Abstraction and meaning

CHAPTER 2: Abstract space

Representing space is a particular challenge for artists because human perception of space is so varied and complicated: much more so, for example, than our perception of a single object. This is especially true when painters use a two dimensional surface to represent three dimensions. Much representational painting uses some form of perspective to mimic how we actually see the world, and thus exploits the perceptual condition that things appear to be smaller and more indistinct the further away they are from us. But like anything produced by the imagination, artist-created space is wonderfully malleable. By stretching out, flattening, exaggerating, simplifying and otherwise toying with spatial representation, artists can mold space to suite their own expressive purposes. They can even create a fully imagined type of space with its own set of rules; artists who work in abstraction are often especially adept at this.

This art object can not be displayed
This art object can not be displayed
This art object can not be displayed
High Yellow

Ellsworth Kelly
Newburgh, New York, 1923 - 2015, Spencertown, New York

High Yellow
Oil
204.6 cm x 146.8 cm (80 9/16 in. x 57 13/16 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991
1991.246

Nature was a primary source of inspiration for Ellsworth Kelly, and it is tempting to read "High Yellow" as a landscape with green grass, blue sky, and yellow sun. But Kelly believed that art should transcend the quotidian experiences of daily life. Though he derived his compositions from the world around him, he did not intend his work to be seen as representational. As he once said, “The form of my painting is the content.” In order to achieve a purity of form, Kelly took inspiration from the works of anonymous medieval craftsmen and eliminated the trace of his hand from the canvas. By pointing beyond the personal, he felt he could conjure the universal. Kelly is widely known for his intuitive use of color. Yellow, in particular, figures prominently in the artist’s practice—most notably at the beginning and end of his color spectrums. The hue also takes the topmost position in the colored-glass window designs for "Austin," Kelly’s most monumental work and the only freestanding building he designed, given to the Blanton in 2015.

La Puerto Del Sol

Norman Wilfred Lewis
New York, New York, 1909 - 1979, New York, New York

La Puerto Del Sol
Oil
130.2 cm x 161.9 cm (51 1/4 in. x 63 3/4 in.)
Gift of the Longview Foundation, Inc., 1960
G1960.10

From 1950 until his death in 1979, Norman Lewis was a leading figure in Abstract Expressionist painting circles in New York—a relative rarity for an artist of color at the time. In his travels to Spain in the 1950s, Lewis studied the paintings at the Museo Nacional del Prado—a short walk from Puerta del Sol, one of the busiest public squares in Madrid. Lewis’s tight clusters of varying colors suggest moving masses of people. “When I was in Madrid,” Lewis recalled in an interview, “one of the things in my own self-education was the discouraging fact that painting pictures didn’t bring about any change.” In later paintings, Lewis used this compositional technique to mimic crowds of protestors during the Civil Rights Movement. Works like "La Puerto del Sol" prefigure Lewis’s paintings of the 1960s and 1970s, which strive to convey the African American struggle through abstraction.

Two Legs

Philip Guston
Montreal, Canada, 1913 - 1980, Woodstock, New York

Two Legs
Oil
203.2 cm x 233.8 cm (80 in. x 92 1/16 in.)
Bequest of Musa Guston, 1992
1992.283

Philip Guston painted "Two Legs" after forsaking abstraction for figuration in the late 1960s. Feeling helpless and disillusioned in the face of violent events such as the Vietnam War led to this radical shift in the artist’s approach. Although many critics, friends, and fellow painters initially derided Guston for including recognizable imagery and oblique political references in his work, one critic noted that the artist’s newfound idiosyncratic “crudeness…enable[d] him to give a simple account of the simple mindedness of violence.” The limited palette and black background set an ominous stage for the two truncated, disembodied legs that dominate this composition. A recurring motif in his work, Guston’s abstracted depiction of legs has prompted various interpretations. At once symbolic of the traumas of war, this iconography may also have roots in the artist’s own biography. Decades prior, Guston’s older brother was in a car accident that crushed his legs, required amputation, and ultimately precipitated his death. Like his contemporary Willem de Kooning, Guston embraced ambiguity: “You see, I look at my paintings [and] speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.”

Image credit:
Joan Mitchell
Rock Bottom, 1960-1961 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

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