Quiet Desperation

Absorbing abstraction is an artistic workout

Column by Craig Marshall Smith
Posted 11/20/14

If you have to see a picture of a man screaming on a bridge, you have to see a picture of a man screaming on a bridge.

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Quiet Desperation

Absorbing abstraction is an artistic workout


If you have to see a picture of a man screaming on a bridge, you have to see a picture of a man screaming on a bridge.

Edvard Munch will take care of you.

If you have to see a vibrant red and coral-colored flower, blown up and covering the entire canvas, well, that's what you have to see.

Georgia O'Keeffe will take care of you.

But what if there is no screaming man or vibrantly colored flower?

What if there is nothing more than a big area of color? With nothing recognizable anywhere?

Are you lost? Disinterested?

Many are, even though abstract art has been around for more than a hundred years.

I have watched viewers walk past abstract paintings lickety-split.

I have an idea, in the form of a comparison.

Who doesn't like a little Mozart now and then? Or Dave Brubeck? Or even a Jimmy Page solo? What do they all have in common? The music is wordless.

As a listener, it's up to you to create images in your imagination. Or better still, to simply listen without trying to read any imagery into the music.

I realize that there are contrary examples: It's impossible to listen to the "Grand Canyon Suite" and not visualize pack mules.

I am an Abstract Expressionist, and the illegitimate son of the very first Abstract Expressionist, Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky was as brave as the first man to eat a dried lizard or lutefisk.

The Abstract Expressionists who were painting in America in the '40s and '50s shifted the focus of the art world for the first time from Western Europe to the United States.

I am not going to try to convert anyone. If you have to see clouds or trees or galloping sheep in a painting, or else, that may never change.

We tend to want something to hold on to, and complete abstractions don't do it for many people. But if you put a bunch of water lilies in there, everything is just fine.

Monet's beautiful "Water Lilies" series is a great introduction to abstract art. You can't do any better than Monet.

And that includes van Gogh, a contemporary of Monet's. Van Gogh gets more press, but Monet was a better artist. He just didn't cut off his ear, and become mythic.

There is a "Water Lilies" room, an entire room, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

I have gone to New York with no other aspiration - except to have a corned beef sandwich and a kosher pickle at the Carnegie Deli - than to see those lilies.

And that's what I am asking you to do. Just stand there at some distance, and then walk toward them.

Eventually you will no longer see water lilies. You will see colors, brush strokes, subtle transitions of blue to blue-green to green. And you will be in the land of Abstract Expressionism.

What do you see when you listen to "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck? I don't see anything. But I sense a number of things. Melody, pacing, rhythm, repetition, a blues-scale, and quintuple time. It is famous for its "two-chord piano vamp."

I couldn't tell you what a two chord piano vamp is.

All I know is that "Take Five" makes it inside. It is an irreplaceable few minutes of my life, and I can't thank Brubeck enough.

Some abstract artists are understandably difficult. Maybe Jackson Pollock is the most difficult abstract artist ever, at least among those who have been acclaimed.

"My child could do that." Not really, or if you child can do that on a huge stretched canvas, with a grasp of composition, variety, cohesion, and accountability, and have it appreciated, it's because Pollock did those things first.

He gave viewers something other than the enigma of a woman with a wry smile ("Mona Lisa") to think about.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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