I paint things. But from my earliest recollection of seeing the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, the great American abstract painter of the last generation, I was smitten. I always loved Richard’s paintings. It was love at first sight, a love that is still going strong.
When I was coming up, abstraction was considered not merely a given, but was thought to be the form that had forever left representation behind. That judgment was clearly a bit hasty. And while I never bought into that dogma myself, I think anyone considering the question today can easily see that “representation” is a central facet of human experience and ain’t going anywhere. But even now the trend watchers will swear that their movement is the wave that washes everything else away. Not quite.
What struck me about abstraction in my earliest experience being a painter, and which I suspect needs repeating even now, is that all perception is “abstract” in the sense of being partial, evocative and incomplete. Artists take things apart and reassemble them on the canvas. In between stages of taking the imagery apart are “abstract,” which is to say they consist of just lines, tones, shapes, colors. Even in a finished and highly realistic painting, the process of the image is still visible to a discerning viewer. These marks of the painting-as-painting are abstract elements that separate it from and distinquish it from its real, its actual subject.
How could art not be abstract? If you paint apples, they are not apples but depictions of apples. All that is left out by virtue of their being imitations of something is what makes them “abstract.” Admittedly though, we reserve the word for images that are so removed from sources as to be unidentifiable. But in truth all art is abstract — only sometimes the artists are the only ones really understanding this. Realist artists know this better than anybody.
A friend asked me how Diebenkorn chose the framework of his pictures. Couldn’t he have cropped it anyplace? Why is the painting this format that it is and not some other? His questions struck me as incredibly insightful. Indeed, close observation of Diebenkorn’s surfaces show smaller “versions” or intervals of the same processes and ideas that wash across the whole. Diebenkorn’s visual ideas are like Chinese nesting boxes or almost-fractals. In that regard, they have intellectual touchstones amid certain ideas of mathematics and physics!
Aesthetically, what we can take from these questions, I think, is this: the painting (or drawing) should have a structure that is strong in the parts as well as in the whole.
[Top of the post: A detail of the author’s large abstract crayon drawing. By Aletha Kuschan]