Unreal Nature

January 17, 2017

A Check As Well As a Stimulus

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… In non-figurative art it is the reality, the presence, of the painting itself that has to fulfill this function [… ] of firing and resisting our imagination so that our relationship with the work always remains reciprocal.

This is from ‘English Abstract Art’ (1957) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… it is precisely a dependence upon the picturesque that is the flaw in British abstract painting of the free, painterly kind — its dependence upon vague poetic allusion rather than the properties of painting as such. If the specimens of ‘painterly non-figuration’ — to use the neat term with which Alloway covers Tachism, Abstract Expressionism and Abstract Impressionism in the catalogue — are compared with the work of Americans such as Pollock, Rothko, Kline, Motherwell, Tomlin, Still, they strike us as peculiarly lacking in physical substance, physical presence, in a word, concreteness.

[line break added] They do not hold the wall, they float, they melt away as we look at them, do not affirm their physical reality as canvases covered with paint. We have the impression that, whereas the Americans have improvised on their canvases with the positive and unafraid intention of turning those canvases into live things, for these British painters improvisation has meant playing about with paint on the assumption that if they go on long enough something is bound to turn up, the something being some vague poetic suggestion.

The difference is not between a poetic art and an art which has physical presence and no soul: it is the difference between an art which relies on evoking things outside itself, an art that is somehow transparent, and an art which evokes other things only when it has firmly and decisively established its own reality. By the same token, the difference is not between a subtle art of tenuous suggestion, a shifting, ambiguous art, and an art of simple positive statements: it is the difference between an art that is all ethereal echo and an art in which there is something there to shift, something to be ambiguous about.

[line break added] None of our English paintings are more subtly pale and evanescent than Mark Rothko’s, but the Rothkos have the decisive reality of a rock-fact: they could scarcely be more transparent in texture, or more opaque in effect. Sam Francis, on the other hand, gets Rothko’s subtle paleness but not his concreteness, and this may explain why he is so much more highly esteemed in England than in America.

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Sam Francis, Untitled (SF56-003), 1956

… ‘It must be recalled that a picture — before it is a picture of a battle horse, nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a plane surface covered by paints arranged in a certain order’ [Maurice Denis]. The basic assumption of modern art — I speak of the major trends, those related to Matisse, Bonnard, Braque, Picasso, Soutine, Klee, Mondrian — is that the first concern of a work of art is to present a configuration of shapes and colors and marks which in and of itself stimulates and satisfies, and that only after this condition has been fulfilled can the subtlety of observation, the depth of human feeling and insight, the moral grandeur, expressed in the work, have validity: before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality, before it can be a symbol it must rejoice in being a fact, and the more it affirms its autonomous reality the more will it contain the possibility of returning us to the reality of life.

American-type painting is simply the extreme logical conclusion of this doctrine: its credo is the Denis definition shorn of its last words, ‘arranged in a certain order.’ For the earlier consequences of the idea of art formulated by Denis were forms of art in which the order of the work was too obviously emphasized. In answer to the schematic rhythms of Cubism and its offshoots, American-type painting has shown that the picture can have a life and presence of its own without having to look like ‘flat, colored architecture’ (to use an expression of Juan Gris’s): it only has to look like paint on canvas.

[line break added] Furthermore, American-type painting implies that, just as a painting does not have to depend for its vitality on resembling pre-existing phenomena, neither does it have to depend on conforming with any pre-existing canon of order. Its order as well as its subject matter can be evolved in the act of painting, for the ultimate reality lies in painting.

And in this kind of abstract painting, it is only after the reality of the picture itself has been established that its evocation — of states of feeling, of sensations remembered and half-remembered — have meaning and point. [By contrast] British paintings of this kind are like coals in the fire or cloud-formation or damp-stains on the wall — they are not seen in themselves, they merely serve to stimulate the fantasy of the spectator. In a sense, they do not begin to be works of art, for the work of art must offer a resistance to the spectator’s fantasy, a check as well as a stimulus.

[line break added] In figurative art the reality, the presence, of the object represented has this dual function of firing and resisting our imagination so that our relationship with the work always remains reciprocal, does not become a one-way traffic into daydreaming. In non-figurative art it is the reality, the presence, of the painting itself that has to fulfill this function.

francis_untitled01
Sam Francis, Untitled (SF78-255), 1978

Note that Sam Francis’s work is exemplary of what does not meet Sylvester’s description of strong American non-figurative art.

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

-Julie

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