(The second of a two part series examining the influence of modern art on photography, following the post The Influence of Modern, Figurative Art on Ronosaurus Rex’s Photos.)
Abstract painters have helped me to see the colors, textures and shapes around me, a way of seeing I have tried to capture in my photos. The impetus to represent the world abstractly stems from a high school trip to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. My classmates, I noticed, were attentive in the museum, but once they stepped outside, they stopped looking. “Art is only worthwhile,” I commented to a classmate, “if it teaches us to see the world more richly.”
Instagram gave me a handy tool to translate this abstract vision into photography. Often I tag my pictures with #abstract and nothing else, and #abstract is the name of a book of my photographs compiled by Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez. In this post, I hope to give credit to some of the abstract artists who have influenced my photographs, either directly or indirectly.
But first, a bit of art history. The camera freed the painter from the responsibility of representing the world realistically in art. If a person wanted an accurate portrait for posterity, he could hire a photographer. Consequently, from the 1860s to the 1970s, people and objects melted off the canvas. In lieu of landscapes, aristocrats, gods, and fruit, the subject of many paintings became the paintings themselves: their paint, textures, and forms. Although representational art did not vanish during this period, the art world, on the whole, considered it outmoded and regressive.
Figurative art was a lower form culturally until Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and the pop art movement made representative painting respectable again–as long as objects are presented with irony. Since then, many painters have returned to representation, although with pop or surreal elements. Ironically, as painters turn back to representational art, some photographers have turned their lenses to abstract subjects, using the supposedly honest camera to capture non-figurative images. These experiments in photography, however, would not have occurred without the innovations of modern artists.
Although the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold–The Falling Rocket (1875) by John Whistler (1756-1829) is representational–it shows a falling rocket at night–it is one of the earliest paintings to approach abstraction, as the image is less important than its mood and coloring. The work is exemplary of the Art for Art’s Sake movement (1850-1872). His painting did not directly influence my photography (since I did not know about it until I began researching for this post); however, its darkness, understated coloring and indistinct forms influenced other artists who inspired me to take the photo to the right called Mossy Bark.
Similarly, Henri Matisse (186-1954) came close to non-figurative abstraction in this painting French Window at Collioure, (1914). Originally, the painting had much more detail, as shown by pentimenti, or underlying layers of paint, but he simplified the image until it was almost purely geometric. Clearly, Matisse was not as concerned with accurately representing the window, as he was with composition and color. This painting, View of Notre-Dame (1914), and The Yellow Curtain (1915) directly inspired early abstract artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky. Compare Matisse’s painting to my abstract photo of a wall, which shares a similar interest in vertical, geometric composition.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is credited with creating the first truly abstract, non-figurative images. Compare his lithograph Small Worlds no. 1 (1922) with the abstract photo on the right (a collaboration with Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez) of a concrete curb, paint, grass, and shadows. Kandinsky helped me to notice and appreciate the interplay of line, shape, and color that I found here.
Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) was another early artist to delve into pure abstraction, as shown in his painting Black Suprematic Square (1915). Around 1913 in Russia, Malevich founded the Suprematist movement (1915-1925), whose name announces “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” over naturalistic depiction. Malevich and the suprematists focused on geometric shapes, especially squares, rectangles, and triangles, and used a limited pallet of colors. I was clearly influenced by his interest in form and texture in my abstract photo of a black door.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) developed a non-representational form called neo-plasticism and was a prominent member of the De Stijl movement. “De Stijl” is Dutch for “the style,” a movement that championed abstract form in simple vertical and horizontal compositions of black, white, and primary colors, as seen in his painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942). I was trying to create similar effects when I took this picture of a glass candle holder.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was a proponent of abstract expressionism, an art movement centered in New York in the 1940s, the first American movement to gain international acclaim, influencing artists around the world. Pollock would let paint drip from his brushes as he waltzed around his giant canvases, recording the experience of painting, as in No. 1 (1949). The tangle of lines and subtle colors inspired me to take this picture of tangled wires hanging on a pole.
One of my favorite abstract artists is Clyfford Still (1904-198), a leader of abstract expressionism. His paintings earn the label “expressionist” better than most because of the powerful emotions his canvases convey. Look at his painting Untitled (Formerly Self Portrait) (1945). Note the dramatic use of bloody reds, set off with dark patches, and compare them to my photo, which I think was of tree bark. Obviously, I have enhanced the colors to achieve effects similar to those in Still’s painting. Some purists object to filters, but they are constrained by the notion that photography should accurately represent the world. Like abstract painters, my goal was not to represent reality in a journalistic fashion, but to make an entirely new image by experimenting with color, shape, and emotion.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is normally called an abstract expressionist, but he rejected the label: “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” Rothko makes a mistake here, falling into the either/or fallacy, assuming that his paintings must be about either emotion or form and color, but not both. Form and color are the means by which he achieves emotional impact in his painting Red Over White (1957), so how can he say that his is not interested in color or form? And I would add that form and color are more important in his paintings than feeling, which do not convey the raw emotion of a painting by Still. In contrast, I recognize that I am using form, color, texture, and lighting in my photo of a rusted pole to create an emotional effect, but the feeling is secondary to the visual play.
Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a Catalan painter and sculptor, who declared an “assassination of painting,” a rebellion against traditional art forms. Throughout his career, his paintings became increasingly abstract until some were as simple as a line and two spots, one black and one red, on a blue background, as in his painting Blue III (1961). Although I respect this rigorous minimalism and have channeled it in some of my photos, like the one on the right, I confess I prefer Miró’s more representative, narrative paintings from earlier in his career.
Sam Francis (1923 – 1994) was of the second generation of abstract expressionists, who were interested in the expressive use of color, as you can see in his painting Freshet (1971), which reminds me of my photo of a painted sidewalk. I confess I added the spike of lavender. Some of my friends have gasped when they have seen me manipulating my photos, but again my goal is not an objective representation of the world, but the creation of a new image.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who was directly influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure and View from Notre Dame, was also a second generation Abstract Expressionist and a founder of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, borrowing theory and technique from the abstract expressionists, but returning to figurative representation. Although his painting to the left Ocean Park No. 67 (1973) seems purely abstract, it is actually a representation of an ocean park, as the name announces. Diebenkorn’s simple compositions helped me to see the beauty in this tan wall with yellows and blues peaking through.
Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) was another Catalan painter and sculptor, working in the Pintura Matèrica style, using non-artistic materials like clay and dust in his works like Oval Blanc (1990), which emphasizes material, texture and shape, as does my photo of tar on the sidewalk.
Abstract paintings helped me see color, shape, and texture more richly, and I hope that my photos can do the same for you. There is beauty in almost everything around if you know how to look at it. So, the next time you are stepping over a bottle of broken wine, take a picture.
(Follow Ronosaurus Rex on Instagram. Read more about abstract art in Abstract Paintings are Metapaintings. See and read more about his photos in Photo versus Metaphoto: Ronosaurus and Omarrr on Instagram and Reading the City as Text: San Francisco’s Urban Landscape. Check out his abstract photos in the book #abstract.)