Published Wednesday, 2 January 2002Painting is the argument between what it looks like and what it means.
Abstraction in its most general sense, is the recognised style that made a
defiant break from the boundaries set up by realism throughout the history of
art. It provided a definitive break with the forms of representation found in
traditional art and is the most recognised style of Modernism.
Abstract art is an expansive term that is generally associated with all
non-representational art. Its origin lies with the work of Wassily Kandinsky as
an Expressionist artist, Pablo Picasso the cubist, and Kasmir Malevich a
Russian Constructivist. Within each of these movement is the key aesthetic
operation of challenging the power of realism in the visual arts.
Many abstract artists who viewed their practice as an exploration into a
universal insight, providing style that is self-reflective and sophisticated
articulate this important point. This potent medium demands the audience to
analyse the work; understanding is never facile in viewing abstract art. Often
clarity of meaning is missed due to the inability of the viewer to reflect and
think about the artwork and this is one reason why the media and the general
public found Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles a controversial acquisition
when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973.
What is evident from the early writings on his own paintings, Kandinsky
articulates the value of this style as a metaphor for living. For
Kandinsky abstraction stimulated the activity of painting and was liken to the
natural act of breathing, he acknowledged abstraction as a vivid sense of being
that could be defined in no other manner or style.
Within an Australian context, the 1939 exhibition of French and British Modern
Art sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the acute
awareness of our isolation with respect to modern art practices. After the end
of the WW2 this was slowly corected with a combination of better
communications, a proliferation of overseas art journals and post war
immigration which allowed Australian artists to develop a more comparative work
to their European and American counterparts. The greater exposure of
contemporary European art provided a stimulus for the shift towards
abstraction. The 1940's saw the development of the Angry Penguins group (Sidney
Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval) who adopted and developed
a visual language from a lyrical expressionist ideom. By the 1950s abstract
expressionism was cemented into the stylistic order within Australia and
artists such as Godfrey Miller, John Passmore John Coburn, John Olsen, Tony
Tuckson, Ian Fairweather and Elwynn Lynn were developing different forms of
As the critic Charles Green points out in terms of Australian modern art, this
was the start of the 1st wave abstraction that would culminate in the
development of colour field painting highlighted in the 1968 exhibition
at the National Gallery of Victoria, The Field. Colour Field artist were
interested in the aesthetic quality of colour over all other visual
considerations. The Australian 2nd wave abstraction could be seen in the work
of contemporary artists such as Paul Boston, Rod Mc Crae and Angela Brennan. In
this re-evaluation of abstraction for Australian artist postmodern concerns
filter through their practice. Issues such as critical theories, post-feminism
and post colonialism provide a fragmentary account of Abstract painting at the
end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.
Notably, within the development of contemporary Australian art is the
renaissance of Indigenous Australian art, adopting formal considerations from a
western perspective, coupled with a strong cultural and aesthetic connection
with the land to evelove into a rich source of abstraction. Since 1972, in
Papunya Tula and other regional areas in Australia, the significance of
Aboriginal art as a dynamic and vital force has been recognised globally. The
work of Australian artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Michael Nelson
Tjakamarra, Fiona Foley, Kathleen Petyarre, Makinti Napanangka and Emily Kame
Kngwarreye highlight Aboriginal art as a key development in Australian abstract
art, which has adapted sacred iconography into a secular westernised form
suitable for public display.
It can be argued that abstract art offers a more personal account of the
artist; the work is a manifestation of the deeply personal and constructs an
empathetic bridge to the emotional and intellectual perception of the audience.
The abstract painter makes a critical assessment of the aesthetic conventions
attributed to realism and seeks to mutate or evolve such conventions to
establish a personalised view of the world. It is a synthesis of retinal
properties (what is seen), emotional response (what is felt) and intellectual
perception (what is thought) that provides the compositional structure.
Abstraction provides a forms of representation and expression that attempts to
go beyond what is seen, stripping away recognisable form to declare a
personal response to the world. Abstraction is the distillation of feelings,
intuition and intellect to construct new visual forms. It celebrates the act of
painting (and sculpture), where gesture, and colour and mark key elements of
this visual convention. Abstraction is a visual language of the transcendental
in which realism is negated in favour of a deeper representation of the world.
Postmodern artists' revaluation of the significance and language of Abstraction
have allowed for a number of stylistic developments within art today. The
conventions of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism are being reconstructed;
these styles' residual aesthetic energies are being harvested in a number of
contemporary approaches to painting and sculpture. Contemporary artists
accession into abstraction as seen in the work of Brennan, Whisson, Kendall,
Boston, Bromley-Moore and Tjungurrayi highlights an idiosyncratic approach to
the conventions associated with abstraction. Such artists offer a rich and
varied response in which critical reassessment of abstraction is made in their
artmaking, that acknowledges and employs the style but intends its expressive
potential. These artists demonstrate how abstraction is both a physical and
intellectual practice, presenting ambiguity of meaning as well as visual
construction is what such artists are both examining and producing.
By Craig Malyon