Nine American Pictures post 1940; eight of them in Australia.


Tonight's class deals with Modern Art, by which is meant art of about the first 75 years of the 20th century.  The very latest art (the last 25 years) is usually called Contempory Art.  Of course as time passes the best Contempory Art becomes Modern Art. 

Tonight I am going to show some "abstract pictures".  What are abstract pictures?  A digression: we become very used to the idea that pictures are pictures OF something; a house a person, clouds etc.  Indeed we use pictures to communicate information on the basis that they ARE pictures OF something we wish to know about.  This places in our minds the expectation that pictures WILL ALWAYS be pictures OF something.  This is to the great disadvantage of Abstract Art.
 
Abstract Art is pictorial, just to be confusing, but it depicts feelings and emotions ,and relationships of colour, shape and form.  It provokes a response and shows a state of mind, both of the artist and viewer.  Many abstract pictures are even untitled.  When this happpens the artist is expecting you to be able to work out what is going on.  Some abstract artists don't appear to care whether their pictures are intelligible or not.  This is rather high-handed of them.

So be prepared tonight to have an open mind about what you see.  Above all resist the temptation to say that what I am showing you is complete "rubbbish" and that "you could do it yourself".  (People who say that, by the way, should always be asked; "Well why haven't you?")

The cheapest picture I am showing you tonight would be valued at some millions of dollars.  Be happy that wise buyers of art and gallery Curators and Directors do not pay large sums for pictures which have no merit.






 

Andy Warhol 1927-1987
Self Portrait no 9 1986 (204x x204cm)
Polymer paint and screen print on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
 
Warhol was a founding member of the “Pop Art” movement in America. Pop artists opposed the move toward withdrawal from the real world epitomised by the Abstract Expressionists. They thus emphasised everyday objects and behaviours and Warhol’s studio in New York was, in fact, called “The factory”. 
Much of Warhol’s painting incorporated mass production techniques such as the silk screen process used here- again to promote the everyday and the integration of art into it. Pop artists promoted consumerism and commercialism.
 
In this work we see a late self portrait. A disturbed, empty-eyed likeness emerges from a darkened background: face and head from silk screen are over-painted by anthropomorphic, psychedelically coloured shapes. The skull explodes as if to try to escape the picture frame. Here is a subject trying to escape the physical and mental strictures placed on it by the ordinariness and commonness of everyday life, ironically the techniques used to make the picture are those of mass productiion! Throughout most of his adult life Warhol was troubled by drug and alcohol abuse.
 






 

Frank Stella b1936
Khurasan gate of variation ii 1970 (305 x 914cm)
Oil on Canvas
Art Gallery of New South Wales
 
 
Stella painted a series of large black paintings in 1958-60 painting in the minimalist style in which all forms of colour and representation had been eliminated. From this extreme position he commenced a series of experiments with shape and colour which have continued but still eschewing representation. By changing and modulating shape and colour Stella produced geometric pictures which celebrated both but avoided pattern and design. Working large-scale helped Stella achieve his aim producing pictures with no representational qualities or emotional content but pictures which invite us to immerse ourselves in masses of organised colour, change, geometry and composition. This is an energetic and heroic composition.








Philip Guston 1913-1989
East Tenth 1977 (204 x 255cm)
Oil on canvas
Art Gallery of New South Wales: Sydney

Guston originally gained notice as an Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s and 60s. He then renounced pure abstraction and began to paint pictures containing recognisable shapes in recognisable urban surroundings. His work invokes images from dreams and the inner workings of cities; surreal figures and civilisation’s left-overs populate the picture space.
 
The present work reiterates the seediness of East, Tenth St in Manhattan. Empty drums, slopping containers and bottles dominate. Objects left behind a wall appear to be trying to peer over it and escape. The picture satirises the locale without formally picturing it and the balance between formal and informal arrangement is perhaps hinting at the futility of an organised, materialistic life.





 

Hans Hofmann 1880-1966
Pre-dawn 1960 (184 x 153cm)
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Australia: Canberra
 
 
Hofmann immigrated to the USA from Germany in 1933. In Germany he was known more as a teacher than artist in his own rite and he continued to teach throughout his long life. Colour interested Hofmann: vibrating spiritual colour and shape combinations mark his later pictures.
Pre-dawn has colour, shape, space and depth. The larger blue rectangles on the front left and right have the effect of pushing the smaller yellow rectangle into the back of the composition. The red circle and red rectangle beside it surge out of the picture towards us from a rear plane. Overlapping shape and size create a three-dimensional space without the need for the usual artifices to create the illusion of depth. 
The picture is also capable of more romantic interpretation: a city waits the coming of the sun. Buildings and the work of people and commerce need only the arrival of life-giving sunlight to launch them into the day.







 

Joan Mitchell 1926- 1992
Ladybug 1957 (198 x 274cm)
Oil on canvas
Museum of Modern Art: New York
 
 
Joan Mitchell painted expressionist pictures about nature. She was thus not strictly an Abstract Expressionist since she left this contact with the real world. Her pictures, though strongly abstract, were meant to engender feelings about nature rather than represent it pictorially. 
Here pulsating landscape colours are imposed on an uneven white ground (base). Restless energy, season, distance, space, water and colour integration take us around this large picture. The occasionally gleaming, white underlay provides us room to breathe and rest in this tangling and untangling of the natural world. Mitchell’s painterly skill is obvious in this extensive canvas which could have ended up a series of smaller pictures within the one frame.
 





 

Willem de Kooning 1904-1997
Two Trees on Mary Street…Amen 1975 (203 x 178cm)
Oil on Canvas
Queensland Art Gallery
 
De Kooning was an influential and early member of the Abstract Expressionists based in New York. The group, which began forming in the late 1940s, wanted to divorce their art from any sense of reality or materialistic concern. The movement was one of the most influential groups in 20th century art. 
Abstract Expressionists painted sensory experience. They forewent theories of colour, shape, form and line to paint how they felt about something rather than present us with a picture of it. 
The only concession the present work makes to representation is the two patches of green which the title tells us might hint at two trees, though an horizon is perhaps visible in the top right. For the rest, the picture is a veritable mix of colour splodges which may allude to some experience the artist had of Mary Street.  The “Amen” might provide a clue: last things perhaps? Knowing that the Abstract Expressionists were certainly prone, as a group, to indulge overtly in drugs and alcohol are we looking at a summation of an emotional experience about which the artist felt he wanted to inform us?
 





 

Jackson Pollock 1912-1956
Blue Poles 1952 (212 x 480cm)
Oil, enamel and Aluminium paint and glass on canvas
National Gallery of Australia Canberra
 
Pollock became the embodiment of Abstract Expressionism. Living only to paint, he lead the evolution of the style to some of its highest achievements though at great personal cost. An angry, paranoid, deeply discontented man he used alcohol indiscriminately and was renowned for antisocial behaviour. He depended heavily on the moral and physical strength of his wife; Lee Krasner. Krasner was Pollock’s greatest supporter though she left him several times as a result of his alcoholism and womanising. Pollock died in an alcohol-fuelled car crash in 1956 during one of these absences. One of the two women with him in the car was also killed.
 
Blue Poles has a surging grandeur (to quote the entry in the NGA guide). Energy, scorn, wilfulness, and independence fling themselves out of the canvas. Eight Indian battle-flag poles, flags fluttering slash the picture across its width. They take us to war with the ordered life, conservative art and artists. A vengefully meandering orange line holds the scattered elements of the picture together and the rest is filled in with spatters and drips; the work of a maniac. Yet Pollock always knew what he was after in the image even if it occurred to him late in the picture making.  Blue Poles, for all its restlessness, is a miracle of completeness.
 






 
Lee Krasner 1908-1984
Combat 1965 (170 x 410cm)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne.
 
Knowing that Krasner was Jackson Pollock’s long-suffering wife helps us appreciate this masterpiece in the Melbourne collection. Though depending heavily on her, Pollock vilified Krasner’s work, and her reputation remained largely in the shadow of that of her turbulent husband.
Painted eleven years after Pollock’s fatal road smash, Krasner gives us the release and elevation of a free spirit; not just a free woman. Victory, triumph and above all freedom swirl through the canvas. A life is now being lived. The composition is remarkable for its restricted use of colour. Only red and orange play out on the white canvas preparation.






 

Mark Rothko 1903-1970
No 37 (Red) c1956
Mainly synthetic polymer paint on canvas (200 x 125cm)
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
 
Rothko arrived in America at the age of ten in 1913; the progeny of hard-working, ambitious Polish-Jewish parents. Rothko was a brilliant student at high school and won a scholarship to Yale University in 1921. Although he never finished a degree he became well versed in poetry, philosophy, writing and fine art- particularly painting.  He became a leader in east-coast American artistic and intellectual circles. A deeply troubled man, his art evolved to the hazy, floating rectangle compositions shown so well by the Melbourne picture. He spent nearly twenty years exploring this genre.
No 37 (red) glows with the same fuzzy mystery we have seen in da Vinci and Turner. Soft edges allow the rectangles to float in and out of the picture frame. The picture gently pulsates. Nothing is fixed, nothing is secure. Rothko wants to convince us that most of life’s certainties are an illusion and to reject the hard-edged certainties that had plagued the 20th century up until then. Rothko’s later pictures are sombre and black begins to predominate. He was a deeply depressed man and finally took his own life in 1970. It is ironic that such a brilliant communicator of the sensuousness of understanding finally lost the battle against himself.






 Rothko: detail: no 37 (Red)