The Abstraction in RealismThe Realism in Abstraction

I was recently fortunate to see an exhibition of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi’s (1890–1964) paintings at The Phillips Collection, in Washington, DC, and I learned a great deal about the artist’s paintings by reading the wall text. The quotes from the artist emphasized that Morandi used paintings of bottles, vases, jars, and bowls as starting points for explorations of the abstract relationship between shapes, values, spaces, and textures. The statements made it clear that the reclusive artist didn’t spend much time thinking about what the objects were or how they functioned. Rather, he used them as visual reference points for a study of the abstract forms.

This reminded me that many of the representational artists featured in American Artist mention that they are concerned with the abstract visual relationships between shapes and spaces, but they are also interested in representing the specific appearance of glass, porcelain, fabric, and metal. They want to accurately record their observations of real objects in paintings in order to engage viewers and offer them a unique understanding of the subjects. David A. Leffel often says he paints a concept expressed by light hitting the surface of copper platters, Chinese vases, straw flowers, and the like while his attention is focused on the exact appearance of the arrangement set up in front of him. He selects objects that are beautiful and that keep him engaged in the painting process while he studies the abstract patterns.

As I thought about the ideas Morandi explored, I remembered that art and life often present us with paradoxes. Great representational paintings are also great abstractions, and purely abstract paintings often have a connection to the real world. People are never one thing or the other, and experiences are often a mixture of joy and sadness. It makes sense that art isn’t limited to one set of definitions or limitations.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

7 thoughts on “The Abstraction in RealismThe Realism in Abstraction

  1. I saw that show, Steve! That’s how I discovered this wonderful Italian artist. I was stunned seing his beautifully abstract work, especially those large pieces that took up the wall from top to bottom. I was so blown away by his style that I went home streight to Penn State’s library to order a book on his art. Morandi came from a very poor city of Naples and I could easily imagine his lifestyle since I’ve visited Italy and saw Naples first hand. Time really slowed down over there. There were so many poor neighborhoods…
    Morandi’s style of painting still lives within me. It actually reminds me a bit of Sargent and Goya..very thick applications of paint, painterly, loose but with great sense of structure and anatomy.

  2. Steve, I love this conversation regarding the duality of abstraction/realism. To me some of the most exciting painters and images are those that walk the divide between these two visual approaches. I am thinking of Donald Beal and Wayne Thiebaud. in particular. These artists at first look seem to be more abstract artists than not. Check out “Bright City” by Thiebaud for example. At first glance one has to step back and ask just what am I seeing. The same can be said for Beal’s “Woods, Dog and Rabbit.” These are powerful images that strike us in both ways; first as abstract images and then as painterly representations. Now if I could just make that leap myself as a painter life would be very good indeed! Thanks for introducing this topic.

  3. I wonder if the DC show was the same as the one that was at The Met in NYC last year? I really enjoyed it, particularly his later images. They had such a beautiful simplicity! You could easily read them as “naive”, but in the context of his career, they demonstrated the depths of his exploration.

    This post is timely for me, as I’m starting to explore the line between abstraction and representation, because I feel the need to represent sometimes gets in the way. 🙂

  4. Yes, I love this subject too. There is abstract in realism. That’s what determines a great composition or not. I am a great admirer of Mark Rothko’s later works. The very simple compositions where there are only 2 planes creating a horizontal line. I feel great emotion in the simplicity of the subtlity and sensitivity of his work. This horizontal line creates stability as in earth and sky or in a still life, a table and wall. It is such an important line, so simple, but so important. Amazing!