David Sylvester English Abstract Art. 1957

At the start of this project I was developing an interest in painting and in particular the work of the American abstract expressionists. I felt that these artists effectively emerged for me from both the ideas contained in Dworkin's essay on Brakhage and Sontag's book 'Against Interpretation'' as an appropriate way of looking at ideas for my project. I enjoyed the freedom evident within the work of the major abstract expressionist artists as well as their inventive approaches to form and the canvas. These extracts taken from the large body of New Statesmen articles are to be found in the book 'About Modern Art' which is David Sylvester's astounding collection of essays and insights into the subject.

The leading proponents of American abstraction were producing what at the time was being perceived as revolutionary and difficult art that was being rejected by nearly the entire art establishment as well as the public. There were a handful of artists that would later become established figures within the history of art but Sontag would present the abstraction movement in her writing in the 60's as a device to escape the tyranny of content and therefore from her perspective its sublimation to interpretation.

I felt that an article written by David Sylvester in the New Statesmen in 1957 nearly 10 years prior to Sontag's book of 1966 provided a very useful structure in understanding more about abstract expressionism rather than merely seeing it as an attempt to avoid the 'tyranny' of representation. Sylvester had used his article to explain why English abstract artists had singularly failed to reach the heights of American abstraction and I found this extremely interesting for my own research into other artists. English abstraction for Sylvester existed too much in poetic simile and lacked in self substance. He described it as English paintings lacking 'physical presence and in a word concreteness'.

…..In my personal opinion Englsh artists like Peter Lanyon were finding a very specific concreteness in their association to historical place. Lanyon's mining abstractions and in particular the works surrounding St Just in Cornwall were striking not only for their brush work but also for their definitive association with location. Frank Auerbach was also producing strikingly abstract work in London in the 1950's that found itself deeply connected to the city beng rebuilt around it after the Second World War. His group of building site paintings during this period are clearly not the abstractions of Robert Motherwell in terms of their relatively recognisabe content but for me they are as inventive, experimental and concrete…..

Sylvester identified a flaw in English abstraction which he related to its failure to fit with the central thesis that had been postulated in 1890 by Maurice Denis. He referred to Denis description of a painting as consisting of a stages prior to its representational climax. He quoted Denis by saying that a painting is 'essentially a plane surface covered by paints arranged in a certain order' prior to its conclusion.

Sylvester identified the basic assumption of modern art is the concern it has firstly with the 'presentation of a configuration of shapes and colours and marks which in and of itself stimulates and satisfies and that only after this condition has been fulfilled can the subtlety of observation, the depth of human feeling and insight, the moral grandeur, expressed in the work, have validity.'

Thus 'before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality, before it can be a symbol it must rejoice in being a fact, and the more it affirms its autonomous reality the more will it contain the possibility of returning us to the reality of life.' Sylvester felt American abstraction minus Denis assumption of 'arrangement in a certain order' fully matched this credo. He felt early attempts to interpret this 'order' in a literal prescribed sense had led to flat architectural cubism. The American abstract expressionists however in their highest form generated a life and presence of their own. Sylvester felt that the order and the subject matter were evolved in the act of painting itself as ultimately the 'reality of painting lies in painting'.

Here was an explanation that placed paintings reality within its internal structure rather than as needing an external context or representational content. American abstract expressionism understood this and recognised that 'evocations and states of feeling, sensations remembered and half remembered now found their meaning and point.'

I found this a really interesting explanation of non figurative art and one that I felt in some way placed a neat structure around some of the unfettered principles that might emerge from a very literal reading of Dworkin and Sontag. I was naturally attracted to abstraction but I felt it very useful to look at the critical writings of David Sylvester as they helped root the power of many of the works I was drawn to in both abstract and conceptual art in some internal sense (reality) of themselves.

I am not intending to restrict my early explorations in theory to a purely painterly perspective as I am looking at writing that is applicable across the spectrum of artistic expression. I will be looking at sculpture, video, installation and artists that use a range of media. I feel that these early essays however do provide a structure to explore wisely future paths.

 

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