While in my middle twenties, I went to a party in an apartment building located in one of the better areas of Manhattan. I knew a couple of the folk who would be there and just tagged along with them. At one point in the evening, I had a talk with a kid I’d known for years, an intelligent and cultured attorney-in-the-making in fact, about abstract art. Agog after attending a recent show of Abstract Expressionist art, I was singing the praises of de Kooning, in particular. He was of the not so unusual opinion that anyone could paint abstractly, that little skill or talent was required to throw paint arbitrarily onto a canvas. I assured him that there was nothing arbitrary about the process, but he was pretty incredulous. Essentially, he saw Abstract Expressionists as con artists who, lacking education and training, simply glommed onto a movement as opportunity arose and were foisting their crude daubings on an unwitting public. “I could take their art seriously,” he opined, “if I saw that they really had some ability, that they could produce serious representational art, that they actually chose to paint the way they did.”
“But,” I replied, “most of these artists received rigorous training in their craft and early on tackled the conventions of representational imagery, De Kooning, for instance, from a very early age was trained in traditional techniques in his native Holland, eventually landing secure employment producing commercial art. I’ve seen a couple of his early representational pieces that would amaze you.”
He was surprised and a little doubtful, but, without a foundation in this area, had no choice but to concede the point and let the discussion drop.
|Willem de Kooning - Bowl, Pitcher and Jug - 1921|
I tell this story not to poke fun at my friend. I am sure that at some point in my development I shared his opinion and could make neither head nor tail of abstract art. The effort to convincingly translate form and space into a two-dimensional format is very challenging and requires many years of training and experimentation to master. It’s difficult when immersed in the struggle to acquire the traditional techniques of creating representational imagery to seriously consider work that seems to discard the very skills you are trying to attain.
However, by the time I was an undergraduate art student at SUNY Stony Brook, I was ready for some experimentation. I approached Abstraction warily, without serious commitment on my part. Though abstraction begs for a large format, I worked on very small canvases, unwilling to squander precious resources on a flight of fancy. I really didn’t understand what abstraction was about, how powerfully emotive it could be. Since at that time my figurative work was about spontaneity and immediacy, I avoided nuance, working in pure tones applied in impasto.
|Gerard Wickham - Abstraction I -1978c|
This work seeks to discard a traditional approach to composition but fails, ultimately retreating to comfortable conventions. Paint handling is consistent, unvaried and uninteresting. It really offers none of the technical, visual rewards that one would expect from an abstract painting.
|Gerard Wickham - Abstraction II -1978c|It’s difficult to abandon Subject Matter when painting. Here I suggest biomorphic forms without providing tangible definition. We might be peering into the lens of a microscope to view strange, multicellular organisms. The beings could be alien lifeforms, prehistoric creatures or robots. Whatever is going on here, the overall effect is whimsical. I was definitely under the influence of Arshile Gorky and Joan Miró.
|Gerard Wickham - Backyard Abstraction - 1979|
Of course, it was inevitable that I would take the Jackson Pollock route at least once. There was a twenty year accumulation of partially filled house paint cans in my parents’ basement. I popped open a few of them to create this unsuccessful abstraction inspired by the view out the backdoor of my childhood home.
I think that to paint a successful abstraction it is essential that the artist has attained a true understanding of and passion for paint itself. Early on, paint, for me, was solely a vehicle to create an illusion of space and form. There are so many things to consider when painting (composition, perspective, anatomy, the opposition of lights and darks, tonal value, color harmony, etc.) that it’s easy to lose touch with the medium itself. Only when technical concerns are addressed intuitively, almost unconsciously, after years of persistent activity, does one begin to appreciate the medium itself: the pull on the brush when applying paint to a still tacky lower layer; the way thinned out paint splatters or drips when rapidly brushed onto a surface; how impasto paint retains the imprint of the brush and documents the path and speed of the stroke; how a thin glaze of color effects the tonal value of the layers below; or what happens when a palette knife is raked over still wet paint. It took me years to learn that paint is subject matter.
Let me digress a moment to address terminology. Probably one of the most confusing words used to define a technical approach to creating imagery is “abstraction”. When modern artists first started to experiment with imagery not firmly rooted in reality, they began with real subject matter which in their translations was distorted and disguised to the point at which compositional concerns and emotional impact became the determining factors on how that subject matter was represented. At times, the subject matter of the artwork could still be easily recognized. At other times, the subject matter was nearly obliterated. But regardless of how far the artist wanted to push it, he was in effect “abstracting” from reality. For instance, Wassily Kandinsky codified or created symbols for the things that resonated most powerfully with him (horses, cannons and mountains, for example). Over time, the symbols became so abstract that they were barely recognizable, but they continued to be necessary to the artist to initiate the process of painting.
|Wassily Kandinsky - Composition IV - 1911|
Eventually artists naturally transitioned to creating work that had no link to any real visual reference, but unfortunately the label “abstraction” stuck. To differentiate this new radical approach to creating imagery from that of traditional abstraction, the term “pure abstraction” was applied.
While experiencing a particularly inventive period during my years in grad school, I thought myself ready to tackle pure abstraction. My appreciation and understanding of the properties of paint were probably at an all-time high, and I was ready to seriously commit myself intellectually to the process of painting without subject matter. Part of that commitment was working in a larger format – much more appropriate to the approach.
|Gerard Wickham - Abstract Painting - 1984|
In this work, I explored what could be achieved through limited means. I confined myself, for the most part, to applying paint of fairly regular consistency with a brush. I restrained my brushwork and restricted my palette. My intention was to let the paint play the lead role. Though this work is by no means a masterpiece, I enjoy its overall effect of regularity occasionally interrupted by accents of concentrated color, the way that the barely perceptible tightening of the brushwork at the top of the canvas suggests space and the aura of complacency implicit in its execution.
|Gerard Wickham - The Red X - 1983|
By far my most successful abstraction, The Red X was painted using every technical means I had mastered during my years of study. It was first constructed by establishing a subtle foundation of pale zones which was then overlaid with a network of bold strokes (generally ranging from dark gray to black). The brushwork was varied and inventive – many times amended or edited out completely by subsequent washes of pale pastels. The green area in the lower right of the canvas was painted for the most part in impasto, which in turn demanded the counterbalance of the orange glaze above it. The composition functioned pretty simply: weak vertical sectors of activity flanked the left and right-hand sides of the canvas providing structure and stability while an overall diagonal provided stress and movement. Sensing that the painting was nearing completion, I stopped at this point to survey my work and recognized that the right-hand side of the canvas was far more active than the left. I placed a bold stroke of bright red on the diagonal axis of the composition running perpendicular to the diagonal’s thrust. It wasn’t enough, so I pulled a line of paint away from that stroke somewhat toward the center of the canvas. Later when I examined the painting, I saw that the two strokes resembled an “X”, and when Sam Gelber suggested that calling the work “The Red X” would be natural, the name stuck.
Without a doubt, a few fledgling attempts at pure abstraction do not make one a master. Artists devoted many years, often the entirety of their careers, to attaining a fluency in the technique. I never seriously considered pure abstraction an avenue that would permit me to fully address my artistic concerns, either intellectually or emotionally, though I enjoyed the challenge of the occasional technical exercise. Even so, I learned to appreciate and greatly respect pure abstraction, studied the work of some of the giants in the field and avidly sought out exhibitions of their work.
I’ve put together a small selection of artwork, that I particularly like, created by a variety of painters who worked in a purely abstract manner.
New York School - Action Painters
|Willem de Kooning - Untitled - 1950|
|Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm, No 30 - 1950|
|Franz Kline - Mahoning - 1956|
New York School - Color Field Painters
|Mark Rothko - Orange, Red, Yellow - 1961|
|Adolph Gottlieb - Flotsam at Noon (Imaginary Landscape) - 1952|
School of Paris
|Wols - It's All Over The City - 1947|
|Serge Poliakoff - Abstract Composition - 1954|
|Pierre Soulages - Bleu - 1972c|
Second Generation Abstract Expressionism
|Joan Mitchell - City Landscape - 1955|
|Helen Frankenthaler - Into the West - 1977|
Bay Area Abstraction
|Richard Diebenkorn - Ocean Park #79 - 1975|
|Mark Tobey - Universal Field - 1949|
|Antoni Tapies - Painting - 1955|
|Asger Jorn - Green Ballet - 1960|
|Brice Marden - Cold Mountain Series, Zen Study 2 - 1991|
|Gerhard Richter - Abstract Painting - 1987|All comments are welcome. If you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at [email protected]