Abstraction and meaning

CHAPTER 4: Parts of a whole: pattern, ornamentation, decoration, detail

Artists of almost every culture have created systems of ornament, pattern and decoration, often ones which enhance the beauty and visual appeal of everyday objects such as storage containers, furniture, clothing, and textiles. The natural world is an especially common source for such decoration, though the reference points to it are often obscured through a high degree of abstract stylization. Similarly, certain subjects and conditions in representational art are especially well-suited to explorations of abstract qualities. We see this particularly well in the history of painting, in which it is common for artists to explore how light creates atmospheric space or falls on texture and fabric, creating abstract shapes and forms, above all when viewed as details dissociated from the larger image.

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David Alfaro Siqueiros
Santa Rosalía (now Ciudad Camargo), Chihuahua, 1896 - 1974, Cuernavaca

50.75 cm x 58.6 cm (20 in. x 23 1/16 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1980

The tradition of narrative history painting experienced a renaissance during the 1920s following the Mexican Revolution. Here David Alfaro Siqueiros set his scene in 1521, when, during the conquest of the Aztec Empire, Hernán Cortés tortured the emperor Cuauhtémoc by burning his feet. Cuauhtémoc’s refusal to reveal the location of hidden Aztec wealth embodies indigenous resistance to colonization. The revolutionary Siqueiros treats the subject dramatically by using radical foreshortening, with fire in the foreground and the figure receding in space. Instead of oil paint he favored Pyroxylin, an industrial material utilized for painting cars. The combination of Mexican history, contemporary politics, and artistic experimentation makes this a characteristic work by Siqueiros.

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