The main character of abstract art

Culture & Science
18 November 2018, 09:48

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


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


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


Monochromes and the Appropriation of Blue


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


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


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


Since the late 1990s, it has been clear that Silvashi is creating a national version of that famous ultramarine, but not as a replica with reflections of female bodies or attached sponges, nor as an allusion to the blue colour of the national flag. Silvashi felt a meditative oriental element in Klein's practices (the French artist lived for some time in Tokyo and practiced martial arts), which led him to the understanding of "our monochrome", which appears not so much in a certain space as in time. Not the saturated blue background of Giotto, but the changeable purple of Kyiv frescoes whose power gradually becomes evident in the morning light. The blue background of the frescoes at Saint Sophia's Cathedral was destroyed by barbaric "restoration" in the nineteenth century, and now it is only possible to symbolically restore their approximate shade from tiny preserved pieces and fragments.


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


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


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


Dynamic Graphics and the Expression of Black


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


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


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


Is there anything here from the arabesques of oriental calligraphy or Pollock's dripping? In his projects, it is not the composition itself that matters, but the cultural context – the combination or collision of graphic works with the architectural or sculptural environment in the form of specific artefacts or photos. The power of juxtaposition causes the viewer to have numerous associations, often called musical or jazzy, because the endless, capricious brush movements and colours that always leave a different trace and an unusual trajectory on the paper or canvas bring forth images of "variations on a given topic." With maximum acceleration of the rhythmic beats, which even gives the dynamics of colouristically restrained canvases/sheets a galloping feel. The work with brushes of different sizes, trickles of paint, sprays and textures wards off any similarity with real objects. Consequently, the artist ceases to be a visual manipulator: they create a space in which the viewer can feel the "oceanic emotion", but can also opt for distant observation of the tonal decisions.


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

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


Penetrating the Walls


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


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


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


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


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


Petro Bevza's non-figurative project demonstrates how such a new optical practice can turn into a new artistic aesthetic.

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



How to Learn the Vocabulary of Abstract Art?


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


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


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


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


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


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

By Diana Klochko


Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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