The Hungry Eye
10/03/13How do you tell if an abstract painting is good? I know this is a controversial question but it is valid. After all, we all judge realistic paintings by whether we like their visual representation of things we recognise, whether it's Photorealism or Impressionism. We don't have those visual cues for abstract paintings.
I'm not immune to abstraction myself and in the past I dabbled and even sold a couple, including 'Air' shown here.
In real life the effect of looking at 'Air' was quite pleasing, producing a sensation of floating upwards. But after some soul searching I had to admit that I crave the practise of drawing and painting things I can see. Actually, come to think of it, I've sold just about every abstract painting I've ever done. Not that I've done many.
I find a lot of pleasure in seeing great distances in the real world e.g. across the Grand Canyon. All this might seem primitive, but my visual cortex is hungry for stimulation and the majority of abstraction is, for me, too boring. For example when I saw the fabled Agnes Martin’s minimalistic drawings in the flesh they were a terrible disappointment, just weak lines. Something and nothing as my Mum would say. Ditto video installations, they’re just so slow. Give me a good blockbuster movie like Avatar 3D any day to keep my visual cortex satiated.
And don’t get me started on conceptual art. Generally it fails to activate my visual cortex however clever the idea behind it is. So is it Art? Is it poetry? Or just a bad joke? I don’t care, it’s just not visually engaging.
So now I shall contradict myself. Many years ago I was busy painting a portrait of Bishop Brian Noble (now retired) when he told me how he'd made a special trip down to the Tate Modern to see the Rothko Seagram murals. He'd heard that people had spiritual experiences if they looked at them long enough, so he went to see for himself. Later I did too.
Rothko's colour field paintings are huge and only contain one or two colours, but done in layers so they have depth. Because the paintings are so big in comparison with my body I felt drawn into them. I didn't know this, but that was exactly the effect Rothko intended. I loved them and I do see how people can have the nearest thing to a religious experience when looking at them, although personally I prefer my religion to be more baroque.
So how do you tell if an abstract painting is good? I don't know, but if my hungry eye is sated then it has my approval, even my awe. Just don't expect me to paint like that.