Today seems like a good day to talk about abstract painting. It’s an issue that bobs to the surface from time to time (“…like a turd that won’t flush,” to quote Deacon, Dennis Hopper’s character in Waterworld), a sort of ghost or dark secret that can’t stay hidden forever. Abstract painting is often seen that way today, as a turd, the digested remains of something that used to be relevant, new, and beautiful, but let’s not forget, when Hopper uttered those timeless words, he was referring to the hero of the picture. It’s not an easy issue, and like everybody else this time of year, I’m a bit under the weather, so rather than force you to suffer through my foggy-headed musings, I’m going to approach this topic by serving up some hot plates of copy-pasta, written my minds less addled than my own.

The issue of abstract painting surfaced for me recently at Co-Prosperity School, the artist-run discussion circle that I’ve been coordinating, along with Stephanie Burke, ever since the school’s founders, Aaron Delehanty and Ed Marszewski, each became busy with the joys of fatherhood. Each week, in addition to a visiting artist’s presentation, one of the participants presents his or her work for critique and discussion. A couple of weeks back, it was Chicago-based abstract painter Erin McGuire’s turn to present her work. Erin’s a vocal advocate of abstraint painting’s continued relevance today, and after her critique, I asked her to summarize her thoughts in a brief “manifesto.” Here’s what she sent me:

Why Abstract Art You Say!

1. Representational and abstract are both valid art subjects.

2. I like to draw, paint, combine forms, colors, and relationships without being constrained to one specific literal object.

3. Not being tied down to one specific object opens the piece up to everyone to understand, even if they haven’t learned art history.

4. You don’t have to “get” abstract to enjoy it.

5. It gives a lot of room for imagination.

6. Yes, there is shitty abstract art, just like there is shitty realistic art.

7. Silly, bizarre, casual, colorful, sexy, poetic abstract paintings exist that might make you cry, remind you of certain music, or a powerful little moment that no one else noticed.

8. Give abstract a chance; don’t be intimidated by its history.

9. Just (fucking) enjoy the painting, whether it’s abstract or realistic – there’s nothing wrong with just liking something without having to explain yourself.

10. There’s room in your mind for abstract if you allow it.

You can read more of Erin’s thoughts, and see some images of her work, here:

One of our fellow participants, Kelsey Greene, took the time to write a response to Erin’s presentation. In it she uses McGuire’s work as an entry point to begin discussing abstract painting more generally.

The next leap is abstraction. But how does a person tell a good abstract from a drunken scribble? It has to do with intent, and artistic intent is very difficult to parse out without education or training. Without knowledge of proportion, composition, color systems etc., all the deliberate choices of the artist appear random or accidental. Education is essential because people want to know that their opinion has a valid basis. They don’t want to be the person with the wool pulled over their eyes, imagining that a child’s drawing is the next great masterpiece. They want to know they are not being fooled into discussing something as higher than it is. The only way to give that assurance is to discuss process and technique (artist’s choices) with the viewer…

A painting is “finished” when there is nothing left to do. There should be nothing “wrong” (out of place, unbalanced) with the painting, but it should still be interesting enough to keep the viewer (in this case, the artist herself is the viewer) visually engaged. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between [representational] painting and abstract paintings. A [representational] painting is done when it looks like what it is, and in sufficient detail. An abstract painting is done when the artist decides that it looks like itself. A representational painting is done when it can’t look any more like the thing, or when changes start to lessen the likeness of the painting to its subject, or when additional work doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the perception of the subject, but an abstract work doesn’t have an objective guide. The point of completion is entirely the artist’s prerogative, and is a very deliberate choice, perhaps more so than in a process when the work is being compared to an outside standard.

The full entry is available on Kelsey’s art blog:

All of this manifesto-grade discussion may feel as dated as abstract painting itself, but as with Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, painting, and specifically abstract painting, may be rendered a littler clearer with some choice words, particularly if it is going to continue to endure alongside performance, digital art, and all the newfangled whatzits that have become part of the contemporary definition of art.

The best theory or manifesto of painting I’ve read, seen, or heard in a while has been painter Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s 95 Theses on Painting, shown as part of her exhibition at the MCA Chicago and now available online: The whole list is well worth reading, several times over, but this morning, grey and snowy outside, and stuffy and congested inside, this one feels just right:

73. The dream of abstract painting in the 20th century was a dream of whole people, whose senses weren’t fragmented, whose vision was complete, who made paintings with their hearts and minds and bodies in harmony.


Postscript: It was my great pleasure to perform my graduate work under the guidance of painter Grace Hartigan, who first became well known as a second generation abstract painter in New York, before returning to figurative painting later in life. It was through conversations with her that I learned to appreciate abstract painting, particularly the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner, as well as Grace herself. Although my own work is figurative, representational, and realist in a very traditional sense, I nevertheless drew much inspiration from these abstract painters, who incidentally happen to be women. So Georg Baselitz can suck it.