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Abstract art: which camp are you in?

Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman, 1967.


Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman, 1967.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/6/2015 (1665 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

'It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick."

These were the famous words of Progressive Conservative MP Felix Holtmann in 1990. Holtmann was on talk radio, responding to Canada's acquisition of artist Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, a painting of three vertical stripes.

The $1.8-million scandal is a firm fixture in Canada's collective memory. I was 12 at the time, beset with preteen angst over yet another culture war — the pop duo Milli Vanilli had been outed as lip-synchers. But I had recently been to Ottawa and had seen the painting in person, so my ears perked up whenever it was mentioned in the news.

Never mind, the sophisticates defending the painting said, adding that Holtmann was just a pig farmer.

It was an early lesson on abstract art and the problems it consistently poses for those not in the know.

Twenty-five years later, not much has changed. Most Canadians remain unconvinced, refusing to be fooled by stripes, smears or splotches of paint.

On Friday at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café, Art Talk/Art Walk will take a look at five abstract paintings commonly ridiculed by the public but esteemed by the art world.

Ufuk Gueray, who teaches painting at the University of Manitoba's School of Art, will speak about each painting's historical significance and will also discuss what kind of meaning — if any — these paintings can offer contemporary audiences.

When defending the National Gallery's purchase, assistant director Brydon Smith said, "Voice of Fire's soaring height, strengthened by the deep cadmium-red centre between dark-blue sides, is for many visitors an exhilarating affirmation of their being..."

In 1915, when Kazimir Malevich painted a simple black square on a white background, it was proclaimed to be the most radical, most defiant, and most nihilistic work of art ever produced. To this day, Black Square is said to be menacing, possessing nearly magical qualities. As legend has it, the square even haunts some viewer's dreams.

Is there any truth to the claims that mere paint on canvas, that squares and stripes can elevate us somehow or drag us down? Yes. But the Holtmanns of the world are right to feel bewildered. To believe in art that is apparently talentless requires a leap of faith.

Frustration with genres of art is understandable, but as an unabashed art fan, my usual position is that those who dismiss difficult-to-understand paintings are missing out.

"Qualities of mind and character," wrote philosopher Alain de Botton, "can be discovered not only in people, but in objects." Especially, I know he would add, in art objects.

When I feel a connection to an abstract painting it is because it articulates something that I am unable to. Painting is a language, and learning it affords us the opportunity to become innately aware of each painting's push and pull on the psyche, however massive or miniscule.

A wash of delicate blue can feel hopeful. There are yellows that feel sinister. Neon pink is energizing but cynical. There are rectangles that are stubborn and triangles that are sly.

The temperament of the artist can often be felt in the way marks were made; hurried, careful, meditative, rash. When these elements combine it goes a long way in explaining why big vertical stripes can be called "affirming" or black squares can become deeply felt pits of nihilism.

But here's the contradiction. Connection with abstract works can be fleeting, a barely registered tickle in the brain. More often than not, when standing before a successful abstract artist's work I wonder if half the appeal comes from the gallery's pristine walls, polished floors, and aura of importance. Galleries are terribly, wonderfully, seductive.

And, as an unabashed critic of art-world elitism, I'm uncomfortably aware that at times my own visual literacy does nothing but make me feel smarter than the masses. For so many people, learning to appreciate art is hampered by the prestige and esteem that is heaped upon paintings by those in the know — esteem that is assumed rather than explained.

There were a lot of artists and art personnel who took issue with the purchase of Voice of Fire, but they felt they needed to help dig the trench in defence of abstract art. The bottom line is that while some artists enjoy a painstaking commitment to realism, abstract art offers an incredible release from all that reality.

Even the reality of being a member of Parliament, I'm sure.


Sarah Swan is an arts writer, educator, and rueful art snob. For tickets to Friday's Art Talk / Art Walk event, call 204-697-7069.


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Updated on Monday, June 29, 2015 at 8:17 AM CDT: Photo updated.

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