Recently I’ve adopted a new hypothesis about my own art, such as it is—my writing. For me, language feels like a vast interconnected web of meaning. Each word is a node with many roots and branches. When I see the word “fort,” I think of a military base, but in my mind the words “fortitude” and “forbearance” cluster nearby. Not much further along the web, the French connotations of strength and loudness echo. These associations come from my experience with language; I imagine some are legitimately etymological, but many aren’t. I often choose my words specifically for their significance in my web of meaning, and I am never exactly sure how much my web overlaps with anyone else’s. My hypothesis is: perhaps when I am attached to my words, even though they are not as clear to others as they should be, I’m searching for a reader whose web of meaning and perhaps experience overlaps my own.
Perhaps this is why I am drawn to abstract impressionism and automatism. Alongside our verbal language, maybe the world we live in presents each of us with a visual vocabulary; perhaps we each have a web of meaning where we remember how blue is peaceful and diagonals signify mid-motion. Abstract paintings play with visual language closer to the center of the web than most other images in art. I have seen “green” and “round” many more times than I’ve seen “vegetable garden” or “face of a pale woman with dark hair.” As such, these simpler visual components are both more resonant and less precise. It is as if the painter is searching for a viewer whose web of meaning overlaps his own, but rather than satisfying himself with the people for whom “face of a pale woman with dark hair” means quite the same thing as it does to him*, he reaches for a more primal vocabulary.
I found Robert Motherwell’s Study On Automatism beautiful and interesting. It is not large, and the pale green of the gallery walls set off its blue and ocher beautifully. The composition features a strong diagonal from the bottom-left to the top-right of canvas. One of the most striking elements is the high contrast between the portions of the canvas covered in lighter colors and those covered in black. To me the abstract shapes suggest old, geometrically torn paper against a black background, but there’s ambiguity about what is foreground and what is background, and about whether background and foreground are present at all. Like the classic image that can be seen as a young woman or as an old one, we may see ochre over black, or we may see black blocking off ochre—or we may see neither. On top of this ambiguity, there’s a terrific sense of depth. The black is clear and calm, and the shading of the ocher grants the image a sense of nuance; if this is paper, it has been crumpled a bit, and if it is against the black, we may be looking into a bottomless void. The deep warmth of the ocher is balanced by the black, and by the coolness of the gray-blue that looks to be smeared around the lower left corner of the canvas.
Black scribbles across the lighter portions of the canvas, which are mostly shades of golden ocher, are reminiscent of a child’s drawings or first attempts to write. There is a delightful contrast between the playfulness of those scribbles and the obvious adult competence other aspects of the painting demonstrate. As a whole the lines are too straight, the colors too pure, for this to have come from the hand of a child—and yet, certain elements of the painting seem to have been created with such freedom and carelessness that they might as well have been. The gray-blue and white paint in the lower left quadrant once more mimic a child’s work, applied in simple strokes up and down with little precision and little depth that doesn’t come from the context. Additionally, there are places where the black and ochre paint smear into one another and the “paper” edges fade into the black, breaking the strong lines and strong color distinctions that are so striking on first look.
I don’t know much about aesthetic theory, but I guess that balance, contrast, and strong associations—perhaps even in common with the artist—are what make this painting so pleasurable for me to experience.