Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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