Oases of Pure Feeling: For Abstract Art

Essay / November 2023 
Oases of Pure Feeling: For Abstract Painting
By Matt Herriot

I used to think the analogy between painting and music was selling painting short. The comparison instantly sets painting an unobtainable benchmark: its rhythmic brushstrokes and melodic colour harmonies will never be truerhythm nor melody, only a faux, visual analogy. But this comparison is helpful insofar as it demonstrates how we should relate to abstract painting specifically. People often read into abstract paintings looking for objects that they recognise, to which they can attach meaning, either literal (e.g. this is an image of a house or a bird) or metaphorical (e.g. the image of a circle signifies perhaps an object, or a process). This is counterproductive and clouds the genre’s true strengths. Simply put, abstraction is about the way a painting is, not what it is. The way a painting is includes the “touch” and “flow” of the brush, the transparency of pigment, colour balance, surface texture, organisation of space, and scale both within the frame and of the painting itself. Great paintings, whether abstract or otherwise, create a synthesis of these variables such that they compound to produce a highly particularised visual effect. Tuning into their frequency through slow, careful observation has the power to enrich the mind and the soul in a way akin to listening to great music. Abstraction—painting without the aim of representing the familiar, recognisable world—is a method of being as clear and direct as possible in making the painting about this visual experience. At their best, abstract paintings are visual oases of pure feeling. However, they also have a secondary purpose, one that is rarely spoken about and results from the very nature of painting itself: to teach us how to see.

Traditionally, all painting involves applying paint to a flat surface. Artists each develop their unique methods of paint application. Some swipe their loaded brush in bold gestures, or dab and blend the paint while wet. Others spread pigment flatly in thin, transparent layers, or use various methods of subtracting paint after application. Many artists employ unorthodox tools and mediums to further particularise the nature of their paint application. In the end, every form on a given painting’s surface arises from the artist’s idiosyncratic material processes, and hence, these forms all share commonalities in appearance. As such, every painting naturally has a limited formal range: they present form in the context of similar form. For example, while Philip IV hunting Wild Boar (La Tela Real) by Diego Velázquez (1632-7) depicts a multitude of figures in an expansive landscape, the surface of the canvas exhibits brushstrokes and flat colours that are all closely related due to Velázquez’s consistent manner of paint application. Of course, illusionistic paintings like Velázquez’s hide the marks on their surface, effectively becoming windows into other spaces. Abstract paintings, on the other hand, stress their inherent flatness to facilitate perception of their surface-level arrangement of forms—their narrow formal range.

Such strong formal coherence across an abstract painting accentuates small deviations and peculiarities. The repetition of curved gestures within Amy Sillman’s Swipe (2022), for instance, enables the careful examination of each gesture’s finer distinctions, such as precise curvature, colour, and surface texture. Similarly, every inch of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (2017) shares the same essential characteristic: a splintered layering of colours with common motion. This overall consistency then fosters a heightened attentiveness to delicate variations in formal structure. Still, abstract paintings need not present a myriad of analogous forms to sharpen our looking. Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curves (1996) and Suzan Frecon’s annunciata (2019) each achieve a limited formal range through a drastically pared-down visual language. This simplicity nonetheless leads the viewer to pay greater attention to fewer elements. The result remains consistent: an abstract painting’s narrow formal range renders visible subtle variances in form, colour, space, scale, and texture, subsequently passing on a sensitivity to those qualities.

In our day-to-day, we often look cursorily and pragmatically, disregarding the true visual complexities that our surroundings offer. But whether we observe the layered shadows of a building or an off-white vase reflecting window light, the same delicate colour balances and precise spatial arrangements found in abstract paintings are also discoverable all around us. The increased formal sensitivity that abstraction imparts better equips us to recognise visually compelling occurrences in the mundane. In such moments, we can apply the same mode of looking to our surroundings as we do abstract paintings: the close examination of form, colour, space, scale, and texture. However, these elements are not themselves abstract. Rather, attentiveness to form, colour, space, etc. means observing something for how it actually is, how it presents itself directly to your senses. Since neither our surroundings nor these observable qualities are abstract, such a mode of looking is indistinguishable from perceiving reality more clearly. One purpose of abstract paintings is therefore to remind us of how much more we can see if we simply care to look, in turn revealing the full complexity of visual experience which we ordinarily miss.

While rewarding slow, attentive looking with a sense of enrichment, successful abstract paintings function as exercises toward seeing with greater clarity. Their narrow formal range promotes observation of the specific rather than the general—a type of heightened visual perception with the potential to spill over into the rest of our lives. Closely attending to the abundant formal happenings of our surroundings then leads to richer encounters with and better knowledge of our visual world: a vitally refreshing clarity amidst the overwhelming visual bombardment of contemporary life.

Image Credits:

1-2: Courtesy of the Author.