The main char­ac­ter of ab­stract art

Mod­ern non-fig­u­ra­tive Ukrainian paint­ing is well-known abroad, but un­der­rated at home

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Diana Klochko

Mod­ern non-fig­u­ra­tive Ukrainian paint­ing is well-known abroad, but un­der­rated at home

No twen­ti­eth-cen­tury gen­res of paint­ing, in­clud­ing sur­re­al­ism and pop art, are sur­rounded by as many prej­u­dices as ab­stract act. As a lec­turer, I am very fa­mil­iar with the para­dox: few peo­ple come to hear about in­di­vid­ual ab­strac­tion­ists or its dif­fer­ent move­ments, but they are the most open to di­a­logue, ques­tions and ex­press­ing their own in­ter­pre­ta­tions of works. In ev­ery­day life, I of­ten hear the phrases that "any­one", "a child" or "I" could do the same thing.

What ob­sta­cles stop Ukraini­ans from ac­cept­ing the vis­ual lan­guage of one of the most im­por­tant styles in mod­ernism? Why is there still such a great dis­trust of ab­stract art, no mat­ter how much you talk about the Ukrainian, in par­tic­u­lar or­na­men­tal, roots of the ex­per­i­ments by Kaz­imir Male­vich, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexan­der Archipenko, So­nia De­lau­nay and Va­syl Yermylov? Why is it so hard for the mass au­di­ence as con­sumers of vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ences at mod­ern gallery ex­po­si­tions to ap­pre­ci­ate non-fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing?

These ques­tions are not rhetor­i­cal. Firstly, be­cause ab­strac­tion is part of the cut-off, i.e. phys­i­cally de­stroyed, mod­ernist tra­di­tion of the Ukrainian avant-garde, and se­condly be­cause the cur­rent artis­tic process in Ukraine is also re­lated to un­der­stand­ing the tra­di­tions of non-fig­u­ra­tive im­agery.


Even if the names of Yves Klein, Piero Man­zoni, En­rico Castel­lani and Lu­cio Fon­tana are known by Ukrainian con­nois­seurs of 20th-cen­tury Euro­pean post-war art, they are still much less fa­mil­iar than the term "ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism". Thanks to this move­ment, a full-fledged Amer­i­can art mar­ket arose in the 1950s and New York snagged the ti­tle of "art cen­tre" from Paris. Ac­cord­ingly, al­most all in­no­va­tions that emerged in Europe were viewed with less in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly by the me­dia. This was due to the fact that mono­chrome paint­ing turned out to much more im­por­tant for the de­vel­op­ment of dif­fer­ent move­ments in Euro­pean cul­ture: it in­flu­enced both 1960s min­i­mal­ism and the high-tech aes­thet­ics of ar­chi­tec­tural and de­sign in the 1980s.

In those years, Ukrainian art — even in the con­text of coun­ter­cul­ture — did not work with ab­strac­tion in gen­eral and mono­chrome in par­tic­u­lar. Fig­u­ra­tive art and paint­ing re­mained vir­tu­ally the only genre in Ukrainian artis­tic ed­u­ca­tion and at var­i­ous lev­els of the art scene. Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and later as the Paint­ing Re­serve as­so­ci­a­tion) did artists emerge in Kyiv who ini­ti­ated a move­ment to­wards see­ing the tasks of oil paint­ing as in­ten­si­fy­ing colour and dis­tin­guish­ing its spe­cial role in trans­form­ing the spa­tial el­e­ments of a work.

Each par­tic­i­pant chose their own orig­i­nal strat­egy and the most rad­i­cal in the con­text of monochromes was Tiberiy Sil­vashi. As he would later re­call, in the late 1970s he had cer­tain vi­sions of a "blue space", al­though they rather re­mained an ex­per­i­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence of un­fin­ished work with can­vas. Some­thing like a large shadow of Yves Klein's "in­ter­na­tional blue", which for some rea­son al­most mys­ti­cally (as there was no in­for­ma­tion about his per­for­mances and ex­per­i­men­tal can­vases in the Ukrainian me­dia of that time and his works them­selves re­mained in­ac­ces­si­ble, even as poor qual­ity re­pro­duc­tions) ap­peared in the shad­ows of Ukrainian land­scapes.

Since the late 1990s, it has been clear that Sil­vashi is cre­at­ing a na­tional ver­sion of that fa­mous ul­tra­ma­rine, but not as a replica with re­flec­tions of fe­male bod­ies or at­tached sponges, nor as an al­lu­sion to the blue colour of the na­tional flag. Sil­vashi felt a med­i­ta­tive ori­en­tal el­e­ment in Klein's prac­tices (the French artist lived for some time in Tokyo and prac­ticed mar­tial arts), which led him to the un­der­stand­ing of "our mono­chrome", which ap­pears not so much in a cer­tain space as in time. Not the sat­u­rated blue back­ground of Giotto, but the change­able pur­ple of Kyiv fres­coes whose power grad­u­ally be­comes ev­i­dent in the

morn­ing light. The blue back­ground of the fres­coes at Saint Sophia's Cathe­dral was de­stroyed by bar­baric "restora­tion" in the nine­teenth cen­tury, and now it is only pos­si­ble to sym­bol­i­cally re­store their ap­prox­i­mate shade from tiny pre­served pieces and frag­ments.

The painter for­mu­lated his cre­ative task for years be­fore ar­riv­ing at the for­mula "the rit­ual of cul­ti­vat­ing paint­ing". He said in an in­ter­view that there are can­vases in his stu­dio that have sev­eral dates on them, be­cause he has been work­ing on them for years. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­di­vid­ual tex­tures and shades of colour in Sil­vashi's work comes to­gether as sep­a­rate projects that some­times have a spa­tial char­ac­ter, i.e. his art­works fit into a cer­tain gallery set­ting as part of an ex­po­si­tion. The char­ac­ter­is­tics of the light­ing, con­tours/fram­ing by the walls, the size and out­lines all be­come an el­e­ment of the way ob­jects are em­bed­ded into a cer­tain space al­most as if by a de­signer — it sug­gests that view­ers re­flect on what in­flu­ences what, trans­form­ing the fa­mil­iar into the new. Some­times this vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­cerned a part of the gi­gan­tic space of the Mys­tet­skyi Arse­nal in Kyiv, other times a mas­sive in­va­sion at the Bot­tega Gallery and Ya Gallery, or small-scale ap­pear­ances, for ex­am­ple, at the Mikhail Bul­gakov Mu­seum

The tac­tic cho­sen by Sil­vashi has led to him be­com­ing an in­for­mal clas­sic of con­tem­po­rary paint­ing, whose projects are per­ceived as a unique school for colouris­tic ed­u­ca­tion. Rig­or­ously and slowly cul­ti­vat­ing his paint­ing, he cre­ated the con­ti­nu­ity of his own in­tel­lec­tual bi­og­ra­phy (par­tic­u­larly in an in­ter­na­tional con­text) and de­vel­oped the eye of his au­di­ence.

His re­la­tion­ship with time is a con­scious with­drawal from rel­e­vance and from lit­er­ary, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­ac­tions in or­der to find colour and tex­ture, which turned out to be more im­por­tant than what is tran­sient. Sil­vashi's work hangs over the de­bate about whether art as a pic­ture has died and is liv­ing on in this way with a con­ti­nu­ity of cre­ation and con­tem­pla­tion of the graphic sur­face. Dis­tanc­ing him­self from telling sto­ries about a char­ac­ter or ob­ject, Sil­vashi finds the re­al­ity of a colouris­tic state­ment that each viewer can feel in an as­so­cia­tive and hands-on way. In­stead of telling sto­ries, the artist gives the viewer the op­por­tu­nity to spend some time along­side the pul­sa­tion of peace and sat­u­ra­tion of emo­tions to ver­ify their sense of shades and pro­por­tions with­out haste.


Sil­vashi has be­come a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual who thinks with colour. Graphic de­signer Ihor Yanovych chose an­other path.

In the Euro­pean tra­di­tion, graphic ab­strac­tions tended to­wards ra­tio­nal ge­om­e­try. Hilma af Klint, Fran­tišek Kupka, Theo van Does­burg and Pete Mon­drian all ar­gued in dif­fer­ent ways that dy­namism should man­i­fest it­self in com­po­si­tions with ge­ometrised im­ages and the dom­i­na­tion of dark/black ver­ti­cals or di­ag­o­nals. Like Kaz­imir Male­vich and Wass­ily Kandin­sky, who worked with geo­met­ric fig­ures as an idea of con­struct­ing an ex­tremely ur­banised world.

Ihor Yanovych is a ce­ramist by train­ing and had ex­pe­ri­ence in cre­at­ing mon­u­men­tal mu­rals when he de­cided to move away from fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing in the late 1980s in or­der to look for a new type of im­agery. Grad­u­ally, his artis­tic ab­strac­tions dis­tin­guished work with black as a colour, which makes it pos­si­ble to show the or­ganic drama of ex­tinc­tion and the en­ergy of cre­ation at the same time. His fa­mil­iar­ity with graphic tech­niques and the op­por­tu­nity to view works by artists such as An­toni Tàpies and Fran­cis Ba­con in Euro­pean mu­se­ums and gal­leries as­sured him that mon­u­men­tal­ism in graphic art is also pos­si­ble with­out the sup­port of ge­om­e­try. Ir­ra­tional­ity, spon­tane­ity, the search for orig­i­nal tech­niques and non-stan­dard ma­te­ri­als, the ex­plo­sive­ness of his stains and lines, cyclic­ity and se­ri­al­ity (in­clud­ing the use of num­ber­ing) are all fea­tures of the artist's style that grad­u­ally made him one of the most au­thor­i­ta­tive graphic artists in Ukraine who seeks both ex­pres­sion and har­mony at the same time.

Is there any­thing here from the arabesques of ori­en­tal cal­lig­ra­phy or Pol­lock's drip­ping? In his projects, it is not the com­po­si­tion it­self that mat­ters, but the cul­tural con­text — the com­bi­na­tion or col­li­sion of graphic works with the ar­chi­tec­tural or sculp­tural en­vi­ron­ment in the form of spe­cific arte­facts or pho­tos. The power of jux­ta­po­si­tion causes the viewer to have nu­mer­ous as­so­ci­a­tions, of­ten called mu­si­cal or jazzy, be­cause the end­less, capri­cious brush move­ments

and colours that al­ways leave a dif­fer­ent trace and an un­usual tra­jec­tory on the pa­per or can­vas bring forth im­ages of "vari­a­tions on a given topic." With max­i­mum ac­cel­er­a­tion of the rhyth­mic beats, which even gives the dy­nam­ics of colouris­ti­cally re­strained can­vases/sheets a gal­lop­ing feel. The work with brushes of dif­fer­ent sizes, trick­les of paint, sprays and tex­tures wards off any sim­i­lar­ity with real ob­jects. Con­se­quently, the artist ceases to be a vis­ual ma­nip­u­la­tor: they cre­ate a space in which the viewer can feel the "oceanic emo­tion", but can also opt for dis­tant ob­ser­va­tion of the tonal de­ci­sions.

Thus in Yanovych's works, the no­tion of "black" — ex­tremely im­por­tant for the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the to­tal­i­tar­ian 20th cen­tury — be­comes a mov­ing sub­stance of an­other so­ci­ety that since Um­berto Eco has been called "liq­uid".


Not all the artists who prac­tice non-fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing make it their main artis­tic method. Last year, Petro Bevza im­pressed the pub­lic with his project In­nyi, which for the first time showed a col­lec­tion of paint­ings with­out any ge­o­graph­i­cal, bi­o­graph­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal or an­thro­po­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive. Through­out his ca­reer, the painter (he has also been in­volved in land art, per­for­mances and ar­chi­tec­ture) al­ways paid spe­cial at­ten­tion to the com­bi­na­tion of space and colour through light. This is one of the most dif­fi­cult prob­lems for painters, which since the nine­teenth cen­tury (ba­si­cally due to the emer­gence of pho­tog­ra­phy) has been solved rad­i­cally by the meth­ods of plein air and tonal con­trast or ig­nored. Ab­strac­tion­ists fol­lowed the lat­ter strat­egy: mod­ernism em­pha­sised that op­ti­cal il­lu­sions are less im­por­tant than struc­tural in­no­va­tions.

In Ukrainian tra­di­tion, the light­bear­ing na­ture of colour has a cer­tain sym­bolic and his­tor­i­cal mean­ing, namely the shim­mer­ing glow of a sur­face above a mo­saic smalt. How­ever, in most cases moder­nity per­ceives light not through what is nat­u­ral (the smalt pig­ment has an or­ganic ba­sis), but as an ar­ti­fi­cial il­lu­mi­na­tion of the ob­ject. Elec­tric light changes our per­cep­tion of space and of a sur­face as such — this para­dox of the new lu­mi­nes­cence is what the artist is try­ing to record. In an in­ter­view, he con­fessed, "...New chal­lenges — pri­mar­ily for colour, be­cause light, like form, cre­ates the mes­sage of colour". In or­der to bring con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges rel­e­vance, Bevza used the lex­i­con of ab­stract artists, but with­out their ori­en­ta­tion to­wards ge­om­e­try. In Petro Bevza's work, the plas­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics of a stain, so im­por­tant for João Miro or He­len Franken­thaler, be­come a dy­namic com­po­si­tion of frag­ments that af­fect each other, not con­trast­ing, but en­hanc­ing the ef­fect of the light beam. The com­bi­na­tions can be so sharp that they bor­der on op­ti­cal dis­com­fort, al­though it is not de­struc­tive.

A mod­ern per­son re­quires stronger vis­ual stim­uli than 100 or even 50 years ago. The eye is evolv­ing and the screens that ac­com­pany our lives change both the ex­pe­ri­ence of colour and light it­self. The flame of a can­dle or hearth can in­spire us to watch for hours, but our re­turn to in­for­ma­tion on a smart­phone or tablet oc­curs through a sig­nal of anx­i­ety, al­beit a mi­cro one. Bevza's project records this stage of com­bin­ing the dif­fer­ent na­tures of light on one plane (ex­is­ten­tial, sen­sual).

Even if the ba­sis for in­di­vid­ual com­po­si­tions was the macro level of ex­am­in­ing the veins of flower petals or footage of a cer­tain coast­line taken from a drone, when the im­pres­sions gained from them are trans­ferred onto a plane, the mys­tery of the com­bi­na­tion of het­ero­ge­neous stains in­creases the in­ten­sity of the spec­ta­tor's con­tem­pla­tion.

In the nine­teenth cen­tury, it was im­pos­si­ble to ad­mire iso­lated frag­ments of stains on a ru­ined wall. In the twen­ty­first cen­tury, this is a ha­bit­ual ex­pe­ri­ence for a trav­eller that will snap an al­bum of their in­di­vid­ual route on a smart­phone. The op­tics of var­i­ous "stains", not united by a clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion, are be­com­ing an ev­ery­day thing.

Petro Bevza's non-fig­u­ra­tive project demon­strates how such a new op-

tical prac­tice can turn into a new artis­tic aes­thetic.


Peo­ple of­ten dis­agree: these in­ter­pre­ta­tions are just your imag­i­na­tion — the artists did not put these mean­ings in their works. I re­ply that mod­ernism ar­gued that in any work there is no sin­gle cor­rect mean­ing, and the more mean­ings a work gen­er­ates, the greater its sym­bolic, so­cial and, fi­nally, fi­nan­cial value.

Ab­stract art has ac­cus­tomed its view­ers to the fact that cat­e­gories of think­ing can be trans­mit­ted by means of vis­ual art, and this is pre­cisely what grad­u­ally changes the at­ti­tude of peo­ple to­wards the en­vi­ron­ment, their sur­round­ings and ev­ery­day life.

In ad­di­tion, it is pos­si­ble to com­mu­ni­cate freely with our ab­stract art con­tem­po­raries. All three artists I have writ­ten about are pub­lic fig­ures: they will­ingly give in­ter­views, write texts, pub­lish books and are open to con­ver­sa­tion and new in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Af­ter all, the main char­ac­ter of ab­stract art that is not de­picted is not even the cre­ator, but the viewer. It would be a sin not to take ad­van­tage of that.

It is an­other is­sue that Ukraini­ans have not been lucky enough to study this cat­e­goric lex­i­con as it was filled. Even now, Ukrainian art schools of­fer­ing world art cour­ses try not to broach this topic and there is still no solid re­search on our com­pa­triot ab­strac­tion­ists of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury. I hope that at least this will change. For to­day, ab­stract art works are quite ac­ces­si­ble: they can be found not only in pri­vate col­lec­tions, but also in the largest mu­se­ums of con­tem­po­rary art. Even art mu­se­ums in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Odesa are bring­ing them back for per­ma­nent ex­po­si­tions.

An­nounce­ments and press re­leases from gal­leries not only in the cap­i­tal tell us about their new projects, or­gan­ise pub­lic talk events, in­vite lec­tur­ers/in­ter­preters to speak, and pub­lish cat­a­logues or books. How­ever, in ten years' time Ukraini­ans will not be able to see most of the works from these projects: they will be bought and taken away to dif­fer­ent cities in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Ukrainian ab­strac­tion­ists are much bet­ter known and ap­pre­ci­ated abroad. Each of the afore­men­tioned artists has a bunch of for­eign projects in pres­ti­gious art in­sti­tu­tions un­der their belt. Ta­lented artists are closely fol­lowed abroad. Their works are pur­chased both for mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions. Af­ter all, pur­chases for the nu­mer­ous mu­se­ums — pri­vate and state-owned — are the norm and not a happy event like in Ukraine, where we have how many mu­se­ums of con­tem­po­rary art? "Too many to count on one hand", as they say.

It could well be the case that our grand­chil­dren will only be able to see the works of Sil­vashi, Yanovych and Bevza in rare cat­a­logues or at MoMA. As in Ukraine no one went to the trou­ble of pre­serv­ing things for our de­scen­dants in time. This genre, among the top styles of mod­ernism, re­quires thought­ful­ness, not su­per­fi­cial emo­tion­al­ity, de­cent in­vest­ments, and not awk­ward pat­ter. Af­ter all, the main char­ac­ter of ab­stract art that is not di­rectly de­picted is less the cre­ator than the shrewd and en­light­ened viewer whose opin­ion is uber-im­por­tant for the au­thors. It seems there is a risk we could lose that. To­gether with the works of ab­strac­tion­ists that re­main far be­yond the hori­zon of our bor­ders.

Since the late 1990s, it has been clear that Tiberiy Sil­vashi is cre­at­ing a na­tional ver­sion of ul­tra­ma­rine – some­thing like a great shadow of the Yves Klein's "in­ter­na­tional blue"

Ukrainian pur­ple.

A search for new im­agery. Grad­u­ally, Ihor Yanovych's artis­tic ab­strac­tions dis­tin­guished work with black as a colour, which makes it pos­si­ble to show the or­ganic drama of ex­tinc­tion and the en­ergy of cre­ation at the same time

The most im­por­tant el­e­ment. In Petro Bevza's work, the plas­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics of a stain be­come a dy­namic com­po­si­tion of frag­ments that af­fect each other, not con­trast­ing, but en­hanc­ing the ef­fect of the light beam

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