Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Abstraction and non figurative drawing

 These drawings of a cow by Van Doesberg were made in 1917 and were a classic illustration of the process of abstraction. Basically in order to abstract you need something to abstract from, so that in all true abstract work there is a relationship between the 'real' world and the abstracted image.

This is Van Doesberg's process of abstraction set out in more detail. 

 It was Mondrian who set the standard for this approach, drawing upon the example set by Cubist artists.

Mondian Self Portrait


A lot of artists were interested in the same formal problems, compare the Matisse Portrait above with Mondrian's self-portraits. 

The process of abstraction is interesting because it is all about what to leave out and what to put in place. Most early abstractions reduced things to line and most of these lines were made straight rather than curved. There is  sense of looking for an underlying geometry. 

From the Pier and Ocean series by Mondrian

These early Mondians show how the process was at first a gradual one of stripping down complexities that were first of all drawn from observation, however late Mondians are slightly different.

From Broadway Boogie Woogie

These later Mondrian drawings (above) are not based on direct observation and are more to do with an investigation of possibilities of rhythm and composition, however they are still related to 'reality' both in reference to the music of the time and the fact that New York city where they were made, is based on a grid system.
Picasso produced a classic set of bull drawings that illustrate the process of abstraction. 


However it is perhaps in the cartoons of the 1930s and 40s that abstraction and image distortion blossomed into something that was appreciated within popular culture. 

Picasso and Disney

Roy Lichtenstein made a series of prints that commented on the process of abstraction from an ironic Post Modern stance. What his work points to is that at some point the link between the referent and the index is at some point broken, abstraction itself becoming what is referred to rather than any outside art subject matter. His last two prints being more 'constructivist', than abstractions i.e. they are constructions in their own right rather than reflections on the underlying geometry in nature. 

Roy Lichtenstein

This brings me to reflect on a very similar but fundamentally different background to abstract imagery. This is the non-figurative tradition. Perhaps we shouldn't ever call this work 'abstract' because nothing is actually abstracted. Non-figurative elements are used as forms in their own right. In this Suprematist drawing below the reference is directly to geometry and the power of engineering drawing. 

 Suprematist drawing

Malevitch founded Suprematism which was an art movement with a title that celebrated a non figurative art based upon "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling" rather than on visual depiction of objects.



Constructivism as a term was invented by the sculptors Pevsner and Gabo who developed an industrial, angular style of work, more aligned to the aesthetics of engineering drawing, while its geometric abstraction owed something to the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich. Again something that looks similar to something else is at its core quite different. Malevich came up with the title Constructivist as term of derision. He was trying to criticise those who were celebrating engineering in their work, rather than providing pure form to meditate upon. He saw his own work as being very spiritual, for Malevich the constructivists were too interested in linking art to social improvement, he disagreed with their didactic stance, seeing art as being beyond such socialist ideals. Rodchenko was a constructivist, his compass and ruler constructions perhaps being some of the earliest drawings that simply celebrate geometric construction as an aesthetic in its own right. 

Rodchenko compass and ruler drawings 

Constructivism continued as a movement, with many off-shoots such as De Stijl or 'concrete art',  the goal of which was  "to develop objects for mental use" and to produce "the purest expression of harmonious measure and law". All these movements shared an underlying principle that art and a pure universal idea of form are inextricably linked and celebrate the power of geometry as a formal device. These ideas would quickly spread throughout Europe, artists such as Ben Nicholson introducing Gabo and Mondrian to England before they moved on to the States. Gabo had also written the defining text on constructivism and contributed to the Circle magazine that Nicholson edited. 

The difference with more contemporary artists such as Kenneth Martin was that artists were becoming more interested in the underlying mathematical processes that lay behind the power of geometry to appear so authentic or 'right' and less in the spiritual aspects that had initially drawn artists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky to Theosophy and the works of Madame Blavatsky, the younger artists work often being made to demonstrate the implications of certain formal decisions based on numerical principles.  As you can see from these drawings by Kenneth Martin below, he had a deep understanding of numerical processes. Martin (together with his wife Mary) used to teach occasionally at Newport when I was a student. He would sit down and talk through very complex visual geometries and expect all us students to be able to follow him. I really felt the art and science divide, most of us had gone into the arts because we were rubbish at maths and Martin was one of those few people at art college that questioned our too easy dismissal of scientific principles, empirical evidence and mathematical rigour. 

Kenneth Martin Constructivist drawings from the 1960s

Martin's drawings were nearly always done on graph paper, the pre-existing relationships set up within the graph paper grids allowing him to concentrate on sequential idea development, he accepted that chosen divisions would always be interrelated because of the predetermined underlying geometry of the graph paper grid. During the 1960s, underlying processes became more and more important, as you can see with these Larry Poons drawings below.

Larry Poons drawings

However in the late 60s the Tate Gallery held an exhibition called, 'The Art of the Real'. This exhibition introduced Minimalism to the UK. Again the works on display looked very similar to previous 'abstract' art, but the theoretical game had changed. Gone were all references to the spiritual or the beauty of geometric form. This art was about 'reality', the object was now what paintings and drawings aspired to. Typical of conversations at the time was this one of Frank Stella's who in 1967, turned down Kenneth Tyler's invitation to make prints at the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, stating that "if he ever made a drawing he used a Magic Marker pen". He did go on to make those prints but his initial response highlights the everyday reality that Minimalist artists wanted to bring to their work. Sol Lewitt is perhaps the most famous of those artists. The drawing below simply demonstrating how many different ways horizontal and vertical lines can be combined to create different tonal values. Nothing more and nothing less. Of course Lewitt went on to make wall drawings, eliminating both the paper surface and the artist's hand, becoming more an 'architect' of drawings, than the earlier more romantic conception of the artist as spiritual or emotional sensitive. See
Sol lewitt

Rosalind Krauss saw the grid as the ultimate weapon used by modern artists to establish a clear difference between themselves and their more narratively driven forefathers. See
The physicality of 'objectness' attracted sculptors back into the drawing field, artists such as Richard Serra looking to make drawings that were as weighty as sculpture, their surfaces being an expression of the physicality of the chosen drawing medium, the support being as important as the materials of application.  These drawings became a record of the artist's involvement with materials as well as 'objects' in their own right.

Richard Serra and physicality 

The sculptor Robert Morris was one of the first artists at this time to integrate performance and physical endurance into the field of drawing and abstraction. His Blind Time drawings opening the door to a whole new range of approaches to drawing as a non figurative practice. See
What I find fascinating about these different approaches to abstraction is that what at first was a response to a type of objective drawing that was looking for an underlying universal set of forms that could be said to underpin reality, became eventually drawing as a reality in itself. Minimalist artists were well known for stating, "what you see is what you get". This theoretically is the opposite stance to that taken earlier by artists such as Malevitch and Mondrian. Compare the Minimalist stance to this quote taken directly from the Theosophy website, "Abstraction was a formless voice that dissolved the boundaries of the concrete object to allow the flow of cosmic light to spill forth onto an awaiting canvas, the site where the inner and outer realms of spirituality began a new creative evolution". 

As a young artist peering at grey images in well thumbed art magazines in the 1960s, images of Malevitch paintings appeared to be very similar to Ad Reinhart's Ultimate painting series, or the British painter Bob Law's numbered paintings. All of these artists were grappling with presenting a way of conceptually understanding the world through making visual statements. The early 20th century however was a time of conflict between the new coming world of scientific technological advancement and a heavily threatened old world of religious beliefs and by the late twentieth century that advancement (in the West) had become a reality, those who still believed in spirituality were seen as dinosaurs. What the 21st century will bring is another matter, it may be that art itself will need redefining, or more likely that the new zeitgeist of global connectedness and ecological awareness will generate new readings and new philosophical positions from which to yet again 'see' a basic 'simple' black square. 

Malevitch 1915 Black Square

Ad Reinhardt Ultimate Painting No. 19 1953

Bob Law No. 62 (Black/Blue/Violet/Blue) 1967

In spiritual circles, the square represents the physical world, it points to the four compass directions: north, east, south and west. So do we finally come back to Theosophy and the rise of new wave spirituality in order to find a context for contemporary non figurative drawing, or is every stance covered by the blanket term Post Modernism? In several non-European cultures, the square represents male qualities, but what they are is hard to ascertain. It could be the propensity of some men to become computer nerds. Dutch artist Helmut Smits decided to burn a 3-foot by 3-foot square into grass. When it's viewed from 1 kilometer above the ground (3,280 feet) as is a Google map view, it looks just like a dead pixel on a computer monitor. 

Helmut Smits

Relief Structures Catalogue from 1966 The Artist Andrew Tilberis was still teaching at Leeds when I started work on the Foundation course, he used to make his relief structures inside a specially constructed studio area, sheathed in clear plastic to prevent dust settling on his beautiful flat sanded paint surfaces.

Charles Biederman was as a theorist and artist very influential during the 1960s. 

Peter Halley is an artist and writer who had a lot of influence on how abstract art was theorised during the 1980s and 90s. See 'The crisis in geometry' essay in his list of writings. 

Fer, B. (2000) On Abstract Art London: Yale University Press

See also:

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jasper Johns: An old man drawing

I've been looking at some recent work by Jasper Johns entitled 'Regrets' which consists of a group of two paintings, 10 drawings, and two prints created over a year and a half and exhibited for the first time last year at MOMA. 
Johns is now well into his 80s and was of course a powerful influence on both Pop Art and Conceptual Art during the 1960s. I have already pointed to his importance to the art world in an earlier post, but I'm also personally very interested in what he is now doing as an older artist, (perhaps because I'm of an age to have felt Johns' original influence in the 1960s), I'm fascinated to see that he is still working and still able to generate images that can hold my attention. 
For someone new to Johns' art perhaps one of the most important things to grasp is that he is essentially a process artist. However I thought that in this series of works the image he is processing is particularly poignant. 
Johns had been looking through a series of images that came from the reconstruction of Frances Bacon's studio in Dublin. One image was of a photograph of Lucien Freud that Bacon had had taken when he was thinking of making Freud's portrait. The photograph was crumpled, ripped and torn, a whole section missing from the bottom half. 

As you can see from the photograph above Bacon must have spent some time with it investigating possibilities for a painting. On seeing this image Johns decided that it was worth investigating. What it was that captured his attention he doesn’t say so one can only conjecture. I suspect what resonated was that Freud had recently died, and was of a similar age to Johns. They never, as far as I know, met, but both were regarded as international masters of contemporary painting. Freud holds his head as if agonising over something, and of course this being an image found in Frances Bacon’s studio, (another ‘master’ of contemporary art) this anguish or introspection must have been something Bacon was interested in as a possibility for one of his very expressive paintings. Johns of course is known for his personal reserve, for not showing any emotion in his work and for being a more ‘cerebral’ artist. Perhaps Johns saw this image as a type of ‘vanitas’ (Vanitas themes in painting and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori, were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death), being of the age he is and aware that both Bacon and Freud are now dead, perhaps reminding Johns of his own coming demise. Whatever caused Johns to select this image, what he does next is perhaps of more interest for those of you interested in his process.
The first thing Johns does is to simply draw what he sees. 

As you can see from the drawing everything has taken on an equal importance, the torn out section and the creases are just as important as the photographic image. For Johns how to work from photographs has been a long running problem, and this way of working allows him to 'see' the photograph as an object and he has asserted in the past that he is always seeking to ensure that his paintings are objects and not windows on the world. 
I think he may even have traced the initial image directly from the catalogue page he found it on. This would have allowed him to easily make his next step.

He has mirrored the first image and made a new image by filling in both halves of the new image differently. One side he has crayoned in using primary and secondary colours and on the other side he has filled in the shapes with a grey wash. Because the edges of folds and crumples are just as important as images, the overall image itself is now becoming much harder to read and a new unexpected image has arrived due to the mirroring process. Over what was simply a torn out shape, has now appeared a 'skull'. The torn out shape now becoming a vest like body. Johns has used skulls in his work before, so he would have been quick to recognise the image when it arrived. 

It's interesting that in this print from the 1970s, Johns has put a cross through his signature. 

Once he has realised that the image on mirroring contains another (discovered)  image he sets off to make the composition more interesting. 

He crops the left side of the image so that the bi-lateral symmetry is removed, (there is an image stage before this but I haven't had the time to scan it in, I will at some point) he then begins to explore ways of working over the surface so that the mark takes precedence over the image. 

You should just about be able to see the 'vest' shape near the centre.

Detail of the drawing above. 

Johns then proceeds to explore possibilities of surface excitement by working in ink on plastic film. This means that he is able to work within the outlines he has constructed for himself, but unable to control the flow of the ink, because on plastic it flows uncontrollably and makes blobs and thickens and thins unpredictably. 


Johns then makes several of these drawings in ink. (If you want to try working in this way the print room down in Vernon Street stocks rolls of 'true grain' which is transparent plastic sheet used for making photographic exposures for silk screens, and I would suggest that Johns came across this method of working when doing exactly that, preparing to make a silk screen by painting ink on plastic sheet). 

Sometimes the image is coming through more clearly than at others, the 'mood' changing as black becomes more dominant or soft greys spread throughout. 

Finally Johns takes the image into print. Using etching processes to further explore the possibilities. 

'Regrets' Etching

Etching detail, from the central 'vest' shape, showing use of soft ground technique, whereby a textured surface is pushed into the soft wax ground and the resultant removal of wax allowing acid to eat out the metal to create a similar texture. 

Once in print Johns can really easily make variations, as you can see from this wall of images the basic design now hosts a wide variety of tonal and textual developments. 

While his work in drawing is developing possibilities for the image he is also painting. These two images below being the result. 

Regrets 1 Jasper Johns

Regrets 2 Jasper Johns

The final paintings have moved a long way from the original photographic image. Whether or not you are interested to them as images, the process is still a useful one and one that above all allows Johns as an artist to discover images as he works. What so many artists find hard is setting off to make a new image, if you try and get one straight from your head, it will nearly always be a cliché, therefore Johns, like so many artists uses a process that allows him to discover what it is that he is doing as he does it. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On reading Andrew Marr’s ‘A Short Book about Drawing’

I’ve been spending more time outside drawing in the landscape over the past couple of weeks. I always find observational drawing refreshing and have often thought of it as a form of meditation.
Andrew Marr has been drawing since he was a child, he has never thought of himself as an artist, being a journalist and foreign correspondent, but wherever he goes he tends to draw in order to record his responses. His book on drawing is therefore fascinating as it is composed by someone from outside the art business and this is refreshing and at times perhaps more insightful than it would be from someone immersed in what can be a very obscure and difficult discipline. However before he finished this ‘little book’ he had a stroke. Having a stroke is a vicious reminder of how we take our bodies for granted and for Marr it allowed him to see how vital to his wellbeing the making of drawings were. In fact the whole tone of this book is about drawing and mental health. He feels that the hard to do activity of observational drawing is wonderful and that the struggle to look, remember and transfer what you have seen to paper, is an activity that not only lies at the core of what makes us human, but sees us at our best. It is one of those activities that we have to concentrate on so hard that time flows past without us knowing it. We are totally at one with our mind and body, the intellectual struggle to single out moments of our perceptual experience, is then conjoined with the physical struggle to control materials in such a way that marks and lines correspond to those hard won ideas as to what the world looks like. As we do this, Marr would argue, we are in the 'now', in an almost Zen moment of immersion in the world.
As someone who uses drawing to both record the world and to construct visual allegories, I’m very aware of the difference between different sorts of drawing and this is what I would consider a limitation of the book, because he is tempted to use his particular take on ‘conceptual’ art to try and unpick for himself the interrelationship between drawing and art. That’s fine as far as it goes, but all art is to some extent conceptual, and the gradual blurring between what was a perceptual study of the human body and what is now an allegorical figure placed in a landscape in a Renaissance painting, is something perhaps only a working artist could really appreciate, elements from the one activity are always still present in the other.
I shall try and explain how this works.

This is a drawing I did standing on slippery rocks at the side of the sea in West Wittering during the Easter break. It is one of a series of about 10 all made on the spot, within yards of each other.
As is normal with my drawings I use an old dip-in pen that I made myself, the nib very well worn so that it flows easily across the page, the other end being a brush so that I can quickly decide to lay washes if need be and ink and water available in a small clip on device that fits in my hand or on the side of my notebook, which itself is a book of watercolour papers that are cut to a thin landscape format. The book is small enough to hold in one hand as I draw, but big enough to allow me to go beyond a thumbnail.

Before drawing I stalk the area, I’m looking for a composition that will fit the shape I’m going to use, the very long thin aspect of which forces me to concentrate my looking. This is very important to me, as I have found in the past that the ‘average’ rectangle is too ‘known’, I know it so well I cant compose in it any more. The first time I twigged this, I simply had one of my sketchbooks sawn in half, suddenly I could see how things out in the world might shape themselves again as flat images.
The first part of the drawing is therefore drawn in the mind. I then before embarking on the ink drawing use a pencil to indicate roughly where things are, this allows me to adjust where I stand and eliminate awkward selections, as well as establish a framework of basic measurements for me to work into.
Because the pencil work is very light I can ignore it or use it as the need takes me.
Once I begin with the dip-in pen the drawing gets serious. I use this because I can’t make adjustments after the fact. With pencil or charcoal I am very aware you can rub out and make amendments, therefore I might not maintain that full concentration. Direction of mark as well as their quality are vital, changes in pressure allow me to get more or less ‘space’ into the drawing and my formal invention has to be high enough to suggest that what I am drawing is one thing rather than another. A dot when used in one place may suggest a stony surface, in another simply a sign that something is here. However the other thing I am doing is recording my own movements. Each mark is a frozen record of how fast my hand is moving, what degree of shake it has, how firmly I am convinced about what I have seen and how I might interpret it. I’m also recording larger body movements. I’m very aware I don’t keep my head still, I’m aware of the difference between my two eyes and consciously enjoy trying to build into the drawing my awareness of this.
Although the final drawing appears quite coherent, I actually work several areas up at the same time, in particular foreground, middle and distance, this allows me to ensure that as the drawing comes together the total space it sits in makes sense. As I look at what’s out there my hand tracks over the paper, inventing as it moves, often directional change on the paper being used to indicate a change of direction out there in the perceived world; my drawing at this time being made from approximately 2 to 3 seconds looking outwards and then about 5 seconds drawing. I can’t hold much information in my head, which is actually quite a good thing as it stops me getting too detailed. What I am of course drawing is the space the objects sit it, and if I can get that right the drawing will be coherent. 
So far so good and this is very like the situation Marr picks out in his book. However there is also a conceptual side to the activity. I am worried about the state of the world. In particular climate change and global warming. An aspect of this that we will all have to face at some point is that of a rising sea level. The edge of the land is always a place of conflict with water, sea levels rising and falling over millennia, coastal erosion being something we have for many years fought against. I therefore knew I wanted to draw evidence of these things before I set out to look for locations. I was also very aware that at some point I would probably use information taken from these drawings to enrich ideas in my larger ‘studio’ drawings. I.e. the drawings are about something else besides the struggle to record what is out there. This is perhaps where the art comes in. If I was a geographer, my drawings might be used to help illustrate an idea about coastal erosion, if I was a biologist my drawing might be used to illustrate how quickly seaweed colonizes a tidal bay, but as an artist I’m trying to build an analogy, create a metaphor or in my case in my larger studio drawings, create allegories.
The drawing chosen is one of several, it is picked out by myself because of what it represents. The shape that runs through the body of the drawing is what is left over from a previous sea defence. The sea has destroyed this and the base area is now all that remains, seaweed having colonised this. What the drawing started to 'mean' for me was something about the ghost of a former attempt to stop the sea's ravages. My other drawings were of the sea defences now a further 20 yards back. They are like this. (Below) I may be able to use some of them but conceptually they don't have the resonance of the drawing above. 

Now back in Leeds I'm still drawing from observation but looking for other types of ideas, for instance signs of our older tribal nature as in this graffiti on a rock in Gledhow Valley Woods. 

These drawings are never shown in exhibitions, they are simply ways of gathering in information, at some point information from them will go to feed my much larger allegorical images, like this one that is on the go at the moment. 

Marr does though have a point, especially when he states that if an artist is going to make art that is conceptual without relying on any drawing skills, they better have a dam good idea, because the activity of drawing from the world is itself a powerful metaphor and one that is always rich with invention and struggle. Even a conceptually weak drawing records a struggle with a complex three-dimensional world and how to record it on a flat surface. (Of course this is not the case when working from a photograph, and he has had an interesting conversation with Hockney about that)

Marr’s book is an accessible and interesting read and he points to other sources that could be used to enrich and deepen an understanding of the points he is making. You can get a copy for £4 from Amazon and for those of you thinking about COP3 proposals there might be some issues in there that could be fleshed out as research areas.

See also:
Drawing as testimony