In order to establish an informed understanding of how contemporary abstract painting is situated in the art world today, this dissertation will investigate how painting has been questioned by artists since the 1960s’. It will discuss how contemporary artists have been influenced by the expanse of the technological world and how they are influenced by or reflect upon this in their paintings. Another important area of discussion will be the work of contemporary artists whose abstract paintings don’t appear to have adapted to technological change and don’t seem to reflect transformations in contemporary culture. These are painters who are still continuing to create paintings about paint itself and are exploring what can be done with the material alone.
It is important for this dissertation to begin by defining the modernist art movement and the arrival of creative thinking that brought abstract painting into history. The theories thoughts and ideas of critic Clement Greenberg will be discussed in order to set into context the work of abstract painting. Greenberg was an influential art critique during the twentieth century, who introduced an abundance of ideas into discussion around painting from the 1930s. In particular this dissertation will address Greenberg’s statements about the importance of purity and flatness in modernist painting. The dissertation will then examine how the supposed end of painting provoked discussion in the1960s, addressing how the artist Ad Reinhardt explored painting’s definitions. It will also be important to assess how the advances in technology and the popularisation of image have affected painting. This will then lead into a discussion about the work of a selection of contemporary artists who have continued to make paintings after the medium was pushed aside by critics.
What has always developed the medium of painting is not only the artist’s individual passion and enthusiasm to explore the vast possibilities of using paint, but also the artist’s interest in displaying their conceptions, thoughts and feelings visually. Artists have repeatedly attempted to push their practice to new levels, break boundaries, and depict their philosophy through the use of paint. The communication between an artist engaging with a painting and the painting’s audience interpreting the artist’s intentions or making an interpretation of their own creates a unique language of painting. It is this language that poses questions about painting and its context within contemporary culture and history. These questions will be evaluated in this dissertation in order to establish if and how abstract painting has developed since modernism.
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is a significant artist of both the twentieth and twenty-first centauries whose artworks have questioned the role of painting through almost five decades. His personal writings and responses in interviews are a valuable resource and a record of his artistic intentions, subject methods and his overall questioning of the medium of painting. His work is particularly interesting as it moves between abstraction and figuration and it addresses the merging of painting and technology. Richter also works with paint in an abstract nature where he uses no representational imagery to depict his thoughts. This dissertation will study the artist’s developing body of painting and pull out the key questions he asks about painting through painting itself and discuss them in relation to modernism and to the artwork of younger contemporary artists.
The first younger Contemporary painter’s work that will be discussed is that of Nicholas May (b.1962. His artwork uses an experimental painterly approach with the paint material. When talking about his work the dissertation will refer to art critic James Elkin and his ideas about the language of painting, exploring what paint can do on a canvas as a material. Whilst analysing May’s work it will also relate back to Greenberg’s views on modernism and the concepts that have been lost and brought forward into contemporary painting. Another contemporary artist with a similar working method to Nicholas May is the ‘John Moore’s painting prize 2010’ exhibitor GL Brierley. Through Comparing his work to May’s and referring to modernist concepts this dissertation hopes to achieve an understanding of how these painters works fit into the art world today.
Contemporary artist Carrie Moyer’s work is similar to Nicholas May as it contains alchemic experimental elements, flatness of the picture plane but graphic elements suggest her influence from the digital, she studied graphic design as an M.A. influences from that but later took a painting course MFA. Her use of glitter. Feminist writings interested in female artist today. Fiona Rae’s painting will also be of interest. Paintings are influence from the digital, Use of Photoshop to create paintings.
Discussing the questions formed by these artists’ creative intentions, subject methods and sources of painting will form a discussion on the status of abstract painting and the artist in society today.
Looking at how abstract painting was defined during the modernist era and how it has progressed over the years to present day. The following chapter will discuss where abstract painting came from and the ideas and theories of Clement Greenberg.
Chapter One: Greenberg’s Theories on Modernism.
Clement Greenberg sets out to define the importance of abstract art in his first manifesto written in 1936 for the magazine The Partisan Review entitled ”Avant-garde and the Kitsch”. Here he discusses for the first time concepts behind the modernist art movement. Greenberg viewed western painting up until the early 19th century as limited. The works had become stagnated and weren’t moving forward, they were stuck using the same techniques and form. They used skills in perspective and chiaroscuro to form deceptive illusionistic realities on the canvas. As impressive as this was as a technical skill there then became an urge for something new, to go beyond this way of working and to challenge the material and process of painting. Greenberg described this repetition as ‘Alexandrianism’ that he defined as a motionless academism in which the really important issues are left untouched because they involved debate, and in which creative activity dwindles to skill in the small details of form with all larger questions being decided by the standard of the old masters, therefore with this nothing new is produced. essay_footnotecitation"> From this Greenberg defines the cultural importance of Avant-garde culture as stated:
It has become amongst the signs in the midst of the decay of our present society that we – some of us – have become unwilling to accept this last phase of our own culture. In seeking to go beyond Alexandrianism, a part of western bourgeois society has produced something unheard of heretofore: – Avant-garde culture. essay_footnotecitation">
Western societies were still recovering from World War one amid the Great Depression, with Nazism rising in Germany and the beginning of World War two approaching. Western societies at this time were stuck between two wars in a depression that followed a large increase in unemployment and bankruptcy. This ‘decay of society’ heavily influenced artists and their paintings during the avant-garde movement.
Modernist painting opened up art to all social classes and was a revolutionary art form that created the avant-garde culture. Painting before the modernist movement had been typically aimed at the upper class and only available for the bourgeoisie to view. The bourgeoisie is the class of people who owned and still own the means of production in the country capitalist, who exploit labourers for their own capital gain. The avant-garde artists’ abstract paintings scandalised the bourgeoisie by not displaying things as they are. Instead paintings were progressive, moving on from traditional realist painting and chose to use innovative forms of expression. essay_footnotecitation"> Artists began questioning the medium of painting and started producing works that formed a language of its own. Using painting they could visualise the subconscious and depict the world around them on canvas in a way that had never been done before.
Although artists were opposed to the bourgeoisie capitalist values, they relied on these people for art funding. The avant-garde’s stable source of income was provided from privileged among the ruling class, from which it thought of itself to be cut off. Greenberg described this as an umbilical cord of gold that has always remained attached. (Cite art in theory pg 542) Today artists find themselves in a similar position where they are often reliant on funding from galleries and the art establishment in order to produce and promote their artwork. This can lead to the artist’s work being restricted by gallery guidelines or what critics, collectors and the power figures of western art deem fashionable in contemporary art.
Later in Greenberg’s writing ”Modernist Painting” written in 1960 he refines his definitions and explores themes further. Greenberg promotes in this essay the purity in painting in which he explores the restrictions of the medium of painting. The idea of purity in art and painting is that the art should continually move forward to improve itself by moving away from the use of imagery like that of the Renaissance. Instead Painting should move towards the two dimensional qualities of abstract painting. essay_footnotecitation">
Greenberg described this change in perspective in the following statement:
Realistic naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations of the surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment were treated by the old masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Under modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly. essay_footnotecitation">
By deliberately drawing attention to the natural flatness of the canvas in a work of art, the artists have created a new perspective for the viewer to look towards the painting. In modernist painting the viewer is not meant to appreciate the deception of anything but instead admire the act of painting itself. The artist is freely acknowledging the processes limitations of trying to apply visual depth to a two-dimensional surface. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko began a serious pursuit for flatness in their painting, aiming to create an infinite space on the canvas using a flat layer of colour and shape.
Focusing on the images and content of a painting according to Greenberg was a negative factor, he believed for art to be pure and have clarity the subject matter must be thrown out and the emphasis should be put on the painting instead. ”Where as one tends to see what is in an old master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a modernist picture as a picture first.”(cite modernist painting) This he believed was the best way to see any kind of picture and that modernism imposed it as the only and necessary way.
Greenberg acknowledges in his essay ‘Modernist Painting’ that the art of sculpture is by its very nature a three-dimensional form. Painting However is applied to a two-dimensional surface, modernist artists were inspired by that attribute, so rather than attempting to disregard it they embraced it. (cite MP) The artist Ad Reinhart (b.1913-1967) sought to achieve the ultimate modernist painting that contained definitive purity and flatness on the canvas. He took this tendency towards abstraction and simplification in modern art to the extreme when he created his controversial ”black paintings” during the last ten years of his life. The next chapter will discuss Reinhardt’s definitions of painting and his belief that he had created the last painting. The chapter will also discuss the shift of painting from the limelight to background in art culture, as advances in technology and social interest change during the 1960s.
Chapter Two: The End of Painting?
Abstract painting No.5 (1962) is an example of the ‘’black” painting style which Reinhardt is best known for. The canvas appears to have a uniformly plain blue-black surface, an art piece devoid of colour and light. Seen up close however, the carefully painted layers reveal small amounts of blue, yellow and red. These colours form an underlying grid of different coloured squares, divided by a green central horizontal and a central vertical band that resemble the simple shape of a cross. Each of these colours were mixed with black oil paint to give a matt surface quality. (ref Tate modern)
In an interview with Bruce Glaser, published in 1966 Reinhart discusses his black square paintings. He believed that there can be only one painting during one time and his were the only valid ones. In this interview he explains that he was trying to make the last ever painting. He also pronounces that his paintings were not about the materials or ideas and that each work he was working on always related to what he previously created. He believed art should be expressionless, clear, quiet, dignified and timeless (cite art as art pg13) in the following statement Reinhardt explains his ideas further:
The one direction in fine or abstract art today is the painting of the same one form over and over again. The only intensity and the one perfection come only from long and lonely routine preparation and attention and repetition. The one originality exists only where all artists work in the same tradition and master the same convention. essay_footnotecitation"> (cite Ad Reinhart ‘Art as Art’ art in theory. or Reinhardt art is art page 823.)
By repeating his black paintings he believed he was creating works that considered truly the ultimate modernist pure form and paintings that had been developed as far as they could possibly go. Reinhardt’s paintings were formalist which meant the context of the work including the reason for its creation was not necessary; the only important factor was the paintings literal form. It can be argued that Reinhardt’s paintings contributed to the end of modernist painting.
Greenberg wrote in his essay ‘modernist painting’ his acceptance that ” The flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness.”(Ref) He claimed that the instance paint touches the canvas, some depth or form has been created, therefore the canvas ceases to remain flat. He uses the artist Mondrian as an example of how a simple mark on the canvas can create a kind of optical illusion that suggests a third dimension. CG, MP (1960) pg90). S. This ‘optically’ according to Rosalind Krauss:
was thus an entirely abstract schematized version of a link that traditional perspective had formally established between viewer and object, but one that now transcends the real parameters of measurable, physical space to express the purely projective powers of projective level of sight. (cite Page 29)
She then continues to say that ”the most serious issue for painting in the 1960s was not to understand its objective features, such as flatness and material surface, but its specific mode of address and to make this a source of new conventions.” (Page 29.) Therefore the 1960s brought art into a situation where the concepts and ideas in a piece of art had taken precedence over the aesthetics of the object calling the end to modernism and brining art into the post-modern age.
Professor Anne Ring Peter states in her essay ‘painting spaces’ that The experiments of the 1960s and the 1970s had moved art into a “post-medium condition” (Rosalind Krauss 1999 cite pg 32 ). In which traditional arts past categories have been diminished by new interdisciplinary overlaps, and the modernist discourse on the specificity of disciplines has been over taken by ‘the new media’ and their seemingly tireless potential for re adjustment, technology updating and the generation of new hybrids. Therefore painting is seen as restricted because of its simple and old fashioned materials with its thoughts being changed to the past because of its traditional origins it derives from. Pgs 123/124 CPC Paintings were now seen as dull and boring whereas the new media appeared more exciting, futuristic and popular. Peterson then states that:
It is widely agreed that the cul-de-sac of painting was caused by the modernist attempt to preserve the discipline from contamination by other kinds of art and culture and restricts its activities to what the formalists regarded as its primary task: to explore the formal aspects of painting, on the theory that all painting is basically about painting. Pgs 124 CPC
Through the arrival of new technology and bombardment of visual imagery this ‘Cul-de-sac’ or dead end of painting placed it in the background of the art world, with more artists using new media and technology to express their ideas and perspectives through art.. Reinhart’s black paintings are therefore a great example of the modern painting’s purism having reached an end. The following chapter will discuss Gerhard’s questioning of painting through his personal art practice from the beginnings of the 1960s.
Chapter Three: Gerhard Richter’s Questioning of Painting.
Gerhard Richter is a master technician and maker of painting having created both figurative and abstract artworks since the 1960s. During this time there was an upheaval in art criticism where painting was considered to have developed as far as it could go; therefore it was no longer the dominant art practice in society. Many artists were using new materials and methods to explore their ideas and perspectives of the world like performance art, body art, installation, video and conceptual but Richter chose to continue using paint. In his notes 1962 Richter sums up brilliantly where his passion for painting and creating art derives:
The first impulse towards painting, or towards art in general, stems from the need to communicate, the effort to fix one’s own vision, to deal with appearances (Which are alien and must be given names and meanings) without this, all work would be pointless and unjustified, like ‘Art for Art Sake.’ essay_footnotecitation">
In this statement Richter is rejecting the modernist notion of ‘Art for Art sake’ he believes that work with no meaning or purpose is pointless. Richter’s practice communicates his perspective of the world around him through his expression and questioning of painting. Richter’s work can be described as not fitting with any one genre moving between abstract and figurative or combing the two, one paintings form is a response to another.
Richter believed that as soon as something turned into an ‘ism’, it ceased to be artist activity. He believed fixed categorisations of paintings do not serve matters of creativity. Restricting creative flow confines artistic practice and stops work developing. (cite384/5) His artwork therefore questions the art establishment and his painting in context with that.. It can be said that the artist’s personal development and exploration through painting is more important than how the figure heads of the art world decide to define it.
Richter criticises the artists that are so consistent in their development, he never worked at paintings like a job. When artists were encouraged to make a consistent body of work or make a conscious progression from one area to the next Richter acted oppositional. His work progressed through his desire to try something new and fun. (cite384/5) If an artist needs money they may work towards a show, they may then produce works that fit into the guidelines of the gallery or collector. This work does not contain genuine artistic creativity and is a forced part of the artist’s art practice. Richter’s work moves away from convention and shows his personal development.. Modernist artist Ad Reinhardt believed that art work should be consistent and repetitive with one work of art leading into the next (cite art as art interview). Richter disregards Reinhardt’s modernist idea showing a progressive move from modernism.
Before 1962 Richter’s artwork consisted of Representational paintings. In 1962 his art practiced moved to his first set of paintings based on photographs. This was due to the radical change in belief at the time about what art is; ‘that it has ‘nothing to do with painting, nothing to do with composition, nor with colour’ Photographs are and were in the 1960s seen in abundance everyday, Richter was inspired when he saw the photograph in an new light which offered him a new view, which he believed was free from all the convention he had associated with art. It had no style, no composition and no judgement. pg4 Therefore It was only natural for Richter in the aftermath of the avant-garde to abandon the world of painting objects and turn to the investigation of refined forms of perception in photography.
Written in Richter’s statement in 1967 he talks about how “we have arrived at a point where we trust reproduced reality in the form of photograph more than we do reality itself.” pg 47 This perception of the world is brought to the public by the media through the camera lends. Richter’s work forms a critique of how the mass media influence our thinking through the photographs in news papers, posters and advertisements. Richter’s collection of work atlas….
In an interview with Robert Storr in 2002 Richter discuses his painting ‘Blurred table’ an oil painting of a table where the paint has been speared over the images disguising it. The photo for ‘table’ came from an Italian design magazine called ‘Domus’. His initial approach to the photograph was to copy it realistically, but when he had finished painting it, he was dissatisfied with the result so pasted parts of it with newspaper. He was dissatisfied because there was too much paint on the canvas therefore he became less happy with it, so he over painted it. Then suddenly it acquired a quality that appealed to him and he felt it should be left that way. cite p259 This artistic development happened by chance and he learned from it then developed the medium and process to develop work further. He destroyed or over painted many pictures during this time, he wanted to draw the line from his older paintings, indicating that these earlier paintings were in the past and so he set ‘table’ at the top of his work list. cite p259
Richter’s paintings 1965 ‘Boy baker’ and ‘girl baker’ were initially blurred by him to fix cracking in the painting but he got angry with it and smudged the oil paint about. ‘Table’ was the first blurred painting, what provoked him to smear the image was as he describes it ”I painted it very realistically, and it looked so stupid. You can’t paint like that, that’s the problem’ ‘ Therefore the blurring technique started out as he describes it as ” either a technical emergency-cracking-or, a conceptual emergency” pg382/383 His wiping away of a painting brings into question what makes a good or bad painting? Richter answers this by saying and that development in an artists practice by accident not by the convention of what is the right way to d it
It is interesting that Richter felt the need to destroy his own work, what was so imperfect about the ”perfect picture”? As a technique to give paintings an effect deliberately and also to wipe out paintings he found ugly therefore creating the painting with a status of its own. It is also interesting how obscuring the viewer’s vision of the piece lets them become more intrigued in the image.
Through these works Richter questions the importance of colour and its effect on a painting. Richter believes that if you hang his grey paintings next to red or green the grey turns into a different colour each time, this made the paintings aesthetic when he didn’t want them to be. His grey paintings intended to take the object in the photograph away from its natural colour which creates an artificial operation intending to distance the object. He believed the first artificial is taking the photograph. pg 54
Through these Photo Paintings he sets up a Post Modern dialect between Modernism and the 1970s. His expertise in the language of painting displays the fate of art in technology through his creation of photo paintings; these works combine painterly abstraction along with mechanic photography. Showing influences from modernism but also developing from it.
From grey to colour…
sep 1977 pg 94 For two years he had been working on a different idea from the grey pictures . He decided to start in a totally different direction as he felt this couldn’t go on any further. on small canvases at random he put illogical colours and forms assorted. He called them ugly sketches the total antithesis to the grey paintings they are not legible, because they devoid of meaning or logic if such a thing is possible, which is an interesting question itself. This question opened up a new door into a world of his abstract paintings.
From the 1970s Richter started to create his larger abstract paintings, In 1973 during an interview with Irmeline Lebeer, (pg 72 ) Richter is asked why he thinks people wont be interested in his abstract paintings. His responds to this was that this type of artwork puts him in a trap, because the public are used to seeing his realist better-known paintings. He is worried that his abstract works will look like mere scribbles to the public. 72 It is interesting that
Richter challenges Greenberg’s enthusiasm towards pure painting. page 93 through his abstract ‘cage paintings’ These could be viewed as purist modernist style paintings purely about the flat colour and form however in a letter to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in may 1977 Richter says that
‘what makes me sick above all is when the describers build that up as ‘pure painting’, completely denying the value of the object. Firstly I have said pure painting -if it could ever exist- would be a crime and secondly, these pictures are valued solely and uniquely for their stupid bumptious object content. This naturally includes the effective recording of the painter’s blind, ferocious motor impulse, as well as the maintaining of a semblance of intelligence and historical awareness through the choice and invention of motif. page 93 t
This twists the paintings that are so important to him which he says ‘ I have nothing to say and I am saying it’ twisting it round into ‘ we have nothing to say and we are not saying it’ these purist ideas are like that of Greenberg’s modernism and this shows Richter’s progressive development in thinking since then.
Richter is still practicing the painting today. Since the 1960s technology has advanced even further, we are in a time in the western world where the internet is in almost everybody’s home the digital has taken over and the influence on painting has developed it further. The next chapter discussed the work of younger contemporary artists who are creating paintings in contemporary practice.
Chapter Three: The Work of Younger Contemporary Artists.
The artist Fiona Rae became in the public eye during the 1990s with her use of colour shape , flatness of the picture plain hybrid use of technology with paint Fiona Rae. Does her work loose something because it makes it easier to understand because of the figurative elements or is it just more pleasing to the eye and less confusing? Or maybe they add to the confusion. Or the confusion gives it more meaning? It’s all in personal perspective when looking at the canvas. Greenberg purity in painting mentioned earlier. Absence of form gives s a painting more meaning. What Paint does in contemporary art above all mediums are engaged with the material and has a language of it own. The purity of painting describes of an earthly medium playing with the material ruined by technology? Artists who use Photoshop what does this do to painting? Fiona Rae. Compare to Nicholas May…
Digital looses the genuine experimental element tried and tested on the computer. Visually biased not a true record of thought with paint. First see it on the comp then try and replicate it. Not learn from it adjust it and edited on canvas till it is how the artist feels it should be. Maybe then the computer is the record of thought a technological one less about the material itself but about the colour and shape and that aspect of form composition. Maybe my view is biased because I personally enjoy works where you can see the application of the paint and the surface. Flat plain colour painting has been done before but so has the other, maybe more to learn from the other than the flat.
The computer is the record of the thought and brings a whole new element into the paint.
Does this push the medium or destroy it? Forms a new Hybrid? New is good…right?
Nicholas Mays work involves stuff
In the article ‘Intention, Meaning and Substance in the Phenomenology of Abstract Painting’ Professor of Philosophy Dale Jaquette discusses the writing of Gertrude Stein, a critique and commentator on culture in particular modern abstract painting. Stine is fascinated by the visual possibilities of oil paint applied to a surface. It is something she finds intriguingly to admire. According to Stein “The existence of the oil painting itself is the thing that draws us powerfully, whether as representation or abstract image.“ Jaquette believes that paintings do have this effect to draw us in. Stine continues to say
when we experience painting especially but not uniquely it fascinates us because it not only reveals the world as seen by the artist but, perhaps more obviously, and, in the case of abstract art more purely and essentially, because it reveals the artists mind, the artists outlook on the world and conceptual framework, history background, obsessions, preoccupations and in a personality.’ pg 41 para 2
People believe that there is more talent in representational painting, however representational painting is a depiction of something other than the artists themselves. Every splodge splash brush mark and controlled abstraction is the interpretation of the artist a view of their perspective trying to capture an emotive, So it does more than just representing something that exists.
Does repeated exposure to abstract art wear thin? What has been interesting is no longer what was free expression has it grown old? Has the medium been pushed so far it can no longer express anything new? pg 48 ”What was exciting and new pushing boundaries can’t anymore because we have become desensitised by the work.” Fischer pg 49
What was shocking during the avant-garde cant be done now to create similar reaction. It’s not revolutionary and has lost its voomft…
Has painting run its course?
Jaquette suggests the value of abstract painting its not to illustrate… pg 51
Why abstract arts are important. link to Richter…
What does GR say about the feeling of paint and what that does?
Jacs view on Elkin/ My view on Elkin. pg 53
Its is the Art Historians and the critiques that decide what happens with painting.
Elkins emphasises the role of the painter.
‘They are entranced by the qualities of the paint and by the challenge of trying to make paint do what they want it to down when applying to the surface, in both figurative and abstract painting pg 54 para 3
This is why in contemporary day with all the other ways to express ideas they choose paint.
Nicholas May link with the writing s of Elkin and Richter’s approach to abstracts.
The fascination can’t die in the individual that’s why painting will live on!
Nicholas May his experiment an