Catalogue essay: Abstract Art Does Not Stop an Hour

Installation view

Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / The works in “Uncharted: American Abstraction in the Information Age” are, for whatever their reliance on what we call “technology,” first and foremost abstract art. To allow ourselves to be distracted by any “Wow!” factor that might lurk in some of them because they employ modern technology, or to be overly impressed by any conceptual systems behind their making, is to miss their whole point. From paleolithic cave painters hewing rough rocks into mark-making tools, to Jan Van Eyck in the 15th century discovering that plant-based oil made an almost miraculous vehicle for painting trompe-l’oeil images, to Jackson Pollock inventing his radically new technique for pouring and dribbling paint onto canvas, the role of technology in art has always been of secondary importance to the need artists have to express themselves.

That said, any exhibition about abstract art and technology piques aesthetic anxiety in thoughtful abstract artists who are stubbornly sticking to paintbrushes or carving or welding tools. Static, stand-still abstract paintings and sculptures are one thing, but art emanating from electronics, computers, the internet, and all the rest are quite another. Does this split threaten more traditional abstract artists? Does it open the sluice to a day when the cart of digital technology will roll in front of the horse of art? One need only think of famously bleak visions of technology destroying humanity to be reminded that one of art’s most enduring purposes—whether it’s abstract or figurative—is to express feeling and the more humane side of human existence. Art is much about getting away from measurement, quantity and bytes of information and instead giving us ways to grasp the otherwise ineffable whole of things.

Keep in mind that abstract modern art—defined for our purposes as art without recognizable subject matter—has been around for well over a century. (In terms of post-Medieval art movements or eras, this is a long time). For most of this stretch, individual “touch” (evidence in the work of art that it’s been made by a particular artist’s hand) was supremely important. Individual touch was the source of the awe we feel in the presence of great art that Walter Benjamin so brilliantly elucidated in his seminal 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Right up until Minimalism in the early 1960s—when touch was expressly repudiated, and such artists as Tony Smith and Donald Judd proudly had their art made in factories according to blueprints they’d drafted—individual touch was valued by artists and audience alike for revealing artists’ personal visions and, perhaps, even their souls.

Yet as the case of Piet Mondrian shows, long before Minimalism artists had sometimes longed to get away from making touch so crucial to meaning. By relying on masking tape (invented in 1925) to make his clean edges, Mondrian strove for a semi-machine-made look that a human hand could not achieve on its own. In other words, that we now feel a tingle at how perfectly Mondrian was able to paint his edges without resorting to an actual machine has more to do with our own romantic attachment to the artist’s touch than to anything Mondrian ever wanted to convey in his art. (Just asking: Could “dynamic symmetry” ever have been sloppily expressionist?)

Installation view
Installation view
Daniel G. Hill

One reason abstract art, for all its declining status in today’s increasingly flash-and- filigree art world, has had such a long and vigorous run, and why it’s still going fairly strong, is that from the start it was never invested in any single technique, style, or manner of making art. It began on multiple fronts and in multiple places when a number of artists, all working around 1910, began making paintings (abstract sculpture appeared somewhat later) without any reference to the visible, physical world. To this day, the big names of these early years of abstraction remain the Russian artists Vasily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, but there were others as well: the Chicago painter Maniere Dawson (also painting in the 1910s, but barely referenced by anyone in today’s art world), or the spiritualist Swede Hilma Af Klint, and even the 19th century (!) French writer Victor Hugo, whose visual art has been almost entirely ignored by historians of modern art.

These pioneering abstract artists led to successive generations of the same. Roughly speaking, the many styles of abstraction we have today fall into categories laid out at the start— “geometric,” “grid-like,” “expressionist,” etc. These aren’t impermeable silos, but as labels they help us make sense of all the abstract art that’s still being made.

Another reason abstract art keeps on going is that it’s turned out to be at least somewhat evergreen. After Marcel Duchamp’s first “readymade”—his famous 1914 Bottle Rack”—abstract artists might have understandably thought that if an ordinary factory-produced object for drying wine bottles could be displayed as a bona fide work of art, hand-made abstract art’s sincerity, invention, and imagination went right down the drain. Circa 1960, of course, there was Andy Warhol, whose insouciance made a further mockery of aesthetic sincerity, even Duchamp’s intellectually satirical version of it. Abstract artists reacted, however, to Duchamp’s and Warhol’s de facto threats without blinking, saying in effect through their art, “We don’t really give a damn about your head games, we still love following the many roads and paths of abstraction where beauty and wonder are to be found.”

When modern abstract art first appeared, it shocked and repelled most people, including most artists. After all, the early 20th century was a time when the public was still getting used to the idea that Impressionism—let alone Cubism—wasn’t the product of outright madness. Today, abstract art ruffles few feathers. For most, it’s evanescent in the extreme—certainly not harmful in the way violent images or disgusting words can be. Many people who don’t pay much attention to art think of abstraction as good-looking or suitably decorative for, as they say “home or office,” and regard it as a safe signal that they are thoroughly modern. To quote The Bard, “Ay, there’s the rub.” While today’s abstract artists might have complete freedom, they risk losing the thrill, the exhilaration and the urgency that drove earlier abstractionists to produce new forms that expressed the anxieties and joys they felt about their age.

As we speculate and fret about the future of abstract art, one thing is certain: To fear incorporating new digital technologies is to miss out on the ways in which abstraction has always been about intensifying our happiness and frissons concerning existence itself. In this sense, abstract artists who embrace the digital age resemble abstraction’s earliest forbearers: forward looking, optimistic, and even (however unfashionably) universalist regarding beauty and expressing something trenchant about the times in which we live. Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the odds are that whatever moment in history we’re living in, we’re likely neither at the beginning nor the end of something, but rather somewhere in the middle. While we may have little idea where we are in the timeline of abstract art, the fact that that many abstract artists are embracing the digital age suggests that perhaps we’ve barely begun.

Uncharted: American Abstraction in the Information Age,” organized by Laurie Fendrich and Creighton Michael, and curated by Karen Albert. Emily Lowe Gallery at Hofstra Museum of Art, Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island, New York. Through June 19, 2020. Organizers and artists are all members of American Abstract Artists. Participants in the exhibition include James O. Clark, John Goodyear, Lynne Harlow, Daniel G. Hill, Gilbert Hsiao, Irene Rousseau, James Seawright, and Patricia Zarate. The gallery is currently closed due to Covid-19. View the interactive PDF of the exhibition catalogue, where this essay was originally published, at Uncharted: American Abstraction in the Information Age.

Note: The title to this essay is a play on the famous line of Petrarch, the great Renaissance scholar and poet who was one of the earliest humanists: “Life flees and does not stop an hour”—Canzone 272, line 1 (La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora).

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is Professor Emerita of Fine Arts at Hofstra University. She is an abstract painter and writer whose essays appear frequently in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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