Archive

Tag Archives: abstract art


Why do I do this?

The year I was born, the New York School of painters was coalescing. When I was an adolescent, they were ascendant. They were my boys: Jackson, Willem, Franz, Barney and Mark. 

(And they were boys. It was years before Helen and Lee were fully recognized.) 

During those years, the boys were flying high, but they still needed to be argued for. The mass of people continued to make fun of them. “My three-year-old could do that.” 

But to me, their power and meaning was manifest. During my teenage years, I spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art, soaking in those great works. I spent way more of my time at MoMA than I did at the MET. 

They were called “Abstract Expressionists,” but at the time, for most people, abstract meant distorted. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world — the most famous abstract painter, and his subjects were still recognizable as bulls and guitars.

But for the New York School, it would be hard to name a subject. When Jackson Pollock was quizzed about what was his audience looking at, he said, “A painting.” 

There came to be a distinction made between abstract art and what was called “Non-Objective.” My boys were the latter. They weren’t imitating the world, but creating a new one. 

Yet, while I can honestly say I spent 10 hours at MoMA for every one I spent at the Metropolitan, the museum that became my spiritual home was the American Museum of Natural History. I didn’t just enjoy it; I loved it. I still do. 

At AMNH, I met the wonders of the natural world, from the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling to the “Soil Profiles of New York State.” There were dinosaur bones and the colossal Olmec head. Rooms filled with rock collections and the great, illuminated theater of dioramas with their dramatis personae of stuffed bears and lions. 

I had the luck of growing up in rural New Jersey. While it was only a short bus ride to the George Washington Bridge and civilization, it was also a land of woods and streams — one ran through our property. Red fox and white-tailed deer would occasionally pass through our lawn. Tract housing and mini-malls had not yet taken over. 

So, I had these two very polar influences pulling me: On one hand, there was the manifesto of the art world that painting should be painting, and not an image of the world; on the other, I was in love with nature and the world of seasons, leaves, birds and geology. 

This tension still thrives in me. In 1998, I got to see the huge Pollock retrospective at MoMA and the painter’s 1952 masterpiece, Blue Poles, which was on loan from its home in Australia. The 16-foot-wide painting was intensely beautiful; I stood in awe — and that is not too strong a word, despite its current depreciation among the cell-phone generation, for whom even a cheese doodle can be “awesome.” 

Yet, on the same trip, I also went back to the Natural History Museum. Entering its dark and marble halls was an act of love — and that is not too strong a word. 

Since then, the art world has walked through several new rooms: Pop, Conceptual, Postmodern. And each of them seems to step further back from the physical sensation of the the natural world. 

Pop wants us to recognize cultural artifacts as worthy subjects for consideration — and they certainly are. 

Conceptual art removes us from even that, into a world of pure idea, and those ideas are often so removed from our everyday experience as to be unintelligible for the mass of people. And often kind of silly. Often the art would be better expressed in words. Write an essay. 

Postmodernism seems to tell us that there is nothing but rehash of old imagery, and what is more, even those are really about power relationships and keeping the little guy down, especially if he is a she or is melanin-enhanced. 

Certainly, there is among these isms, much art of value and meaning. And I often agree with the political ideas expressed. But I have always missed in them a sense of love for the things of this world — the smells, textures, colors, shapes of the things we use and inhabit. 

I have never given up on that. 

In some ways, this dichotomy is the difference between reason and empiricism. Conceptual and Postmodern art think their way through the world. What I value is experiencing my way through it. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. 

But I still have this memory lodged in my psyche of Pollock and Kline and Rothko and de Kooning. 

So, I have at times attempted a synthesis. I love nature. Rocks and trees and birds and bees. The ocean and lakes; the canyons and grasslands; the swamps and forests.

Ah, but even as I read that, I know those are words. It isn’t rocks and trees, really. It is the hardness and grain of a particular granite, the different bark of birch and yew. It is the spot upon which I stand at any given moment and what I feel as breeze on my skin, what sun glare I shade my eyes from. 

And in that granite or in that tree bark, there are shapes, textures, colors. I touch them. I see them.

There is a place I have visited many times in Maine. It is Schoodic Point, which is a part of Acadia National Park. The main park on Mt. Desert Island, is crowded and developed, but some 40 miles northeast, by road, there is the Schoodic Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. At its tip, it is bare, hard rock and spume and surf. The wind is usually raw and comparatively few visitors come there, especially in the fall and winter. 

(The double-O in the middle of Schoodic is pronounced like the double-O in “good.”)

There, I can use my camera to record the abstract expressionist details that combine the emphasis on form and texture with an engagement with the natural world. It is a chance to reconcile those conflicting parts of my being. 

There is in some religions and mystical philosophies a contemptus mundi that I cannot share. The world is beautiful — not pretty, but beautiful; even its ugliness is beautiful. 

In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a book in which his images of the world, both natural and industrial, found pattern and form in details excerpted from context. It was named, Die Welt ist schoen. 

That has become a watchword for me: When you engage with it as deeply as you can — and we are each different in this respect — when you so engage with it, you discover that Moses was not exceptional; every bush is the burning bush.

That is what makes those cypresses of Van Gogh so penetrating, the haywain of Constable, the waterlilies of Monet, the peppers of Edward Weston, the simple crockery of Chardin, the rabbit of Durer. Die Welt ist schoen. 

So, I cannot worry if my humble images are important art or not, or whether it is art at all. Muche wele stant in litel besinesse. 

This is my tiny translation of Schoodic into image, the finding of the same elements Pollock sublimated into his canvasses, but here extracted from the hard edge of stone.

Click on any image to enlarge

 

Part 1: The Thing

Abstract art has several jobs, but one of the most important is to take the bits of the visual world around us, separate them from their context, and allow us to see them freshly. By removing color, texture, and pattern from their received meaning allows us to pay attention to the building blocks of vision. As if we could take the music of speech and remove the words from them, so only the sensuous vestige remains.

In most of the visual world we live in, we have given meanings to what we see, like seeing the diagrammatic picture of a man or woman on the restroom door. And in “reading” the visual world this way, as a sort of language, we too easily fail to actually see what we are looking at: We simplify and name: That is “green,” rather than “that is the green of kelp,” or “the green of grass.” Two very different greens. And there are thousands of greens. If we abstract the color from its worldly signature, we can place two greens next to each other and force ourselves to notice.

The same is true for texture, reflectivity, surface (whether matte or glossy), size or scale, the opacity or translucency of pigment — a thousand different qualities of sight, and of the visual world we inhabit, but where habit has dulled our perception — and our delight.

Still, no matter how abstracted from the quotidian an image may be, there remains some remnant of its source. We tend to recognize a certain green by the chords it sounds in our memory, our sense memory. We respond to this green or that in part — and idiosyncratically — by the way it calls to mind the emotions and pleasures we attach to it in a rather Proustian way.

Thus, although we may think of abstract art as a kind of rationalized set of color and pattern, line and texture, we can never entirely divorce our response to it from the experience of our own lives.

So, we are left with complicated response to art that on the surface seems to have no meaning.

(It’s no use making the argument that such response is too subjective, too personal. Our response to any art, no matter how abstract or how realistic, is always personal. Abstraction, again, reminds us of what we don’t normally think about.)

Painters have the advantage that they can invent shapes and lines from nothing but cobalt blue and vermilion. But a photographer is left with a more direct connection to the world outside his head. The camera must be pointed at something.

So, to make the same sort of visual argument as an abstract painter, the photographer has to use the real world and re-see it in some way as to make it unrecognizable. The two most immediate ways to do that are to get so close that all context is stripped away, or to step so far back that the perspective is one that no ordinary human can recognize it.

It is why I always book a seat by a window when I fly. I can look out the window and see the colors, textures and patterns of the planet below me, and make designs with them with my camera.

I self-published a book of such abstractions using the website, blurb.com. You can find the book here, and open it up in preview mode: http://www.blurb.com/b/1376943-windowseat

The skin of the continent becomes a canvas painted in swirls and pools, like some de Kooning or Pollock, Rothko or Diebenkorn. If you look, you can see again.

Part 2: The Metaphor

We live on a planetary canvas; colors and shapes are spread across the stretched linen of the Earth’s surface, although we have to step back to see it with any clarity.

The best way to do that is to climb up into the air. Up a tree and the neighborhood looks different; up a mountain and the valleys change; up in a jet plane and whole quarters of the continent are transformed.

That is the gift of the window seat. The view out and down paints a completely different picture of the world: clouds below us; shadows stretch out for dozens of miles late in the day, or as the sun rises; seas catch the sunlight in a scatter of sparks; the sky overhead is so dark a blue as to mimic midnight at midday.

I love flying. There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing a whole state underneath you opened up like a life-size map.

From 30,000 feet, you get a sense of the world as a tiny globe and can see whole ranges of many mountains as single features, like wrinkles on a face.

Few of us will ever see the Earth from the moon, or even from orbit, but anyone with a boarding pass can have his sensibility slapped silly with the incredible beauty of the planet.

So I always book a window seat for the show. And no matter how long the flight, I’m glued, stiff-necked, to the view.

You can spot the Rio Grande and its terrace, the Mississippi and its wiggle. You can tell Chicago from Detroit, Oklahoma from Arkansas.

Several times on cross-country flights, sitting on the north side of the plane, away from the glare of the direct sun, I looked out the window and down below the jet would be a floating pool of light, moving with the plane at some 500 mph. It is called a “glory” and it is certainly well-named. It is a visual effect much like a rainbow, and no two people see it in just the same place.

It can be seen at a point 180 degrees opposite the sun, speeding across the map-landscape below, crossing interstates and rivers, past the pegged dots of new housing developments, looking like mitochondria in an electron microscope, or the great circles of irrigated crops — great green coins spaced across Texas.

But it isn’t just the landforms that excite me. Even bad weather keeps my attention. Think of all the thousands of generations of humans who were never able to see the tops of clouds, which form their own fantastic landscapes, with mountains and valleys of crenellated whiteness.

The pilot curves the jet route in wide circles around a towering thunderhead, bleach-white at top and sooty at bottom, with its cauliflower protuberances catching new light. The distance is crowded with them, sprouting like mushrooms to the horizon. Dozens of fresh, new thunderstorms rising sunward like children reaching up for their mothers.

Over California once, after a rainstorm, with a low mist of water evaporating up into the atmosphere, the millions of puddles aggregated their mirror effect into a single flash, moving at the speed of the plane and making Fourth of July lightning bolts that flashed just beneath the surface of the mist, the way you can sometimes see the blood pulsing under the skin of a newborn. It gave me a feeling of intimacy with the planet.

Or a night flight, with the ground black underneath you as you fly over the empty expanses of the Southwest, with the small embers of tiny desert communities coming periodically into view, glowing like the last bit of a dying campfire. As you approach Phoenix, those embers gather into a vast pattern of incandescence, like some great lava field, with the glowing magma breaking through the cracks of the cooling stone above it. Almost nothing is as radiant as a city at night seen from the air. You want to hold your palms out toward it, to warm your hands in its heat.


Earthbound, we have a very bland, utilitarian sense of the celestial body we ride around on. It is all streets and signage, houses and mini malls. It is the place we go to work every day, the place where we watch television in the evening.

It is true, to those who have the eyes to see it, the planetary nature of our home is there to be seen: Daybreak shows us the sun breeching the horizon and moving across the heavens; the stars are there to see at night; there are rainy days and lightning storms to remind us of the larger forces. But they have all become ordinary through habit and usage. How many of us take the time to look up and admire a mackerel sky or a fair-weather cumulus cloud floating puffy on the slightly denser air beneath it?

But take an elevator to 30,000 feet and you get the god’s-eye view, moving across the curved surface of the world, where the people aren’t even ants and where the Earth is one small aggie in a great colliding pile of cosmic marbles.

Click any image to enlarge

We know what photography is: You point a camera at something and take its picture. But what if you don’t use a camera? And what if there is nothing to make a picture of?

Certainly, many have used their cameras to make abstract or quasi abstract images. Sometimes you just have to get close enough to avoid any context, or take it from some extreme angle.
Many decades ago, when I was teaching photography — so long ago that the photo lab was filled with noxious chemicals and darkness visible — I played around with making abstract photographs. Most of my photographs were landscapes and portraits, but in the darkroom between classes, I had time on my hands and tried a number of things out.

But let’s take this a step at a time. First, some straight photographs.

Many years before I began teaching, I knew an artist in Greensboro, NC, named Aime Groulx (he signed his name with a dot over the “X” as if it were an “I”). He was primarily a sculptor, but he also made photographs. One he made was of a doorknob in his house that looked like nothing else but a newly discovered planet. He called it “Doorknob to the Door of Perception.” He was an indifferent printer, but I used his negative to make a good silver print, which I still have.

The image was both totally realistic — it was a doorknob — and yet, as Minor White used to say, it is “what it is, and what else it is.”

Over the years, I took this lesson to heart and made many an image that seemed to be something more than what it is. An orange can be a planet, too.

Or a sand dune can be a spiral.

Finding interesting and beautiful shapes divorced from their quotidian meaning can make us see them more sharply, make us understand something about the colors, shapes, textures, that being able simply to name the subject of a photo prevents us from acknowledging. When we recognize too easily what our photo is of, the image ceases being visual and becomes instead a word. “That’s a picture of a house;” “That’s a picture of a dog,” and by naming it, we find we have done our job and neglect to actually look and to see.

Making something abstract forces us to see those colors, shapes, textures — allows us to find new emotional meanings in the familiar, and new designs.

So, then, let’s take the camera out of the process. Once digital photography nudged out the silver, dried out the Dektol and replaced the Beseler 23C with Photoshop, there were other ways of making image files.

I began experimenting with a flatbed scanner, making extremely high-definition images of flowers. With the scanner cover left open, the background of these images became a very deep black or blue-black and only the parts of the flowers held flat on the glass platen were fully focused. The images were stunning and essentially shadowless.

I tried other things, too.

But there was still a lens involved in the scanner. So, let us return to earlier days, when chemicals still stained a photographer’s hands. I tried scratching the end-bits of developed rolls of film and printing them as if they were negatives.

Still, however, there was the lens of the enlarger focusing the negative down onto the silver paper.

I wanted to get into the image directly, with no mechanical mediation. I wanted to get my hands into the process the way a potter gets his hands into the clay.

So, I dipped my hand into the tray of sodium hyposulfite and pressed it wet onto a sheet of light-sensitive paper, then washed the hypo off the paper and doused it in the developer, which turned the image black except for where the hypo had left its imprint. It made for rather spooky gorilla hands.

I tried it in the reverse way, too, dipping my hand into the developer and then, after the blacked image appeared, finished the process in stop bath and hypo. That gave me a black hand on a white sheet.

Certainly, this gave me an image of the familiar that was decontextualized and made strange. I saw my hand very differently.

There is, however, only so much you can do with a hand. After the first hundred or so versions of my hand, I tried some other things. Like scattering salt on the paper and spraying the developer like Windex down onto the sheet, leaving a scattering of stars on the paper.

I also tried dusting the paper with dry developer granules and spraying it with water, making the black specks on the lighter background. The spray made the salt or the developer wash weakly over the paper, making mid-tones that I enjoyed.

You could make an image that vaguely resembled a portrait.

These experiments continued over the six years I taught, but when I left that job, I became a writer instead of a photographer. My camera was used primarily to illustrate stories I was writing.

I look back at some of the images I made so long ago and feel there might have been something in them. Whether there is or not, the process was worth the time; it gave me great pleasure.

Click on any image to enlarge