Unreal Nature

June 1, 2015

Back Where We Started

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… We are back where we started: with the problem of the eye and the mind.

This is from Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… Similar forms give rise to different meanings, and different meanings and intentions give rise to similar forms. We need to look extremely closely at the particular things before us, because in art we do not make things any simpler by making simpler things.

[ … ]

Vasarely’s work is intriguingly close to Stella’s. Both use stripes, and yet there is a crucial difference between them: Vasarely wants a form built-up out of an optical illusion, as in Albers, and Stella does not. In fact, Vasarely was Stella’s great bugbear. In a famous 1964 interview Stella insisted that, in spite of the fact that Vasarely’s work used many of the same basic schemes, “it still doesn’t have anything to do with my painting. I find all that European geometric painting — sort of post-Max Bill school — a kind of curiosity — very dreary … I can’t think of anything I like less.” Stella is at pains to insist that, whatever the formal similarity between his work and Vasarely’s, it is extremely different because, in Stella’s work, “What you see is what you see.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] He wants to insist that there is no social agenda in his work, no theory, no rationalism in the European sense. Stella’s relationship to constructivism is like Pollock’s relationship to surrealism. A Pollock like Autumn Rhythm offers a translation or extrapolation of surrealism: certain principles of the earlier styls are reimagined and transformed by a new scale and a new physicality that leaves behind the earlier style’s ideological baggage and its metaphysical claims. Similarly, Stella gives a new lease on life to the formal language of constructivism by dropping the baggage that it formerly carried; the forms of abstraction are now literally put into play.

The revival of the Russian constructivist tradition on two sides of the Atlantic Ocean — the contrast between the diluted constructivism that rises out of design in the work of Albers, Morellet, Vasarely, and Soto, and the leap back to the original sources in the work of Stella and Judd — set the stage for a ripe confusion. Very different ambitions and intentions gravitate toward the same set of forms. It is a classic split between European and American views of the world: between rationalism and empiricism, between an idealist hope for a universal language of forms and a pragmatic insistence on particular realities (“what you see is what you see”), between the belief that you make art more democratic by reducing it to the essence of form and the belief that you make it democratic by rejecting the whole idea of essence.

[line break added] In Vasarely, Soto, and the other European and Latin American artists, the tradition of hard-edge geometry deriving from constructivism assumes a fixed meaning as the art of a social collective, whereas Stella, Judd, Andre, and other North American artists use the same geometry to make an art of individualism that does not attribute meaning to form, but instead emphasizes the praxis of the artist, which we will get to in the next lecture.

We are back where we started: with the problem of the eye and the mind. Vasarely stresses the mind, while Stella calls for a purer, more immediate opticality that does not involve the mind. Both rebuff subjectivity and make a claim to objectivity. What results are two very different utopias, each flawed in its own way.

Victor Vasarely, Vonal Stri, 1975

… It [art history] is not about fixed intentions, clean demises, or new inventions. Rather, it is a history of constant argument, of constant recycling of form. Indeed, the reinvention of the old as something new is the engine that makes this history go. Forms are endlessly mobile, moving from art to architecture, and then from mere design back to high art. Even at its most reductive, even when it gets pared down to pure geometry, to a bare-bones “art of the real,” abstraction provides no respite from interpretation, nor any retreat from the contingencies of history.

My previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




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