginatively assimilated the horizontal spaces of the real world as places where the structures of painting could rewardingly operate, and in ways which meant that the picture plane did not dominate. The best painting has often been an invitation to imaginatively “roam around”, albeit with the reality-check of the passage across and through the medium itself always held in close conjunction. (It is noticeable in some landscape painting how physically arresting a divergence from the norm of horizontality can be - see Pissarro again with The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise, or Constable’s Deadham Vale, or the big Rubens View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, all of which establish horizontal spaces only to upset them with the physical jolt of a change of level or incline). It might be reasonably argued that figurative painting since the early Renaissance has rarely benefited from flattening of any description - think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, full of vertical planes, yes, and yet primarily dependent upon the horizontal interaction and separation of its players and us for its structure and meaning. The same might be said of another masterpiece, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Here, as in much other great figurative painting, our very looking is horizontal. Horizontal is more inclusive, more spatial, less confrontational than vertical. More three-dimensional, even. With abstract painting, we are often brought up short by comparison, stuck on or around the picture plane, in an altogether more meagre space. There is no doubt that the best figurative painting of the past is spatially more adventurous than the best abstract painting of the present (so far). We should take note of that, and not, therefore, make retrospective judgements on the plastic and spatial achievements of the figurative painting of the past using the rather feeble “formal” or compositional criteria often used to conventionally evaluate art (both abstract and figurative), which have more to do with good design, taste or second-rate art theory. These weak criteria cannot be asked to function as some sort of codebreaker for ambitious painting. Tintoretto, Constable et al were into something far more audacious.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, if we turned our backs on all of the shallowly-entertaining sophistry of world art, we could try a more challenging experiment altogether. We could ditch all that literalist thinking and instead focus on the creation of new, robust, imaginative three-dimensional abstract form, ambitious and unfettered. Such a change would be fraught, not least for abstract painters who have clung to a two-dimensionality of ever-diminishing returns for the sake of – what? Purity, clarity, a complacency of thought about the potential of painting, at the expense of serious content? Difficult for abstract sculptors too, who cling to “the object” as their excuse for three-dimensionality. Difficult all round, but it would be an electrifying development.

So, how do we go about making new, more three-dimensional, more imaginative abstract form? How do we go about making abstract art as complex and particular as the best figurative painting of the past five hundred years? And indeed, how did we miss the fact that great painting was always very specific; the best figurative painting really does buttonhole physicality somehow, doesn’t it? How did we let abstract art drift into vagueness and generalisation? The business of making complex abstract painting or sculpture now, in 2010, is a long way removed from the spontaneous abandon and carefree self-expression which constituted the popular myth about being an abstract artist in the second half of the 20th century. That idea still has romantic appeal, but it will no longer suffice to produce progressive results. Having tip-toed all around the edges of abstract art, we now have to plumb its depths. Our modern abyss which we must face up to is the amorphous and vast complexity of possibilities, the endless potential, of empty abstract space. Having ventured there, we will have wondered if perhaps the very emptiness denotes order (see Minimalism again; it still seems a good option sometimes, but only for about two minutes, until you get bored). There is not even an extant tradition of painting and sculpture in there to pick up on. Yet, that will turn out to be a good thing if we are resolved upon creativity and not literalism. We must enter the abyss; and we must return with our sanity intact and our imaginations loaded with new “form-meanings” which can extend the disciplines of painting and sculpture into the future. We can’t any longer trust the “next new thing” like we did in the 1960’s; what we need is a better new thing altogether. We need progress. The artist has to put him or herself through a set of encounters, of chances, of coincidences, within the constraints of their chosen medium, but without limit to their scope or duration, that show the appearance of interconnectedness, of transformative visual relationships, of structures that mimic thought, that run in parallel with human consciousness. Each artist must find his or her own way to do this, but collectively these endeavours must answer to the future of visual art. The forms, the spaces, the elements that go to make up painting and sculpture are subject to the same recalcitrant and obstinate physicality that we, as human beings, are. We can get ill, we can get lame, we can die. These are real things, and the elements of real painting and sculpture are subject to these conditions too. They reflect what we are. Putting oneself in the way of such discovery and loss is where the hard work is. Chance plays a part, but persistence does too, particularly in dealing with the “loss” part of it. If we can get past that, then the form of the work itself can begin to look spontaneous and uninhibited, rather than simply being demonstrative of a literally spontaneous process. Then we can contemplate the true lucid order and inventiveness of the unconscious. We can feel the thrill of looking into the abyss; but our gaze will be contemplative and steady, our vision measured.

If we can indeed make such new and properly abstract work, we will need to look after it, and exhibit it properly, and look at it properly - that will be very important, and we might have to learn how to do it all over again. We will have to find strategies to enable us to be in the physical presence of the work in order to see it “in the present”. We will have to avoid the ubiquitous tendency in contemporary culture to historicise events, actions and ideas almost immediately, to ascribe interpretations in an instant. All art has, in the past hundred years or so, been re-mediated and recontextualised endlessly; first by books and photography (in catalogues like this!), then by film and television, now by the internet and mobile technology. This puts a distance between us and art, and few people seem to believe they can trust their own feelings and responses enough – just watch people in galleries now, who, having taken the trouble to turn up, take a mobile phone shot of the art (then photograph the label) and walk away: they cannot trust themselves to take away in their head anything of the experience of the art itself; nor do they have time to discover what is real in the work.

We are encouraged to believe, by artists, galleries, curators, critics and commentators - and indeed, directors of institutions even - that in accessing images of art via these new media and reading an accompanying text, that we can get a measure of the work. This may be true for art history, where the study of art is about context, and it may work for conceptual art, where the content of the work is literal or literary, but it will not work for real painting and sculpture, no matter what lengths are taken to elucidate it, even if the writing about the art is good. It misses the point of personal contact with such art. It misses out on that moment of entering the same actual space as a great work of art and being gripped to the core of one’s central nervous system by the physical interaction; it misses out on spending time with the work and unpicking that initial encounter and beginning to understand how and why the thing was put together in the way it was; and then it misses out on being able to imaginatively reconstruct the experience with a greater insight than before, such that one can walk away from the work with something very distinctly gained: not an image on a phone, but its meaning - or at least a first go at it. It is easy to think that we have seen a work of art by looking at a photograph or a screen image, but rather hard to remind ourselves every time that this is just not true. Looking at some form of reproduction is now so easy to do that it often seems too big an exertion to experience art unmediated by the “inaccurate or irrelevant language”, to quote Bryan Robertson again, of the media. We really do have to make that effort, though, if we are to experience what Robertson so cogently described as “a convergence of circumstances which enforce an unprecedented act of recognition”.

We can’t, of course, avoid the progress of the internet; but, despite seeming incommensurate with expectations of modern life and the progressive virtualisation of the arts, the continuing value of painting and sculpture will not be denied. We cannot doubt the power and excitement of the best work of Titian or Tintoretto, Rubens or Constable, Cézanne or Picasso, when we experience them for real. And of course we need good new art too; we always need new art, not least to keep alive and extend our understanding of visual form and meaning. For art to be real and free and meaningful, it needs to be experienced in a manner largely liberated of interpretation, whether intellectual or technological. Anything that mediates between you and the work changes and diminishes the nature of that experience. Visual art is not a language, and its meaning is not, therefore, translatable into words. Visual art is, as Robertson says, a revelation.

Robin Greenwood
July 2009, with amendments July 2010.

I’m aware of the irony, not to say possible disingenuousness, of publishing these thoughts on the mediation of art in a catalogue such as this, which is itself such an intervention (to say nothing of this essay and these photographs appearing on the Poussin website). But one of the things that has persuaded me over the years of the necessity of seeing visual art for real, alongside of course my experiences in galleries and museums, has been the strange business of trying to photograph my sculpture. Having made the work with an intention (not always achieved) to avoid “good views”, one is then required by photography to try to find them. It seems to have become almost a point of honour that what I think of as my best sculpture doesn’t photograph well. There is something important in this, I suppose.