Formal Abstraction, Elllsworth Kelly to Doug Ashford.


Ellsworth Kelly, Red, Yellow, Blue 1991

Doug Ashford Ordinariness, 2010. Tempera on board.

My painting mixing formal abstraction & expressionism as juxtaposition

One of the additional areas I explored was the American formal abstraction movement that developed in the 1950's. There had been a classical avant garde in Europe beginning in the 1920's and of course a strong soviet constructivist movement which had these formalist structures.

I was particularly interested in Ellsworth Kelly and other American artists role in breaking the hold abstract expressionism had on the American art scene. Artists such as Charles Hinman and Agnes Martin were producing these ordered geometric compositions that represented pure colour, line and form.

Formal abstraction has its roots in the diagram and I found Ellsworth Kelly's reduction of shape to a pure colour form a fascinating extension of the plane geometric symbol. Kelly is the acknowledged master of this austere geometric minimalism and his work continues to be influential and widely exhibited.

I found Doug Ashford to be exploring an area of formal abstraction which seemed post Ellsworth Kelly. His work was small slightly less geometrically recognisably exact but despite this I felt nonetheless that this was painted formal abstraction that was quietly questioning Kelly's larger scale works. Ashford's work is interesting for me as an example of how other artists can take a very dominant movement such as formal abstraction and create their own interpretation whilst still remaining inside the overarching form.

Ellsworth Kelly has mastered the art of making the very complex look remarkably simple. His recent works such as the 'Diagonals' series further play with the painted form by overlapping canvases to create an illusion of depth to these flat combined blocks of colour and surface. I like this sculptural element although he has previously presented his paintings on walls in quiet a sculptural way.

In my painting I wanted to exist somewhere between the splash or scratch on canvas of expressionism and the formal geometric structures that were not so obviously Kelly but very quiet like the work of Doug Ashford. I am not a painter but I wanted to explore these two points and combine elements of different schools of abstraction. My attempt isn't at all successful but it does evidence ideas that are formulating around structures and that take their cues from existing 'ways of seeing' which have already successfully supported abstract ideas on canvas.

There is certainly a long lineage to this form of expression and one senses as the movement progressed it lost elements of its politic associations and it became through Kelly possibly pure decorative gallery work through the use of his contemporary colour palettes and the use of opaque deeply saturated colour. It is interesting that a formally quiet political artist like Doug Ashford who had taken art outside of the gallery space and into the streets should return to the studio to produce these still contemplative works that are primarily a variation of formal extraction.

Of course with formal abstraction having its roots in the diagram one can say that it still maintains a social relevance in the age of the network and new ways of assembling information that rely upon diagrammatic schema to represent data flow. It is a stretch to reduce such complexity to an blue 90 degree angle resting against a bright yellow curve but I do like the inherent solidity of the geometric form and in the hands of a craftsman like Kelly and the newer perspectives of artists such as Doug Ashford the form continues to fascinate and inspire.



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