Tonight, I attended the first of 3 sessions taught by Patricia Briggs, PhD, Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The subtitle of the series is “Understanding contemporary art.”
I have no art history background, no art education. Dr. Briggs gives an enjoyable, accessible lecture, and I learned a great deal. Any errors below are mine.
She started with a discussion of the history of the Walker Art Museum, which will be the location of the last meeting (she trains docents for the Walker). It was a private collection in a home, then established in 1927 as the first public art gallery in the Upper Midwest. In 1944, a new building and a new focus came together in the wake of MoMA, to recreate the Walker as a museum of modern art. An addition in 2005 adds an architecturally postmodern wing to the modern building.
Dr. Briggs started with a discussion of the function of art. Before literacy, it was propaganda for the church and state. At the rise of the merchant class in the 17th century, different types of art emerged — landscapes, still lifes.
In the late 19th century, art moved away from narrative to art that is doing something else — expressive, abstraction; to colors and lines that don’t mimic nature. Think the brush strokes and colors of Van Gogh. These serve to suggest something, or make you feel something.
On to the early 20th century came the rise of conceptual and philosophical exploration such as Duchamp or Magritte. Think surrealism or Dada. Why is the picture and word of a pipe, a pipe? How do we know that words and signs make meaning? These conceptualists were creating a new audience for art, not entertaining, but art that was meant to make you think. The expressionists and abstractionists were one group at this time, and these conceptualists were in another.
Dr. Briggs said that Duchamp was the most important artist of the 20th century, that in the Dada shadow of WWI, he thumbed his nose at art as bourgeois, that art should be political or shocking, and incite people to think, to challenge them. Art is transforming meaning. He was the beginning of post-modernism, bringing life and art together. Duchamp spoke to a different audience; art of the formalist abstract expressionist tradition viewed art and life as separate, not for politics, not for commerce, not dirtied by life.
The Modern view is that arts’ function is to produce discourse, dialog, discussion of ideas and feelings.
Dr. Briggs went on to discuss abstractionism, usually associated with expressionism, often thought to be the natural progression of art. She showed us examples of paintings by various artists such as Gauguin, Van Gogh, where the paintings became flatter (less depth of field). She described expressionism as a way of painting, where color, shapes, and forms were more important than the subject matter. The progression was away from naturalism towards abstractionism.
She termed Kandinsky as a different type of Expressionist, a major shift to just abstract forms with no narrative. This is art that is meant to speak to emotions, like music it is intended to wash over you. Pure abstraction, no form.
In the 1920’s, Mondrian had a philosophical outlook, that if you surrounded people by soothing, calming art, we’d be a better people and a better world. Art should produce an effect.
Her example of pure abstraction was Hans Hoffman. Hans Hoffman! His work is what I loomed here. Now I know a bit more about him, more than what I read in the Smithsonian blog entry that interested me in his work. Dr. Briggs had a high school art teacher that introduced her to Hans Hoffman. Her description of his work is “form is plastic.” There is push and pull, blurry vs hard edges. Shapes and forms are supposed to dance in front of you, enliven, be plastic. She finds every one of his works “exciting.”
She went on to talk about Color Field painters, those painters who make monstrous, mural-sized paintings of one (or very few) colors. Big blocks of colors. These are meant to create an environment for you. You place yourself in front of one of these big paintings, and it can take you somewhere.
Okay, so if the progression of painting is towards flat monochrome paintings, is painting dead? Are we done? Now, we’re on to Minimalism, a new direction. There is no intended connection with spirit, or emotion. It is painting as an object, not a metaphor for anything. This is form as pure object. Ad Reinhardt was one of her examples of this — he painted black canvas after black canvas. A painting is a painting. That’s it.
Minimalism makes us self-conscious, it doesn’t say anything, it’s just a thing. It talks about the space you’re in, calls to us in a different physical way. These massive minimalist paintings or sculptures? They are intended to be the only thing in the room. There is no evidence of the artist’s hand. This is conceptual art.
Another progression was to formal abstraction. This can be like performance art, a record of the moving body — i.e., Pollock. Art and life together. Art as a stage for the moving body.
And, that was the end of this session. I’m an exuberant note taker. Can you tell?! I’ll write more next week, after the next session.