Saturday, 21 March 2015

Driven to abstraction by modern art - 15 abstract paintings I can actually respond to

To a Summer's Day, Bridget Riley

I've only ever bought two reproductions of abstract paintings, and they were both by Bridget Riley. I've rarely responded to abstract art, but the above painting (which hangs on the wall of our bedroom) makes me go all swooney - I doubt whether it would have the same effect without the helpfully descriptive title. Without it, I would probably have viewed it as an attractive pattern for wallpaper rather than as a work of art - but I don't want to get into a "What is Art?" argument. 

What I'm trying to do is become more receptive to modern art. I had no problems responding to it as a teenager, but somewhere along the way I lost the knack: I'm trying to get it back. Unfortunately, the vast majority of modern art now has the same effect on me as be-bop jazz - it's mostly just an irritating visual noise which I don't understand. In the case of conceptual art, I'm happy for that state of affairs to continue - it's all pretentious rubbish underpinned by drearily adolescent "ideas": I've long suspected that most conceptual artists are fantastically thick but commercially astute (like many of the bankers I've met). But let's sweep aside anything describing itself as an "installation" or involving video or objets trouvés  or photography or anything three-dimensional - that still leaves my favourite visual art-form, i.e. two-dimensional paintings. 

Of all genres of modern art paintings, abstract painting is the one that annoys me the most: I generally respond with the sort of snarl Frankenstein's monster emits when confronted by something he doesn't understand. I've stood in front of Rothkos and Jackson Pollocks till I start to go cross-eyed; I've done my level best to read meaning into Malevich's black square; I've nodded in appreciation before Mondrian's rigid patterns, hoping to excite the "appreciation" chemicals in my brain. I've read books about these paintings. I've watched art historians wax lyrical about them on television. 

Nothing. Not a sausage.

I'm not proud of myself. I'm happy to jeer at conceptual nonsense, because it so evidently either represents blatant, commercially-motivated charlatinism or untalented pseudo-artists failing to express something that wasn't worth expressing in the first place. But when it comes to abstract art (well, some of it) I feel the failure to respond is at least partly (perhaps mostly) my fault: I'm not in the least smug about not getting it - I feel inadequate to the task. So, instead of pronouncing a pox on all abstract art, I've been trying to identify what I actually do respond to, without analysing why. I know I'll never appreciate John Coltrane or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, but I hope that - with a bit of effort on my part - I might one day gaze at a Pollock or a Rothko and actually enjoy the experience. You never know. I've tried to avoid semi-abstract paintings, but I've cheated here and there, starting with the first one, Gino Severini's La Danse du Pan-Pan, which was originally painted in 1911, but repainted by the artist in 1959 after the first version destroyed in a fire: 

The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) (1924) Joan Miró
 Compliment (1912) František Kupka 
Composition 8 (1924) Vasily Kandinsky

Die Tänzerin, Vaslaw Nijinsky (yes, the dancer)
Harran II (1967) Frank Stella 
Cosmos and Disaster (1936) David Alfaro Siqueiros 
Nature Abhors a Vacuum (1975) Helen Frankenthaler
Green Jay (1975) Michael Challenger  
89/5/75/D (1989) Keith Milow 
Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1940) Piet Mondrian  - this Mondrian, I get
Uphe (2011) Tomma Abts  
Twisted (2011) Steohan Goovaerts (yes, I know - a bit graphic-novelly)
This final painting is probably too figurative to be included - but it's damned close to being abstract:

Norham Castle (c.1845) Sunrise Turner 
To be honest, I'm quite surprised by how much much abstract art I do like. Perhaps I'm less of a suburban philistine than I'd suspected. 


  1. Abstract art can often need unlocking like struggling with a foreign language as one might need a commentary to appreciate its purpose, message or worth. As you say with the Bridget Riley above, the title is the key.
    Last week I spent a couple of hours at the Guggeheim in Venice. A mesmerising collection; some of the works left me cold and some were inspiring. Perhaps just too many to look at and try to comprehend in too short a time.

    I am still unconvinced by the work of some abstract artists - particularly those who specialise in installations. I really cannot see the worth in a roomful of flashing lights, I think there are far more important things in life.
    Your final image by Turner: he is known as one of the first of the Impressionists. The evolution of painting that unfolded from his era is quite mind-boggling.

    1. Agreed, re Turner. And re the Guggenheim in Venice, which is an impressive gallery. Our son visited it for the first time four years' ago and we suspect the quality of the paintings and the "coolness" of the visitors helped his decision to study Art History at university.

      I envy you visiting Venice so recently - it's my favourite city. I would imagine now, when it isn't so crowded and not at all hot, is a good time to go.

  2. Venice - it was my first visit. Magical and impossible to describe without the use of superlatives. As you surmise, pleasant weather and room to move although the curse of the selfie-stick was all around.

  3. As a young man I admired Kandinsky,Miro (and Klee) and elevated them to heights they may not have deserved.Herein lies the problem.
    Adolescent (and adult) wish fulfilment,in my case aided and abetted by the new wave of 1960 advertising turned the merely interesting into something ultra cool in the way say 'the Hay Wain' could never be.
    One bathed in the reflective ersatz glory of all the known 'isms' of art history plus a bit of 'frottage' for good measure.
    Moral:Keep a level head when viewing abstract art and take the sharp, angular forms of Miro and Kandinsky out of the bedroom (bad Feng Shui) and hang them in the hall where visitors will see that here dwells someone cool,intellectual and sophisticated.One could even open the front door in polo sweater and shades just to press home the point.But I digress.
    That was then.Nowadays to have an original Miro hanging so close to the entrance would be unwise,and a reproduction may show the owner to be fifty years out of date.Such is the fluidity of abstract art