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Color and Abstraction: Easy Ways Out?

Ever since my residency last January at the Vermont Studio Center, I’ve been thinking a lot about the new paths I’m taking in my work, specifically, the introduction of color and pure abstraction in my work.  

The response to this new work has been fantastic.  People are going crazy for the color.  I’m pleased by the reaction.  Well, mostly pleased.  Let’s take a step back.

I think my first mature work was my hand-drilled wooden pieces.  I have a phrase that I like to use and it applies to this work.  It (the work) is doing something.  There’s work that does something and work that does nothing.  I’m not sure how to define this phrase, but its meaning is crystal clear in my mind.  The hand-drilled wooden pieces do something.  The white paint on wood pieces do something.  The clear coat on wood pieces do something too.  As for the new colorfully painted works, I’m not sure they’re doing something.

When people react to the new paintings, they often say that they love the color.  Well, color is easy to love, isn’t it?  Who doesn’t love the perfect shade of red, a vibrant blue or a subtle green.  If you’re favorite color is yellow and I used yellow in a specific piece, chances are you might like the piece.  But why?  Because it’s a great work of art?  Or because it’s yellow?

When someone says they like the new work because of the color, I’m not exactly sure how to take the apparent compliment.  Sure, I made the choice to use the particular shade of yellow in a particular way, but is that doing something?  Is it doing enough?  Is it the easy way out?

The same can be said of abstraction in general.  What does pure abstraction (reductive or minimal work) do?  How does it contribute to society?  What value does it add?

Now that I am working primarily as an abstract painter, I struggle mightily with the questions above.  Am I simply making decorative objects, or am I making art?  I don’t struggle with these questions with regard to holes/white paint/clearcoat, and why is that?  There’s something about the new paintings that feel almost too close to design.  And that bothers me.

But here’s where things get weird.  When I look at the work of other abstract painters – Malevich, Rothko, Marden, Kelly, etc – I don’t question the validity of their work for even a second.  I love encountering their work.  I love being absorbed by their beauty.  Ultimately, I love that it was OK to them to make that work.  They devoted their lives to it.  While I am certain they struggled with similar questions as me, they persisted.  They probably felt they were doing something and I agree.

So why do I question whether or not I am doing something?

I guess I wonder what pure abstraction has left to say.  Are we left making the tiniest possible discoveries?  Are there any great discoveries left to be made?  What is it that I want to discover?

My current position with regard to the numerous questions above is that I am simply trying to discover my own unique artistic voice, whatever that may be.  My artistic life has been occupied with various related projects.  Some, I felt I was doing something, some, not so much.  In total, however, I feel I have done something.  And that’s enough to keep going, even though that question still nags me: are color and abstraction the easy way out?