Archive for category Subject: Abstract

Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

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Abstract Painting || Petra Thölken

There was a time when books on abstract painting were rarer than hens’ teeth and a very hard sell indeed. One infamous one rather gloriously had the signature on the rear cover illustration in the top left-hand corner, confirming the old joke about frames needing to be labelled “top” and “bottom”.

Things have changed. If the regular appearance of books is anything to go by (and it should be), everyone wants a piece of the action. It’s not unreasonable, because abstraction, at its best, is about distilling the essence of your subject, then reconstructing it in a way that tells the viewer more than they could get from looking at it themselves. We’ve become so used to loose and impressionistic ways of working which are the first step on this particular road that we’re not just prepared, but willing, to take those further steps.

With plenty of choice, the reader can have their pick of approaches. Given that abstraction is as much a state of mind as anything else, how-to is not the obvious way to come at it and, indeed, step by step demonstrations are rarely offered.

This is a project-based book that does, in fact, offer demonstrations. Do you want to copy someone else’s ideas? Well, if you’re new to all this, it’s as good a starting point as any other. The fact is, abstraction is such a personal thing that it’s entirely up to you to choose the way in that works best for you personally.

To sum up: I can’t review this, other than to say it’s nicely produced. If you like it, buy it.

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Expressive Abstracts in Acrylic || Anita Hörskens

It seems now to be traditional that books on abstract painting are project based and this useful guide is no exception. The main reason, I suspect, is that it’s very hard to teach the creative aspect of the topic. The basic principle is that you extract or abstract the essence of your subject and portray it in a way that tells the viewer how you felt about it and what it was like to be there in the moment. How far you take this is entirely up to you – there may be quite a few recognisable shapes and forms, or perhaps none at all. You may be wishing to express a mood rather than a sense of place, for instance.

All this is rather esoteric, but it’s something to consider before embarking on the process. What you can teach, of course, is techniques and that’s what this guide aims to do in the fifty-five featured projects. You’ll have the opportunity to experiment with colour, contrast, glazing, composition, negative shapes and paint pouring as well as exploring materials and surfaces. There’s a lot to get to grips with and the simple exercises that are presented give you plenty of examples to work with as well as ways to add your own personal touch – the instructions are concise and allow for plenty of interpretation, which is, after all, the name of the game in this field.

There are other guides that offer a similar approach, but this one is about as comprehensive as it gets.

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Abstract Art: a global history || Pepe Karmel

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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Happy Abstracts || Etta Vee/Jessi Raulet

This, to be honest, isn’t something I’d normally review. However, I asked for a copy and it’s my policy to review anything I’ve asked for. The title sounded intriguing and, now that it’s here, the idea does too.

I’m going to be as complimentary as I can because I think the book fulfils the brief it sets itself tolerably well. “Fearless painting for true beginners”, it proclaims, and there’s a chapter headed “Host a paint party”. My immediate reaction is that this is mainly aimed at the sort of person who likes the idea of drinking too much pinot grigio a lot more than they like the intellectual exercise of a book club.

That, though, is grossly unfair because, as I implied, this is aimed at a market that just isn’t the one I normally write for. My bad, but it would be wrong to criticise it for that. I’m honestly not sure of the authorship either, but I think Etta Vee may be an art system of which I’m ignorant. Think Bob Ross, but for millennials.

So, no, I can’t recommend it if you come here for my more advanced pearls of wisdom. However, it has a certain attraction and it’s just possible it would press enough of your creative buttons for you to think it was worthwhile. Jim Morrison reminded us that people are strange and, in a strange way, I’m coming round to rather liking it.

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Abstract Acrylics || Waltraud Nawratil

If you want to experiment with abstraction, but are unsure where to start, this handy guide offers a series of simple lessons that will get you pointed in the right direction.

The images included have at least one foot firmly entrenched in representation and the technique is mainly one of working with colours, shapes and spaces while keeping the main subject broadly recognisable. Each of the 27 projects occupies only a single spread, so there are no multiple and detailed steps to follow – these are ideas rather than full-on demonstrations and this is a book more about seeing and interpreting than it is about technical details. For all that, Waltraud looks at a good variety of ways of working, including transferred images, spray painting, knife-work and mixed media.

In some cases, the work is medium-specific but, as a lot of it is also about observation and inspiration, there’s plenty here that should appeal even if you don’t work in acrylics.

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Abstract Nature || Waltraud Nawratil

Open this and the first thing that’s going to strike you are the blocks of frankly garish colour behind some of the text. It’s a shame, as they tend to overshadow the illustrations, which are similarly bright. It’s worth mentioning at the outset and you shouldn’t let it put you off what is an excellent and useful guide.

If you’re interested in abstraction but unsure of where and how to get started, this is a very good jumping-off point. Each demonstration occupies only 2 or 4 pages and is very straightforward, with a finished result, an enlarged detail, a materials list and a short series of simple steps. There is guidance in the introductory section on basic techniques and what to look for.

In truth, this isn’t pure abstraction, and every example is easily recognisable. Rather, it’s more an exploration of the limits of representation, and it’s none the worse for that. Abstraction itself is the culmination of a journey of which this is a part and you should be able to take further steps yourself once you’ve mastered the basics.

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Beginner’s Guide to Abstract Art || Laura Reiter

This was originally published as Painting Accessible Abstracts, but has been reissued in paperback.

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Abstracts: Techniques and Textures || Rolina van Vliet

Show me an abstract book and I’ll bang on about how the style is as much about a state of mind as it is about techniques. I’ll also say that the skills you need are mostly the ones you already have. Am I about to contradict myself, then?

Well, no. Paint is paint, brushes are brushes and they all do what they do. However, there is a certain shorthand that can help in the ultimate aim of abstract painting, which is to make your viewer feel the same as you do about what you saw. This means that shapes and colours become pre-eminent, but you can also use textures to emphasise them and draw the viewer into and around the image in a particular way.

The contents list includes terms like Negative Line, Textile Texture and Sketching Using Liquid Paint. Telling you this tells you the facts, but it doesn’t tell you how it all works and you really have to see it to get the idea. The book itself is arranged as a series of studies (being neither demonstrations nor deconstructions) which include several illustrations, notes and a work sequence. I’m not sure you’d necessarily want to follow one through, or that you’re meant to.

If you’re already a fan of abstraction, then this is the next logical step.

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Wabi-Sabi Art Workshop || Serena Barton

OK so, yes, I had to look this up too. Let’s go with Serena’s definition, since that’s how she’s applying it. It comes from two Japanese words and “refers to that which is imperfect, aged, humble and authentic.” It’s “an aesthetic that values the passing of time, the seasoning of time and the elements, the handmade and the simple.” It is also a state of mind which is expressed in haiku poetry. OK, so a bit-new age, a bit mystical and a bit of the Arts & Crafts movement. I think. Maybe the subtitle is more help, “Mixed media techniques for embracing imperfection and celebrating happy accidents”, which I’m not sure is the same thing.

At this point, you may have got the impression that I’m a little irritated by the whole thing. At least, I hope you have!

However, delving into the book, my mind is changed completely. This is a book about abstraction, but about achieving it by finding rather than creating. Oh dear, that’s about as clear as mud, but it turns out that what sounded like a woolly-headed idea is actually completely clear in Serena’s head and she presents it well. There are projects, techniques and ways of working that bring your materials to the fore and allow them to decide how the result will go. And there it is again, that new-agey thing. But the thing is that it’s all so convincingly presented, with neatly-formed chapters and plenty of illustrations. I’d defy you not to buy into the whole ethic. OK, you’re probably not going to start filling your studio with wind chimes and dressing entirely in cheesecloth, but there are some genuinely good ideas here that are worth following up.

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