The Abstraction in Realism—The Realism in Abstraction

15 Jun 2009

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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on 16 Jun 2009 10:58 AM

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.

on 16 Jun 2009 12:04 PM

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.

on 16 Jun 2009 7:49 PM

David Leffel also said "How does an abstract artist know when he is getting better?"

on 16 Jun 2009 7:49 PM

David Leffel also said "How does an abstract artist know when he is getting better?"

EdTerpening wrote
on 23 Jun 2009 7:27 AM

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. :-)

on 8 Jul 2009 6:38 AM

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!

kumar wrote
on 11 Jul 2009 5:55 AM

very intresting reading indeed!

In fact i stongly endorse some of the thoughts shared in the blog. I am a watercolourist but i also do abscract watercolours which i call arrangements...here you can see them:

www.watercolours-kumar.blogspot.com