A Very Short Explanation of Modern Art

"What the heck is it with that modern art anyway?"

A friend from the gym where I work out asked me that this morning. All I managed was a "well..." accompanied by a shrug and a wan smile. Later in the day I got to thinking I've been in the trenches as a working painter for four decades and really ought to be able to give a decent answer. Here goes:

We humans are emotional creatures. We use images in our heads to try to navigate our way through our lives. And we make images of the things we see and of what we imagine because doing so seems to make some of us feel better. And others seem to like looking at what we've made. Maybe it makes them feel better too.

As far as painting goes, it really involves two ways of seeing. One is to enjoy the design of the flat surface just like that of a woven Hopi rug. The other is to imagine the painting's surface as a sheet of glass behind which the painter carves out a deeper space. Often this second type is populated by people, hills, skies and the like. All painting has some of these two ways of seeing in it. Right after 1900 Picasso and Braque in France started shining their spotlight on the first aspect, the decorated surface, and toned down the deep space thing. A very big fuss was made of this and soon lots of people hopped on the Cubist bandwagon, including quite a few deep-pocketed collectors.

What's important is that these early modernist painters were returning to the earliest roots of painting where simple repetitive shapes were used to decorate an empty surface. Picasso himself was open about his indebtedness to African and other non-European artists to get him moving in his new direction. Above is an oil painting by the American painter Hans Hoffman from the 1950's that traces its lineage back to Picasso and Braque. Hoffman, a legendarily charismatic personality, was a big deal as a painting teacher in his day. Everyone who was anyone in the abstract painting world a few years ago had to study with Hoffman. He was sort of a one man modernist academy. Personally I've never been a fan of Hoffman's paintings. To me they seem a little harsh and the shapes too predictable.

A major part of the meaning of both Hoffman and before him Picasso and Braque was that they scandalized much of the public when they first appeared. These artists and the collectors willing to pay money for their work loved shocking people. I think those of us who came down the pipeline a generation or two later have trouble realizing how outrageous abstract painting looked. By now it has been around so long it can seem cozy and even a little quaint. Not then.

As some painters moved away from the exacting demands of creating convincing realistic images, which is very hard to do, all sorts of people who would never before have considered working as an artist took a second look at the profession. The ability to shock people with either upsetting or even ridiculous imagery and methods began to gain traction in some quarters as an important talent. Of course it was presented in more sober terms like "employing new channels of dialogue" but what was meant was trying to shake people up, and in some cases, freak people out.

Fast forward: Damien Hirst is currently the most expensive contemporary artist. He got his big ticket with his series of dead animals suspended in huge tanks of preservative. Many of them are cut in half, exposing their skin or fur on one side and their innards on the other. They are big, troubling objects, that always leave me feeling sorry for the animals involved in making the sculpture. No doubt many viewers have had their mortality fears stoked by his work. I know I have. Picasso, himself a master of publicity, I imagine is looking down from artists' heaven and calling down "Great showmanship, dude! "

Is Hirst's Shark great art? For me the answer is no, it relies too heavily on theatricality. I do think there is a place for such work in the art world though the one I'd assign it would be smaller. Sooner or later the fuss made over its profundity will subside. In time it too may come to seem quaint and dated, like all previous attempts to bulldoze the sensibilities of the art viewer.

Hirst isn't all bad. There is a strain of genuine melancholy to his work that invites all of us to reflect on the brief time we are alive before we too must pass from the stage. It's just that I can't imagine having a giant tank with a dissected fish in it next to the table where I eat breakfast.

I don't think the job of art is just to be pretty or happy, though sometimes it is so. Some of the most moving paintings suggest the passage of time and hint at things ending. The Rembrandt landscape below is such a painting. As the last rays of the sun slip off the top blade of a windmill a figure bends over to fish in the reflective waters of a river. Soon it will be dark. Somehow Rembrandt paints the forms and colors so well as to make me wonder what sort of a day it has been for the fisherman. It is a scene so delicately and yet forcefully painted that I psychologically fall into its world. It both simulates me and calms me. Really a remarkable painting. I don't think everyone should run out and try to paint in the same manner. But it is a picture I'm happy to live with at my dinning room table.


  1. I love modernism. Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky etc. Peoples feelings, perceptions and subconscious break free and are expressed onto canvas. Doodles are good too. The brain dis-engages for a while and true feelings of the moment are expressed onto paper; frustration or anger expressed as sharp, angular lines, love and contentment as soft, rounded curves. I liked your description of Rembrant's painting. I have a painting hanging on my wall which draws me into its world too. I can feel and smell the warm dry air rising up in between the lofty columns and buildings. The scale of the people compared to the surroundings seem to suggest that we, as humans, are not the greatest thing but there is something larger in our existance than us. I feel well blessed to have such a painting to appreciate. Glad to read your article.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You write a good description of how that painting you have hanging on your wall makes you feel. And certainly we've all done or seen doodles that are amazingly expressive. I think letting conscious control go, at least from time to time, is essential to an awful lot of art making. I'm always surprised by the best moves that end up in my own paintings as I often have no idea of how they got there.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Candid Shot In My Studio Even Before My Morning Coffee

Charles Burchfield Exhibition at Montclair Art Museum

23 Years Later: Allen Memorial Art Museum