Artists Blog


Ray Johnstone

A few years ago, the Guggenheim in Bilbao staged a large exhibition called ‘Art in the USA - 300 Years of Innovation.’ In many of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century paintings it was plain to see the obvious influence the art schools of Europe were having on the paintings that were being produced in America during those explosive years of reaction against the establishment and academic art. In fact, some of the American works were so influenced by the famous schools of Continental art that they looked as if they had been done by any of a number of European artists of the time.

In a more contemporary section of the exhibition where several works by  highly regarded American artists working in the second half of the twentieth century, including Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko.

For the sake of my (possibly prejudiced) argument, let’s just take the one Rothko that was on view. A drab, dull and boring work without a name, and painted in two fields of colour. Hardly worth a glance, but certainly worth thinking about because of his huge reputation.

Rothko was very reluctant to explain the meaning of his work. He believed his paintings to be so cerebral and complex that they defied discussion. "Silence is so accurate," he said, apparently fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer's mind and imagination.

This is fair enough, and art works worth their salt should be worthy of existing in their own right, without explanation, although he did once say, ‘If you are only moved by color relationships you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, and doom.’

But isn’t it about time we all started analysing this kind of claptrap by asking the question the kid asked the Chinese emperor? Do these artists have anything? Or is their reputation the equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes? For those of you who have forgotten the Hans Christian Anderson fable, here is a summary of the plot:

An emperor of a prosperous city who is infatuated with clothes hires two swindlers (in painting terms, critics, gallery owners, art journalists, and,  mainly, collectors). They have promised him the finest suit of clothes made from the most beautiful cloth. This fabric, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who is either stupid or unfit for his position (in art terms, unfortunately this means us, and people like us, who are too stupid to realize that we are being hoodwinked). The Emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, (in our case we can’t see the poor quality of the trivial art) but pretends that he can for fear of appearing stupid. (Just like us when we see a Pollock or a Rothko – we pretend that it’s great art). The Emperor then goes on a procession through the capital showing off his new ‘clothes’ (just like galleries showing off their paintings).

Unfortunately a young child was not party to the charade. ‘But he has nothing on at all!’ the kid cried out during the course of the procession. 

All of a sudden the penny dropped - the spell was broken - and the crowd realized the child had seen through the ruse and was telling the truth. (In art terms this moment of revelation would be like us coming to our collective senses and realizing that so many famous artists have no talent).

Unfortunately the deceipt is perpeptuated because we are constantly reading about it, talking about it and paying good money to see it – despite the fact that, subliminaly we are fully aware that there’s not much there.

Setting aside hackneyed point about ridiculous prices (the same applies to innumerable schools of art and artists) I have always argued that most abstract painting has very little substance, even less creativity and it does not seem to be going anywhere.

All I can think of to say to those who claim it has a highly intellectual element, or that the content is deeply cerebral, is: ‘What crap!' 

So, is this short (and probably prejudiced) diatribe provocative enough to start a debate?

Is there a gap (or a black hole) in my experience and understanding that’s preventing me appreciating abstract art? Can anyone out there tell me what’s good about a Mark Rothko painting?

I’d love to hear from you, and I look forward to being enlightened.



August 2014


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