2: Abstraction

What is abstract art?

“Art that does not depict recognisable scenes or objects, but instead is made up of forms and colours that exist for their own expressive sake.” (The Oxford Dictionary of Art)

See post: What is Abstraction?

Project 2.1 A rational abstract print

Rational or geometric abstraction is based on an intellectual, rational formula for composing a work from colours, shapes and textures that are deliberately organised to create an effect. For example Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich saw in geometric abstraction the possibilities of creating beauty and universal ‘balance’.

Project 2.2 A random print

The artist has not abstracted from an existing form or arranged formal shapes together but allowed the ink and printing process to provide the abstract image. Key proponents of this approach are gestural paintings of some of the Abstract Expressionists, notably Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. Also other abstract painters like Gerhardt Richter. Color-field paintings of abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still combine the interest in pre-planned colour, shape and textural relationships of geometric abstraction with a much more emotional and gestural laying on of paint.

See: Abstract Expressionism, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Gerhardt Richter

Assignment 2: Abstract prints: The Human Condition

This print series draws more on traditions of bio-morphic abstraction, combining both the pre-planned abstract shapes and the interest in following the way the ink works on the plate.

Key inspirations were:

  • Pablo Picasso
  • Jenny Saville
  • Frances Bacon
  • Edvard Munch

Abstract crops

Abstract prints check and log

Compare the two abstract print projects: 2.1 Formal Abstract Prints and 2.2 Random Abstract Prints. What are the advantages and disadvantages, similarities and difficulties of each? Which do you prefer and why?

The formal abstract print produced a very clearly structured image where a lot of thought and pre-planning was required. However at the inking stage many different and accidental chance effects are possible. This would be a possible way of producing some of the colour field effects, particularly those of Clyfford Still – trapping lines of ink between blocks of colour and even letting them overflow. The embossing also produced interesting textural effects, particularly when rotated and overprinted.

The random abstract print is more intuitive and subject to chance and accident – sometimes ‘happy’ sometimes not so happy. With printmaking there is even less control over the final image than with paint because it is often unclear which ink has dried and which has not, and which ink will ‘squish’ and what will retain its mark with different pressures. But I particularly liked the effects of Akua inks and Schminke water-based inks and images produce by printing from old ink marking on the plate.

I like both approaches for different types of effect. The one can also inform the other. And – as in Assignment 2 – it is possible to take advantage of both approaches and use random ink effects on a structured collagraph plate.

How does the Alan Bowness quotation below relate to your experience of abstract painting? What abstract elements are missing from this writing?

“Colour remains the dominant interest, but there is less insistence on it than the past, and clearly now composition, form, even line are equally the concern of the painter. There is no ground in the paintings: shapes are held suspended across the surface, colours are made to advance and recede in a constantly changing relationship. The meeting place of one coloured area with another has a new importance, and one is now aware that the edges form a line that twists and turns, describing a new kind of shape. Drawing assumes again that crucial role it played in Heron’s very early work. Altogether there seems to be a much greater richness in the new pictures: they have gained in complexity without losing their directness and simplicity. They show a direction in which this kind of art can fruitfully move, at a moment when, as we have seen, there is a tendency to feel that all lines of progress have been tried and found exhausted.” Alan Bowness 1972

Colour is only one among many other elements – line, shape, tone, texture.

Find examples of the sorts of abstract prints you like and make notes on them.