Ok. I have to admit I have never been a real fan of abstract art, but honestly this exhibition could not have come at a better time. The feeling of current life’s impact on today’s society, connected to the era of 50s and 60s of the presented painters – the hard expressiveness in all kinds of ways – I do have a feeling a lot of us now feel just like these paintings look like.
The exhibition ‘Ways of Freedom – Jackson Pollock to Maria Lassnig‘ in Albertina Modern in Vienna, Austria, really really spoke to me. Therefore, in this ‘essay’, I will not go into much of the background of the abstract art presented, but mainly spill my own feelings and emotions onto the paper (or screen?). Would love to know your feelings about abstract art and how it speaks to you. And also, if maybe how you look at it changed in the recent years, as it did for me?
After the horrors of the war, abstraction became the universal language, representing the individual painter’s expressive articulation. It was a new visual concept established in US and Europe simultaneously, expressing individual freedom and exploring fundamental issues of human existence through colour, form and material. The exhibition brings together over 30 artists who shaped abstract painting movement and presents their views.
The paintings with mainly no central composition, with things and lines and colours painted all over, with no real focal point. Triggering anxiety and at the same time putting you in a meditative state. Does that not represent the feeling of what is going on in today’s world, or is that just me?
As we know, in every big moment in history, the art movement changed to reflect the times, and I have been asking myself a lot recently into what the art is going to evolve now, corresponding to the harsh times we live in. We have seen a sneak peak at the Venice Biennale and Documenta this year what the recent art has been dealing with and questioning today’s society and the norms, however, I feel this abstract expressionism is going to come into the foreground again.
The fusion that screams anxiety, the fullness and the emptiness of the canvas at the same time, the colours, the angst is what I feel looking at the presented paintings and realizing more and more that is exactly how I have been feeling this whole last year (or maybe even a bit longer). Standing in front of this art, mesmerized, hypnotized, literally getting sucked in and at the same time trying to hold your own emotions together, trying not to enter the paintings and become one with it. It kind of scared me how much depth I saw in presented abstract art, abstract expressionism, art informel, action painting, drip painting and automatism. From now on I know I will look at this kind of art with completely different eyes and much more respect than I used to give to it (please, don’t get me wrong, I have always respected it, but now, I have finally gotten it!).
All these previously mentioned art movements exhibited, together with artists using unconventional tools and new techniques, correspond to contemporary times, experimenting with things and not knowing how or where it is going to go. Yes, they really were answering what was happening in their own times, but I find it fascinating how futuristic and foretelling they have actually been, unknowingly painting the future as well.
The paintings have so many layers of colour and geometric object, you can peel them like an onion, just like you can do with your own consciousness to get to your subconscious. Standing there really made me realize how much more they mean than I ever thought possible – they are literally looking into your soul and peeling the layers off of you. Am I getting too philosophical? Well, the paintings made me do it!
I really connected to the caption on the wall that said that the Viennese avant-garde considered abstract art as part of religious revelation and truth (said by a then gallery founder Monsignor Otto Mauer). It really made me think. I don’t want to go into religion here, but this quote kind of does perfectly describe that experience of what I saw and what I felt. What is the truth, how do you interpret it yourself, in what way, what is represented, what can you believe in, what can you not believe, what you see, what you don’t see. The actualy abstraction of the ideas, religion as art, art as religion. Isn’t religion kind of an abstract idea, an introspective experience of an individual, just like art?
As (also presented) painter Helen Frankenthaler said: ‘The painter makes something magical, spatial and alive on a surface that is flat and with materials that are inert. That magic is what makes paintings unique and necessary.’ For me, this is like describing what life is, what living is. The more I look at these paintings, the more I am drawn to them, the more I understand the subject presented is not important, you just have to open yourself and feel. Like religion? *wink wink* I promise I will stop drawing parallels… The aura around the paintings made me do it, I swear! I guess there really was something magical in the gallery that day…
But as Barnett Newman (also presented Colour Field Painter) put it: ‘The paintings are meant to reflect a universal aesthetic experience and enable the viewer to have an experience of transcendence.’ Well, do you get me now??
And Mark Rothko pointed out (also present, of course!) his paintings are spectacles without certain endings through the realms of colour that release emotions. I mean, come on! Seeing it in person in a very clean and quiet environment, I can not do anything else but totally agree with him. Maybe, just maybe, seeing Rothko in a gallery full of people would not hit me as much – well, I have seen Rothko before in a gallery full of people and it certainly did not speak to me in that way… Talking about the mindset, connected to the environment… But here, it was a complete immersion for me, I was sucked into the paintings and I could stand there for hours, just contemplating my own thoughts.
It was interesting for me that the majority of exhibited artworks were very monumental in size, which shows the artists chose the size for a reason: they wanted to be themselves immersed by it, to step into it, as well as for the audience to literally become a part of it, to experience it fully, which is harder to do with smaller artworks. It also corresponds to the times they were made in, a response to the world. As well as them all having pretty big studios or spaces to work in, especially many of them working directly on the floor, which automatically gives the artworks a deeper and added meaning in their expressiveness.
Some artists were literally pouring the colour on the canvas on the floor, creating different sequences, primarily uncoordinated (or actually coordinated), giving the paintings various interpretations, even from the artist’s perspective. Because even they did not know what is going to happen or come out of their artistic (and emotional!) expression. It is kind of a staining process of the canvas, where it is definitely much more put to chance than with painting by hand. In which ones do you think you can feel more of their emotions at the time of creation? Let’s leave this question opened…
The paintings presented emanate explosion and chaos, but at the same time one can sense meditative calmness, sucking you in. I felt it was kind of a performative experience just looking at the paintings and it opened me up for new personal interpretaions and questioning of the movement.
I enjoyed so many different artists of the movement represented at the exhibition, because they all did support each other – through collaborations and personal relationships, to belonging to the same school, traveling and migrating to each other from US to Europe and vice versa. This going back and forth between each other and their inspirations are really seen and it was important for them to be exhibited together to present a front of the movement and a story of what was going on. It makes it even more real and gives it a purpose. As well as the exhibited female artists, who were a huge part of the movement, actually making the aesthetic of the abstract paintings seen in front of me, and at the same time showing the female empowerement in the art world and the monumental role they played at that time.
I found it amusing when my dad came to me and said this is the best exhibition he has ever seen and I saw my brother when I was still in the first room and him being already in the room number 12. This really emphasized my feeling of how important mindset is when you look at abstract art – the paintings have various ways of affecting you.
The exhibition nicely walks you through the feeling of how art informel and abstract expressionism feel like from European and US perspective, male and female perspective, sending you off on a journey, an adventure of feeling your own emotions.
And to finish my rumblings – abstract expressionism really is showing the ways of freedom. Not just for the painters and what they were corresponding to with these new styles, but also to yourself. Looking at the paintings you can go very deep into yourself and literally free yourself fully, from everything. Empty yourself and just be. Finally free.