Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 1: Sophie Howarth

Introduction: Sophie Howarth
This study day focuses on debates around the interpretation of abstract art

From Russian Suprematism through Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and beyond, abstraction has been variously interpreted as nihilistic, political, sublime, decorative and ironic. While much writing about abstract art has been opaque, the talks here aim to clearly open up a variety of theoretical models for discussion. As well as locating different forms of abstraction within a broad frame of art history and cultural theory, they cover the interpretation of abstract art within museums and the media.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 2: Paul Wood

Session 1: An Introduction to the Idea of Abstraction and Interpretation

Speaker

Paul Wood, Senior Lecturer in Art History at The Open University

Paul Wood starts the day considering the roots of abstraction in Symbolism, and how it tended to be theorised by Modernist writers, including Alfred Barr. He also covers the role of Cubism in helping to realise a fully abstract art, with particular reference to Mondrian and Malevich, as well as exceptions to that rule, such as Kandinsky. The talk also explores the contrast between idealist and materialist ideas about abstraction, with reference to the Russian avant-garde. Finally it will describe a ‘second wave’ of ‘informal’ abstraction of which Abstract Expressionism was part.

Further Reading

John Golding, Paths to the Absolute, Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Paul Wood and Charles Harrison (eds.) Art in Theory 1900–1990, Blackwell, 1992.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 3: Barnett Newman’s Abstraction

Session 2: Barnett Newman’s Abstraction

Speaker

Mark Godfrey, Lecturer in Art History and Theory at the Slade School of Art

Mark Godfrey considers some ways in which Barnett Newman’s art has been interpreted. First, there are those who read it as if it were a code to be deciphered (Thomas Hess). Then there are those who ‘see’ it, and locate the meaning of the work in the seeing experience (Fried, Judd, Bois, Serra, Sylvester). After looking in detail at these accounts, Godfrey considers more broadly how abstraction structures seeing.

Further Reading

Thomas Hess, Barnett Newman (MoMA and Tate, 1970)
Michael Fried, passage on Newman from ‘Three American Painters’ in Fried’s collection Art and Objecthood, University of Chicago Press, 1998
Donald Judd, ‘Barnett Newman’ in Complete Writings (New York, 1975) (This is also anthologised in many books)
Barnett Newman interview with David Sylvester in Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley, 1992)
Yve-Alain Bois, Perceiving Newman in Painting as Model, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 1990

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 4: Phyllida Barlow

Session 3: New Generation Sculpture in Britain

Speaker

Phyllida Barlow, artist and Head of Undergraduate Sculpture, Slade School of Art

Investigating abstraction as a force in British sculpture, Phyllida Barlow focuses on the 1965 New Generation Sculpture Exhibition, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. She particularly considers the influence of American art of the 1950s and 1960s on redefining British sculpture.

Further Reading

The New Generation Exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1965

Early One Morning Exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2002.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 5: Discussion 1

Discussion 1

From Russian Suprematism through Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and beyond, abstraction has been variously interpreted as nihilistic, political, sublime, decorative and ironic. While much writing about abstract art has been opaque, the talks here aim to clearly open up a variety of theoretical models for discussion. As well as locating different forms of abstraction within a broad frame of art history and cultural theory, they cover the interpretation of abstract art within museums and the media.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 6: Jason Gaiger

Session 4: Barnett Newman and the Evocation of the Sublime

Speaker

Jason Gaiger, Lecturer in Art History at The Open University

In an important essay, ‘The Sublime is Now’, written in 1948, Barnett Newman rejected the search for beauty in favour of ‘man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relation to the absolute emotions’. Whilst acknowledging that he lived in an age that lacked suitable myths and legends, he claimed that a new presentation of the sublime could be achieved without employing the traditional devices of Western painting, or what he termed ‘the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth.’ In this talk Jason Gaiger consides the relation of Newman’s work to the philosophical tradition of the sublime.

Further Reading

Barnett Newman ‘The Sublime is Now’, first published in Tiger’s Eye, Vol. 1, No.6, December 1948, most readily accessible in Harrison and Wood, eds. Art in Theory, pp. 572-4.
Longinus, On the Sublime, transl. W.H. Fyfe, Cambridge Mass./London: LOEB Classical Library, 1995, especially section 35.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), especially Part II (A good modern edition is edited by Adam Phillips, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)
.Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement (1790), sections 23-29. (The best modern translation is by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1987).

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 7: Jane Burton

Session 5: Experience and Interpretation

Speaker

Jane Burton, Curator of Interpretation, Tate Modern

Taking the Barnett Newman exhibition as its focus, Jane Burton seeks to unravel some of the possible interpretative approaches to Newman’s art adopted by museums, both in his lifetime and today. She considers the debates in the press about interpretation surrounding the opening of Tate Modern, and outlines some of the ways in which abstract art has complicated the interpretative process, by incorporating both the viewer’s physical and psychological responses and the architectural space of the gallery in its scope.

Further Reading

Barnett Newman, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art/ Tate, 2002
Nicholas Serota, Experience and Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 8: Jonathan Jones

Session 6: Abstraction and the Media

Speaker

Jonathan Jones, Guardian writer

Abstract art is the opposite of what you might call a good news story, argues journalist Jonathan Jones. Good stories are precise, they have characters, they can be told quickly. None of which abstraction delivers. Yet surprisingly, some of the biggest news splashes in the history of modern art have been concerned with abstraction, from Whistler’s court case against Ruskin after the critic denounced him for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face to Jackson Pollock’s appearance in Life magazine. Some of the best writing on abstract art, too, has been published in a journalistic context, notably Clement Greenberg’s articles in the left wing American magazine The Nation in the 1940s. Jones considers the relationship between abstraction and the media.

Further Reading

Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism / edited by John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

vol. 1. Perceptions and judgements, 1939–1944;
vol. 2. Arrogant purpose, 1945–1949
vol. 3. Affirmations and refusals, 1950–1956
vol. 4. Modernism with a vengeance, 1957–1969.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day – Part 9: Discussion 2

Discussion 2

From Russian Suprematism through Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and beyond, abstraction has been variously interpreted as nihilistic, political, sublime, decorative and ironic. While much writing about abstract art has been opaque, the talks here aim to clearly open up a variety of theoretical models for discussion. As well as locating different forms of abstraction within a broad frame of art history and cultural theory, they cover the interpretation of abstract art within museums and the media.

From Russian Suprematism through Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and beyond, abstraction has been variously interpreted as nihilistic, political, sublime, decorative and ironic. While much writing about abstract art has been opaque, the talks here aim to clearly open up a variety of theoretical models for discussion. As well as locating different forms of abstraction within a broad frame of art history and cultural theory, they cover the interpretation of abstract art within museums and the media.