Unreal Nature

July 13, 2015

Fire Beneath a Frozen Surface

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… Look at the violation of the picture …

… with blood, with night, with white, again and again.

Continuing through Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

Gerhard Richter, November, 1989

… These huge pictures — they measure about three by four meters — were made by dragging a hard bar repeatedly across the surface. The whole idea of making a picture by means of accident, which was after all about Pollock, the idea of letting material determine the image and form of the making, seems filtered in Richter’s case through Johns and something we talked about in the fourth lecture, which is the idea that destroying order is the same thing as producing it, that art has a kind of cruelty to it. The raked and ruined surface of a picture like November recalls Johns‘ mordant acceptance of the idea of ruination in the scraping, pulling, and messing. The other two canvases from the series have a similar power. Richter is not the producer of a clear cycle of completion; this is not a series of “Four Seasons.” Only winter is represented in this world, with its different colors peppering through like the glow of fire beneath a frozen surface. These are incredibly rich, complex, layers of surface incident, deeply worked.

[ … ]

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1956

… In a picture such as Untitled of 1956, instead of the continuous liquid skein of Pollock, or the big, juicy brushstrokes of de Kooning, Twombly produces a fragmented, broken, strawlike scratching and scrawling. As Peter Schjeldalhl once said, it is like what a dog does when he’s getting ready to lie down. Twombly is destroying the surface, scarring it, dragging pencils through it. His is an act of desecration, vandalization, of bringing the language of abstract expressionism out of the realm of personal expression and into the world of writing and language, of shared signs and pictograms. At any given moment, the piece seems about to break into a set of words, a set of pictograms, a set of letters that is going to spell out a message. His forms no longer have an independent role outside of body; instead their physicality is filtered through the public langauge of signs and writing.

[ … ]

Jasper Johns, Weeping Women, 1975

… Look at the violation of the picture in the one note of external reality that comes into it, the inclusion of a merely pragmatic item from his studio, not the Savarin can as before, but the iron that he uses to heat the encaustic wax. This tool brands the picture in four places.

… Think about the feeling from that Twombly. Start with a mindless program. Just draw scrawls and see what it gives you. Think about Johns starting with the idea of just hatching, just drawing five bars at a time, then drawing them again in oil, drawing them again in encaustic, then scraping them down, then trying again, then coming back again with blood, with night, with white, again and again.

… One level of their [all of these paintings’] meaning is their knowing relationship to that tradition [of Pollock], and that relationship is ironic. It is a relationship of negation: of providing structure to the unstructured, drying out the liquid, making dark the light. It is a relationship to tradition that involves chastisement, that involves the acceptance of tradition’s constraints at the same time that it subverts and reacts against them. And yet this is, it seems to me, extremely powerful abstract art. The standard history of abstraction, and the one that the satirists and ironists of the 1980s would write, smugly and in self-congratulation, is a history of faith and its loss, a history of illusions replaced by knowing, of dreams dispelled by reality. Here, however, in Twombly, in Johns, and in Richter, you have an abstraction saturated with skepticism, saturated with knowing, an abstraction that proves that abstraction can be knowing and still have meaning. And that meaning is something that adds to, not just draws on, what we know.

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




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