11th February - 12th March 2011
Opening: 10th February 2011
Catalogue available with essays by Mel Gooding, Robin Greenwood and Sam Cornish.
This exhibition is sponsored by abstract critical, a new organisation which will act as a forum for today's most ambitious expressions of abstract painting and sculpture. Find out more at www.abstractcritical.com
High-abstract, an essay by Robin Greenwood
‘I believed... that abstract art was an incomplete kind of art, that even at its best it did not achieve all that art could do, that figurative art could be more complex, more specific, richer in human content.’
David Sylvester, About Modern Art 1996.
At certain high points in the history of visual art, figurative paintings by great artists such as we might all agree upon - Tintoretto, Constable, Cézanne and Matisse being a few of my own favourites amongst very many - have embodied states of profound plastic and spatial three-dimensionality and fully-developed form such as are not to be found elsewhere in any other feasible human endeavour. This, for me, is as good as visual art gets. Throughout the last five hundred years and more of a remarkable history, the spatial architectures of figurative painting have been exceptionally inventive, particular and diverse. In the best works, complex form and meaning become united, indivisible and coherent. One only has to bring to mind Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, recently seen at the National Gallery, to recall that the greatest objective form in painting can be made to feel so very personal and vivid, so synonymous with the conditions of our own physical and emotional states. It makes a mockery of the conceit of many a modern artist who, by discarding or dismantling the principles of painting and sculpture, declares that they aim to bridge the gap between art and life. Great painting has for a long time been really good at that.
But painting over the last sixty years or so, viewed from our particular perspective of the story of abstract art, has gone from being at the forefront of visual culture - abstract painting was in the 1950’s and ‘60’s a radical and principal mode of modernist expression - to a backwater of lost confidence and ambition. Painting is no longer guaranteed centre-stage in many galleries and museums (by clear directive of the principals of these institutions), and whatever new painting does remain in play in contemporary art is almost entirely figurative and often gratuitously weird and fatuous. The little that there is in the public domain of new abstract painting, meanwhile, is often derivative, ironic and literal; in fact, a kind of disguised figuration. Genuine and progressive abstract painting has gone underground. Nevertheless, my proposition is that it is precisely this unfashionable and much misunderstood area of activity (as well, of course, as abstract sculpture, which is held in even more disregard) which holds the promise of an authentic and liberated future for visual art.
To be clear about this, most contemporary so-called “visual” art is not tied to the particular and the visual at all, but to the ambiguous and the literal. The content of such art is to be found not in the work itself, in intrinsic attributes equating to and comparable with the plastic and spatial values of painting from the past, but as bolt-on additions to the art-object, often as a result of a curatorial interpretation, to be found on a label or a website or even as a replacement for the object altogether. It is the triumph, I hope temporary, of the collective literalism of instant art history over the particularised visual imagination of the individual artist. Should we choose to follow only this path into the future, we risk losing our ability to create and to appreciate art that is founded in the transformative visual relationships peculiar to good painting (and some sculpture); and we must take care too, with galleries and museums preoccupied as they are with the wholesale delivery of such curatorial interpretations, not to lose our liberty to discover in our own time and in our own way our own meanings in art, freely and independently. Of course, “meaning” is indisputably our real purpose, but meaning is not the same as interpretation; such meaning, such “human content” as is to be found in visual art, is of some consequence to us all in its broad revelatory effects quite because of its independence from either literal or literary interpretation. The scope and variety and resonance of all such meanings are solely reliant upon the quality of the visual form, which is the singular responsibility of the visual artist; such meanings are discovered only by the simple expedient of looking, the responsibility for which rests with the observer, if they so freely choose.
Herein lies the paramount problem with the literalness of contemporary art; it has no visual form. Often described as sculpture but better described simply as “art-objects”, being any kind of object or assemblage of objects whatsoever, contemporary art in all manner of its manifestations does not operate purely and purposefully through visual structures; it does not possess the means to deal in plastic and spatial values; it cannot achieve profound states of plastic and spatial three-dimensionality. Not one of the many novel materializations of contemporary art provides the kind of non-verbal meaning that we can find in a good painting. In order to discover such meaning in visual art, the day-to-day literal meanings of objects and relationships must be dismantled, melted down and reconstituted in the real-world crucibles of painting and sculpture, recreated as transformative visual relationships, the “real illusions” of art. Literalist art, of course, seeks an altogether different effect - to merely collage together everyday meanings in surprising combinations; but the surprise is short-lived compared to true visual creativity.
Whilst I can confidently make claims for the meaningful forms of figurative painting from the past, similar claims for the achievements of abstract painting to date are perhaps more difficult. Abstract painting presently has two problems: on the one hand, it has lost momentum by being sidelined by the popularity and accessibility of contemporary non-visual art, largely because of the ease, as already noted, of interpretations of such art and the comparative difficulty, often extreme, of such explanations for itself. On the other hand, many of the literalist tendencies of contemporary art sprang in the first place out of abstract art’s own downgrading of ambition, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, when the processes and materials of painting and sculpture heretofore in the service of the plastic and spatial values of vanguard visual art were deconstructed into literalism and “objecthood”, process and performance. A good deal of abstract art remains tainted by this disjunction of its means with its proper purpose and, much as I would like to make the distinction, there is no clear division between poor abstract painting and sculpture and any other sort of non-visual art around at the moment. In fact, it’s likely that the abstract art is more boring. There is not much worse in art than a dried up, barren formalism, especially abstract formalism. It is a distinction we need to make here - the pursuit of plastic and spatial “form” in visual art has only a passing linguistic relationship to “formalism” as such. Whilst the pursuit of new form is about being both inventive and creative, formalism relies upon academic compositions and formulas, and is yet another variety of literalism. The current weakness of the case for abstract art lies mostly in the ambiguity of many of these familiar mannerisms, such as geometry, compositional formatting, design devices, or those ubiquitous literal effects of process. And, dare I say it in the face of the wrath of the colourists, even the slender effects of structurally uncorroborated colour relations are not enough either. So Sylvester’s early-held view looks right. It depends upon what you are comparing with what, of course, but if you are going to compare the best figurative painting from history with the best of abstract art to date, then there is no contest. The structures of figurative art are massively more exciting, varied and imaginative. Whenever I doubt the wisdom of this, I imagine dropping a Constable “six-footer” into an exhibition of abstract art (or, indeed, any other kind of new art), and watching the subsequent collapse, like a house of cards, of most of our modern conceits. In truth, a so-called academic old painter like Constable could even now show us a thing or two about radicalism and invention in the plastic and spatial arts. His visual structures are more advanced, more sophisticated, “more complex, more specific, richer in human content” than ours are! Admit it! Only by admitting of the fact can we hope to match the ambition, the sheer visual audacity, of a great painter like Constable. This is, of course, a rod for our own backs as practising abstract artists; so be it.
Of course, looking back into history, figurative painters had all the advantages. They had everything-in-the-world as complex and specific subjects from which to start. Every possible spatial architecture that the world could provide to the eye was available to them with which to feed their imaginations (this is far more than the poor figurative sculptors had, but more of them later). They only had to open the door and step outside their studios to see a whole world of particular and varied possibilities - to say nothing of all the human stories and dramas with which to populate their worlds. What do abstract artists have? It looks dolefully meagre by comparison, and initially discouraging of any aspirations to match in abstract art the plastic and spatial achievements of the greatest figurative painting. Yet, though it may be difficult to see how such ambitious desires can be fulfilled, it is only in the deepest darkest mystery of such difficulty that one might find the freedom to invent something truly original. It is in that very void that the promise lies, the outrageous possibility of working towards an abstract painting without an idea or a conceit or any other kind of false agency, free from all constraining configuration. I know it invites ridicule in the current climate of literalism to suggest that the artist might work without ideas or concepts of what the work will be “about”, might shed all pre-conceived formats or images (even “abstract” ones) for the finished work - but I stand by it. This freedom, this openness, this desire for discovery, is the key to unlocking the big, wide-open spaces of new abstract art; it is the precise antithesis of conceptualism. Retaining only the ambition for strong visual form as a guiding principle, it becomes possible to work towards something embodying its own intrinsic sense of purpose and variety and interest. Such work might initially develop under the sway of several conflicting impulses and imperatives all at once, often in contradictory states. The work may proceed with give and take at all points, where nothing is sacrosanct, all elements can be either brought forward or disposed of, all expectations overrun, in a state of unique and daunting nonconformity, until finally, after many reversals and revisions, new form arrives. Or not! For nothing is guaranteed; it cannot be if this is to be for real. Strong new form will develop only from the artist being able, in the first part, to create perhaps unconsciously but nevertheless very precisely the meaning of one passage of material to another within a visual relationship; and then go further to find relationships and meanings with other passages in the work, and so on, to the point where the whole aspires to become, at the last, one complex relational entity, one form. This is, of course, making it sound straightforward when it is in fact immensely difficult and demanding. The strategies to achieve these ends will be tortuous and unheard of, and a far cry from the spontaneous ease of the abstract artist of legend. But it is only what the best figurative painters always did. Why should we think great modern art must be easy or simple? I suspect that on the contrary this new complex abstract art herein proposed will be of protracted difficulty, and require a considerable and sustained imaginative effort. Conclusions and resolutions will not be achieved swiftly, at least not until the whole project has momentum – until the forms start rolling out a little. The good artist will find all this an exquisite difficulty.
If abstract painting now has potential for the discovery of new visual form and meaning, then possibly abstract sculpture has even more. Abstract sculpture as it was originally established as a distinct entity by Anthony Caro and others in the early 1960’s had quickly eclipsed figurative sculpture, especially with regard to ambitious spatial values if nothing else. Equally quickly, following that initial dramatic breakthrough, most sculpture became inhibited again, this time by the beginnings of the pernicious literalism we have previously noted. The constraints of figuration were replaced by those of “objecthood”; so far, so disappointing. But it has become apparent of late that sculpture can take a very different direction from this, can become more wholly abstract than it was in the 1960’s. Unimpeded by boundary or configuration, image or “objecthood”, it can thence find ways to interweave real substances and real spaces in complex and transparent large-scale relational combinations which will be altogether new to art. Such exhilarating potential for the expansion of plastic and spatial values and the consequential delivery of new visual meanings is in marked contrast to the constraints put upon past sculpture by its almost singular subject of the isolated and often reposed human figure. Whilst it has undoubtedly had its moments of high activity and expression, from Michelangelo to Rodin and Degas, the history of figurative sculpture can bear no qualitative comparison to the complex and diverse spectacle of figurative painting as we have described it above, and looks to have little direct bearing upon the future of abstract sculpture, which might credibly be considered a new and only marginally related discipline. How optimistic for real visual art would that be?
Are these views subjective? Probably, but I do like those criteria of Sylvester: “more complex, more specific, richer in human content”. Unlike a lot of criteria by which we judge art, they seem plausible and modestly objective, at least in the first two of the three; and the third, the achievement of “human content” is such a great ambition for abstract art to have. Abstract art, it seems to me, has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into “human content”. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality. If these had to be tried out and mined out, then so be it, but mined out they now are; they no longer serve. It’s time to be more ambitious.
Abstract sculpture and painting are now uniquely placed as disciplines to achieve the expansion of our imaginative visual universe in the real world; should we fail in this, we are going to lose something of consequence to the breadth of our humanity. Should we prosper, such success would be brilliant and famous; for it is surely good and wise to keep our imaginative lives coupled by these means to our physicality. Figurative painting, as I said at the beginning, has been at times dazzling and lucid at this fusion of physical form and intelligent meaning. Abstract sculpture and painting can extend those achievements into the future. The works in this current exhibition give us a glimpse of that future, a look at some lonesome but prescient examples of high-ambition, high-complexity abstract art from the past 50 years, some possible exemplars of the new “High-abstract”. Welcome to a world of post-literalism. It’s going to be extraordinarily exciting.