Thursday, February 27, 2014

Abstraction and Representation

"Abstract literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract... a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts." - Richard Diebenkorn

"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." - Wassily Kandinsky

"Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something." - Georgia O'Keefe

"There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There's no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark." - Pablo Picasso

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of abstract art and representational art, as if they are two entirely different things. Within the art quilt community there seems to be a clear distinction made between the two, but I have always believed that the differences are often hard to clearly define, if they should be defined at all. My quilt, above, depicting a fire—is it abstract or representational? I would say "both." It represents a fire, so, yes, it is representational. But it is not a realistic rendering of a fire. It is a pretty seriously abstracted expression of a fire.

Recently I went to see the exhibit of our High Fiber Diet show "Simply Red." It is hanging in a venue where there are two separate hanging areas—one on the upper floor of the building, and one in the basement area. I was told that the hanging committee had decided to hang all the "abstracts" on the upper floor and that my piece (above) was in the basement with the rest of the "representational" pieces. "How odd," I thought, not because the basement seemed like a less desirable place to be (it isn't, in this case) but because it seemed such an arbitrary way of grouping the work, and rather than hanging the show to create interest and flow, it seemed to have been hung in a way that categorized the work in a State Fair sort of way. They could just as easily been all the small pieces together and all the large pieces, or all the pieced work together and all the appliqued work together, or hand-dyed fabric work together and commercial fabric work together, and, and, and... none of which would have produced a harmonious flow. (Hanging a show is an art in itself) But somehow the differences between abstract and representational, or as some even more erroneously call it "realistic" work seems to be a very real thing in many artists' minds. A teacher once told me that all art is abstract, in that it is not the real thing, but rather paint, or fabric or marble, and the illusion of reality is truly that—an illusion, an impression, a memory, a dream, a starting point. I like to think of abstraction as a scale that travels from very representational to totally non-representational, with most art falling somewhere along the in-between spaces. Myself, I travel back and forth within a section of that scale. I don't think I would need to go too far in the "less" direction to find myself upstairs with the abstracts. But I hate being categorized. Does one make a decision to be abstract or representational? I guess some do. I prefer to think that most of us do what we do, the best way we can, and the results speak for themselves.

Someone told me they thought that fabric "lends itself better to abstract work." I think many fabric artists believe that doing something that is very abstract is easier than representation. I think doing good work, regardless of how representational, is hard. I like Georgia O'Keefe's quote at the top of this post and think it applies in the reverse as well. What do you think? Do you see clear differences between abstract and representational art? Is one "easier" than the other? Do you see biases toward more or less abstract work in the shows you enter? Do you prefer one over the other? (I don't. I love a good abstract-y abstract and a poorly done very representational piece makes me cringe! And vice versa.) Can I convince you to think differently about what "abstract" means?


  1. Oh! What about representational work that by it's title is expressing an abstract concept?? :)

    I like that Georgia O'Keefe quote. I think that when there is enough representationalism in the work to make it understandable, it is easier for more viewers to appreciate/understand. What is "enough" is relative.

    Here's a funny story:
    Was it too representational? Or too abstract? LOL

    1. That's a pretty funny story. Rather than too representational or too abstract I think it must have been too much like trash! Is that what they mean by "conceptual" art? Yet another category!

  2. I just want to say that I have always loved your campfire piece and think it is very inspired.

  3. You can't convince me to thick differently because we already agree (as usual)! I also agree with all those quotes to one degree or another. I guess I tend towards the representational, but I am moved by the conceptual -- or at least the concept. I don't think that fabric lends itself specifically to abstract, but I really hate a lot of "realistic" work done in fabric. That's probably because most of it is really amateurish.

  4. I like your abstracted representations of fire and trees. They straddle a line but in a most delightful way. I think of my work as "non-representational" then when someone sees a shape or I happen to insert something with a shape, someone tells me, "I thought you were doing abstracts". It seems difficult for many people to look at work that they can't categorize. I guess that it makes them uncomfortable.

  5. Terry I appreciate your thoughts and questions here, and loved the funny story that Leah mentioned about the cleaning lady. I think the difficult thing is if the artist of abstract needs to make it just clear enough someone to recognize or identify with what it is... how does he or she know how much that is? It's different for each different person isn't it? In music one person might be able to identify a familiar tune with hearing only 5 notes while someone else might be able to recognize is in 2 notes. To me it's all about the reaction and interaction by the viewer. Personally I keep trying to abstract my work, but I get bogged down in details... I need to let go a little more. Again, thanks Terry!

  6. I find true representational art to be much easier than abstract work, but that is really just because that is how I was brought up. Every one in my family drew THINGS and I know my parents did not like modernist abstract art, so that is how I grew up. Over the years, since, I have begun to understand abstract art more and can even attempt it for some ideas, but it will always be easier for me to represent reality.
    The point you made about the realist/abstract continuum is important, I think. Where your work sits on the continuum, is your choice as an artist. Whether the work is categorised as one or the other by administrators, is their choice. Because this "Abstract art" is relatively new to quilt and art quilt shows, it will take time for more than two categories to develop (perhaps)
    What was called "Abstract Art" before the twentieth century, now has a plethora of subroups so your pieces would find a home, I'm sure
    It is certainly not a simple black and white decision

    1. I would argue that quilts have LONG been abstract and in fact representational quilts are fairly new to the scene. Think about some traditional quilt square patterns and their names, often the name doesn't resemble anything like what is depicted, except in the most "abstract" sense (Road to California, Shoo Fly, whatever). Contemporary quilting likes to think it has a lock on abstraction, but let us recall the Gee's Bend quilts whose abstract quality is profound.
      I also agree that we over categorize in all aspects of life unnecessarily.
      Terry's quilts evoke an abstraction of representation and something else that cannot be categorized easily. That's what makes them hers. That's what makes them special. That's what makes them important.

  7. Just want to say I love your work whatever you call it! I would not say that abstract or non-representational art is "easier," but I do think that representational work that is "off" is more visually disturbing to me, if you know what I mean. I'm thinking of those fabric portraits I've seen where one of the eyes is just not right and the whole piece bothers me. Now if one square inch of a non-representational piece were off, it would be much less apparent. Or think of those landscapes where the perspective is just enough off to look clumsy, but not enough off to look deliberate. I was on a jury once when another juror implied I was biased against the realistic pieces. I think it was just that the mis-steps jumped out at me more with those. But mostly, I don't think the labeling is terribly helpful-- much less the upstairs/downstairs "sorting" described in the show.

  8. You always give me something to think about and ponder. That's the sign of a true and gifted teacher. Thanks

  9. You always give me something to think about and ponder. That's the sign of a true and gifted teacher. Thanks.

  10. I was just discussing this with another artist yesterday. I think people interpret the definition of abstraction in a variety of ways. The way I think about it, based on my education, is that abstraction starts with something "concrete" or real, an object or landscape or whatever and you abstract from there - in varying degrees (from a little to an extreme).

    I don't see it as the same as non-objective (or non-representational) where an artist is maybe experimenting with something like drips of paint, for example (think Jackson Pollock).

    That's how I look at it, even though the definition of abstract art in my Dictionary of Art Terms states: "Art which is either completely non-representational, or which converts forms observed in reality into patterns which are read by the spectator primarily as independent relationships, rather than with reference to the original source."

    I guess that is why people use the term abstract to also refer to non-objective (non-representational). I still think they are two different things.

    I think your work is abstract and representational. I don't think one is easier or harder to do. I think some materials may or may not be easier to use for one or the other, but I don't think that makes the work any easier in either.

    I agree there is an art to curating a show, as opposed to just hanging a show. Separating groups of work into the two categories doesn't allow for a comparison or interaction of those works. Maybe there would have been two pieces that complimented each other and would spark an interesting discussion.

    Most of my artwork is abstract and more to the extreme side. When I do something more realistic, like in an original print, people are surprised or say that doesn't look like my work. I think there is still some abstraction there, it is just more representational.

    We could really muddle the discussion by adding Abstract Expressionism or, as you mentioned, conceptual art.