Published Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Painting is the argument between what it looks like and what it means.
Brett Whiteley

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 abstraction.

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

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