Half term research and experimentation: Abstract Expressionism

Over the half term weeks I enjoyed taking a break and slowing down the pace of my practice. However I still found myself eager to engage in research!

So I started reading this book I had taken out of the library – a heavy tome so I am still only part way through – and have been really captured by the characters Mary Gabriel introduces from the New York art scene in the 1920s onwards. I was moved to read the book to pursue a deeper understanding of Lee Krasner (whose retrospective at the Barbican this summer I had been bowled over by), but too in hopes of learning about the other 4 women the book biographied who were also innovators within the Abstract Expressionist movement (and regrettably overlooked in the art history): Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler.

(Below: works included in the Barbican Lee Krasner exhibition – I found the gestural quality and sheer scale of her work breathtaking)

I have found it particularly interesting so far to understand more about the context of the inter-war period for American artists, their sense of being onlookers from the European art scene that dominated, and the driving need for these artists to pursue abstraction. For Krasner, this was greatly guided by her tutelage under Hans Hoffmann.

You cannot deny yourself. You ask, am I painting myself? I’d be a swindler if I did otherwise. I’d be denying my existence as an artist. I’ve also been asked, what do you want to convey? And I say nothing but my own nature. How can one paint anything else?

Hans Hoffmann

Some other quotes contained in the book have been notable too

I found that I could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things that I had no words for

Georgia O’Keeffe

Painting or poetry is made as one makes love – a total embrace, prudence thrown to the winds, nothing held back

Joan Miro

Though I find this contextual background really interesting, I wish that it was accompanied with greater emphasis on the works they produced. I suppose I would like this to be an exhibition of its own (though it would need to be a really big one!!). I am interested to go and find works in the flesh for each of these artists (I know of a Krasner in the Tate Modern but I wonder if there are others in the UK, or of these other women?)

Anyway, I was inspired by reading about these intrepid women to experiment for myself with expression. I have til now adopted a swooping style not unlike that of Krasner (though perhaps more akin to a doodle). As yet I have not ventured into paint or proper layering, only sketches thus far as I feel I need to refine the vision before doing so.

I experimented here with using my left and right hand simultaneously to generate this gestural mark, with graphite first, then with willow charcoal. I am interested by how they differ between my hands – the left hand marks seem more erratic, staccato feel – almost vibrating with energy. I like this frenzied effect and I think it is to do with the strongest/most defined lines being straighter, more repetitive and generally within a similar axis/plane. Contrastingly, my right hand marks are more concentrated and looped, though not exactly restrained. For me, here the energy seems constrained instead – caught up inside itself. I think this perhaps reflects more of the intention I had had but it’s interesting that I find the left hand marks more pleasing. Altogether I think the charcoal most effective

I was keen though to try a different expressive technique (one that I thought of when lying awake one night). I conceived that this would involve rotating my arm through almost 270 degrees – starting behind me and swooping over my head and down onto the paper. This was to deliver some force in the contact with the paper, and also to some extent eliminate my control over the mark. Using this forceful hitting also seemed something that could be rhythmic and expressive – not necessarily violent but certainly with an element of physicality to it.

I was surprised by the tailing of the strikes on the paper. I especially like the indents of graphite that can be seen in the paper, and the contrast between the tone of the struck marks and these tails as I lift the graphite back up again. As I had seen in the Chance workshops (in dropping pieces of paper) some order did seem to be produced, as the marks appear to cluster and be heading off together towards the top right corner. They remind me of tadpoles or perhaps sperm, certainly life potential, which is interesting as I had not anticipated this connection (though in reflection now I notice how ‘alive’ this experiment made me feel).

The action itself felt freeing and I was keen to continue experimenting. Here again I tried to see if there was a difference between the marks of my left and right hands. I saw here that the left handed marks were less clustered, less ordered, with greater diversity in the marks made. Again here, I prefer the effect of the softer charcoal, and I am intrigued by the use of colour with this technique, as I think it evokes a vivid liveliness that is not communicated by the charcoal alone.

I am interested to move these experiments into paint, though I am nervous about making a big mess. I think it would be really interesting to try hitting a field of wet paint to see the effect of the impact in this reversed sense.

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