A long time ago, when I first began teaching art, I suggested to a class that we try our hand at abstracts. I remember one student staring hard at her paper in silence for about twenty minutes and then, setting to with the kind of focussed frenzy that might not be uncommon on the conductor’s podium but is rarely seen at a watercolour class. After half an hour, drained and dishevelled, Belinda’s piece was done.
Terrifying it was, too. Glaring eyes and gnashing teeth in venomous reds and greens filled the paper. When I quizzed her about it, Belinda, I discovered, was of the view that abstracts were unpleasant and above all, angry. She hadn’t enjoyed a single moment of it, she told me (although the experience looked positively cathartic to me) and had no intention of ever painting another ‘abstract’ again.
True to say, if you cast a brief glance over the work of two of the great protagonists of American abstraction, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, a lot of it looks febrile and nervy, to say the very least, reflecting all the braggadocio and swagger of the New York scene in which they created. But look at their brushstrokes a little more closely and you’ll realise that, just like the wild-haired conductor on the concert platform, there’s thought, knowledge and years of experience behind each and every move. Pollock studied the work of Rubens and El Greco and Kline admired Japanese calligraphy, but what was it that led them to produce the paintings they did? And why did the art world become so enamoured?
There are other artists too, like Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn, whose abstract work is more reflective and didn’t grab the headlines the way that Pollock and Kline did. Clearly, it isn’t all angry art, as Belinda thought, but what exactly were they up to? Were they just flinging paint about and laughing all the way to the bank or is there something more? Something they can teach us?
At Pencil To Paint at Claverton Down in Bath, this Autumn, we’ll be finding out! Abstract art can teach us a great deal, in fact; about mark-making, colour, composition and form; about where ideas come from and about what motivates us to create in the first place. Don’t get angry, get painting!