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Figurative abstract: the art of hiding and revealing

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Questions over the meaning of figurative abstract art are of special interest to me as my art balances on the borderline between non-figurative and figurative modes of representation. I call it the art of balancing between hiding and revealing.


This painting beautifully shows the balancing between abstract and figurative representation.
W. Kandinsky: Composition VII

These questions are not easy to answer, given that contemporary painting includes both abstraction and figuration. But this was not always the case: during the years of the flourishing of abstract expressionism, the most advanced artists avoided figuration. If you think about it, almost all art is abstract art. Especially if we interpret abstraction as drawing inspiration from the shape, color and texture of objects. Based on this perception, artists have been "abstracting" from the world around them since prehistoric times. Abstract art tends to rely on associations of form to suggest meaning rather than using recognizable motifs to point to specific themes and content. The scale ranges from Kandinsky's easy-to-understand, quasi-figurative, landscape-based images to Malevich's obscure, mystical monochrome images. The idea of ​​abstract art - in the narrow sense - was present to some extent in the art of the end of the 19th century, from post-impressionism to symbolism. However, pure abstraction was finally realized around 1913 - Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and Robert Delaunay are most often mentioned as the creators of the first abstract paintings. Cubism is considered by some to be an abstract style, but Picasso was against pure abstraction and actually changed direction when he felt his work was bordering on pure abstraction. Experiments in abstract art throughout the century have always sought to disrupt the traditional interpretation of painting, and this disruption has tended toward two logical conclusions, the grid and monochrome. The grid - typically in Cubism and Piet Mondrian - is hostile to narrative and also confuses traditional oppositions between line and color, figure and base, motif and frame.


Hans Hofmann's presence in Paris during these early developments was instrumental in bringing ideas about abstraction to the United States, although others such as Arshile Gorky and John Graham also played a role. Although the Abstract Expressionists spoke more about content than form, abstraction played a central role in their tools. Rothko, Newman and Still all made a conscious effort to remove from their pictures any motif that might carry associations. Instead, they used a purely abstract form and expressive colors to communicate directly with the viewer in the most direct way. However, critics have paid more attention to the importance of abstraction. For Harold Rosenberg, painters' abstraction was the product of their existential encounter with the canvas - the abstract sign a cry in the wilderness. And for Clement Greenberg, abstraction was central to the goal of all modernist artists to rid art of all that was foreign to it. Jackson Pollock's example has become a particularly controversial touchstone for the importance of abstraction and figuration in Abstract Expressionism—especially as figures began to reappear in his late works, when the artist seemed to be frustrated in his attempts to develop his abstraction. For some, such as Clement Greenberg, abstraction was central to Pollock's success. Many have questioned the possibility of abstraction as seen by Clement Greenberg and others. According to some, Pollock was trying to depict his subconscious, and memories and motifs from his psychoanalysis slipped through. Others go further and claim that although Pollock tried to suppress all forms of allusion in his work, he could never completely get rid of them, since abstraction is a language like any other and carries the same metaphors as any other. Most critics now agree that Pollock's abstraction was a kind of language, and therefore more connected to the traditional pictorial world than previously thought. It is now argued that both abstract and figurative painting do the work of representation, and in this sense they are closely related.




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