The Laws of Nature

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mile 8 ...

It's a beautiful moonlit night by the lake, and around the campfire the conversation is lively! Although I love the comfort of the fire and good company, I must continue my journey. The trail is becoming increasingly steep and difficult to traverse. But you've been helping me all the way, so I think I'll make it to the end - mile 10.

Yesterday, I left the trail in the Early 20th Century, a time when art theory became increasingly important and a number of "isms" rapidly increased. First, Futurism, and next Cubism. The geneology of influences that led to Cubism is interesting: Courbet to Cezanne to Picasso and Braque. Although the artists that were associated with Cubism at this time had differing opinions about what it meant, Picasso and Braque were recognized as the leaders. Most of us are very familiar with their work - right, Peggy? Pablo Picasso was the son of an academic painter, and so he learned traditional techniques. When he moved to Paris in 1903, he embraced Expressionism for awhile and then developed a cubist style by 1910. Georges Braque was the son and grandson of a house painter and decorator, and learned the trade. Later, he studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and also apprenticed with a decorator to become certified in 1902. Eventually, he fell under the influence of the Fauves and adopted their style. But, this didn't last long and his association with Cezanne, a major influence, led him to cubism around the same time as Picasso.

Braque explained that the aim of Cubism was not to reconstitute anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact... There is no certainty in what the mind conceives. Critic and poet Guillaume Appollinaire put it another way: Cubism differs from the old schools of painting in that it is not an art of imitation, but an art of conception which tends toward creation. Cubists altered lighting. They adjusted it for a more sublte and equal distribution. They also "correct" perspective. And, Picasso's further innovation was to pierce the closed form so that the painting no longer needed to represent the "skin" of objects. Those of you who are adherents to cubism can better explain this. Here are two examples of their work, Picasso (left) Braque (right):

Eventually, Picasso and Braque began to construct collages using every day objects (Carolyn ... your roots!) Collage opened up a new kind of exchange between art and life by suggesting that art isn't creation from nothing, but rather a form of improvization. This development complicated the previously established division between the "artist" and the "worker." The collage below top is attributed to Picasso, and on the bottom to Braque.

As an art student in the 1960's through 80's we were taught cubism to a certain extent, and also utilized the collage to practice design. The influence of these two men on my own work and training is enormous. While I didn't adopt the style of cubism, I learned a great deal from it.

Piet Mondrian, a Dutch Cubist, really pushed the envelope. He moved beyond an art form devoted to objects to one devolted to the relations between objects. Eventually, he explored only the relations between vertical and horizontal. This is a move away from the traditional use of "form." Here's a good example by Mondrian:

Again, in college we drew upon Mondrian's ideas to explore relationships in a non-objective way. Another influence on my development.
Before I leave Cubism, I'll acknowledge that there's a lot more to it and I'm certain some of you will fill in the gaps. Cubism had political affiliations and has changed form over time to include Analytical and Synthetic Cubism. This is not the road that I took as an aspiring artist.

World War I gave rise to new artistic movements as the war shook all of Europe. Dada and Surrealism emerged from the rubble of disrupted creative life in Paris, which had displaced writers and artists to places like Zurich, New York, and Barcelona. Dada and Surrealism were more than artistic movements, they were highly rationalized forms of counter-reason that became comprehensive strategies for living.

Dada began in a Zurich nightclub in 1916 that was set up to be an art gallery and experimental theater. The term "dada" means "wooden horse" in the sense of a child's toy. But, In French, it means a recurrent idea or obsession. The founders of this movement, Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara later claimed that they randomly chose the name from a dictionary. Hey, why not?? They avoided tacking on "-ism" because they thought it was pretentious. The art and performances at this nightclub were radical and emotive. Here's an example from the visual arts: Jean Arp made collages by just dropping pieces of paper onto another paper on the floor and gluing them where they fell. Dada eventually spread throughout parts of Europe. In Berlin, the group of artists rejected traditional art and the social system. They adopted collage as their style. In Paris at the end of the war, followers of Dada claimed we recognize no theory...Dada is rooted in disgust with the agressive and complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits.

Marcel Duchamp associated himself with Dada after rejecting Cubism. He wrote: I was interested in ideas - not merely visual products. He had been excused from military service due to a mild heart condition and spent the war in New York. At one point he began creating sculptures from found objects, which he dubbed "readymades." The most famous story is his sculpture "Fountain" which was a urinal that he signed "R. Mott" for a 1917 exhibition in New York. The urinal was completely unaltered, and when challenged, Duchamp claimed that as an artist he CHOSE the object and then created a new thought for it, thus making it art. This threatened the art world because it challenged the barrier between "art" and "life" completely. When you think about it ... what would happen if any one of us decided to do this today?

I honestly don't know what effect Dada has had on my development as an artist, except that it did expand my notion of the range of what may be called "art."

By 1924, Andre Breton and his associates broke with Dada and began a new movement in art: Surrealism. The theory behind this movement is the mobilization of the imagination and the use of the non-rational resources of the mind to create art. These artists attempted to reconcile dream with reality to create "surreality," which taps into Freud's notion of the unconscious. In fact, Surrealism is a refinement of Symbolism. Because most of us are very familiar with this movement, I'll just list some of the artists: Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Picasso (on occasion), Giorgio DeChirico, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, etc. Those of you who have better knowledge of this movement and its artists can inform us.

Here's one of my favorites by Dali:
Personally, I'm fascinated by Surrealism and have made several attempts to use it. I'm not as successful as Mark, but I'm working on it!

Time to move on to American Modernism. Around the time of World War II many European artists migrated to the United States, especially to New York. These artists engaged in discussions similar to our own - except in person. The first star to rise among the American Modernists was Jackson Pollock. By the 1940's he was in contact with the Surrealists who influenced his work to a point, until he developed non-objective "drip paintings." If you've never seen one of these in person, do so. The power and rhythm is overwhelming. His innovation was in distributing the viewer's attention over the surface as a whole and emphasizing its indivisibility. The work was spontaneous and deliberate. Art critic, Harold Rosenberg, described Pollock and his imitators as "action painters." They didn't create images as much as they created events. Again, we see a tearing down of the distinction between art and life (the artist's life).

The action painters were actually part of the newly emerged Abstract Expressionism. Barnett Newman, a notable Abstract Expressionist, provided us with this definition: Here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty. We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. OK ... this theory definitely contributed to my development as an artist. Newman's work has been described as "compositionless," where a single uniform color is broken by only a few slender vertical lines.

The dominant art critic from this period was Clement Greenberg (1909-94). He argued that visual art was finally liberated from the dominion of literature and music to become autonomous. This liberation lead to multiple inventions in art. He also pointed out that, over time, paintings were moving toward increasing flatness. The succession of flatness looks like this:

Manet - Cezanne - Matisse - Cubists - Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1950's, Abstract Expressionism was being overshadowed by new trends in art:
  • Neo-Dada- Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

  • Environments - Allan Kaprow's installations and "happenings"

  • Pop Art - Claes Oldenberg

  • Non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective - Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella

  • Post-Painterly Abstraction - Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler

  • Minimalism - (1960's) Donald Judd, Robert Morris

I'll end this sprint through the 20th Century with Conceptual Art, a child of the 60's. According to Sol Lewitt: the idea or concept is the most important part of the work. Such art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories, it is intuitive. In other words, conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art.

Conceptual Art is less a movement and more of a fundamental redefinition of art. It had enormous range and moved from the borders of America to Europe and beyond. And, the enormity of this movement reaches beyond my time and words in this blog. At this point in my journey, it's enough to know what it is.

Next time ... Postmodernism. Two miles more to go. Boy, am I tired! Where's my sleeping bag?


-Don said...

Whew! After that sprint thru the first 3/4's of the 20th century I am winded! What a great overview of what was going on during that tumultuous time of constant change and - dare I say it? - rebellion. =)

I especially like the succession of flatness. It seems so elementary when broken down to this simple formula. When you look at it historically, though, every one of those mentioned had to put up with so much derision and non-acceptance at the hands of critics and the public at the time they were breaking this ground. Interestingly enough, each of those listed I count as some of my biggest influences. It was thru Manet that I personally discovered and fell in love with the Impressionists. It was thru Cezanne that I understood how to break a painting down into planes of color. It was thru Matisse that I discovered color beyond what I had accepted as "true color" (the best example of this to me is "Green Stripe, Madame Matisse"). The Cubists awakened me to exploding/deconstructing forms and recreating them to suit my pictorial needs. The Abstract Expressionists, especially Pollock, taught me I did not need a specific subject matter - that emotionally context could be generated thru color and its application to the canvas. If you look at my progression as an artist, you'll find every one of these influences.

I must admit that most of my experiments with these art forms were in no way cerebral - in other words I was rarely responding to their words or tenets. I reacted to their works visually and emotionally and then tried to find my own way to what they had achieved. Often, it was after I had experimented that I would go back to try to figure out why they did what they did - and often I still didn't understand mentally, but I could sure understand viscerally. I don't know it this makes sense to anyone but me...

I'll stop my ramblings here for now...

Kathy, thank you for drawing me into your own personal journey of discovery. It has awakened in me a desire to revisit my own influences and even rethink some of the reasons I do things as an artist.


Kathy said...

Don - you're good sprinter! You make a good point about the critics, and I think that's a good topic. Their influence to shape art is considerable. It's enlightening to learn which of this artists informed your work, and how. I understand what you mean about the experimenting. Perhaps, without being conscious of it, we tap into what we've learned and automatically use it. I think I do. Actually, I think we MUST because, otherwise, we'd have to teach ourselves how to use line and color each and every time we pick up the brush. So, those influences are always close to consciousness. Good to have you on this journey!

Mark Sheeky said...

I'll ditto "Whew!" A rush through a busy century. A very enlightning mile for me. I've Googled Green Stripe, I see what you mean Don!

Funny how conceptual art has seemed to dominate the definition of art in the last 50 years... that meanings became more and more important over beauty/appearance or feeling. I think things are changing now. It's amazing to think how much the Internet (yes!) has changed art.

I look forward to learning more in the next mile.

Margaret Ryall said...

I can't believe it. I took almost a half hour to write a response and it isn't here. I must not have hit submit. I can't write it again but I will summarize.
Cubist collages - loved them more that the straight cubist work when I saw the real thing. Collage is one of those techniques that often gets a bum rap and is perceived at the bottom of the hierarchy. I was told that my use of collage to build up my surfaces and create teasing layers of information was "debasing" my work. That threw me for a loop. I thought about this and decided that this person was out to lunch. I will admit that there is a fine line between collage as art and craft. This might get me into trouble but I think that is where my commenter was coming from.

I appreciate the information about Piet Mondrian. I had never thought/read that his work was devoted to a relationship between objects. That really helped me understand his work that I have always been attracted to because of the colour and geometry of it.

I am aware of the idea of chance compositions because Robert Kushner used it to design some of his larger Japanese door panels. Now I find out it was Jan Arp.

Gary Keimig said...

Wow! That is quite a trail hike through history, Kathy. Interesting comments too. You have way too much energy. But what a great use of your time. I always like discussions on critics. Remington, the western artist was always so concerned about what critics said about his work but today we can't name one of those critics but we all know who Remington was. Hmm.

hwfarber said...

I am having trouble with influence and movements. Do we work in a particular way because of influence or do we paint our own way, then look for a group into which our work will fit? Right now I have about 50 red plastic dog food can caps in a pile which appears to be a column holding up my white kitchen cabinet. Looks cool; I call it "Red Prop." Is this Dada or do I just enjoy childlike things and look for distraction when doing kitchen work? I think I'll use the Dada explanation when neighbors ask about the red column.

Having Don single out my favorite Matisse is scary. I like it because it's simple and without a lot of pattern; I don't know its "ism" or movement.

Kathy, every I read your blog, I have to put on my thinking cap.

Kathy said...

Mark - you make two great points: the waning dominance of Conceptual art AND the influence of the internet on art. I wonder if this is a cause and effect relationship?

Margaret- Oh, I know the frustration of working so hard on a well-written comment and losing it! But, what you wrote is great, especially about your experiences with collage. I also think it's interesting that Mondrian moved beyond the relationships between objects to the relationships between relationships. Now, that's mind-bending! Geez.

Hi Gary - thanks for joining the discussion! It appears that only a few, very well-published critics who wrote essays and books are remembered. I guess Remington didn't have to deal with those. But, don't get me started on critics ... I could wrtie twice as much!!

Hallie - Good point! My opinion is that none of us is a blank slate. We've all been influenced by any number of people, things, and experiences that do mold and shape how we express ourselves. If that's the case, then you might well ask where does individuality come in? We all have inherently different personalities, and a different set of life experiences and influences. That makes each artist unique and gives them the potential to create a unique work of art. Just my opinion, though.

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

I like the Modern trends, though I still struggle to understand many of the more minimalist movements. I like that artists ask the question “what is art”, pushing it to its limit. I sometimes wonder if we’ll wake up and say “the emperor has no clothes” at some of the work.

In my tiny town, I feel a bit radical. And, yet when I look at the rest of the art world, I feel pretty conservative. I think I’m still with the Cubist and Surrealist (Miro). I really like the Cubists and they enter my work sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. I like the freedom and I like the form. From Picasso, to Braque, Gris, and Henri Laurens (sculpture).

It’s fun reading how art influences each of us in different ways. I find it enlightening. I didn’t know that some people dismiss collage. I think some particularly exciting work is being done in collage and mixed media. Small minds...

Having fun and look forward to the next entry.

PAMO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Artist Within Us said...

Like Don already has states, along with several others who have commented, 'Whew . . .'

Forgive my briefness and it may be welcomed after so many lengthy responses, I am glad I took a Contemporary art history class last spring.

It allowed me to place into context that which I did not understand or preferred not to like, with that I did greatly appreciate.

I was 17 in 1966 when Mr. Crawford, my art teacher, introduced me to Mondrian. To this date, he has influenced me more than just about any other artist, other than Rembrandt and Dürer.

It was the a year later when a specific book from Dover Publications was released on the Dynamics of Symmetry that the book and Mondrian forever shaped my views on composition.

Not until my return to college in 2008 when I was catapulted into another level of thinking. Combining Mondrian and Dynamics of Symmetry with the use of new materials, as evident with Pangaea, a collage that remains deeply rooted in the classical golden composition.

Since my Contemporary art history class, I have moved upward to another level, by including now my abstract photography with new modern techniques in duplicating what I discover and call 'found art'. That which is created by chance, nature and human intervention.

For the last few months I have been trying to write the guidelines for what I term this new art to be, as I call it 'Abstract Realism'.

At some point I hope this form will not only make a gentle impact upon the art world, but hopefully attract a following.

I am still traveling but tonight i had a little bit of time to myself, along with actually being able to connect to the Internet.

Warmest regards to you all,

The Artist Within Us said...

I just realized that I wanted to add one tiny little thing that could mean a mountain to someone.

As I am sixty years of age, there is still hope that someday I will have an exhibit in a gallery of my work and maybe actually sell a piece, because Mondrian had his first exhibit in New York after leaving Europe at the age of seventy. So there is still hope for me and maybe someone else, knowing it took almost a lifetime for Mondrian to have his first show.


Kathy said...

Hi Peggy - It's funny you bring it up, as I've been writing I've often thought about the phrase "The Emperor has no clothes!" I mean, it seems like the critics decide if the Emperor has clothes, and if so, how they look. And, I also can relate to the how we see ourselves as artists relative to our immediate surroundings vs. the entirety of the art community. Good point!

Hi PAMO - Thanks for talking about the quilting world and the parallel changes. I know so little about it, and it's interesting!

Egmont - so good to hear from you! I'm very anxious to read your guidelines on "Abstract Realism." Great term! and I know this will be ground-breaking. And, it's good to see your optimism about selling your work ... which is warranted. It WILL happen! Perserverence is the key. Have a safe trip home.


Mark Sheeky said...

I want to read about Abstract Realism too! And I thought I felt old having not started art until 32. Sophocles is often an inspiration here, producing his best work Oedipus Rex in his 90's! Alas, getting sales and producing good artwork are two different things.

Finally, without the Internet I would not be an artist. Simple as that. I think it continues to change art by making experts and their knowledge easily accessable, at the very least.

Kathy said...

Good point about the importance of the internet, Mark. One of the greatest benefits to me, other than these wonderful conversations with artists that I wouldn't otherwise meet, is that I don't have to rely solely on galleries to sell my work. I make some sales from my website and don't have to pay anyone a commission!