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.