Simpleposie Response to 2538 - On Abstractionism Andrew James Paterson
In a combination interview/essay by the critic Charles Wehrenberg of/on the painter Philip Taaffe, the writer directly but not simply poses a big question:
"What makes this abstraction? Does the painting remain abstract if we talk about it?
" 'Uh...yes, it does,' Philip decided. 'It is abstract to me, in a very fundamental sense, in that it is separated from the rest of reality.... These elements are coming from other places...As a visual structure; it is something that will happen now, and never again.'." (Wehrenberg, Charles, Atomic Painting, 5 of 16)
We have bravery, hermeticism, serious modernism, and we are pre-death-of-the-author. Formidable, pretentious, and not easily dismissed.
Well well well. Is abstractionism by definition beyond description, beyond the parameters of language? I mean, what exactly do we mean by abstractionism here? Are we talking "non-objective" art? Are we talking full-on or flat-out expressionism? Are we referring to JP Himself? Colour-field, perhaps?
Colour field is all about what one sees. Like...exactly what one sees. Yves Klein Blue flanked by two streams or strands of Russian Constructivist Red, in specific or particular proportions to each other. We're talking mathematics here. Serious mathematics. Not unlike music. The painting, the canvas, the score is like this for this duration, then there is a shift (in tone or timbre or just plain colour), then there is another shift. Maybe it does or maybe it doesn't return to the top. Well, how can such paintings or for that matter sculptures, or experimental films or graphic videotapes be indescribable or beyond the banalities of language? Transcendent of now we see this and now we see that? Etcetera.
But the exterior is so removed from the interior. The interior by definition cannot be described. This interior/exterior dichotomy is most pronounced (or obvious) with flat-out expressionism, with Pollock and Pollockism, but it also applies to Mr. Newman and Mr. Rothko and a lot of other misters and even Ms. Frankenthaler and Dame Bridget Riley herself. Etcetera. And how describable are interiors? Well, certain modernist literature is all about recording interiors. It may be prose, but...it's still poetic. Woolf, Joyce. Etcetera. And such novelists are all but unfilmable. Untranslatable into another medium. And reducing serious abstractionists to five eights blue on the first layer and three eights canary yellow on the third layer is banal and it is ridiculous in its banality. It is the language of underpaid docents explaining the pictures to dead air for the benefit of taxpayer accountability. It is why religious musicians should play either jazz or Bach - because the interiors (primarily but not only) the emotions are too intense to be reduced to the banalities of Hallmark Greeting Cards language.
However, are we not getting into experientialism here? As in one either gets it, does it, experiences it, or else one just plain doesn't? That is a trap that should be avoided. For instance, audiences can often describe events with a far greater clarity than the players or the painters or the bodies actually doing it. Because....quite frequently the players or the makers of abstractionist activities are Out There or in Tranceville. Not only the hardcore expressionists but even the most rigorous of mathematical colour-field painters. George Orwell, of all damn people, was occasionally right. Freedom is slavery, and therefore the converse. With rigid systems, one can stop thinking and start just doing until the job is done or the thing is made. That is the joy and that is also the terror. Abstractionist exercises almost by definition enter mystical territory, but that shouldn't preclude description by not necessarily cynical observers. But then, surface itself is depth but also at a distance from depth. What lies underneath is not what's on top. Results follow intention but by definition at considerable if not untranslatable distance.
What is on top is what one literally sees (even those intellectually inclined to seek out the undercoats and/or the underpinnings). What one sees with the eyes as agents of the visual body are sequences, shapes, textures, and especially colours. The human brain sees phenomena, which are much quicker (meaning more instant and of shorter duration) than almost all words - even the one syllable indefinite article which by definition requires a complement or a plain old-fashioned noun ( a subject/object?). Phenomena are not only impulsive - they are atomic. Electronic and electrical.
"'I have always liked the concept of atomic painting. I feel very often that I'm painting atoms'." Taaffe is seconding Wehrenberg here. (Wehrenberg, 11 of 16) The interviewer progresses from atoms and the atomic to chemistry - particularly brain chemistry. To me, the duration of impulses is the crux of the matter here. Atomic phenomena are not only more primal or immediate than the words that can only function as afterthoughts - atomic phenomena or chemical brainwaves are simply faster than spoken let alone written wording ( but...what about automatic writing?). Improvised music can and does approximate brain waves (creative impulses) as rapidly as molecular performative painting, but words take longer to move out of the starting gate. By the time they're finally past the post, they are in the past tense. Perhaps performative sound-poetry might provide better translations of serious abstract paintings than traditional descriptive narrative - let alone cataloguists and docents. And not to mention titles.
However, there are viewers who wish to enter the paintings - to be at one with them etcetera -, and then there are viewers who merely wish to describe what they see or what they have seen to their families and friends (many of whom are lay-persons). Well, in relation to this more casual level of conversation, there are indeed words connoting particular colours and amounts of the painting within the frame devoted to this particular colour this particular texture or mutation of the canvas and these particular overall dimensions etcetera. These viewers may even be at least as committed as the mystics who wish to enter (perform) the paintings, but they are describing the masterworks to their cronies after the fact - after the moment of vision. They are attempting to convert the past tense into the present tense, which is an uphill battle rather akin to finding the correct words for either painful or pleasurable (or both) sensations that happened earlier in the day the week the year etcetera. There will always be a space between those who weren't there and those who were there, even if those who were there are not there now but are attempting to relive or reincarnate their thereness.
So, it's back to Eternal Experientialism, then. You are there or you are not there. One either has faith or one doesn't. Religion and atoms share (at least) one significant commonplace - neither translate effectively into either figures or words. The believer the practitioner the sublime enthusiast is on a twain that will never merge with that of sceptics and doubters (heretics). Because to be both pre-and-post language (verbal) is to be beyond the rhetorical. Persuasion is a waste of time, so why make an attempt? Unless one can immediately make a grand visualization based on second hell third or fourth hand description of skimpy token catalogue-notes and then join the church. See the light, so to speak. And literally see, hear, smell, taste, and perhaps even touch the crackle. The crackle of atomic electricity.
But the paintings are on the walls and neither in the church or a rave. The walls are usually white, and the paintings are framed. They are either for sale or they have already been purchased or donated. They have their own economies, which are generally extravagant but hardly mystical. They have their contracts. Contracts are all about language, both on and off the paper. The problem with transcendence is that by definition it cannot be permanent - not even in death.
Mysticism and wallpaper are not, contrary to the assumptions of many, like apples and oranges. Many interiors are discovered via repeated staring at their exteriors.