Some arguments never die. The question “Is abstract art valid” raised its head again over the weekend while I was in Windsor, Ontario, for the opening of my father’s exhibition The Optimism of Colour: William Perehudoff, a retrospective.
Two other shows opened at the Art Gallery of Windsor on Friday night, John Kissick’s A Nervous Decade and an exhibition by Luanne Martineau, and on Saturday there was a panel discussion with critics Roald Nasgaard and Karen Wilkin plus the artists (but not my dad because he’s 93 and in a wheelchair and not scooting around much).
I’ve been caught in the middle of this conversation for years, as both the daughter of an abstract artist and as a former art student when conceptual artist Jenny Holzer ruled and abstract art was no longer cool, but if you’re new to the discussion then you really should get with the program. So I’m going to help you.
What I have learned, through the discussion on Saturday, through my stints at the Banff Centre of the Arts as a visual artist, and in my days at art school, is that abstract art is not valid. And here’s why:
1) Abstract art is too safe … just something to hang over the couch in a middle-class home.
2) Abstract art is elitist. Abstract Expressionist paintings are so monumental they cannot fit into an average home and so are out of reach to the average middle-class person (unless she or he has a very large couch and a very large wall behind it).
3) Abstract art is commercial. You can buy and sell abstract art, unlike say, a thought, and the taint of money is UGLY.
Of course when non-abstract art such as conceptual artist Damien Hirst’s The Golden Calf, a pickled calf with gold horns and hooves, sells for £10.3 million, it can all get confusing, but that’s okay. Try not to think about it and just blame abstract art. But don’t get me wrong, I adore Damien Hirst and would very much like a calf preserved in formaldehyde over my couch. As long as the hooves are golden.
4) Abstract art is associated with American cultural imperialism. I found the following quote, oddly enough, on the Maritime Union of Australia website, on a page dedicated to a Roy Dalgarno – a painter and socialist realist and it’s quite enlightening:
“During the Cold War social realism became associated with communism, while abstract expressionism (such as the works of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko) served as adjunct to American capitalism and its ideology. Abstract expressionism was a movement aligned with the rise of American cultural imperialism. It became allied with the right; social realism with the left. (Modern Art: A critical introduction by Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon )”
I have no comment about this point, I just thought it was interesting.
The next point explains why abstract art is particularly not valid in Saskatchewan
5) Abstract art is associated with American cultural imperialism. And therefore a borrowed style of art and not Canadian.
I can’t answer this with any type of academic credence, so I’m going to talk about spas. Stay with me here. It’s a big trend in the spa world, and a valid one, to have treatments that are related to the locale, such as massages that incorporate local healing traditions and essential oils made with local ingredients like Quebec sage and Niagara lavender.
Done right, the ‘go local’ movement is a fantastic addition to the spa culture. However (of course I have a however!), if spas were only allowed to ‘go local’ we would have no Swedish massage (unless you were in Sweden), no Thai massage (you would have to go to Bangkok for that and I recommend Wat Po Temple if you do) and not even any yoga as that comes from India or facials with peptide-rich products from Switzerland! And then going to the spa wouldn’t be any fun at all.
(Someone also asked me to mention the fact that the culturally imperious American artists at least took the Saskatchewan artists seriously back in the 60s, while central Canada seemed happy to ignore them completely.)
6) Finally, abstract art is a male dominated bastion. Okay. you got me here. I’ll tell dad to start quilting.
Seriously though, in the end, the argument will go on (after all we’re still arguing over the validity of Impressionism, aren’t we? Oh, what? We’re not?) and so will the reactionary nature of art. One movement is a springboard, or maybe acts as a pendulum, for another. Early Canadian abstraction can be seen as a reaction against the Group of Seven landscapes. And Colour Field artists like my father, engaged in simplifying art down to essential elements, with their staining and flat planes of colour, can be seen as reacting to the more gestural work of earlier abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. And so Colour Field/abstract art is reacted against in turn.
As New York critic Karen Wilkin said at the panel discussion, “the son always kills the father.” Which brings me to my final conclusion, that my dad is just lucky he had daughters.
The Optimism of Colour runs until April 1, 2012. On July 7 it will open at the Robert Mclaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario.
Read more about William Perehudoff
The Optimism of Colour: William Perehudoff rides again
I love my dad: William Perehudoff in Victoria
William Perehudoff at the Glenbow Art Gallery in Calgary