Narrative and Abstraction in Representational Painting
This topic, a favorite of mine, resurfaced recently in a discussion of Andrew Wyeth with my son. He had stumbled across and was admiring some of the more minimalist drawings and prints, not being familiar with the more famous work (Wyeth is not taught in most BFA program art history classes). In contrast, I had never taken a really close look at the more abstract work, finding it masterful—especially in terms of composition– upon scrutiny.
All artwork that uses recognizable imagery carries some kind of a story, from the merest hint of one created by our own associations with an object or objects depicted to artwork that focuses on documenting something very specific about the world around us. Where an artist chooses to fall along this spectrum is of course a major piece of our stylistic puzzle.
Wyeth’s work is a good vehicle for the discussion of high narrative vs. open abstraction, as is my own, since we both wander back and forth between greater openness and more specificity in different pieces.
“Christina’s World” is the obvious choice for a high-narrative Wyeth. I have never liked this piece so I originally wasn’t going to include it, but the reasons for my dislike pertain to this discussion, so I will begin with it.
This is a piece that is melodramatic, and photographically so. I find the poignancy of the narrative so cloying that I can’t appreciate the composition, and the rendering so exact that I take no pleasure in the surface of the painting. The story is sown up to the point that there seems to be no room for the viewer.
Public Sale”, in contrast, is a gorgeous piece in its tonalist color and sweeping angles that manages to combine a strong narrative with equally strong painterly devices.
Wyeths compositions are stunning in their use of interlocking diagonal shapes and edges to create movement. In “Public Sale”, the tilt of the hill serves the story, clearly the destabilizing event of a home lost to the bank. We are kept from a sense of sliding off the left side of the piece by the dominant color of the driveway angling back toward center right and by the lovely soft stands of trees on upper left that travel off the edge of the piece with the slightest upward angle.
The ample use of gritty black and near-black for the human-interest details of figures, car, buildings, and so on also help convey a theme of human unkindness and grief in the midst of an idyllic (though also man-made) landscape. The genius of this painting is that it has in equal measure the open feel that the sweep of the landscape provides and the tautness of a clear story line.
I suspect that for these major oil paintings Wyeth started with the story and mood that he wanted to convey, and organized the painting to express these.
In the watercolor below there is a major shift toward the abstract with dynamic angles delighting the eye as the lines and shapes lead it back and forth across the painting. Even the signs of human activity have more presence as shapes than as descriptive objects. Much as I am impressed by “Public Sale”, I actually want to look longer at the watercolor. There is no story arc…just endless possibilities as shapes lead into others and tones and lines divide the picture plane.
The following two watercolors are quirky and abstract, playing with forced perspectives, odd linkings of shapes, and fabulous textures. The documentary nature of many of Wyeth’s figurative paintings and figures in a landscape is not present in any of these watercolors, creating an open feel that invites the viewer to enter.
This discussion of content and abstraction is of enduring interest to me as I explore the compelling terrain that contains them both. My roots lie more in the abstract (I call it my “comfort art”, the work I was studying in my teenage years: Rothko; Agnes Martin; Kandinsky—the abstract expressionist work; Frankenthaler; Gotleib; de Koonig.) That I long ago chose to work with landscape imagery doesn’t lesson my ongoing love affair with the formal elements of painting, though it is exactly the intrigue with the push and pull of these two aspects of representational art that generated that choice, as I try to have it all.
The following pieces of my own compare to the Wyeths as examples of paintings with either more or less narrative.
In the first, “Bridge Crossing with Violets”, there is an openness of the dawn sky seen through the fog that counterbalances in mood the grittiness of the truck traffic. We are clearly in a particular moment in time, but there is no story arc.
Sandflats with Cloudbank, in contrast, is almost a pure color-field painting. The whole piece sits right up at the front of the picture plane, the horizon line implying depth but not really describing it (abstract artists always say that the minute you put a horizontal line on a canvas you have a landscape whether you want one or not). The clouds have a bit of volume, anchoring the flatness of the sandflats and stripe of a tidal pool. The shapes of the scene actually looked like this—I might not have had the courage to paint that stripe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Still, this is a piece that is more about painting than place.
“Diagonal Cloudbank” falls somewhere in between–still a minimum of detail, but creating an experience that takes you there, and perhaps is equally about painting and the moment in time.
My approach to a painting is to carefully work out the formal elements of color, shape, edge, and surface and let the implied narrative and mood follow organically, sometimes surprising even myself. With the below piece, for example, I didn’t expect it to convey such a taut mood, since it is an ethereal subject matter.
Someone once said that all good art allows for the viewer to project their own feelings into the piece. That turf is vitally important to me—I want every single painting of mine to provide that opportunity, at least to the right viewer. In my experience, if the narrative is too specific, it does not leave this chance for open, nonverbal interpretation.