The elements of abstraction
by Robert Genn

April 10, 2009

Dear Rodney,

Abstraction ranges from the meaningless abuse of paint to the most 
lofty and exciting of surfaces. Each effort can be a creative 
event--a vehicle for the mysteries of the subconscious mind and 
an opportunity to flirt with pure forms, symbols and metaphors. 
It's an art of hiding and disclosing. More than simply playing with 
the materials, abstraction is a discovery of motifs that happen 
to be part of a painter's personal legend. Personality counts. 

Abstraction also holds the promise of dreams, fears, fetishes, 
fancies, intangibles and wills.

The wilful artist marches to his own drummer. As in the composing 
of music, in pure and practical terms, the resulting work will be 
the painter's own composition.

Perhaps one of the best understandings came from Marc Chagall: 
"Abstraction is something which comes to life spontaneously through 
a gamut of contrasts, plastic as well as psychic, and pervades both 
the picture and the eye of the spectator with conceptions of new 
and unfamiliar elements." 

Abstract art has the power to show us something we may not have 
seen before. It implies both thought and no thought. Thriving on 
unconventional tools and a unique sort of energy, it's also a 
collaboration of mind and spirit. As a form of wizardry and magic, 
an abstract may speak both to you and for you. More than anything, 
abstract art can be a conversation piece.

"Abstraction is an esoteric language," said Eric Fischl. It is a 
language unique to the individual artist. In a way, it can be more 
unique than the similarly legitimate language of realistic work, 
because no matter how realists pull Nature's reality this way and 
that, they still have Nature's reality, however nuanced. The more 
modern idea, however it may be seen by some as flawed, is to be the 
inventor, creator and patent holder of your own Nature. 

Painter and art instructor David Leffel regularly asks his students 
a simple but profound question: "How do abstract artists know when 
they're getting better?" The answer lies in whether the artist is 
able to express will. Artists without the ability to express will 
will never know.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "Abstract art requires something of the viewer. It demands 
contemplation. Study. Flights of fancy. Feeling." (Svante Rydberg)

Esoterica: An overview of some of the central ideas of abstraction 
(and realism with abstract qualities) can be found in "The Creative 
Edge" by Mary Todd Beam. This North Light book presents a series 
of acrylic and watercolour exercises exploring processes, tools and 
the kind of creative techniques that are simply fun to do. Chapters 
include the uses of symbolism, tactility, Nature and the soul. Mary's 
book is filled with play. Serious artists will gain from it.