Abstracting Abstraction

hopper.jpg If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint. – Edward Hopper

I once visited the Art Institute of Chicago to see an Edward Hopper show. I’ve long admired Hopper’s paintings. His city scenes exude narrative mystery, and even his Gloucester homes and Maine lighthouses appear oblique and somehow something other than what they seem.

The art was all I hoped and more—no photograph could capture it—but something in the museum’s background information on Hopper left me a little disappointed. We want to be liked by those we like, and I have a feeling Hopper would thoroughly disapprove of my work. My guess rests on his vision of abstraction, specifically this statement:

One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design. The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it applies all of its existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again be great.

Though our inner lives are “vast,” Hopper suggests, abstraction is pure “intellect” and not the concern of art, which devotes itself to “life” and our reactions to “nature’s phenomena.” As most of my work is abstract, Hopper’s comments evoke a doubt I try to keep at bay—is abstract art, art? Am I an artist?

The cartoonist Al Capp said abstract art is “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered” and every abstract artist has heard the damning comment, “I could do that.” The rejoinder, “Do it then” never satisfies me, and, let’s face it, a great artist’s technical expertise contributes to the awe we feel in the presence of his or her work. Yet something in me wants to ask, “Is skill all there is to it?”

I couldn’t touch Hopper’s technical expertise. Periodically, I do representative work to train my eyes and inform my abstracts, but it’s seldom satisfying. Though more experience would improve my renderings, drawing seldom inspires me to do more drawing. Yes, pen and inks are harder—reality is truly the toughest taskmaster—but, more than that, pen and inks are tedious. Once I begin, the task is laid out before me. It offers little pleasure other than exercising skills I’ve tried to develop. Foremost in my mind is the question, “Is this pen stroke right?” The quality of the piece rests largely on concentration and discipline, not creativity.

Perhaps it’s my approach. Art teachers ask for character in line, so that even a simple sketch communicates the artist’s sensibility and perspective. I can never say I’ve expressed myself in doing representative work. Anyone with a little training might do as well. I could do it again and again and eliminate all the mistakes, and that might make it more impressive. But would the reiterations make it better? I feel defeated from the start when I do representative work. Other artists will always best me in fidelity. My only chance is invention. My only gift, it seems, is seeing what isn’t out there.

officeatnight.jpgThe experience makes me want to argue with Hopper. He said, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist” and “No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” Looking at his women, I see comic books, not Ingres, and I’m sure his prejudice against abstraction didn’t extend as far as revering representational art. To communicate his “inner life” he abstracted. In “Office at Night” on the left, the woman filing is cartoonishly proportioned, poured into her dress. He may have had the skill to present her accurately, but he seemed more interested in reflectingsuninanmtrm.jpg his imaginative vision, accuracy be damned. While he may have rejected the abstract expressionism coming into vogue at the end of his career, his work is not un-abstract, as “Sun in an Empty Room” (left) demonstrates. If you didn’t know what a window was, you might see this painting as invented.

Lucien Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” For some artists, rendering an image accurately must be like love. You study the object so intimately it ceases to be what it represents. However, for me, abstraction works the same way, only in reverse. The initial discovery of the image can spring like Athena from my subconscious, but just as quickly, I begin to see familiar shapes, shadows, and depths that are not purely abstract. To revise Lucien Freud, the longer I look at the abstraction, the more objective it becomes, and, at least for me, the more real.

Sometimes I look at my pictures and exploit what seems real about them, taking advantage of the shapes and patterns I see to make them evoke something real.  The painting on the right is an example. The white shapes became distorted chess pieces or talismans akin to ivory goddesses. The darker shapes, particularly the one in blue, is a whirlpool of dye in water. And then there are the profiled faces you might wish I hadn’t pointed out.

The result is nothing Hopper or anyone else would recognize, but I hoped perhaps it could be subconsciously familiar, somehow real without being so.

Of course, an artist can never entirely know what reaches a viewer and what doesn’t. Maybe my attention endows my abstracts with more meaning than they have. As undistinguished as my representative work seems to me, people seem more impressed by it. My abstracts leave many viewers cold. At a show a few years ago, one of my colleagues could only say, “My, you sure are prolific!” Some viewers can’t fathom why an artist would bypass familiarity and the opportunity to show off artistic skills just to paint something no one recognizes.

I just never thought Edward Hopper would be one of them.


Filed under Art, Chicago, Doubt, Edward Hopper, Essays, Genius, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Visual Art, Worry

4 responses to “Abstracting Abstraction

  1. The complexity of issues around abstraction–what it is, what it means, where it comes from–continue to be discussed and argued over. This is a succinct but salient post that touches on many of those concerns and does so with grace and insight. And some of that grace is demonstrated in how effortlessly you are able to move from Hopper to your own work in a way that is respectful to both artists. Thank you for this.

    Being respectful to Hopper is more important to me. I’m at sea with my own work most of the time. I’d really like to evolve as an artist and wonder if–even if I work on my technique forever–whether I’ll ever have the eye or imagination to do sophisticated work. Perhaps you know the Browning poem, “Andrea del Sarto.” Sometimes I wonder if I have a similar curse–being able to see what’s great without knowing how to create it.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment–I’m always so happy to see your name here.

  2. I know so little about the visual arts and for that reason enjoyed your post, which is so clear. In prose, one attempts to seem realistic, but of course fiction is anything but. If it were, it would be utterly uninteresting to the reader. By the way, I wonder what kind of art “my you’re prolific” creates. Odd that being productive would be a sort of dis-compliment, as one of my kids calls those backhanded compliments. Thanks for this!

    I think my colleague might have been looking for something nice to say, like, “Boy these mash potatoes are terrible, but look at the size of these portions!”

    Dis-compliment, I like that.

    The automatic method I use to paint (automatic in the surrealist manifesto sense) means that I work pretty intuitively and pretty quickly, which also means I do a lot of work when I’m inspired. Sometimes, I’m productive as well, but I probably reject four paintings for every one I accept. The nicest thing a colleague said to me was, “Wow, these are like looking at your brain turned inside out.” That’s what I’d like “productive” to mean.

    Thanks for visiting!

  3. Abstract art is a complex subject. There are many personal reflections and philosophical references.
    But just because someone says something means something doesn’t mean that they necessarily mean it, and just because an artist paints in an abstract way or an abstract expressionist way does not mean that he/she has understood the full concepts of the movement or is sincere in the meaning behind it.
    But I like abstract art and appreciate it a lot.
    Just an intellectual thought.

    • dmarshall58

      I’m guessing it’s clear I haven’t studied abstraction, just thought about it or–more accurately maybe–felt confused about it. All I really know is that it gives me pleasure to arrive at happy accidents and discover imagery I haven’t yet discovered in quite the same form in the actual world. I’d like to know the full concepts of the movement and the meaning behind it, and I might be working backward by deriving some ideas through practice. Maybe I’ll find out I wasted a lot of time finding out what everyone else already knows, but that’s the way I’ve taken so far. Thanks for your thoughtful response. –D

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