M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Line Between Representation & Abstraction

"Horizon Winds," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 30 x 36.

"Hurricane Silence," by Jane Wilson, 2008, oil, 60 x 60.

"Storm Passing," by Jane Wilson, 2009, oil, 12 x 12.
I've spent 30 years editing magazines about representational art, and my own work is decidedly realistic, so it's not too surprising that I have trouble relating to purely abstract pictures. I agree with Jack Beal that such works are often just PART not ART in that they offer some of the elements of picture making, but not all. That is, there is color, form, space, etc., but it is art about art and not about the totality of life. That may be sufficient for others, and it may even be better for some, but to me it just isn't enough.
The division between abstraction and representation becomes more complicated when I consider work by someone like Jane Wilson, an artist who paints landscapes who has had a distinguished career as a professor, arts administrator, and painter. A collection of her recent oil paintings is currently on view at DC Moore Gallery in New York (www.dcmooregallery.com), and there is a 56-page catalog for the show that includes an essay by Stephen Westfall. Wilson taught at Columbia University, Parsons School of Design, and Cooper Union; she was president of the National Academy Museum from 1992-1994; she is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters; and her paintings are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In Westfall's catalog essay, he suggests that Wilson and many other artists of her generation dealt with a "tension between abstraction and representation." He goes on to say "nearly all her peers who were to ultimately comedown on the side of representation, and particularly landscape, went through an intense engagement with post-Cubist abstraction ... or Abstract Expressionism." He then identifies influences going as far back as Turner and as recent as Rothko to explain why Wilson and her peers developed a style of represtentation that has strong roots in pure abstraction or in the abstraction of observable forms. They subscribe to the idea that a picture has its own integrity apart from its ability to represent the illusion of reality.
I've considered the arguments for why painters like Wilson repeat the same formats over and over again, and why there is only the briefest reference to nature in those repetitive pictures. No matter what explanation I consider, I still wind up feeling that the artists have offered an unsatisfying response to the subject. For me, the art is too much about the painter and too little about the world around me.
This conflict struck home as I was riding the commuter train home from New York last evening. I looked out the window every few minutes and the light of dusk was performing a spectacular opera with more drama than could ever be brought to a stage. As the sun set behind the cliffs of the Palisades and reflected on the calm Hudson River, the sky turned from subtle gradations of blues to a wild display of orange and purple clouds, dark violet land forms, yellow and gold bands along the horizon, and sparkling orange highlights on the water. When I looked down at the reproductions of Jane Wilson's landscape paintings in the DC Moore catalog, I wondered why she would be satisfied with such minimal, arbitrary responses to the spectacle of nature.
The other publications in my briefcase were copies of Darren R. Rousar's (www.christianchurchart.com) two paperback books: Cast Drawing. Using the Sight-Size Approach, and Cast Painting. Using the Sight-Size Approach (Velatura Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.sightsize.com). As I read through the instructions aimed at teaching artists to skillfully respond to what they observe rather than what they interpret, I thought that artists who follow his instruction would likely paint sunsets with greater understanding, skill, AND interpretation that Jane Wilson.
I don't really mean to dismiss Wilson or the other atists who want to make connections to a long tradition that extends from Turner, Bonnard, and Rothko to the present. All I want to suggest is that for me, there is more to be said about nature than the act of making paintings.

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