Sunday, August 19, 2007

How to understand modern art.

I took the bus downtown today and went to the Seattle Art Museum or SAM for the first time. I'd been to several regional art museums and had come away from them thinking that the press they put out was totally overblown and that they really weren't worth my or anyone else's time. So it was great to get down to the SAM and find out that it's a real museum with high quality pieces. The museum itself isn't big but although it's an overused cliche what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality, especially in non-Western art, which was a happy thing to see. On top of that it has a very large collection of modern 20th century art.

That's where a lot of the fun came in. When I got into the modern art part and adjusted myself to reading abstract paintings I noticed a few names, people that were basically just names that I'd come across, like Arthur Dove, and people that I vaguely knew, like Marsden Hartley. Then I went into another room and looked at the wall and things got a little warmer in terms of knowledge. First was a Paul Klee, but unfortunately it was really small and hard to make out, but next to it was a painting by Sophia Delauney which was really good. So I'm moving around the room and I see an interesting abstract painting, with cleaner lines than the rest and actual shading, with a more complex painting above it. I looked at the little sign and it said the one on top was by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which I thought was pretty cool, but I didn't see who the one below was by.

Then, I saw the notice: it was by Wassily Kandinsky, and I almost fell over. I did a very long research paper on Kandinsky, one of the founders of modern art with both his work and a small book entitled "On the Spiritual in Art" that dealt with the correspondence of colors with moods and shapes with, sort of moods, but different. I'll give an example of how his paintings work later on after I go through some more people. So there was another Moholy-Nagy next to the two, and not quite as interesting as the first one, but then I look at an interesting painting consisting of about nine spirals each mounted on its own circle and arranged on a black background and I see that it's one of the few more straightforwardly conventional creations of Marcel Duchamp. Tick another almost fainting off there.

Now I'm sort of wandering around in a kind of daze, then I go into the next room and look at the right wall and....it still hits me remembering it even though it was at the beginning of the day....a Mark Rothko painting. At this point I'm almost crying, literally, because I read Rothko's biography late in highschool and have enjoyed his paintings.

Soon after that I left the modern art spaces because the sensory overload, not just from being impressed with really great works by very good artists but also from the sheer emotional complexity of the works in question, has overwhelmed me.

And I thought it was good when I saw a pseudo-Cubist painting in the first room!

Anyways, this is how abstract expressionism....which actually is a term that I don't quite think is appropriate because I think that the people who started modern art also drew on the symbolist tradition....works, but this doesn't apply to Cubism and Marcel Duchamp is in another universe entirely:

It's pretty simple. The colors stand for moods or feelings. Red can be love but certain types of red can be anger. Yellow can be a sort of neutral color, or sunny if there's gold in it and it's sort of orange. Blue can be sadness, while green is sort of a modified blue and can be melancholy if it's light or, actually, if it's deep green it can be sort of evocative of nature and the outdoors.

All of the coloring in abstract expressionism plays on the conventional sorts of symbolic associations that have been built up in the west regarding colors and moods or colors and ideas, like purple being considered a rich and majestic color because it was once associated with royalty....or conversely meaning the opposite if it's rendered in such a way as to make it seem tacky.

The thing is there isn't a book that all the abstract expressionists used to generate correspondences between moods and colors. Each of them has their own scheme but the schemes are close enough together that you can usually figure them out.

When it comes to shape the kind of correspondences that applied to color apply here: circles are harmonious and sort of neutral. Squares are less harmonious, being sort of solid and angular, and triangles are kind of disruptive because the angles are so severe and because they're so pointy, to use professional terminology. More complex shapes like pentagons are rarely used because the associations with a shape like a pentagon are vague compared to the three basic shapes. Rectangles are variations on squares and are a way to express square-like feelings in a less severe way.

Then, there are lines. The meaning of lines depends on their orientation and relationship to the shapes surrounding them. Piet Mondrian, the dutch painter, had a theory about the qualities of vertical lines as opposed to horizontal lines, and he made his paintings around almost purely horizontal and vertical lines, but this scheme was not adopted by people outside of his movement, de stijl.

So how does all of this come together? Well, I'll give an example, but first let me say that the way that abstract expressionist paintings are put together resembles a language, with one set of figures modified by figures around it that are in turn modified by other figures, more than it does the sort of aesthetic meaning gathered around most representational painting from the Renaissance onwards. The figures are like words that together form sentences, with patches of color and lines serving as modifiers. Although you can't literally do this since the meaning is fluid, you could look at an abstract painting as containing several paragraphs or more of text within it.

I should mention too that the shapes are open to the same sorts of variation that the colors are, at least when you start using modifications of the basic forms, for instance one of the paintings I saw today was an attempt to represent what a piece by Bach sounded like, and what impressions it made, to the artist, and he used jagged lines to represent patches of the Bach piece---that sonically resembled the ups and downs of the lines in terms of rise and fall of pitch. What does a circle divided into four with a dot in each quarter mean? That's the sort of thing that's up to the artist to define as he or she wants. And what if it's situated diagonally and is on a very large swath of color that turns out to be a very asymmetrical shape with five sides, but not a pentagon?

Ok, here's an example of what these things can mean. You have a circle with a thick black border that's a sort of orangish red inside. The red is sort of a soft color, it's not overpowered by the black border but hold's its own. The mood isn't aggression, and it's not a sort of deep red representing some sort of deep romantic love. No, it's sort of a happy, less serious feeling of love, and ironically the particular feeling is brought out by the thick circle because if the circle was less thick you'd have a color, intrinsically weak because it deviates a lot from pure primary colors, that would have to struggle to express the same thing with the same clearness.

Now, there's a small rectangle that looks more like a strip of color but is dark green but not too dark, that's arranged in such a way that the top is closer to the circle than the bottom, but the whole thing is turned a little bit up so that it isn't at a forty five degree angle. There's also a decent amount of distance between the rectangle and the circle, so that the rectangle isn't crowding the circle.

What do the two in concert mean?

Well because the rectangle is more like a line of color you can tell that it's primarily the circle that it modifies---the circle isn't modifying the rectangle primarily. The color of the rectangle modifies the color of the circle and sort of grounds the feeling of happiness with something more concrete: green is the color of the outdoors, it's the color that we subconsciously associate with trees and forests and therefore with nature, so the subject of the happiness is somewhat established: it's a happiness regarding being outdoors, maybe in a park, maybe in nature in general. The green plays on the feeling of sunlight that the orange added to the red establishes.

Then what does the placement of the rectangle mean in relation to the circle? The idea of placement between the two that I've tried to describe is sort of a neutral placement. By going down and to the right, but not crowding the circle, the rectangle establishes that it's modifying the circle but that it's doing so in a subordinate way. If the rectangle was coming from the bottom of the circle out it would have a totally different effect. The modification of the circle would be jarring and it would be obvious that the modification had to do with the rectangle, more so if the angle was less than forty five degrees. If the rectangle was vertical in comparison to the circle that would have a totally different effect as well. Having the rectangle be horizontal to the circle really would be kind of vague and would depend on other elements in the painting to clear up exactly what was meant.

That's another thing: with lines and figures in combination they're rarely arranged in a way that makes them geometrical shapes, because that would obscure the sort of meaning that this system is based on and would suggest a completely different way of reading the painting based on the placement and impact of geometric shapes on a canvas.

That was just two figures in relation to one another. Most abstract paintings have at least twenty five, unless they're minimalist, and many have from fifty to a hundred figures spread out on the canvas, each modifying the others. You can see how a person could get overloaded translating the shapes modifying shapes modifying shapes into meaning.

But I'm not over yet. One thing that makes this somewhat more comprehensible, although some artists make use of this more than others, is the informal division of the canvas into particular parts, so that instead of having to take the whole thing in relation to itself you can consider the little patch of meaning being worked out in this section of the canvas and relate it to similar sized divisions of meaning in other parts of the canvas, making something more like linked paragraphs of a story out of them.

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