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.

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 3

Finally, I enjoyed on my visit attending the exhibition of his drawings, to see how these had a changing role in his creative practice through his career, which lasted 7 decades. The exhibition was organised chronologically by decade, starting in the 1920s with his life drawings, and finishing with the works he produced towards the end of his life. It was interesting to note that it was in light of his drawings in the Second World War that his career really took off, despite this not being what he is best known for today. (Pictures below are taken from a book as no photography was allowed in the exhibition)

In the 1930s he began developing his own individual style and used drawing as a tool for developing ideas for his sculptures.

In the 1940s, the war effort meant that he worked almost exclusively in drawings, and was commissioned to document the London Blitz, producing sketches and large drawings of Londoners sheltering in the London underground. I like the use of perspective in the below tunnel, emphasising the sheer volume of people down there (barely perceptible as figures) disappearing into the distance, they seem unending – quite evocative and haunting. This motif was repeated in the portrait beneath.

This was a technique I saw him using in many instances – multiple studies/idea development on one sheet for a sculptural work. I like this idea of trying out lots of things in sequence and having them laid out next to each other like this.
Here we can see how the ideas developed in drawing were translated into sculpture.
Head, 1958

The above work is one of a triptych of Head studies shown in the exhibition from the same period. This was during the phase where he was now using maquettes primarily to develop his sculpture ideas, so drawing was more for creative release. As such his approach was more experimental, and took him into printmaking and tapestry. These Head drawings were done with crayon as a wax resist against watercolour and ink – I find these very effective and am interested to give this a try myself.

I also liked the linear effect in his charcoal pieces here above – the tendril-like branches in silhouette are very effective here. I believe that ‘The Artists Hands’ is one of his more well-known drawing motifs.

Drawing, even for people who cannot draw, even for people not trying to produce a good drawing, it makes you look more intensely. Just looking alone has no grit in it, has no sort of mental struggle or difficulty. That only happens while you are drawing.

Henry Moore, 1978
Here I have experimented with abstract forms using the wax resist of crayons as Moore had done. It was also quite pleasing to experiment multiply on one page in this way. I would like to repeat this exercise when I am needing to generate ideas as well.

Drawing: my work/reflection/research

One of the aims I had for this course was to get more confident in my drawing, and for this to become more instinctive for me. I have enjoyed as part of that exploring the one line drawing style of Calder, but here follows some more descriptive drawing that I have completed first in a recent workshop, at a life drawing class (my first!) and a cast study I did in the RA recently.

Charcoal/conte/chalk on paper – Study of my cardboard object from Gained in Translation

Here we were given a few hours to really study and work into our drawing – I had not before used this technique of building up a layer of charcoal to begin with, but I enjoyed how this made the process somewhat more malleable – it was forgiving to making adjustments along the way. I enjoyed also using chalk and different charcoals to add further depth and texture here. I found it difficult to get the perspective quite right on this and I think the top of the foot (the concentric circles) are not as occluded as they ought, but I am overall pleased with this work.

I chose this slightly altered pose for the object so that I could focus more on the interesting texture and tone of the top of the foot (the more interesting element for me). I felt that otherwise my work would be too generalised to warrant the length of sitting!

I enjoy working with charcoal for the responsiveness to weight and immediacy you have with it.

I enjoyed the life drawing class, though found it very hard going! Working at pace in quick succession was quite the challenge. I enjoyed experimenting with the soluble graphite stick (which I had not previously used) for the tonality you could achieve quite quickly and the sketchy quality you still achieve. I am most pleased with the 10 x 2 min sketch charcoal piece though. I think this allowed me to release my inhibitions somewhat and be more confident in my lines firstly since there was a time pressure, and secondly since I knew that in overlapping them any ‘errors’ might be obscured. I enjoyed in this experimenting with dynamism and scale and the more successful elements are towards the bottom of the work I think where you see the legs. I’d be interested to try this approach again but using the one-line drawing method.

I am pleased with the tone in this piece, though I think here too my perspective could have been refined (i.e. more hunch to the left side/proximity of the torso to the thigh). I perhaps self-edited here once more and did not fully capture the tonality of the genital region..! I was a little conscious of being in public at that point.

Angelica Kaufmann, ‘Design’ c.1778, RA Collection

As I was leaving the Collection having completed my study of the torso, I was struck by this painting for depicting what I had just done myself!

Exhibition notes for the above painting

I was particularly interested to read here that women were not allowed to draw from life at the time of this painting, and so had to study from casts of classical sculpture. This would certainly have been a hindrance to the development of their craft. I would be interested to learn more about the challenges women faced in art history and the broader picture of why they went unrecognised.

Play: Chance & Sequence – my work

Charcoal drawing of where pieces of 4 different types of string landed when dropped from a height onto paper

In this workshop, we were introduced to 3 different approaches to drawing, and performed exercises that incorporated an element of chance within them: stochastic, system, and collaborative. We were then invited to expand on these exercises further.

The above image is what I produced for the stochastic (organic) drawing exercise. One by one I dropped pieces of string onto my paper and drew where they had fallen. I was keen to capture the difference in texture and shape demonstrated by each string type and varied my marks and weight with the charcoal to do so. I think this has been quite effective. In doing this exercise, the longer I went on (say after the first 6 drops) the more editorial I became with how the string fell – I still dropped it from a height and observed how it had landed, but if the composition was not quite to my liking I tried again without documenting this shape. It was interesting that I gained confidence/a sense of agency once I had a feel for the task at hand – that there was a sort of dance in a way of the relinquishing and regaining of control with chance.

The second exercise we performed was the system drawing. Here we were told to draw a grid and then populate 6 squares to the side with 6 colours. Then we were told we would be rolling a dice and painting 6 consecutive shapes within the grid with the colour for square 6 if we rolled a 6, or 2 consecutive shapes with colour 2 if we rolled a 2, etc.

(top) my first grid, (bottom) I repeated the exercise with a less brilliant palette a la Mondrian

The third approach was collaborative drawing. Here we would receive an instruction from Myfanwy and add an element to the paper in front of us (e.g. draw a line). We would then pass the paper on as instructed (e.g. pass it twice to your left, and rotate it through 90 degrees). We continued like this for some time, adding what we had for breakfast, a drawing of something in the room, a pattern, etc. Finally, we were instructed to retrieve the paper that we had started with and made our first mark on (the line). We could then add to or remove elements in order to make it uniquely our own.

Here is my finished collaborative work. I chose not to obliterate any contributions from the work, though I submerged the pattern (which had been done in biro in the bottom right corner) beneath my ink strokes so that only the texture of the pattern could be seen.

I enjoyed this exercise, though I find the artefact itself I am left with does not fully capture the process I myself went on. Since I had created equivalent elements for each of those seen in my finished work, but they are not here seen, I feel there is something lost along the way. I also dislike that the orientation of the piece is difficult to really nail down, with the elements often being drawn at contrasting ones. But it was an interesting exercise.

For my self-guided piece, I was keen to do another piece that captured the element of dropping. In the session we had been introduced to the below work by Jean Arp (that does appear to have been choreographed somewhat) and I was keen to try this method out for myself.

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) 1916, MoMA

Then above an A1 piece of paper that I had placed on the floor, one by one I (without aiming/looking blankly into the distance) dropped the pieces approximately above the page. I varied the position of my arms in relation to the paper, but maintained roughly a height of 1.5m.

In my first attempt, I found that much of the paper floated off the page, and others ended up clumping into little piles. I felt that the clumping/pile effect might be difficult to effectively capture by sticking, as I would need to deconstruct first and then recreate and might lose something in the process.

For my second attempt, I decided to introduce an element of system/rule to the dropping, and not drop all the pieces of paper in one sequence. Here I chose to drop the coloured pieces one by one first, and then reappraise prior to dropping only a selection of the black pieces. This was interesting, but I still found that the pieces formed a pile/clump.

I decided to restrict the number of pieces of paper I dropped even further. Here I chose to remove from the collection pieces that did not fully have torn edges (i.e. exclude the pieces that had a straight edge)

3rd attempt with restricted pieces of paper

I was very interested by the fact that in restricting the number of pieces I used, the composition appeared to coalesce to a form of sorts – here a diagonal stripe. Below the piece following sticking down with Pritt stick.

I think it is interesting that texture and depth has been lost to some extent in the process of capturing these by sticking them down. A loss in a move to permanence from something impermanent?

I chose to repeat this with the remaining pieces that I had excluded onto another piece of paper.

Intriguingly, again a diagonal shape was formed, this time in the opposite direction.