Contemporary Painting After a Century of Abstract Art
Part I. Observation-based Abstraction
October 10 - December 4, 2009
A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts to-day, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion.
Wassily Kandinsky, circa 1909
The Thompson Gallery is grateful and proud to present John Thompson's Namesake—the first of three exhibitions in a yearlong series that examines Contemporary Painting After a Century of Abstract Art. As an introduction to the ideas explored by the series, Namesake is an unusual exhibition for the Thompson Gallery. Though galleries and museums are often named after a benefactor, it is much less often that an artist is the philanthropist responsible for the space in which he is exhibited. More than simply honoring him, Namesake establishes a crucial point as our series opens regarding some of the initial aspirations of the celebrated and ubiquitous form of expression called abstraction. This series in no way attempts to be exhaustive regarding its subjects. By mounting this show, which names only one particular contemporary artist, we are able to come to an understanding regarding some pervasive tenets without needing to examine a large body of similar artists. Namesake celebrates the impetus to depart from illusionistic depiction, an art form which has been around for a hundred plus years and is still vital today. Our series, which has been divided into three areas of interest, examines crucial trajectories of abstraction that have evolved since Kandinsky first wrote about “longing to express his inner life,” and which have remained pertinent in our postmodern era: observation-based, intuition-based and conception-based abstraction. Specifically, for this first part in our series, Namesake turns our gaze toward the practices of the initial preoccupation of early abstract artists, who’s pioneering approach to abstraction ventured away from depicting recognizable, namable objects in favor of pushing semblances toward simplified ends.
Extracting from Observation 1909-10
As artists, historians and students continue to work to understand and express the concepts of abstraction, it is helpful to be reminded that abstraction in art has only been a valid form of expression in its own right for a mere century—thanks to Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and the many others. The instigators of Modern Art, of course, were the Asian-inspired Impressionists, who emancipated the tradition of Realism by painting with heightened color and vague brushwork, instead of polished and near invisible paint strokes. The Impressionists set the stage for Picasso and Braque who further shattered tradition into bits, and who literally only depicted parts of the still life, model or scene through their Cubist strategy. And while Picasso’s ground breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Fig. 1), with it’s nod to African art, radically re-envisioned the way to paint a depicted world, it is Kandinsky that is often considered the father of non-objective art, because his master work made no attempt to reference the world with any visual cues for material things.
Kandinsky not only forged the initial ideas that led to the search for “pure abstraction,” he wrote and published two books that influenced generations of painters to this day. Ahead of his time, it took about ten years to write his first seminal text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and thus it is important to recognize that he was thinking about such content before the Fin de siècle. The earliest records indicate that his first draft was finished “3 August, 1909,”1 and shortly after this draft was completed, Kandinsky made the biggest leap in the history of painting—inspiring a century of inquiry and thus the stimulus for this series of exhibitions. Kandinsky’s writings and paintings proved that art could approach the immaterial. In his translator’s introduction to Kandinsky’s first book, Michael Sadler eloquently validates:
The power of music to give expression without the help of representation is its noblest possession. No painting has ever had such a precious power. Kandinsky is striving to give it that power, and prove what is at least the logical analogy between colour and sound, between line and rhythm of beat.2
By 1909, Kandinsky was already showing the extent to which he had departed from semblances in his paintings. For example, while highly abstracted, Murnau Garten II (Fig. 2), still has hints of a visible landscape. Only a few short months later, one of the earliest known, if not the first non-objective painting is Kandinsky’s 1910 untitled watercolor (Fig. 3), in which all cues for things material are absent from the work. Kandinsky not only created an art that was comparable to music, to this day it is his application of language that has entered into the artistic vernacular—the Principles of Design: harmony, rhythm and unity.
Where Kandinsky’s paintings take a visionary leap, Mondrian’s early abstractions are more gradual (Figs. 4–6) as they almost seamlessly demonstrate how observation of objects can yield to a rhythm of lines, shapes and forms to establish a harmonious, unified whole.
In these early works, viewers can almost anticipate the paintings that would follow which transformed Mondrian into the master abstract artist he ultimately became. The project of abstraction initiated with works like these—and the world has since grappled with this seemingly dualistic aspect of painting: representation versus abstraction. As artists become progressively more abstract, pushing imagery further and further away from semblances, as well as not even looking to the outside world for inspiration, these early works—what some have called semi-abstract art—stand as teaching tools for the ways in which artists simplify, reduce, edit and stylize the visible, naturalistic universe.
As we will see in our small series of exhibitions, where Modernism once saw abstraction and representation as separate endpoints of a continuum, Postmodernism regards that all art has qualities that are both abstract and representative. Regardless of the view, throughout its short history, abstraction in art has always been problematic. In light of the fact that abstraction has received harsh criticism from its inception throughout the subsequent decades, a century later as we take a look at the well-being of this art form that has attracted thousands of practitioners, millions of appreciative supporters and thousands of skeptics, our contemporary situation rests upon this dynamism.
Observation and Extraction in 2009
An important operation concerning observation-based abstraction stems from the verb tense of the word abstract—to extract and to remove. While there is certainly a case to be made for abstraction that leans toward exaggeration, it is the processes of information removal that became a basic preoccupation of making abstract images for decades. Similarly, in the case of Thompson’s paintings and prints, viewers can readily identify the “source” from which the artist takes his inspiration, even without the aid of his provided artist’s statement. Viewers notice the intentional reduction and specific selection of information, which forms the flowing calligraphic iconography—at once referential and several steps away from a naturalistic representation. Thompson takes select cues from New England flora; whole pieces and particular aspects of his chosen scenes have been omitted.
Thompson’s newest works clearly reference water, lily pads and wave-like motion but often there is a sense in the work that there is a multiplicity and a super-imposition of things seen and experienced—groups of separate moments recalled together, by way of compressed open spaces and flattened textural fields that printmaking and painting allow. And, Thompson’s use of color—which, is similar to a Post-Impressionist or an Expressionist pallet—takes on its own character that is quite set apart from the actual color we would see if we were to traverse the same New England ponds, parks and natural reserves that Thompson frequents. These sites and the small events that capture his imagination—a fallen stick with surrounding ripples in the water, for example—are the prompts to explore how such elements can stir a reverie of memory. Elements of nature are reduced to elements of design—line, shape, tone, color and texture. Abstracted, the combination of elements become the stuff that instigates the viewer’s offsite journey, on which they recognize the feeling of things familiar: how water has currents, depth, surface reflections and detritus; and the ways that interior shadows sway and undulate as they flow and move through space and time. Thompson’s work, with its selective and repetitive elements, is a celebration of the constant dance of flora; he does not need to re-present the scene beyond just hinting at it to create a haunting memorial. Thus, what is missing, as much as what is present, transfixes the viewer who fills in the missing pieces. The work is, therefore, made personally relevant by each individual’s impressions, much like a sonata captures our attention and adoration. As Thompson’s work can be easily grouped with the interests of Impressionistic paintings and Modern artists who simplified their canvases with expressionistic aspirations, his work is not only in resonance with the art of the past.
A century later, artists like Thompson question, combine, if not deconstruct, the various divisions of art and often question the boundaries of its established categories. Namesake juxtaposes select paintings and series print works that often blur the distinctions between each genre. Were it not for the early abstract artists work, such as Kandinsky’s visionary and pioneering paintings and his published writings, art such as Thompson’s would simply not be possible today; there would only be the art of the traditionally re-presented. As the juxtaposition of paint and print suggests, Thompson’s work is often difficult to discern where the fresh brush stroke ends and the printing process begins. His vibrant and semi-abstract Hinsdale Series, for example, echoes the spirit of Monet’s Water Lilies with strong affinities for Asian calligraphic brushwork, despite the limits that conventional wood-block printing imposes. His paintings, too, mix painted gestural brushwork with photo screen-printed reproductive practices, making it’s difficult at times to pinpoint which is which. For Thompson, painting and printmaking share fundamental affinities so their respective categories needn’t be kept apart. Moreover, his work demonstrates that where one process is more or less fluid or rigid, fusion augments each other in favorable ways. His hybrid art accordingly blends originals with the copies—a decidedly post-modern endeavor. The art of the copy is rendered unique with hand drawn elements; and haunting repetition, references to past works and reprinted layers relieves the one of a kind painting.
In his lifetime, Kandinsky worked to emancipate painting to augment its basic tenets. Today, abstraction is a household word, a concept that though difficult to understand is nevertheless accepted, more than ample proof that the potential of abstraction has achieved the visionary status Kandinsky imagined. The work in Namesake has more than “set colour in motion,” John Thompson has activated the workings of one of abstraction’s great powers; synesthesia is not only alive and well, it is moving ever forward in unexpected ways.
Todd Bartel, Curator
1. Glew, Adrian, Introduction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, MFA Publications, Boston, MA, 2006, p. vii
2. Sadler, Michael T. H., Translator’s Introduction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, MFA Publications, Boston, MA, 2006, p. xliii