NARRATIVE ABSTRACTION, WHY?: Our Rich and Infinite Readings

Written by Barbara A. MacAdam

Abstraction is, for some reason, always susceptible to controversy.  Without the obvious handle of a nude figure or an elegant or ugly object to entice the eye, abstraction has to work harder.  But it does have in its arsenal the ability to tell so much more than it shows, challenging literal representation. That’s why it continues to survive the endless death threats hurled against it and holds its own at fairs and curated gatherings. After all, there are many ways to tell a story.

A work of art evolves through the sequencing of elements - time, color, space, and shape.  The work may be intentionally constructed or composed of random effects. Whatever the case, the artist’s choices, constitute a visual record– a narrative progression, in effect - that can result in an implied movement and in the art itself.

Narrative abstraction looks at expression in the broadest sense. It addresses everything from motion to storytelling to music and even mystery in the way forms and colors relate to one another and evolve through implication or suggestion, and in the way viewers interject storylines or action based on their own perceptions.

Josef Albers,  Homage to the Square: With Rays , 1959, oil on Masonite, 48 x 48 inches

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: With Rays, 1959, oil on Masonite, 48 x 48 inches

Joseph Albers observed that there is no one collective perception of color (we all see differently), and colors are realized in different ways through their interaction.  Albers speaks about the spaces between forms (what the viewer completes) and color recollection (the gradual development of an after-image that occurs in the mind’s eye).  The memory of color becomes a singular experience, occurring over time and is unique to individual perception.  Similarly, Ad Reinhardt’s paintings unfold their mystery over time as the viewer waits for dark, apparently homogeneous colors to develop into image.

David Reed, #576, 2007, oil and alkyd on polyester, 36 x 144 inches

David Reed, #576, 2007, oil and alkyd on polyester, 36 x 144 inches

David Reed also speaks subtly to many of these same issues in his use of color progressions and in his development of distinctive and succinct abstract forms.  Reed’s interest in the moving image imbues his work with implied travel and cinematic narrative.  His paintings are carefully planned, his experiments made visible in studio notes and thumbnail sketches.  The work tells the story of the paintings themselves as they are being composed.  The same can be said of painter and poet Marjorie Welish.  Her work is the showing and telling of its own creation – a tale told by the process of the painting itself.

Marjorie Welish,  Before After Oaths Gray 4 , 2013, acrylic on panel (diptych), 20 x 32 inches

Marjorie Welish, Before After Oaths Gray 4, 2013, acrylic on panel (diptych), 20 x 32 inches

Narrative abstraction also conveys emotional tales through the ordering of colors and gestures as happens in Kandinsky’s paintings, where passion and lyricism prevail, as well as in Mel Bochner,’s “Thesaurus” paintings in which colors and words shout open-ended stories.  David Diao, by contrast, uses time sequencing to communicate histories both real and fictional, while Burgoyne Diller addresses motion through color relations and the development of non-objective abstraction, and John McLaughlin devises paintings that evolve through meditating on the repetition of color and symmetry. 

Rosy Keyser,  Lo Jax in Jungeland , 2015, acrylic enamel, spraypaint, oil, linen, string, parasol and mortar on wooden frame, 67 x 82 2/3 x 12 1/4 inches

Rosy Keyser, Lo Jax in Jungeland, 2015, acrylic enamel, spraypaint, oil, linen, string, parasol and mortar on wooden frame, 67 x 82 2/3 x 12 1/4 inches

All of which brings us to an even more literal demonstration of abstract story-telling in the work of contemporary painter-collagist, Rosy Keyser.  Keyser interpolates the rhythms of songs - the blues and honky-tonk - in her painting-constructions that gather materials she accumulates on excursions through the woods, for example.  She conjures folk and fairy tales as we trample through the brush with her.

Thinking in three dimensions, Hans Arp’s works reference the body through the sinuous movements inherent in his sculpture, while Jene Highstein’s draw from organic movements found in nature, calling to mind the Fibonacci spiral series and DNA sequencing.  Sculptor Susan Smith, uses found material with fragmented memories for her constructions that include bits of mirrors, shards of painted wood and plaster, and gruff pieces of concrete, among other industrial elements bringing their own histories to bear on our readings.

These are just a few forms of storytelling and imagining that abstraction has the power to convey, whether through intention or chance, and in so doing engages us in the process of creation.  Given the many variables involved in perception, both physically and mentally, there is no one correct reading or interpretation of an abstract work. In other words, each creation tells a different story and will continue to evolve over time.

Finally, adding to the complexity, is the ever-expanding and confounding digital world with its irregular ability to hold and convey true colors and produce images of exacting resolution, ensuring that, in the end, we can be sure there are no true facts of abstraction - only our rich and infinite readings.