There was a time, about 50 years ago, when abstraction was regarded by many as the consummation of the art of painting. According to this narrative — satirised a decade later by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975) — modern art had been tending towards flat surfaces of colour for a century or so before reaching the point of postwar gestural abstraction and then ultimately the pure flatness of post-painterly abstraction or colour-field painting.
Almost immediately after the enthusiastic declaration of victory by the supporters of the movement, the whole project stalled in the turmoil of competing avant-gardes of the 1970s, from conceptual and minimalist forms of expression to political agitation and feminism, all different and yet mostly agreeing that painting itself was obsolete. But painting, as it turned out, was neither dead nor had it reached the culmination of its historical destiny with abstraction.
From today’s perspective, we can see abstraction as a historical style, arising within particular circumstances and manifesting itself in several phases in the past century. In its original incarnation, it was one of the many new movements that arose in the most dynamic decade of modernism, the years immediately preceding World War I, which gave birth to cubism, futurism and expressionism as well as abstraction.
All of these forms were responses to a changing world in which human beings seemed increasingly overshadowed by the power of machines and lost in the faceless crowd of mass society. Analytical cubism was the most intellectual, in effect deconstructing the rationalist premises of the scientific revolution, first laid in the Renaissance discovery of perspective and the construction of a coherent model of space.
Futurism was the most obtuse in its celebration of technology, industry and war, but it was still driven by an urge to transcend the banality of modern urban life. Expressionism represented an anguished rejection of the industrial and urban world and sought renewal in primitivism. And abstraction looked for spiritual transcendence through the quasi-mystical doctrines of theosophy, whose origins lay in the late 19thcentury spiritual revival.
Kandinsky and later Mondrian were inspired by theosophical doctrines of a deeper spiritual reality behind and beyond the world of appearance, although one sought to express his insight through emotion and the other through reason. After World War II, when the US assumed a leading role in modern art, gestural abstraction again arose first with the generation of American “action painters” and was again followed by the non-gestural form of hard-edge abstraction.
With historical distance, the American painters of these decades, who were actively promoted as the quintessentially individualistic art of the free world, have now shrunk to the scale of a regional movement. If Jackson Pollock remains the most convincing of them, it is perhaps because he had somewhat different roots. His mature style of drip-painting represents the most complete expression of the surrealist idea of automatic painting, which never John Olsen: The You Beaut Country National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until February 12. Then Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, from March 10 to June 12. got much beyond the level of an exercise in the heyday of the surrealist movement.
When we consider the work of John Olsen, generally thought of as the most important Australian abstract painter and the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, we may wonder where he fits into this narrative. His immediate influences range from Spain’s Antoni Tapies to France’s Jean Dubuffet, and he has little obviously in common with American abstract expressionism, and still less with hard-edge abstraction.
There is indeed not much evidence in his Seafood paella on Basho’s frog ( The bicycle boys rejoice Improvisation
(2007), top; 1995), above; drawing for (1954-55), top right