ESSAYS, MCA

Essays by Artist Kerrie Warren, MCA

VCA Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne 2015 – 2016.

Questioning the philosophy behind her own work and Contemporary Art Practice with strong links to Abstract Expressionism

Action Painting, Ceramics, Sculpture and Installation Art

Notes to Self and Two Other People

An essay by Kerrie Warren 2016, Master of Contemporary Art

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Synopsis

Notes to self and two other people is an essay based on the thoughts and questions brought about by an academic opportunity to step away from the studio and critically analyse my current work.  From this new perspective I gain a valuable insight into my practice overall and have developed a deeper understanding of the enquiry this form of questioning has initiated. hrough intuitively based artworks that include paintings, wheel thrown ceramics and readymade items, I strive to evoke a sense of pause within a visually perceived momentum in order to explore life’s delicate balance, its vulnerable fragility and sublime impermanence.  By bringing a variety of elements together, both made by my own hand and readymade, I aim to link and intertwine various systems of existence into poetic assemblages and installations that act as one exuberant and cohesive form of expression.  This paper loosely discusses the materials used and suggests that they might already be activated with life prior to artistic consideration.  It examines peer response to the presentation of recent experiments, and here I have made reference to Professor Arthur P. Shimamura who investigates the aesthetic response to art.  Influential works by artists and writers; Zbigniew Herbert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rosalie Gascoigne, Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei have also been referenced.  My intention in this paper is not to refer to their artworks as any comparison to my own, but through their work gain a better understanding of what it is that I am striving to achieve.  I trust that by following intuition I have tapped into my own sense of truth, in essence an essay written from the heart to get to the heart of what I do.

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Introduction

How do I write about my work as a visual artist and where should I begin?  I had just asked myself this question when one of my lecturers presented a photocopied page from the book Still Life With A Bridle and proceeded to read aloud the first paragraph on page eighteen under the heading of “The Price of Art” – an essay written by the author Zbigniew Herbert.[1]  Doctor Edward Colless repeated the first two sentences three times at a very slow and deliberate pace.  In the quiet of the room, the measured words fell into a rhythm and childhood memories were instantly evoked.  I remembered listening to my parents read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 1797 – 1798 written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)[2], a poem that I have read myself many times since.  I still have my mother’s precious little book which houses this melodious poem, The Poets’ Way Stage 11(2), a form 2 reader that had been handed down from her older sister.  The dark blue cover is a little dishevelled now and the spine is beginning to fall apart.  It has been carefully elevated to a higher shelf for its own protection.  Dr Colless repeated the first sentence once again before proceeding, I realised in that moment that Herbert’s words too had affected me.  A sense of rhythm and momentum had been achieved in their compelling composition – my soul had been aroused.  Years ago as a young child I had become aware that my feelings could be evoked through the lyrical assemblage of words, enchanted by simply sighting their rhythmic structure on a page.

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“All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

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“Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.[3]

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Words assembled and composed ‘in a particular way’ continue to have a powerful and lingering effect on the way I feel today.  Though years have passed since my first introduction to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, its poetic assemblage of words still contain the power to shift my emotions and seduce me with their sense of rhythm and life.  As my lecturer continued to read from the photocopied page it became clear that it would be remiss of me not start here. Poetic compositions of text were what had initially inspired me to read, write and create.  An example of one of my early poems I Fell in Love with a Black Ocean Deep 1989 features on the last page of this essay.

As a contemporary visual artist today I find myself searching for new ways to explore rhythm and the various sensations it can inspire when influenced by my own perception of life.  I work intuitively with clay, paint and collected items to create individual pieces, assemblages and proposed installations.  My current explorations pose questions such as:  Am I able to create a sense of life’s delicate balance, its vulnerable fragility and sublime impermanence through two and three dimensional compositions?  Is it possible to create a sense of pause and capture a visual momentum? By working intuitively am I tapping into my own sense of truth, and through the work does this personal truth extend itself to the spectator?  Each question seems to inspire another – not only for me as an engrossed artist but also for me as a devoted spectator. I find myself drawn to particular artworks that evoke a compelling sense of rhythm and balance:- such as Rosalie Gascoigne’s Monaro 1989, Ai Weiwei’s Grapes 2011 and Grayson Perry’s series of lustrous vases that were recently exhibited in a survey of his work titled Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career 2016, a stimulating experience even in memory.  I wonder what it is about them that holds my undivided attention for so long, why do the sensations they evoke continue to arouse my interest just as Coleridge’s poem?  I feel a powerful synergy between these works and what I strive to achieve in my own.

Evoking Sensation

When I visually absorb Monaro 1989 I clearly see a palpable rhythm.  I sense a distinct liveliness and feel impressed by its physical presence.  Rosalie Gascoigne, a New Zealand born Australian sculptor (1917 – 1999) effectively achieves the perception of visual motion through her poetic arrangement of split and sawn wooden soft drink crates that she was inspired to collect from the contemporary landscape around her. This is a large two dimensional wall piece, a panorama in itself that stretches 465 cm across four plywood panels.  Its undulating bands of yellow and black fragments evoke the sensation akin to that of perceiving wind move across the Monaro district grasslands in Southern New South Wales.[4]  The enjambment of incomplete fragments swell before me and once again I think of Coleridge, another contemporary of his time who produced work that alluded to the existence of an interior force.[5]

It is this sense of rhythmic, undulating movement and poetic configuration of line, form and colour from which a sense of liveliness is perceived that intrigues me most.  These are qualities that I seek and strive for in my work.  The painting Impermanence – Nature’s Embrace 2016 (Fig. 1.) is a large piece, a similar size to Monaro being 430 cm in length.  Acrylic paint has been thrown onto linen to capture a panorama that I believe successfully encapsulates visual momentum and animation in suspension.

Impermanence - Nature's Embrace 2016, 190 x 430 cm

Fig. 1. Impermanence – Nature’s Embrace 2016, Acrylic on Linen, 190 cm x 430 cm

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This particular piece excites me as I feel that I have achieved a visual sense of rhythm, a delicate balance of composition, a vulnerable fragility, a sense of liveliness and sublime impermanence seemingly paused forever in a physical presence.  I believe these are similar sensations to that evoked by Gascoigne’s Monaro.  So what is it about these works that trigger my perception of visual motion and life?  Dr Richard Morris in his essay “Visualizing Monaro: Contributing Factors to the Viewers Perception of Motion in Rosalie Gascoigne’s, Monaro, 1989”, writes about this in detail;

This visualisation can largely be attributed to the visual tensions inherent in the undulating linear trajectories attending the organic grid the artist has used, the multiple fragments of incomplete typography on many of the components, as well as the numerous interstices surrounding each of the components.  The presence of these pictorial qualities has the effect of interrupting the viewer’s formation of a cohesive Gestalt, thus triggering the visualisation of a living, moving environment.[6]

Morris refers to the artist’s use of an organic grid.  The word organic relates to or derives from living matter, so one would assume that it was derived from deep within Gascoigne herself whose processes were instinctive.  I wonder if and how this might relate to my own work as I push my weight instinctively into the raw materials – the paint, the clay, to form an organic base from which a concept builds.  Am I too creating an organic grid of sorts?  I see the multiple fragments in Monaro as being similar to the irregularly shaped colour spots in my own painting, complete with numerous, variably sized intervening spaces that surround each component and heighten the pictorial rupture.  Morris writes that it is the presence of these pictorial qualities that interrupt the viewer’s formation of a cohesive Gestalt – an integrated, organised whole:  that this is what triggers the perception of a living, moving environment ‘life’.  In Monaro, this animated state has been achieved through Gascoigne’s intuitive arrangement of a multitude of black and yellow fragments, their irregular shapes and intervening spaces which have been aligned into wave like rows – triggering a visual perception of motion.[7]  Shortly after the artists passing in 1999 Judith White wrote in the Australian Art Collector that Gascoigne had created numerous stunning and decisive constructions of an extra ordinary transcendental nature, making a unique contribution to Australian Art.[8]  To this day Rosalie Gascoigne’s two and three dimensional assemblages continue to emanate with her feelings and evoke sensation – continuing a perceptual rhythm that extends itself beyond the life of the artist.

It seems inconsequential as to the medium, whether it be drawing, painting or ceramics that I make a start with.  I push, pull and place various materials without having any preconception of the overall end result.  This is how I make an initial connection and possibly construct my own version of an organic grid upon which a concept develops.  I throw the paint, I throw the clay – there is an organic randomness that exhibits a purpose and order in the final product.  As I physically work and move around in the space I gain a more acute sense of rhythm which I postulate is my own personal connection to this existential experience of life.  Nature is inherently rhythmic; the tide rolls in and the tide rolls out, a cycle that is consistently repeated over time.  Like the blood that courses through our veins, it has a tempo and I often wonder if it is an external or an internal rhythm that I have become more physically and visually aware of in the work.  Or does it represent something other, a connection between the two maybe?  Is it possible for an artwork to evoke a sense of pause and hold a moment in suspension? One question seems only to be replaced by a multitude of others.

Rooftop 2016 (Fig. 2.), is an experimental piece that consists of wheel thrown ceramics, a piece of roofing iron, new and used timber, water, porcelain and a taxidermy-like rat.  It was installed at the Victorian College of the Arts, Student Gallery in August 2016 where it was presented to lecturers and peers for their critical response along with two other sculptural pieces.   General comments included; – suspension of time, sense of pause, dreamlike, both real and surreal, sense of vibrancy, sense of balance and a play on the angle of repose – a sense of suspended animation.  I felt satisfied to know that the Rooftop assemblage had evoked similar sensations in my colleagues that it had in myself, evidence that it was possible for me to create a perception of animation and suspension in the work.  The taxidermy-like rat (hidden in the shadows beneath the roof) received a more mixed and slightly heated response.  Comments ranged from it looking like a fake ‘add on’ that wasn’t necessary, to it providing yet another tension that heightened the sensation of animation – intrinsic to the work.  Personally I quite liked the rat as it provided yet another form of perceived liveliness that was momentarily and forever held on pause.  Its soft grey form in the shadows on the floor were only obvious to the most observant spectator.  What I found even more interesting was the fact that the wheel thrown ceramic components in each sculpture received much less attention – an outcome that I had not expected.  During pack up later that day I wondered if this is what artist Grayson Perry meant by the invisibility of the pot?  Further research was inspired.

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Fig. 2. Rooftop 2016

Stoneware ceramics, porcelain, new and used timber, roofing iron, tin, water, taxidermy-like rat

Fig. 3. Detail Image

Rooftop Detail_Kerrie Warren
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The Invisible Pot 

Grayson Perry, an English artist best known for his ceramic vases that depict shocking imagery and colourful cross-dressing, disputes that pottery is an entirely decorative or functional object that cannot express artistic ideas.  He refers to his classically shaped ceramics as ‘classical invisible’, acting like frames that surround a painting.  Seemingly homely craft objects they go unnoticed until an observer steps closer only to discover their tantalising surface decoration is constructed of strikingly unconventional content, provocative imagery and perverse humour – stealth bombs as Perry calls them.[9]  Their classical forms provide a base that is easily understood and therefore not questioned, however working with the ‘classical invisible’ comes with its own set of challenges.  Grayson Perry in a recent essay on his work writes:

Almost unwittingly I had set myself quite a challenge: how to get something that was materially and formally indistinguishable from the product of a long-applied art / craft tradition accepted by the gatekeepers of the fine art palaces?  It was a big ask.  Even today I sense that had I not branched out into many other media, as well as curating and television, I would never have had the career I have enjoyed.  I don’t think I would have had to justify my position in such a way had I been a painter and not a potter.[10]

In February this year I flew to Sydney especially to see Perry’s survey of work Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.  As I meandered through, moving from one outstanding ceramic vase to the next I couldn’t help but notice the aesthetic elegance and skilful construction of form that not only acted as a base for explicit content but added to the objects dynamic presence.  Maybe I could see the classical invisible forms only because I have a passion for ceramics myself?  I could sense a liveliness from Perry’s vases.  It not only emanated from the visual rhythm that had been cleverly created in the complex layers of surface design, but from a rhythm that had been evoked through dexterous hands as they had worked the clay – the implication of life and the labour of time seemingly stored within the fired work.  I found Perry’s classical invisible shapes of great interest but am now even more fascinated by what could possibly be a contrasting experience for those who are not familiar with this medium.  The ceramic forms presented within my assemblage Rooftop are wheel thrown and altered.  Far from being classical shapes, they too did not receive the level of commentary that I had expected.  So how does the invisible pot make its way into the contemporary art scene?  Maybe Perry’s stealth bomb idea provides the answer!

The response in general to the sculptures I put forward for critical analyses (each piece contained wheel thrown ceramics) seemed to prove Perry’s theory correct.  I noticed that the main thrust of critical banter focused on other materials and the sensation they together evoked as a statement in form.  Individual items were seen as part of the whole and total sum.  The Perilous Inquiry 2016 (Fig. 4.) did not receive quite the same attention as Rooftop which was referred to throughout the discussion as the central piece.  Elements in this sculpture include a wheel thrown ceramic urn, a readymade timber pedestal and a taxidermy-like rat.  The lighting was another crucial element as it was used to throw the two rat like shadows on either side of the corner wall, adding to the visual rhythm which is enhanced by the repeated shapes.  The eye is seduced into making its way up the pedestal to the tip of the tail, and down around to the right where it proceeds to bounce across the shadows before wandering back up the pedestal again to the tip of the tail, and down around to the right in a continuous cycle – caught in a visual rhythm. Did I forget to mention the ceramics?  Did the eye stop and linger long enough to take in its shapeliness, the intricate carving, the beautifully balanced lid, its vibrancy of colour and evidence of a dexterous hand, the labour of time?  The ceramic urn is not the piece of art here – it is but one element within a playful configuration.  There is no distinction between it and its support, no distinction between it and its own shadow.

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Ceramic Sculpture by Kerrie Warren

Fig. 4. The Perilous Inquiry 2016

Wheel thrown stoneware ceramics, pre used timber pedestal, taxidermy-like rat

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A Personal Perspective

Personally I feel a sense of satisfaction with The Perilous Inquiry, it appears to me suspended in a moment of time.  It is easy to imagine that when I turn my back the rat’s activity will resume, the delicate lid might just topple to the floor – I can almost hear it now.  In order to evoke this perception of a paused moment, the work is required to visually trigger a perception of movement.  The taxidermy-like rat I believe adds to this perception, whilst its precarious positioning evokes a very real and physical sense of balance.  The ceramic urn naturally heightens the overall sense of fragility as gravity pulls down on it from below.  The spectator’s imagination activates the experience through visual perception. Arthur P. Shimamura, a professor of psychology and author of Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder points out that the aesthetic response may be different for each person.  He writes that our interpretations will be largely influenced by our unique memories and personal points of view.[11] Perceptions of art are as diverse and varied as the artworks themselves, my own perception of Rime of the Ancient Mariner differed greatly to that of my siblings who to this day remain unaffected.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is a master at drawing our attention to looking and perceiving.  Earlier this year I found great pleasure in viewing Grapes 2011, an installation that featured within the Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.[12]  The cluster of Qing stools – beautifully balanced and suspended within their energetic cycle of physical motion took hold of me as past and present were magnificently brought together as one.  My eyes oscillated back and forth as I became swept up in the momentum of their poetic arrangement, forever paused.  Their reassembly had been constructed by traditional techniques, without the use of glue or nails. The meaning and function of these cultural artefacts had been transformed and the collection of wooden stools were reconfigured to resemble a cluster of grapes that serve as a metaphor for the relationship between the individual and the collective.[13] This arrangement emanates with potential energy, it is charged. The statement it makes is much more complex than its appearance, tensions have been activated on a multitude of political levels whether the spectator is aware of them or not. Qing Dynasty stools – simple forms from which we sense Ai Weiwei’s great respect for craftsmanship do not display evidence of the artist’s hand.  It is instead the artist’s powerful concept of configuration that makes an artistic statement in form.  Whilst I stood there feeling enchanted by Weiwei’s transcendental Grapes, other visitors to the gallery strolled right past unaffected.  It had been a personal experience.

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Bringing it Together

My own personal experience of an artwork, the way I perceive it and how I feel about it is uniquely individual and highly subjective.[14] This in turn can be said for each respondent to my own work, however their responses remain of great interest and intrigue and have certainly inspired further research.  I can only imagine that this additional knowledge becomes part of who I am and therefore part of what I create.  My thoughts jump ahead to an installation idea, a current work in progress (Fig. 5.) that is consuming my thoughts, and I wonder if the end result will reveal any influence of these discussions?  Recently on YouTube I listened to Rosalie Gascoigne being interviewed about her practise.  Her own strict opinions were what had mattered most to her, she needed to feel that the work was self-respecting before she felt that she could in turn respect the work.  Her aim was to capture vitality and life as she wove past experience into her intuitive arrangements, believing that it was dependant on something the famous poet Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) had said about emotion being recollected in tranquillity.  What a coincidence I thought, we had both been influenced by the two poets who had worked on a joint publication of Lyrical Ballads and had together inspired the launch of the Romantic Age in English Literature.[15] Gascoigne was more concerned about how her poetic assemblages felt to her rather than how they looked.[16]  For me this is the most vital component in the entire process, the work must feel true to who I am.

Feeling ones way through the creative process and working without a preconceived idea invites in the exciting element of unpredictability.  It presents a kaleidoscope of unforeseen possibilities that are pushed and pulled, played with, tested and filtered along the way – intuition being the guiding factor toward a sense of direction and meaning within the work.  Gascoigne felt that it was important to keep her hands moving as ideas would emerge in the process.[17] She strove for a sense of vitality in her assemblages and spent hours walking through the countryside to collect old, weathered and battered items in which she sensed the presence of life.[18]  Interior forces that allude to another existence can also be felt in the preloved timber furniture and old building materials that I have either stumbled upon or dragged in from the paddocks myself.  I sense their potential energy and feel compelled to include them in my work; to interweave and integrate them with artistic objects created by my own hand.  Like Grayson Perry I too enjoy seeing my own hand within the work and find the unpredictability of the raw materials motivating.[19]  Perry takes this a step further however and is outwardly critical of those artists who have disconnected themselves from the physical processes to create ‘art by phone’.[20]  In the past I have held a similar opinion but I must admit that my perspective has begun to shift slightly.

In recent times I have felt more inclined to experiment, compelled to incorporate other materials including the informal aesthetic of the ready-made which I must admit was completely unexpected.  By bringing a variety of elements together, both made by my own hand and readymade, I aim to link and intertwine various systems of existence into poetic assemblages and installations that act as one exuberant and cohesive form of expression.  Initial experiments have been trialled and presented to my lecturers and peers for critical analysis during two seminars this year.  The incorporation of other materials, including taxidermy-like rats, resulted in vigorous conversation, a slight of humour in the work, and a renewed enthusiasm within my practice.  Further research has inspired me to think bigger, literally.  Big thinking artists such as Ai Weiwei are a great inspiration, however at this stage of my career I can only dream of taking over the ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria – but dream we artists do.

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Conclusion

Writing these Notes to Self and Two Other People presented an opportunity for me to step outside the studio to research, investigate and observe.  From this perspective I have gained a better overall understanding of my work, the direction I can feel it wanting to take and what lies at the heart of my inspiration.  Numerous questions have arisen throughout the process – a small percentage of them touched on being answered but most only inspired more questions such as; through art am I able to create a sense of pause in life’s continual momentum in order to gain a better understanding of its delicate balance, its vulnerable fragility and sublime impermanence?  By working intuitively am I tapping into my own sense of truth, and through the work does this personal truth extend itself to the spectator?  As a naïve poet I think I sought answers to similar questions.  It has become clear to me that I have an insatiable curiosity for how life works.  Professor Shimamura explains how experiencing art is in the brain of the beholder which only confirms to me that I am on a solitary quest, questioning my own existence within the whole and total sum of this experience.

Artists such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rosalie Gascoigne, Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei are a great inspiration; their works provide me with a sense of being that is close to that which I strive to achieve.  As I have stood before artworks such as Gascoigne’s Monaro, Weiwei’s Grapes and Perry’s series of provocative vases, I have sensed the rhythm of life that emanates out through them and beyond their creator.  Where does this rhythm begin and to which point does it extend I wonder?  Are the raw materials and pre used items already activated with life before the artist has even considered them?  Do I as a spectator activate the experience?  Question after question continues to arise and I think of the famous dictum once uttered by Socrates during his trial, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.[21] On this note I conclude that like my artwork, this research is in a constant state of exploration and forever a work in progress.

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Table Totem 2016_Kerrie Warren

Fig. 5. Table Ceramics 2016 A sculpture that extends itself from the floor to the ceiling with variable dimensions.  Materials used are wheel thrown stoneware ceramics, preloved timber tables, taxidermy-like black birds and plastic cockroaches.  I see this developing not only as an individual, highly charged sculpture but as a central element that would sit within and be part of an entire installation.

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 I FELL IN LOVE WITH A BLACK OCEAN DEEP

 An early poem by Kerrie Warren, inspired by the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The sun strikes hard but never reaches your depths,

It leaves me still feeling cold.

I must have known you for a million years,

I fell in love with your reflection gold.

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It’s been you and me for a very long time,

One and one never needing a crew.

You are my friend and you are my love,

I fell in love with your waters blue.

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I devoted my time and have devoted my life,

All your secrets I have seen.

My eyes have stared deep into your soul,

And fell in love with your soul so green.

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I watch in awe as the sun sinks down,

And glimpse the top of his burning head.

I helplessly watch flailing arms of gold,

Drown in your love so red.

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Sometimes my eyes cannot see through the mist,

But I can still feel your movement and sway.

When the rain falls down and the mist rises up,

I fall in love with your sight so grey.

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You made me feel young yet grow very old,

Through your current my life seemed to seep.

I have given you my life and I will give you my death,

I fell in love with a black ocean deep.[22]

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Kerrie Warren 1989

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Bibliography

Biography Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Poetry Foundation, Date of Access 13/09/2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/samuel-taylor-coleridge.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Poets’ Way. Edited by A.R. Moon. Stage 2 ed.  London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936.

Delany, Max, Eric C. Shiner, and John J. Curley. Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei.  Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria, 2015.

Herbert, Zbigniew. Still Life with a Bridle : Essays and Apocryphas.  New York: Ecco Press, 1991.

Klein, Jacky, and Grayson Perry. Grayson Perry.  Vol. Updated and expanded edition., London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Morris, Richard. “Visualizing Monaro: Contributing Factors to the Viewers Perception of Motion in Rosalie Gascoigne’s, Monaro, 1989.” International Journal of the Image 4, no. 1 (2014).

Perry, Grayson, Rachel Kent, Louisa Buck, and Julian Baggini. Grayson Perry : My Pretty Little Art Career. Edited by Rachel Kent: Royal Exchange NSW : Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2015.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. Apology. [Electronic Resource].   Project Gutenberg, 1999. Book. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1656.

Shimamura, Arthur P. Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder New York : Oxford University Press, 2013.

twopointsix. “Interview with Rosalie Gascoigne.” YouTube.com, 2007.

Victoria, National Gallery of. “Grapes 2011.” NGV, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/AndyWarhol_AiWeiwei_Labels.pdf.

Warren, Kerrie. New Directions.  Surfers Paradise, Queensland: Tobago Pty Ltd, 1990.

White, Judith. “Rosalie Gascoigne.” Australian Art Collector, 2000.

 

[1] Zbigniew Herbert, Still Life with a Bridle : Essays and Apocryphas (New York: Ecco Press, 1991), 18.

[2] “Biography Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” Poetry Foundation, Date of Access 13/09/2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/samuel-taylor-coleridge.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Poets’ Way, ed. A.R. Moon, Stage 2 ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936), 250.

[4] Richard Morris, “Visualizing Monaro: Contributing Factors to the Viewers Perception of Motion in Rosalie Gascoigne’s, Monaro, 1989,” International Journal of the Image 4, no. 1 (2014): 27.

[5] “Biography Samuel Taylor Coleridge”.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Judith White, “Rosalie Gascoigne,” Australian Art Collector2000, 55.

[9] Jacky Klein and Grayson Perry, Grayson Perry, vol. Updated and expanded edition. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013), 39.

[10] Grayson Perry et al., Grayson Perry : My Pretty Little Art Career, ed. Rachel Kent (Royal Exchange NSW : Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2015), 40.

[11] Arthur P. Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder (New York : Oxford University Press, 2013), 128.

[12] Max Delany, Eric C. Shiner, and John J. Curley, Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei (Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria, 2015), 58.

[13] National Gallery of Victoria, “Grapes 2011,” NGV, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/AndyWarhol_AiWeiwei_Labels.pdf.

[14] Shimamura, 128.

[15] “Biography Samuel Taylor Coleridge”.

[16] twopointsix, “Interview with Rosalie Gascoigne,” (YouTube.com, 2007).

[17] White,  56.

[18] twopointsix.

[19] Perry et al., 18.

[20] Klein and Perry, Updated and expanded edition., 227.

[21] Plato and Benjamin Jowett, Apology. [Electronic Resource], (Project Gutenberg, 1999), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1656. Book.

[22] Kerrie Warren, New Directions (Surfers Paradise, Queensland: Tobago Pty Ltd, 1990), 228.

Installation Art: All Power to the Artist?

An essay by Kerrie Warren 2016

Master of Contemporary Art

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Abstract: Installation Art is a broad term given to a range of contemporary art practices.  This essay questions the sovereign right of the artist to freely express themselves through this mode of production whilst being curated within the walls of an art institution or public gallery space. All power to the artist?  Evidence provided within this text clearly demonstrates that all power to the artist remains questionable.

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Introduction

From the 18th Century onwards curators have been carefully selecting and collecting objects to place and configure for exhibition within the walls of art institutions, museums and galleries throughout Western society.  This practice empowers the curator and enables them to transform the space.  Contemporary installation art is a mode of production and display which also involves the placement and configuration of objects within those same walls.  But, here the space itself becomes part of the work, part of the whole sum of the individual artwork, created by the artist’s own imagination and series of choices. In Western culture today we accept and even expect that the artist has a sovereign right to freely express themselves through their work without intervention.  So we would naturally assume that an artwork such as an artistic installation has not been intervened with or influenced by anyone other than the artist.  In this essay I argue that within the production of an artistic installation, the artist can be put into a position where they might find it difficult to assume their sovereign right and thus be disempowered.

After a brief definition of contemporary art installation, this essay examines a variety of key issues that have arisen through artistic and curatorial experiences, each providing evidence for my main argument.  The text is divided into four sections: ‘The Power Within,’ ‘A Notion of Freedom,’ ‘Shifting the Boundaries’ and ‘Competition for Authorship.’ Various points of view, differing theories and personal reflections have been noted from the following philosophers, art theorists, artists and curators: Valery Podoroga, Boris Groys, Anton Vidokle, Rabih Mroué, Pamela Scorzin, Nancy de Freitas, Michelle White, Dorothee Richter and Paul O’Neill.  The title of this essay is also a question, Art Installation: All Power to the Artist? The question mark alludes to my own point of view being that all power to the artist is questionable.  As much as I would like to believe that the artistic installation provides a way for the artist to expand their domain and assert their sovereign rights, research proves otherwise and I conclude that all power to the artist is not always the case, and that artistic freedom might be just an ambiguous notion.

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The Power Within

Today, installation art is a broad term given to a range of contemporary art practices, not a genre in itself that can be so easily defined.  It is a mode of production and display which involves the placement and configuration of objects in a space, the whole sum and total of ‘objects plus space’ comprises the individual artwork which can be experienced from multiple points of view.[1]  As Valery Podoroga philosophically notes, “Installation Art is not a new genre of art but a realisation of a fundamental need for a new vision (‘point of view’).”[2]  The more recent meaning of ‘installation’ in the visual arts refers to site-specific artwork created especially for a predetermined gallery space or outdoor site.[3]  The term can be applied to a wide variety of both interior and exterior spaces, but for the purpose of this essay I have focused on curated installations that have been produced within the walls of art institutions and public gallery spaces. Art installations of this type are most often exhibited for brief periods of time before being dismantled, leaving only documentation of their existence behind.[4]  As viewers we are encountered by the three dimensionality of the experience that engages our senses and requires us as spectators to activate it.  We do this by entering and immersing ourselves in the space, assuming that we have also entered into the world and concepts of the artist.  “The installation folds this world into an enclosed space and postulates a divine authority at the centre,” writes Podoroga in his “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s, On the Total Installation”, suggesting the ultimate observer – God – is installed.  Podoroga propounds that the same space must be occupied simultaneously by the artist and spectator for the installation to ‘work’ and questions what it means to install God. [5] But my question is: if a divine and authoritative power is in fact installed, and that godlike power does not belong to the artist, nor to the spectator, then to whom does it belong?

The artistic installation incorporates the space into the work.  Atmosphere and experience is generated by the total of ‘objects plus space’ and the configuration of such.  If installation transforms the space into an individual art piece, we might surmise that it is the artist who completely controls the space and holds the power within it.  New Zealand born installation artist Fiona Connor regularly works with found objects and appropriation.  In an interview with Patrice Sharkey she admits that even though it is normal for artists to be indiscriminate in how they deal with imagery, there is a limit to their control and power.[6]  However Boris Groys in his essay “Politics of Installation” writes that,

“Under the regime of artistic freedom, every artist has a sovereign right to make art exclusively according to private imagination.  The sovereign decision to make art in this way or that way is generally accepted by Western liberal society as a sufficient reason for assuming an artist’s practice to be legitimate.”[7]

In his essay Groys does not allude to the possibility of God taking a divine role at the centre of the installation, but he does point out that the curator is often considered an intervening force who comes between the artwork and its viewer – with the power to disempower both.[8]  On the other hand, Groys argues that the artistic installation provides a way for the artist to expand the domain of their sovereign right from the individual object to that of the space, and as the space itself is part of the individual artwork all decisions and choices to be made are those to be made exclusively by the artist.[9]  He puts forward that the space of an artistic installation is the symbolic private property of the artist, but I argue that this ‘private property of the artist’ is vulnerable to being trespassed, encroached upon, invaded, squatted on and sold.  I argue that it is possible for the artist to appear to be in control whilst also being under control.  Consequently, the idea of artistic freedom might just be an ambiguous notion.

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A Notion of Freedom

Who makes the rules? You tell me, you’re the artist!  In the case of contemporary art installation, where the mode of presentation – within and inclusive of the space – is the individual artwork, the distinction between artist and curator may be less obvious and therefore distinctive roles unclear.  For years curators have been selecting and collecting objects to place, configure and display within art institutions, museums and gallery spaces for public viewing whilst the artist on the other hand has generally remained in their studio creating the objects which may or may not be selected. The power in this situation has been and still is in the hands of the curator who is in the position to make all decisions relating to the selection and rejection of artworks and wielding the power to transform the space.  Is this the divine power that Podoroga writes of when he considers installation artist Ilya Kabakov’s speech On the Total Installation?[10]  If so, it would not be easy to let go of such power.  If there was another person of power other than the artist, one who has the power to intervene in creative choices and make their presence known within the space of an artistic installation, then how would that artist be truly free? Groys suggests that the artist and curator embody two different kinds of freedom: the sovereign, unconditional, publicly irresponsible freedom of art-making, and the institutional, conditional, publicly responsible freedom of curatorship.[11]  But if freedom means different things to different people, could freedom not be misunderstood?

Historically artistic self-determination has been fought for, and in the Modern era artists began to assert the autonomy of their art and their sovereign right as artists. Artist and founder of e-flux Anton Vidokle in his essay “Art Without Artists”, writes that he can only imagine the frustration of the artist who believes to be liberated from the power and control of the critics of the past, to only discover that the power and control has been shifted to the contemporary curator whom he describes as a totalizing figure that the artist simply cannot bypass.  He questions, “Are we sure that this curatorial gain does not bring a correspondingly diminished status for the artist?”[12]  Further on in his paper, Vidokle advocates that, “we should also be very careful to avoid assigning any kind of meta-artistic capacity to curatorial practice” and “if there is to be critical art, the role of the artist as a sovereign agent must be maintained.”[13] Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese stage and film actor, playwright and internationally recognized artist, writes candidly in “At least One-third of the Subject” about his belief that curators have their own motivations and purposes when they come to talk to him about their ideas and when they ask him questions in relation to ‘problems’ such as the artists relationship to power.[14]  Mroué is a co-founder and executive board member of the Beirut Art Center in Lebanon. His practice spans between theatre and the visual arts, overlapping creative platforms where he explores the artist’s responsibility to communicate with audiences in both political and cultural contexts – in particular their relation to civil war and revolution.  Interestingly Mroué examines issues that have been swept under the rug.[15]  Professor Pamela Scorzin refers to Mroue’s impressive piece The Pixelated Revolution (2012), a lecture based performance and installation that featured in dOCUMENTA (13), and describes it as an emotionally charged new form of contemporary media imagery which frames specific fraught images in a remarkable and artistic way.[16]  Scorzin notes that Rabih Mroué demonstrated how the distribution of these images via social media were less carriers of political information than they were significant, active agents in the stirring of emotions which effectively triggered affects as part of a larger scenographic regime of current political protests.[17]

Rabih Mroué has certainly gained an international profile and it would be easy to assume from a distance that he would not only have complete control over his powerful and provocative works but also unleashed artistic freedom of expression through his emotionally charged artistic installations, however in his published reflections he quotes:

Sometimes I am commissioned to produce an artwork revolving around a certain theme, which falls outside my actual artistic, intellectual, and political concerns.  I try to avoid the assignment, but always find myself complying with the curator’s desires.  I prepare what is required from me, as a pupil trying his best to satisfy his teacher. (Mroué, 2010).[18]

How does an artist say no to a curator who has invited them to participate in a show that they want to be part of?  To him it seems curators stand on shaky ground caught between power and art, but here I question whether or not it is the artist who stands on that same spot?  Mroue’s knowledge about curators stems from his own role as an artist and his personal experience of the artist / curator relationship.  Further on in his essay he admits that he is ignorant of “about at least two-thirds of the subject.”[19]   When I read such heartfelt quotes by experienced artists, I wonder about my own naivety as an artist.  Installation art: all power to the artist? Like Mroué repeats throughout his reflections, “I have no idea”.[20]

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Shifting the Boundaries

As the world around us evolves, so do we as its people.  With this in mind, wouldn’t it be natural for the individual roles we play to evolve also?  As artists and their artworks develop over time, so to do curators and their expectations.  How might this evolution outside the space affect inside the space? Associate professor and installation artist Nancy de Freitas in her essay “Breathing Space for Experience” informs us that a recent shift has in fact occurred and curatorial activity is in the process of being reinvented as a discursive field of initiating, researching, collaborating and making meaning in the context of artistic production.  She writes,

“The shift is evident, and perhaps driven, by a proliferation of curatorial study programmes, residencies and labs that typically emphasize experimental, creative, interdisciplinary, research practices for ‘emerging curators’ with an expectation that crossing boundaries, and the ‘re-definition’ of roles will be encouraged”.[21]

De Freitas also comments that it sounds like a new profession in the making, and that this reframing will generate other changes and have potential problems.[22]  Her research examines the uncertain relationship between contemporary artist, artwork and curator, the physical environment and the contingencies of installation practice which influence both their roles and relationship to each other.[23]  Groys also discusses the physical environment and how the role of artist and curator is influenced by it.  He points out that the most significant difference between the standard exhibition and an artistic installation is the function of the exhibition space itself which becomes part of the individual artwork, creating a space where he believes the difference between artist and curator is highlighted and the artist is in fact empowered.[24]  However, earlier in his essay he admits that during this transformational period where contemporary art has become understood as an ‘exhibition practice’ the definition between artist and curator has become blurred around the edges.[25]  In this shift, within the blurring of boundaries and evolving of roles, I argue that the artistic installation is not fully protected from curatorial intervention as depicted in Groys optimistic definition of it.

Throughout history artists have been fighting for their artistic self-determination and sovereign rights.  The focus of de Freitas investigation is on the growing tendency to misinterpret contemporary curatorial interventions and she points out that since the early 1990’s, individual artistic vision has been assigned to a minor position under a curator’s strategic plan and increasingly the distinctive and individual unfolding of an artist’s intentions has almost become an irrelevant curatorial endeavour.[26]  De Freitas gives us an example of one such intervention Curating Degree Zero (2003 – 2008).[27]  In 1998 a symposium was organised by two curators, Barnaby Drabble and Dorothee Richter, a conference to explore the notion of art and social critique, art as service and art in the public domain.  Between 2003 and 2008 the two curators built an archive of exhibition documentation which continued to expand and evolve as it travelled to eighteen venues around the world as an exhibition and program of live events.[28]  It is interesting to note that Anton Vidokle used this very same project as an example of contemporary curators who have spent time and funding to create their own version of a circulating art installation to exhibit their own reading lists and references, taking up what would otherwise be an artist’s space, funding and opportunity.[29]  Vidokle questions the work of curators superseding the work of artists.  He warns that movement in such a direction runs a serious risk of diminishing the space of art and undermining the artists themselves.[30]  Here I question if this is not yet another form of control? Artistic installations are artworks that specifically require a space.  The space itself is a material support and anything within that space becomes part of the artwork.  It appears in this case that the boundaries certainly did shift, leaving the artist outside.

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Competition for Authorship

The uncertain and transforming relationship between artist and curator in contemporary practice today seems based on power and control as the contemporary curator, now often referred to as ‘cultural producer’, takes on a new shape and size, expanding out from and reaching far beyond their traditional boundaries.  My question is, does this power and control also expand into the sacred space of artistic installation?  When a curator, or ‘cultural producer’ themes an exhibition or biennale, when they create a conceptual framework on which an installation artist is expected to build, are they not to some degree entering into the artist’s territory and putting their own creative stamp on the work?  De Freitas informs us that contemporary curators choose the conceptual framework to create the contexts of exhibition, their personal career development is not only dependant on their choice of artists and concepts but also on their progression towards a recognisable, individual curatorial identity and the establishment of their own profile. De Freitas writes,

“Curatorial propositions can easily become doctrinaire… the authentic power of art to initiate alternative space / time worlds for a viewer may be subverted by the curatorial proposition which in itself becomes a prophetic scheme…”[31]

How does this action not shape and re-shape the contemporary artistic landscape, both outside and inside the space?  Michelle White, Associate Curator of the Menil Collection in Houston Texas states in her interview with Nato Thompson, ‘Curator as Producer’ that the term ‘Cultural Producer’ is a more honest way to articulate the new contemporary role of the curator as it acknowledges the complexity of the collaboration that she believes has to happen. An exhibition or project which involves a more complex institutional web of financial and physical logistics, along with managing the various relationships between collectors, patrons and boards of trustees to the display space itself is beyond the simple curator / artist dichotomy. However,

“But at the same time, in working on site-specific projects or exhibitions with living artists where collaboration is essential to make meaning, I have found myself questioning the boundaries of my involvement in the aesthetic and conceptual production.”[32]

The contemporary curator of today certainly does appear to have a more complex situation to work with.  As the world has become smaller, expectations seem to have become greater in both roles.  But the artistic installation represents another space entirely, another world altogether.  Does this other world not belong exclusively to the artist as Groys suggests?

Earlier in this essay I used Curating Degree Zero (2003-2008) as an example of a touring exhibition / installation that shifted the boundaries by literally taking over the space of the artist entirely, but this project also demonstrated further evidence of the precarious relationship and power struggle between artist and curator within the space of the artistic installation itself.  Dorothee Richter and Barnaby Drabble had initially worked as chief curators and authors of the project before moving themselves into the position of artists.  As artists, informs Dorothee Richter in her paper “Artists and Curators as Authors – Competitors, Collaborators, or Team-workers?” they experienced difficulty assuming the role toward the host curator Annette Schindler when Richter refuted an idea but was unable to assert her position.[33]  Richter states,

“On the one hand, we programmatically agreed to outsource the power of definition, as described in our concept – while on the other, we found ourselves in a pre-structured, power-shaped institution, which granted us as “quasi-artists” less power than the curator.”[34]

This proved to be an interesting and thought provoking exercise which enabled the curator to experience the artist who experiences the curator within the space.  Paul O’Neill, author of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) articulates that curatorship today is primarily understood as an activity distinct from its limited job description.  The exhibition is now a form of self-portrait and meaning is derived from the relationship between artistic positions as presented by the curator.[35]  Further into his book under the heading of Antagonism to the New Curatorship, he writes,

“As already stated, the fact that curatorship has achieved a normalized, or integrated, position within contemporary art production and discourse does not mean that it is without its discontents.  Indeed, it might be expected that these changes in reputational economies during a discursive shift of emphasis from the figure of the artist to that of the curator would be perceived by some as a mistake or as something detrimental to contemporary art.”[36]

Vidokle asserts that the necessity for curators to go beyond their traditional roles of exhibition making should not be justification for their work to supersede the work of the artist, or for authorial claims that cause artists to become actors and their works to become props whilst they illustrate their own creative concepts.[37] Even though Groys argues that artistic installation is protected from curatorial intervention, I believe my research has shown that this is not always the case.  The contemporary curator seems to have broken out of the confines of their pre-existing role, transformed their image, and crossed over the borders where meaning can be made from their own artistic production.  If exhibition has now become a form of curatorial self-portraiture as O’Neill suggests, could this not be the portrait of the divine authority that Podoroga suggests sits within the space of Ilya Kabakov’s The Total Installation?

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Conclusion

As I mentioned in my introduction, I would like to believe that the artistic installation provides a way for artists to expand their domain and assert their sovereign rights, however the evidence is there to suggest that artists need to continue to fight for those rights.  As the world evolves and art becomes part of mass culture, as we wander through the Biennales, Triennales and Documentas, we witness that the style of exhibition making is changing.  Within this transformation curators have extended themselves beyond their traditional roles and are now being referred to as ‘cultural producers’ who propose their own conceptual frameworks and contexts for exhibition, establishing their own profile and individual identities. How does this transformation not transform the contemporary artistic landscape, both outside and inside the space?  Groys asserts that within this transformation the artistic installation remains the sacred space of the artist, it is sovereign territory where the artist makes all the decisions.  But I argue that as the definition between artist and curator has become blurred around the edges, so too has the boundary between the sovereign territory of the artistic installation and the space that surrounds the space. The relationship between, space and the artist is vulnerable. Within this transformative period we have also witnessed the role of the artist evolve to have more of an inclination towards collaboration, socially engaged practises and assumption of the role of curator themselves, but to travel down those other multi-layered, meandering paths was not within the scope or focus of this essay.  However the artist’s transformation is acknowledged here in order to link this information to a broader context.  Artist Rabih Mroué might be ignorant to at least two thirds of the subject, but what he does know is that, “the artist should know, and needs to learn more, be implicated and responsible, and leave this pretentious innocence behind.”[38]  Installation Art: All Power to the Artist? is, still a question.

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Bibliography

Atkins, Robert. Artspeak : A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, 2nd Ed.  New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997.

de Freitas, Nancy. “Breathing Space for Experience.” International Journal of the Arts in Society 6, no. 2 (03// 2012): 305-21.

Gallery, Sfeir-Semler. “Rabih Mroué.” Sfeir-Semler Gallery, http://www.sfeir-semler.com/gallery-artists/rabih-mroue/.

Groys, Boris. “Politics of Installation.” e-flux, no. 2 (01// 2009): 1-8.

Moran, Lisa, and Sophie Byrne. “What Is_Installation Art?”  The What Is_IMMA Talks Series. http://www.imma.ie/en/downloads/what_is_installationbooklet.pdf.

Mroué, Rabih. “At Least One-Third of the Subject.” “Frakcija”, Curating Performing Arts 55 (2010).

O’Neill, Paul. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(S).  Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England : : The MIT Press, 2012.

Podoroga, Valery. “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’.” Third Text 17, no. 4 (2003): 345-52.

Richter, Dorothee. “Artists and Curators as Authors.” On Artistic and Curatorial Authorship, no. 19 (June 2013).

Scorzin, Pamela C. “Some Reflections on the Photofilmic Aesthetics and Visual Rhetorics of Fraught Images in Rabih Mroué’s the Pixelated Revolution (2012).” Image & Narrative 16, no. 1 (2015): 75.

Sharkey, Patrice. “Fiona Connor: In and out of the Museum.” Art Monthly Australia, no. 271 (07// 2014): 24-27.

Thompson, Nato. “Curator as Producer.” By Michelle  White (2008).

Vidokle, Anton. “Art without Artists?”. e-flux, no. 16 (05// 2010): 1-9.

Zürich, Elektrosmog, W. Hockenjos, Barnaby  Drabble, Dorothee Richter, and Niclac Basel. “Curating Degree Zero Archive.” Medienarchiv der Künste, http://medienarchiv.zhdk.ch/sets/curating_degree_zero_archive_homepage.

 

[1] Lisa Moran and Sophie Byrne, “What Is_Installation Art?,”  The What Is_IMMA Talks Series, http://www.imma.ie/en/downloads/what_is_installationbooklet.pdf.
[2] Valery Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” Third Text 17, no. 4 (2003): 345.
[3] Robert Atkins, Artspeak : A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, 2nd Ed. (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997), 105.
[4] Ibid., 106.
[5] Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” 346,47.
[6] Patrice Sharkey, “Fiona Connor: In and out of the Museum,” Art Monthly Australia, no. 271 (2014): 27.
[7] Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux, no. 2 (2009): 3.
[8] Ibid., 2.
[9] Ibid., 3.
[10] Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” 346.
[11] Groys, “Politics of Installation,” 3.
[12] Anton Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” ibid., no. 16 (2010): 6.
[13] Ibid., 7.
[14] Rabih Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” “Frakcija”, Curating Performing Arts 55 (2010): 86.
[15] Sfeir-Semler Gallery, “Rabih Mroué,” Sfeir-Semler Gallery, http://www.sfeir-semler.com/gallery-artists/rabih-mroue/.
[16] Pamela C. Scorzin, “Some Reflections on the Photofilmic Aesthetics and Visual Rhetorics of Fraught Images in Rabih Mroué’s the Pixelated Revolution (2012),” Image & Narrative 16, no. 1 (2015): 75.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” 86.
[19] Ibid., 88.
[20] Ibid., 86.
[21] Nancy de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” International Journal of the Arts in Society 6, no. 2 (2012): 308, 09.
[22] Ibid., 307, 08, 09.
[23] Ibid., 305.
[24] Groys, “Politics of Installation,” 3.
[25] Ibid., 1.
[26] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 305.
[27] Elektrosmog Zürich et al., “Curating Degree Zero Archive,” Medienarchiv der Künste, http://medienarchiv.zhdk.ch/sets/curating_degree_zero_archive_homepage.
[28] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 306.
[29] Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” 5.
[30] Ibid., 1.
[31] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 313,14.
[32] Nato Thompson, interview by Michelle  White, 2008.
[33] Dorothee Richter, “Artists and Curators as Authors,” On Artistic and Curatorial Authorship, no. 19 (2013): 54.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(S) (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England : : The MIT Press, 2012), 99.
[36] Ibid., 122.
[37] Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” 1.
[38] Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” 88.

Does the Absence of a Representational Image Diminish an Individual’s Aesthetic Response to a Painting?

An essay by Kerrie Warren 2015, Masters of Contemporary Art

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Abstract

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Does the absence of a representational image diminish an individual’s response to a painting?  Many of us have experienced the sensation of loving a painting, of disliking a painting, of feeling nonplussed or even bored by a painting.  The aesthetics of artworks (in this case of paintings) are as diverse as their beholders, evoking a wide range of responses from subtle to intense.  Sometimes the response is almost immediate and can be either negative or positive, or it may take us longer to absorb the experience as a painting grows on us over time.  In this essay, I will clarify what is meant by ‘representational image’ and will define in broad terms what is meant by our ‘aesthetic response’, including two very different personal examples.  The essay will then proceed to include a wide variety of viewpoints discussed in three sections under the headings of; Aesthetic Judgments, Ways to Perceive and Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism, before reaching a conclusion.

‘Aesthetic Judgements’, explores the main argument from a philosophical viewpoint and includes the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, James W. Manns, Clive Bell and Rudolph Arnheim.  ‘Ways to Perceive’ investigates the question from a psychological angle and includes the perspectives of Professors Arthur P. Shimamura and Robert L. Solso.  ‘Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism’ examines the writings of art critics and theorists Clement Greenberg and Clive Bell, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and also refers to the experience and thoughts of internationally recognised artist Philip Guston.  In this essay, I propose that the absence of a representational image in a painting does not diminish an individual’s aesthetic response to it.

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Introduction

 Many of us have experienced being drawn to a particular painting in a gallery full of paintings.  This essay puts forward an interesting question, one that philosophers, art historians, art theorists, psychologists, critics, artists and beholders have been discussing over the ages and debating through the modern art movement.  It seems, as a general consensus, that art in general does in fact stimulate the human mind and engage our emotions.  The question put forward in this essay includes the descriptor ‘representational image’ (the absence of) which refers to images that are clearly recognizable for what they purport to be, as opposed to an abstract image or non-representational image that has no clear identity.  ‘Aesthetic response to a painting’, in the context of this essay, refers to a human response or reaction to an artwork, being in this case a two dimensional painting.  ‘Aesthetic response’ is broadly defined as being an affective or emotional one, how the individual ‘feels about’ the painting.  Art can elicit a wide range of feelings and to a great extent is in the mind of the individual, ‘the beholder’.

The main argument, or question, is approached throughout this essay from the diverse perspectives of philosophy, history and psychology and examines the ‘absence of a representational image’ through critical thoughts on the modern art movement, in particular on the style of Abstract Expressionism.

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Two personal examples of ‘Aesthetic Response to a Painting’.

 It was June 2004, when I casually walked into the National Gallery of Victoria to view the exhibition ‘Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay.  I was certainly excited to view firsthand works by iconic artists including Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh… making up the finest collection of French impressionist paintings ever to make their way to Australia.  Looking back now, I’m not sure if it was the fact that I had observed Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting ‘Starry Starry Night’ as a reproduction on so many occasions throughout my life, or if it was because I had recently been listening to the most touching song titled ‘Vincent’ written by Don McLean as a tribute to the artist, or knowing that this painting had been created in an asylum at a time when Van Gogh was under great personal duress.  Maybe it was simply the painting’s exaggerated composition, the swirling dynamic movements of the brushstrokes, the emotional fluidity of line, colour and texture that had been captured by the artist in oils on canvas?

I’m still not quite sure what it was, or if all of these elements combined, reduced me to heartfelt tears.  I remember feeling quite aware that I was in a public space and that I must have looked quite tragic as I stared into that magnificent painting with tears streaming down my cheeks.  However, I don’t remember anyone coming to my rescue as I tried desperately to contain my emotions.  Maybe they understood such a moment?  This was my first experience of an intense aesthetic response to a painting.  ‘Starry Starry Night’ was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889.  The dramatic night sky dominates a seemingly peaceful village, the warmly lit windows and steeple in the distance provide some sort of emotional comfort whilst the cypress trees in the foreground appear to dance beneath the wavering stars above.  Impressionistic in style, this painting is made up of easily recognizable, representational images.

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It was June 2009, when I strolled into the Museum of Modern Art ‘MOMA’ in New York City to view a very exciting collection of works by abstract expressionist artists such as De Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Krasner and Newman… together, these ambitious acquisitions were apparently unrivalled for their breadth and depth.  Looking back I’m not sure if it was the fact that I had flown such a long distance and most likely suffered from jet lag, or that I had been reading the artists extensive biography ‘Jackson Pollock, An American Saga’ and had learned of his disjointed childhood that I could in some way personally relate to, or if it was more due to the fact that I had been practising a similar style of work in my own studio and had unconsciously placed this artist on somewhat of a high pedestal.  Or was it simply the painting’s all-over composition, the intricate layers, the enormous scale and intensity of the web like mark marking?

I’m still not quite sure what it was exactly… if any, or all of these elements combined were what caused my heart to race, my adrenalin to rush, and the hair on my arms to stand literally up on end as (to my complete surprise) I felt the sensation of my response run through my entire body.  It was such an exhilarating moment when I first beheld Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 31’, painted by the artist in 1950.  This large scale (269 cm x 530.8 cm) painting of abstract expressionist style ‘action painting’ is made of oil and enamel on canvas and has absolutely no recognizable, representational image at all.  Thus, I have personally experienced two very intense aesthetic responses to two very different paintings.  One painting was made up of numerous representational images whilst the other was completely devoid of any.  My emotional and physical reactions to both are strong indicators that my aesthetic responses were not due to their being, or not being, a recognisable image present in the work.

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‘Aesthetic Judgements’

For thousands of years philosophers have been making judgements about what is beautiful, what is art, and the notion of taste.  Discussions have gone back and forth over time in regard to the nature of these experiences and how they relate to life.  Ancient and widely considered Plato, a pivotal philosopher and mathematician who developed the first institution of higher learning in the Western World, thoughtfully considered the meaning of art… describing it as an imitation of reality, a mimesis. He believed that ‘representations’ deceive the intellect, and so banished them from his Republic.[1]  Plato’s view was certainly extreme, he criticised art and spoke of it being a very poor imitation of reality, claiming that representations cloud our thinking, stir our emotions, and degrade our sense of social responsibility.[2]

We can only image what Plato might have thought of non-representational art, in particular an abstract painting with the absence of a recognisable image.  An abstract painting is certainly not ‘mimetic’, so he may well have considered Pollock’s ‘Number 31’ from somewhat of a different perspective.  On the other hand, Plato’s most famous student Aristotle acknowledged art as a form, a mimesis, and a natural pleasure that we could all learn from.  He spoke of valuing art as an imitation of reality that occupies a position of priority in relation to all things, to life.[3] However, Aristotle was also contemptuous of artists who did nothing more than simply try to copy or imitate reality as opposed to creating an inspired version of it.[4]  James W. Manns, philosopher and author of ‘Aesthetics’ published in 1998, believes that Plato’s critical view of representations, of ‘mere imitations’, were due to the fact that they take us even further away from genuine reality and from the objects they were meaning to represent.[5]

A general theory of aesthetics aims to explain both representational and abstract art.  It is generally agreed upon, that aesthetic experiences do arouse our perceptions and affect our senses.  But what happens when we remove the idea of a representational image from a painting? Will our perceptions continue to be aroused or will our aesthetic response to the painting diminish?  Art theorist Clive Bell, in his major work ‘Art’, first published in 1913, referred to art as ‘significant form’ and not only denied that representation was essential to a painting, but affirmed that it could in fact be detrimental to its true aim.  Bell’s aesthetic theory focused on aesthetic experience and was a great defender of abstract art.  He believed that significant form is what aroused our emotion when beholding an artwork, not the reading of its subject matter.  He asserted that forms and relations of forms to each other, including line and colour, are the most important elements to achieve an aesthetic response.[6]   Bell’s theory has since been seriously criticized, as it claims primacy of form over conceptual content.

Rudolf Arnheim, author, art theorist and perceptual psychologist believed that the primary effect of visual expression is inspired by the formal properties of visual shapes.  Shapes in general, including well recognised, representative shapes of heads, hands, tables, trees etc., play a compositional role in art and the beholders visual perception of it.  Arnheim, in his book titled ‘Art and Visual Perception’ explores the effects that visual phenomena can exert on our emotions and leaned heavily on the theoretical framework of Gestalt psychology.[7]  Arnheim put forward that the concept of balance is a relevant and important element in the aesthetics of visual art, and that an unbalanced composition appears accidental and is therefore invalid.  He goes on to suggest that the emphasis be on the pattern of directed forces that are being balanced, ordered and unified as a whole composition.[8]  Arnheim also argued that just as the visual form is indispensable as an interpreter of the idea, the subject matter is also important and should connect with the formal pattern.  A relationship where one affects and depends on the other.  In his book ‘Art and Visual Perception’, Arnheim writes that “Neither formal pattern nor subject matter is the final content of the work of art.  Both are instruments of artistic form and serve to give body to an invisible universal”.  Further on in his essay, Arnheim goes on to say that “The human mind receives, shapes, and interprets images of the outer world with all its conscious and unconscious powers, and the realm of the unconscious could never enter our experience without the reflection of perceivable things.  There is no way of presenting one without the other.” [9] Thus, Arnheim proposes that abstract art does not mean pure art, as even the simplest line visually expresses meaning.

Our perceptions of art are as diverse and varied as the artworks themselves and future philosophers and art theorists will surely continue to put forward their own arguments and findings, and question our aesthetic response to paintings and various styles of art.  We will surely continue to embrace their well-researched, well thought out theories and philosophies whilst we stroll through the galleries and museums to admire and be affected by a wide variety of both abstract and representational work, wondering to ourselves if it’s all simply a matter of taste…

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‘Ways to Perceive’

 Is that Art? Our own perception of art is certainly very creative.  When we ‘see’ we naturally filter out various pieces of information and fill in gaps.  As individuals we interpret what we see differently.  In most instances, when our eyes are busy absorbing colour, contour and contrast, we are not even aware of the neurological, cognitive and perceptual sequences that occur within the process.  Different minds interpret and react to visual stimuli uniquely, though universal principles and cognition apply to all of us.  Arthur P. Shimamura, a professor of psychology and author of ‘Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder’ argues that the meaning of and aesthetic response to a piece of art (a painting) may be different for each person.  He writes that our interpretations will be largely influenced by our unique memories and personal points of view.[10]  Shimamura also argues that aesthetics is not tied specifically to art, that there is no ‘art appreciation centre’ in our brain, that aesthetics is a hedonic evaluation based on pleasure or interest, determining what we ‘do and don’t like’ on a daily basis.[11]  Maybe this explains why we tend to gravitate to different paintings when we visit a museum or an exhibition?  It’s common to arrive with an art-loving friend or spouse by our side, to then end up in the experience on our own.  While we’ve been admiring a particular piece of work, our partner has unnoticeably continued wandering on right past… later to be found in another section of the gallery, thoroughly enjoying a painting that we don’t feel the need to spend any time with.

Shimamura believes that our interpretations of art will be influenced by our personal, cultural, political, religious and even sexual orientations.[12]   Prior experiences, memories and knowledge all play a big part, our metacognitive processes step in to guide the experience and determine the way we look at art and appreciate paintings.  But what happens when we view a painting that does not contain a representational image, what if we are unsure of what it is that we are looking at?  Shimamura writes that appreciation of the work has much to do with what the beholder seeks.  If the work is mimetic (representational), we typically look at it as though a window to another place, evaluating its success in depicting realistic qualities.  If the work is expressionistic, we approach it quite differently and seek from it an emotional response such as sublimity.  If the work is of a formalist style, we evaluate its qualities of colour, line and shape, and how they affect each other.  If the work is conceptual, we look for the thought or story behind it.[13]  So as a beholder we arrive at the painting with great expectation, and to a certain degree ‘what we like’ would possibly be largely determined by ‘what we already know’.  Our response would also be influenced by what we are familiar with.  For example, if the beholder already had some prior knowledge and appreciation of abstract art, they would not arrive at an abstract painting expecting to see a mimetic image, or one that they could easily recognise.  If they did, it might very well lead to some sense of confusion and possible disappointment (as this would not be what they were expecting from the experience), the painting would not provide what they were seeking from it.

The way we see paintings is quite individual, thus how we ‘feel’ about a particular painting is likely to be dissimilar to how another person ‘feels’ about it.  We each bring our unique self to the work, our past experiences and expectations.  Professor Robert L. Solso in his book ‘Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain’ writes that “All viewers have extensive world knowledge that they apply when viewing an event.  This background contributes to their deeper understanding of art”.[14]  He puts forward the argument that all art is representational, or partly so, as even mimetic art is idealised… and that at the other end of the scale, all art is to a degree abstract as it is not actual reality.[15]  Professor Solso also notes that humans have a tendency to react to generalised forms, which might explain our attraction to abstract art. “While realistic art may be comely, innovative art may be exquisite”.[16]  In our argument we ask if the absence of a representational image diminishes an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting.  The evidence here suggests that it does not, and suggests instead that an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting is more affected by their own backgrounds, memories and knowledge… and what they might ‘seek’ or ‘expect’ from the style of painting, whether it contains a representational image or not.

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‘Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism’

 Through most of the nineteenth century, a painting appeared as a window into another world where artists had skilfully, and sometimes not so skilfully, rendered three dimensional representations of life and historical events onto the flat surface of a canvas.  One might expect to behold well recognised forms of nature, narrative content and an illusion of depth.  Paintings would generally offer a fixed interpretation, they made sense, or at least promised to.  A painting such as ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Van Gogh is a great example.  To address the main argument of this essay however, we will move forward in time to the early twentieth century from which emerged the ‘Abstract Expressionist’ movement in America.  A style of non-representational art that didn’t tell a story or suggest a situation.  A style of art that did not contain representational images, give an illusion of depth, or act as a window into another place.  Pollock’s ‘Number 31’ as mentioned earlier in this essay is a good example of such a painting.

Influential visual art critic Clement Greenberg perceived the Abstract Expressionistic work to be superior for its originality and elimination of the picture plane.  He believed an inherent purity characterised the work through its all-over compositional flatness.  This style of painting doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else, a painting is a painting.[17]  In his essay ‘Abstract, Representational, and so forth’, Greenberg states that:

“Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary.  No one has yet been able to demonstrate that the representational as such either adds or takes away from the merit of a picture or statue.  The presence or absence of a recognisable image has no more to do with value in painting or sculpture than the presence or absence of a libretto has to do with value in music.  Taken by itself, no single one of its parts or aspects decides the quality of a work of art as a whole.  In painting and sculpture this holds just as true for the aspect of representation as it does for those of scale, colour, paint quality, design, etc., etc.”[18]

Clement Greenberg, along with art theorist Clive Bell, defined the nature of modern art.  Bell stated that “paintings that told stories and suggested situations added no new material to our lives, that descriptive art was inferior”.[19]  From his formalist perspective, he believed a beholder would appreciate a painting on the basis of the raw visual stimulus alone.  It was the ability of the artist to magnify the quality of ‘sensation’ through an aesthetic interplay of colours, lines, textures and shapes to enhance its significant form.[20]  On the other hand, American art historian Meyer Schapiro argued that the absoluteness of the aesthetic, present in its purest form of abstraction, was a myth and that the idea that a modern painting could be reduced to an art of its medium was not a very plausible one.[21]  In the late 1940’s – 50’s, well recognised artist Philip Guston was opposed to being referred to as an abstract expressionist and was averse to the idea that a painting could be fulfilled in a simple self-investigation of the medium itself.[22]  Guston contended in 1960, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: the painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits.” He also stated that Abstract Expressionist paintings were filled with contradictions and were ripe with subject matter.[23]  Conversely, Greenberg did not pay any attention to the convictions of artists, declaring ‘I don’t think I quote living painters.  And I don’t pay any attention to what they say in connection with their art.’[24]  So the general aesthetic response to abstract art appears to be passionately diverse, with significant critical debates and differing ideas between art theorists, critics and artists, who have over time inspired numerous heated statements, causing a memorable stir and arousing quite a ‘sensation’ in their own right.

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Conclusion

 An individual’s response to art is varied, what we each behold and contemplate can elicit a range of feelings including curiosity, fascination, surprise, sadness, boredom, shock and even disgust.  Undoubtedly art can stimulate our minds and stir our emotions.  It is a perception consciously experienced and our personal experience of it is greatly influenced by what we already know.  The evidence provided by the thoughts and determinations of the philosophers, art historians, theorists, psychologists, critics and artists included in this essay seem to suggest that an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting has more to do with their own prior experience, memories, knowledge and expectations than it has to do with either the absence or inclusion of a representational image.  As beholders, we each interpret information differently and uniquely evaluate what we see based on the aesthetic sensations evoked by it.  Aesthetic response seems to be greatly influenced by what we expect to see and what in turn we seek from the work… whether it is representational, abstract or otherwise.  My own personal experiences when encountering the paintings ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Van Gogh and ‘Number 31’ by Jackson Pollock, provide evidence enough that I as a beholder can experience an intense aesthetic response to a painting with, and a painting without, a representational image.

I conclude from the research undertaken, and from my own personal experiences, that the absence of a representational image does not diminish an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting.

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Bibliography

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception : A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1974.

Balaschak, Chris. “Abstract, Representational, and So Forth.” Octopus 4 (2008).

Balken, Debra Bricker. Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art.  London: Tate 2005.

Hess, Barbara. Abstract Expressionism. Edited by Uta Grosenick Köln Taschen, 2005.

Manns, James W. Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy. Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Mattick, Paul. “Aesthetics and Anti-Aesthetics in the Visual Arts.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, , 1993, 253.

Shimamura, Arthur P. Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder New York : Oxford University Press, 2013.

Solso, Robert L. The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2003.

 

[1] Arthur P. Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder (New York : Oxford University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] James W. Manns, Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 35.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 54.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] Ibid., 70.

[9] Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception : A Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1974), 444.

[10] Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder 128.

[11] Ibid., 259.

[12] Ibid., 128.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Robert L. Solso, The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2003), 5.

[15] Ibid., 250.

[16] Ibid., 256.

[17] Debra Bricker Balken, Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art (London: Tate 2005), 23.

[18] Chris Balaschak, “Abstract, Representational, and So Forth,” Octopus 4 (2008): 133, 34.

[19] Manns, Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy, 55.

[20] Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder 10.

[21] Paul Mattick, “Aesthetics and Anti-Aesthetics in the Visual Arts,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1993, 255.

[22] Barbara Hess, Abstract Expressionism, ed. Uta Grosenick (Köln Taschen, 2005), 74.

[23] Balken, Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art, 47, 49.

[24] Ibid., 49.

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