What could be more pointless at this late date than protesting against abstract art? As soon complain about the ballpoint for dislodging the fine fountain pen. Not, by the way, that earlier protests would have landed on less deaf ears. Abstract art is in, and figurative art is seriously imperiled.
There is some hope to be gleaned from the state of music, where the twelve-tone kind seemed to be taking over, only to be nowadays pretty much abandoned. But then music is music and fine arts are fine arts, and it is dangerous trying to find analogies between them. Especially since a great composer like Alban Berg managed to transcend categories almost imperceptibly. Whereas abstract art cannot pretend to be anything else, perhaps not even art.
I can well understand the rise of abstraction: the feeling that painting had already done it all, and what it couldn’t, photography did. Of course, originality remains open to major talent, and no one would mistake a Renoir nude for a Rubens, even though both painters favored chubby women. It is the plethora of lesser artists that has muddied the stream, leaving still other lesser artists wondering what is left.
A sense of being latecomers prevails for both the artists and their followers, and drives them into something different, however desperate. So a Kandinsky or Mondrian, who could do other things, jump into abstraction. And the same holds for the sculptors. Consider the trajectory from Rodin to David Smith. But there were painters who, bless them, worked between reality and abstraction, and managed to be Nicolas de Stael or Maria Vieira da Silva, and even the kind of abstractionists that still were able to keep a toe in reality, like Pierre Soulages.
But when we come to full-fledged abstraction, I bridle. Several problems present themselves. Anyone genuinely cherishing a work of abstraction and not merely responding to some hype, must find in it something ineffable to respond to. But what if he can’t? Must he take someone else’s word for it? And what if two viewers like the same thing for vastly different reasons? Doesn’t that cast some doubt about
it? Or is art meant to be some kind of Rorschach test, make from it what ever your id wishes?
Another problem is: why should I consider something art if I, a non-artist, could do it just as well? Or if a small child or chimpanzee could do it too? Any drip can dribble paint, and whether you call it in fancy French tachisme, or in plain Amurrican action painting, why can’t I say it’s spinach and to hell with it?
Thus in the January 10th New York Times there was a color reproduction of a painting by Ellsworth Kelly called “Black Red-Orange,” part of a many-million-dollar request promised to the Philadelphia Art Museum. It is a rectangle whose top third is solid black, and the other thirds something between plain red and orange. Anyone could have daubed it if he lacked the good sense not to bother, or perhaps if he had the good sense to bother, since this pitiful artifact was clearly worth millions.
To me, some of the archenemies are Pollock and Rothko, though of course there are countless others of their persuasion. Nor am I impressed by the usual defense: “Ah, but Pollock knew how to dribble: how many colors, how much of each, how big a canvas.” I would wager that even if he had dribbled entirely differently, or indeed blindfoldedly, the thing would have drawn the same adulation, the same claims for its perfection, as long as the same great name was attached to the work.
I keep repeating something I wrote long ago: the history of art stretches from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered and the maker not at all, to when only the signature matters and the work not at all. Hordes of contemporary artists spew out Untitleds, usually appending numbers to them, otherwise not even they would know whether this was Untitled 147 or Untitled 191. This is not the same as when Whistler calls a specific portrait or townscape “Arrangement in Grey and Black” or “Symphony in White,” wishing to call attention to color harmonies, although that too is pretty show-offy.
I personally have some respect for an abstraction by Wols as opposed to one by Franz Kline, but how can I prove to someone with the opposite taste that he is wrong and I am right? And, in any case, I would gladly trade my Wols, if I had one, for a figurative Magritte, Delvaux or Ensor to name only some Belgians. To anyone who says one can no longer be figurative and great. I submit such names as counterproof.
There are in fact any number of ways one can still be figurative and great. Take the alternative universe of Klee that still has recognizable figures and features often comic, irrelevant titles; or the world of impossible juxtapositions, fragmentations, and rearrangements of realities as in Magritte. Or the subtle perversion of Balthus’s provocative Lolitas, langorously effete youths, and demoniac cats—or even the bizarre Balthus cityscapes and off-kilter landscapes that are just real enough.
What I am finally asking here comes down to this: to what standard is a piece of abstract art answerable? By what authority is it proclaimed art? With figurative art, no problem. Even though it may have needed the endorsement of the court, the church, the rich citizens, it had, has, something bigger than that: pleasing the onlookers, whoever they be.
Whether a painting had the delicacy of Raphael, the forcefulness of Michelangelo, the faint mystery of Leonardo, one recognized in it something beyond mere representation of life, though certainly also that. This Lehmbruck or Giacometti may be thinner than life, this Barlach or Lachaise thicker than life, this obese Botero or pockmarked Kokoschka a comment on life, but somewhere behind all these works lurks humanity, however much some aspect of it is over- or underplayed.
There is also originality: no one else has done it quite like this before. There is a temerity behind these works: this Schiele is significantly more tormented than ordinary reality; this assemblage of imaginary beasts and triangular humans in Wilfredo Lam is a comment on the human jungle.
But what does a piece of abstract art have to do with, to say about life; at best I’d have it be a piece of wallpaper, or, stretching it, the blur with which the newborn perceives the world. Or could it be an unreliable view of subatomic particles? Or, more likely, none of the above. But let it be signed Philip Guston or Helen Frankenthaler, and it becomes a respected commodity, like a car signed Cadillac, or a computer signed Mac.
But no matter how signed they are, I refuse a Rothko or Pollock the status of art. I will even reject some phases of Picasso, which I would gladly trade for a Hopper, a Burchfield or a John Singer Sargent. Or, to show how far to the left I will go, I proclaim a fondness for Andre Beaudin (1895-1979). The influence of his master, Juan Gris, that most lyrical cubist, is evident, but this is a cubism lighter, more fluid, with an almost breathable airiness.
As Jacques Lascagne has written, “Beaudin is a painter of pure light as it appears emerging from the night. His art, in its limpidity never escapes from honest reasoning. It is full of subtle poetry. Whether it takes as its model horses fighting, a horse race, or the varied faces of Paris, or the flight of a bird before an open window, he liberates the universal quality while at the same time adorning the image with the subtlest nuances of the passing moment. With a few simple lines, harmonizing with cold, vivid colors, he depicts the birth of day or its various hours.”
Or here is another source: “Whatever his subject, Beaudin decomposes and recomposes it to suit himself, stripping the world of its external characteristics, its inertia and weight. And replacing them with a subtle, coherent ensemble of line and color. His work also includes tapestries [I have seen and admired them], etchings, lithographs, sculptures, and illustrations for the works of a number of poets.”
I do wish to emphasize that airiness that somehow seems to lift the painting off the canvas, and convey its feeling like that of a cool fruit juice to the parched throat. As Reynold Arnould has written, “These are colors rather murmuring the way a spring emerges from the earth. And they are, also naturally, used sparingly in each work.” Beaudin has become a major, duly rewarded artist, earning the Grand Prix National des Arts in 1962.