This is one heck of a thing. Abstract art is a massive subject and to condense even a small part of it into a single volume, even one as substantial as this, seems like an impossible task.
To begin with, you have to decide whether you’re talking to the specialist, the aficionado who has the correctly sculptured beard to stroke, or the general viewer who may be tempted to ask what it’s all about and why their five-year old couldn’t have done it. OK, for sixty-five pounds and something this heavy, I think we can probably forget about the latter, but there’s still the question of audience. You need to be serious enough not to put off the specialist, but not so serious as to put off the enquiring mind.
This is where Pepe Karmel gets it absolutely spot-on. The first thing that strikes and amazes you is that the book is arranged by theme: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, signs & patterns. This allows a vast subject to be broken down into manageable chunks (silent cheer from the general reader) and for Pepe to begin with a realistic historical image and then explain how shapes, colours and forms are distilled into non-representational images. It also means that found objects, sculptures and installations can sit with works on canvas or paper in the same section without serving only to add confusion to the narrative.
And narrative it is, because this is very much the story of how what the artist saw in front of them is translated into a piece of work that the viewer has to interpret, and which will tell them not the what, but the how and the why. For all that it can be as intellectual an exercise as listening to atonal music, abstract art is also about emotion in its purest form. When you understand it, it can be tear-jerkingly beautiful.
To get to this point, you need to be educated. It was one single caption at a small Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate that unlocked this for me. It was as simple as explaining the importance of line and contrast and was a lightbulb moment that opened up a wider understanding of abstraction in general. On a much larger scale, this is what Pepe Karmel does here. There’s a great deal of learning in this, but it’s worn lightly and you’re never asked to imagine anything – the illustration, superbly reproduced, is always in front of you.
If you want to be convinced, this is the book for you. If you’re already in that world, you may find that you’re being told a lot of what you know already, but the number and quality of the illustrations might swing it for you anyway. It’s not a cheap book, or a quick read, but equally not one to put aside in any kind of hurry.
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