Learning to appreciate abstract painting is an exercise in embracing silence and contemplation.

 

“To be honest, I wonder what a lot of people see in abstract painting. I love it, the idea of it and the experience of it, because it’s been in my life for decades. But what if you don’t have that information? How do you approach an art empty of figures and evident narratives? How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you? What do you do to make it your own?”

This was the opening paragraph of a review of the Agnes Martin retrospective in the Arts section of the Oct. 7, 2016, New York Times by Holland Cotter. The show had just opened at the Guggenheim Museum, and was the talk of the art world. Cotter, one of the most elegant art writers and critics of our time, described the exhibition of Martin’s paintings as “floating up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda in the most out-of-this-world-beautiful retrospective I’ve seen in this space in years.”

Cotter noted that Martin would have answered the question above by saying, “You go there and sit and look.” Not bad advice. Learning about, perhaps learning to appreciate, abstract painting is an exercise in embracing silence and contemplation. Agnes Martin’s paintings appear to be almost empty save for some pale bands of color or completely white surfaces with superimposed grids. Upon examination, her hand becomes apparent in the drawing or painting of the grids, pencil lines or lines brush-drawn in thinned-down paint made with careful intention, or in the mark-making with her brush of the broadly painted areas that appear flat until carefully studied. Slowing down, careful observation, not seeing everything all at once, are skills that develop over time.

For an artist, abstract painting is looking beyond an obvious, recognizable subject. The subject becomes how the artist takes the basic Design 101 concepts of color, shape, line, balance, form, luminosity or flatness, how one area relates to another, to create a visual language of his or her own devising. This can be as varied as a gigantic, active Jackson Pollack drip painting, or an almost spiritual Mark Rothko painting with luminous areas of juxtaposed colors, or Joan Mitchell’s vibrant all-over sweeping swaths of colors, of thick and thin brushmarks, or the elegant Ocean Park paintings of Richard Diebenkorn.

Vaclav Vytlacil and Albert Alcalay were two artists I remember from my early days on the Vineyard; both were well-regarded modern abstract painters, on and off-Island. But for the most part, Vineyard artists tended to paint landscapes, still lifes, and figures along a continuum that ranged from classical realism to wildly interpretive.

“Grey Rising XXVII.” Monotype 24 x 9 inches. —Marie Louise Rouff

Recently I have noticed a renewed interest in abstract art: artists producing it, galleries showing it, clients wanting to see and collect it. There are some very good artists here. Some, like Wendy Weldon, have always worked in an abstract manner, although her work is moving away from even the slight reference to the barns and stone walls around her home in Chilmark to more simplified compositions, horizontal bands of color and gold leaf. Leslie Baker, well-known for her landscapes, has been working exclusively on monotypes and paintings that, though using the same thinly painted glazes of unexpected color combinations, are pure representations of color and space, with no reference to landscape remaining. Rob Hauck has created a visual language in black and white, though neither wholly black nor white, but with an infinity of values, and more drawing and mark-making into the surface of his paintings.

As I am writing this article, two large paintings of Jennifer Christy’s are hanging on an outside wall of the Field Gallery, making a striking graphic statement visible even to cars passing by. She told me that her work comes from close observation of the shoreline from her canoe, of the edges where land and water and sky meet, of broadly simplified, stylized shapes. Look at them close up. Layers of paint leave traces of the colors beneath the surface. Her edges glow. They hold the softness of mud and grasses, but they aren’t, and they don’t have to be.

Marie-Louise Rouff stopped painting landscapes when she moved to California, and felt that she couldn’t compete with the breathtaking natural landscapes she discovered there. Her work always had an abstract quality to it, massed shapes and colors, which after all is what a landscape is. She begins a painting by building up the surface with thickening layers and scrapings of paint in a predominant color, often the ochers and reds of newly dug earth or Italian frescoes. Other colors are added as the painting develops, sometimes enlivening the surface, sometimes seeming to emerge from beneath it. The color tells the story of the painting.

As with most artists, the ones I have interviewed for this story are perfectly competent, even gifted draftsmen. Some have worked in a representational manner for parts of their careers. I say this to dispel the idea that abstract artists can’t draw, or even the oft-heard “My kid could do better than that.” Remember that there is good and bad in abstract art, as there is in all art.

Rob Hauck says his best tools come from the hardware store. He uses sandpaper and plaster, to subtract or build up the surface of his paintings. Burlap. Sand. Different painting mediums. Acrylic paint dries faster, especially in a large format. “I paint something, cover it up, try to reveal what’s under there. That’s why I say it’s a record of time, because it’s a story of me, my time, until I decide that it’s finished,” he says. “I like the feeling of mystery, the sense of peeling back.”

He describes his process and his turn from color to black and white this way: “I start, as many of the abstract expressionists did, by putting down marks. Over the years, I have shrunk down my palette. I absolutely love black and white. I don’t view it as the absence of color. There’s so much variation in color and tone. It can capture any kind of emotion. As I’ve narrowed my palette, I have to present something else, so I’ve put my emphasis on texture. It goes back to mark-making. A painting begins with an idea — a color or shape. I work till I can’t anymore, put it aside, look at it on and off, analyze it, then go back.”

For Wendy Weldon, “Abstract painting has no limits. You don’t have to follow the edge of a table or the silhouette of a tree. You can look at nature and paint your impression; you don’t have to paint exactly what you’re looking at. You can paint your response to it through color, shape, line, and emotion.” She says, “There’s no doubt that nature inspires me,” and describes that inspiration in terms of energy and physical feeling of the color, shape, and line, all of which go into the painting. The making of the painting becomes “an argument, a conversation, a discussion” between what she calls “the rule voice” and “the other voice.”

A bout with Lyme disease a few years ago led to Leslie Baker’s complete transition into painting only abstract work. She couldn’t go out to paint in the field, so focused on her work making monotypes in the print studio at Featherstone. She said that she became more and more interested in color, in the expressive use of color, even when working as a landscape painter. “The landscape was just an anchor. Gradually the color was more important, and the subject just fell away,” she said. Monotype also offered a way to “begin working without a sense of form.”

Baker continued, “I start with color. My work is all about color now, the interaction of color. How a color can change when placed next to other colors is so variable. That’s really the subject of these paintings. How can I mute the color, or make it more exciting? Some are variations of warm and cool within the same hue. It sounds like a very formal approach; it probably is, because it’s based on color theory. But when I’m painting, it feels very physical, as though I’m diving into the painting. I’m interested in subtleties, the subtle changes of color … I want the viewer to fall into the color.”

Leslie Baker and I used to go out to paint together. I could see her affinity for interesting combinations of colors, of mixes, and of juxtapositions. I always thought that she was the only person I knew who could paint an entire painting using just two complementary colors. She made it work.

“Falling Out of Grey,” oil on canvas 40 x 32 inches. —Leslie Baker

Incidentally, Rob Hauck and Wendy Weldon, along with Nick Thayer, made up the group of artists Baker met with and worked with in those weekly printing sessions at Featherstone. All of them, and Marie-Louise Rouff, are master printmakers, and continue to work in this medium. There is an intimate quality to the monotypes, their small size in relation to a large painting, the serendipitous nature of the monotype process. Draw on a plate, print it, do another. That quality of the medium makes it perfect for experimentation, and the inability to control everything forces the artist to loosen up.

Nancy Furino often speaks about the line between abstraction and realism that many of us straddle and finesse. I struggle in that place myself. I consider myself an abstract artist, although so far I still begin with an attraction to an oft-observed Island view or a still life set up in my studio. Sometimes a friend stops in and becomes part of the painting. My dogs Talley and Nanuk, or cat Nelson, are always around, so offer themselves as ready subjects. But what interests me are all the spaces between things, the angles of objects within the perimeter of my board, the relationships of colors, the edges where those colors butt up against one another or slide smoothly in a softened edge, the drips and marks of paint as I work.

I am currently feeling that there may be something more for me, that maybe enlarging those serendipitous drips and edges and spaces may become my way, may lead to a new development in my painting. Is it the cerebral questioning of aging? I don’t know. That has certainly been speculated upon throughout modern art history. Is it that my eyesight is failing, changing my perception of whatever I’m looking at? That theory has been examined as well. Now that there is a visual history of abstraction, maybe the language has just become more accessible and desirable. Most of us look at other artists’ work and try to figure out how they did it: What colors did they mix, how did they apply the paint (brush or knife or some tool of the artist’s own devising)? What did they say about their work?

I have been looking at photographs of Matisse in his bed with his cat on his lap, cutting out colored shapes for the collages he made near the end of his life. Huge sheets of paper lined his bedroom walls, and he used long sticks and brushes, and studio assistants, to attach these shapes to the wall with pins, to move them around till he was satisfied with their placement. Monet was famously said to have had cataracts, the loss of vision making his paintings looser, obscured by thickly applied paint, more and more abstract.

For most artists, I suppose we only want to continue to work, to look at art, to talk about art, to experiment. Even when we’re not painting, we are thinking about painting. Artists are never bored. There’s always something to look at that stimulates our creative spirit. May it continue to sustain us.

 

Leslie Baker and Rob Hauck are represented by A Gallery, 8 Uncas Ave., Oak Bluffs.

Jennifer Christy and Wendy Weldon are represented by the Field Gallery, State Road, West Tisbury.

Marie-Louise Rouff is represented by Louisa Gould Gallery, Main Street, Vineyard Haven.