The Wonderful Contradiction of Abstract Painting

A Guest Post by Daniel Siedell

My approach to abstract painting changed forever fifteen years ago during a conversation with an artist friend in front of Kasimir Malevich’s White on White (1918) at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I was telling my friend about Malevich’s theories of abstraction and his utopian belief that paintings of squares and rectangles could transform society, my friend interrupted me and, with his nose about as close as one could get to a painting, whispered, “Look at this surface! How did he do it?”

As I looked at that meticulously worked-over canvas, White on White became something other than an idea or a theory.

It became a painting—a vulnerable, futile, and weak object, lovingly and painstakingly made by a human being in the midst of a world turned upside down by World War I and the Russian Revolution.

[Read more…]

The Poetics of Painting

Part Four: Tradition
Guest Post

By Daniel Siedell

Today’s post concludes our occasional series on “The Poetics of Painting.”

While touring an exhibition of Frank Stella’s paintings in 1970, critic Rosalind Krauss asked the exhibition’s organizer, fellow critic Michael Fried, why Stella, a Minimalist, felt compelled to paint stripes, again and again.

Fried responded with this story: When Stella was a student at Princeton, he would take the train into Manhattan and go to the Met where he would sit for hours in front of the canvases of the Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Stella wanted more than anything else to paint like Velázquez. But he knew he couldn’t, so he returned to his studio, and painted stripes.  [Read more…]

The Poetics of Painting: Part Three

Part Three: Standing Before a Painting
Guest Post
By Daniel A. Siedell

A painting is more than meets the eye. And yet, it meets our eye. How are we to respond? Unfortunately, we’re conditioned by museum curators to do all we can to avoid this encounter that puts us in the crosshairs of that paint-smeared canvas.

I should know—I was one of those museum curators. [Read more…]

The Poetics of Painting: Part Two

Part Two: Beyond the Image
Guest Post
By Daniel Siedell

Have you ever been underwhelmed by a painting? Have you been excited to see a well-known and often reproduced painting on tour at your local art museum, your hopes built up to be utterly transformed and…nothing?

Often the painting appears tiny and timid, even vulnerable, surrounded by a crowd of people thinking the very same thing you are. Or it appears less colorful, less dynamic than it had in the glossy reproduction in the magazine or on banners that peaked your interest.

Perhaps we’re embarrassed by our response, feeling that we’re missing something that someone else (a specialist like me, for instance) has clearly seen.

This has happened to me, more times than you might imagine. Far from being a lack of knowledge or taste, it is built into the nature of a painting itself.

Our expectations of a famous painting, whether it’s Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Old Guitarist, or Munch’s The Scream, are built on our desire to see an image, an image we’ve seen in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and other merchandise. We are coming to experience the aura of a spectacle generated by the image.

We come to the museum and wait in line to see that image. And then we are disappointed. [Read more…]

The Poetics of Painting: Part One

Part One: Pigments on a Canvas
Guest Post
By Daniel Siedell

With this post we are launching an occasional series by Daniel Siedell titled “The Poetics of Painting.”

After twenty years of teaching art history, curating exhibitions, and writing about contemporary art, painting still baffles me. The more I study it and the more I talk to artists about it, the more impenetrably wonderful painting becomes.

What I have learned over the years is how much faith is necessary to make a painting. For most of us, a painting is just smelly and messy pigments smeared across a canvas. But for the artist and a handful of others, it is much more.

It seems to me that the very existence of painting in the world is an act of faith, leaning into the scorn and skepticism, the accusations that it is a waste of time and energy. This series will explore the mystery and mechanics of painting. [Read more…]