I was recently cruising the web and stumbled across Sherrie McGraw's lovely site filled with wonderful painting and interesting text. And on it was a short essay she wrote that really clicked with me. I encourage you to read it because I think she makes a worthy connection between a number of Old Masters we representational painters love to venerate, and some Abstract Expressionists from the '50s and '60 we representational painters love to vilify.
If one sets out to make linear connections in Art History, one must also be willing to skip back and forth a bit between eras to assemble a cohesive thread. Why? Art and Culture rarely ever moves neatly en mass in a single direction. Instead, it tends to bounce around back and forth in fits and starts because many artists will search for inspiration from a previous era, and if those same living artist become great enough they can inspire other artists which follow.
Sherrie lumps Titian, Rembrandt, Halls, and other like-minded Old Masters into a common group due to the physicality of their paint handling. Her artists were interested in creating more than a 3-D illusion on a two-dimensional plane. They were interested in the malleable and expressive properties of oil paint itself.
So Sherrie connects her list of Old Masters to the drips, flecks, bumps, and splashes of the signature AE Modernists; painters such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem DeKooning. And, after offering her connection, she distinguishes this enlarged group from the Neo-Classicism movement which has emerged today. Classicism encourages memisis, the creation of a smooth surface, and the subjegation of the brush stroke. Essentially denying paint of its physicality.
Clearly, I fall into the camp of representational artists, given my desire to inject a sense of realism and draftsmanship into all of my work. But I am equally as interested in the abstract qualities of my paint as well, as I throw it down and push it around. I want my work to do more than fool your eye. I want it to appear as is if the surface was still moving. According to Sherrie's coinage, this makes me an Abstract Realist painter. And after some consideration, I welcome the label.
If you start with the premise that every painting is an abstraction – even realistic ones – then you are likely to accept there are some interesting things which can occur where the real and the abstract come together. Rembrandt combined colored glazes and globs of lead white paint and turned them into lustrous pearls. He did the same with rubies, filigree, lacework, and pressed malleable flesh. (In one way, he succeeded wildly at the ancient alchemist's dream of turning lead into gold. Literally in the case of his "Man in a Golden Helmet" to the left.) But if you stick your nose up close to his paintings his fictions all revert back into stringy globs of paint and colored glazes.
So fine, Rembrandt, Titian, Hals, Velazquez and Sherrie's other Old Masters were, in fact, rather expressive painters. But how does Sherrie connect them to the AE painters? Well, Jackson Pollock, that 20th century AE poster boy of stringy globs was once famously and cynically asked what his paintings were about and his deadpan reaction was, "It's about paint". Franz Kline was all about the act(ion) of painting. And DeKooning? Well, again, the paint.
Do you get it? I do.