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Thursday, May 22, 2003

Kamhi: Art That Bridges The Artist And The Subject

By Michelle Kamhi

Like Kirk Hughey, I have no wish to bore readers by become mired in repetition regarding our respective positions on abstract art. Since he did not refrain from a few closing remarks, however, let me add several of my own in response.

It is of course true that, as Mr. Hughey notes, "abstraction has been accepted . . . [as] an inseparable part of art history." That is precisely what I am challenging. It would not be the first time that history needed to be rewritten.

Mr. Hughey and I completely agree on the importance of subjective response in regard to art. As far as the private realm of experience is concerned, I fully respect his preferences. But when abstract art enters the public realms of education, exhibition, and discourse, the assumption is that it has broadly intersubjective relevance. I am arguing that that assumption is unfounded.

Helen Gardner was entirely correct in saying that "all art is an abstraction." What Mr. Hughey omits, however, regarding her advocacy of "[varied] modes or forms of art " is the following crucial statement, which immediately follows the passage quoted by him: "The challenge to the historian, or critic, of art is the recognition and interpretation of these forms." Gardner also emphasizes, in her subsequent paragraph, that each work of art is "its own embodiment of truth," which must be "comprehended."

In the context, of criticism, the concepts ‘interpretation,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘comprehen[sion]’ all imply more than merely subjective response. As I’ve argued in this debate and elsewhere, critics and art historians alike have been notoriously unable to reach anything like a consensus in their interpretations of abstract work. Like other champions of this form, Mr. Hughey would no doubt fault the interpreters. I, on the other hand, maintain that the fault lies with the nature of the work.

Mr. Hughey admiringly quotes Franticek Kupka’s proposition that it "seems unnecessary to paint trees when people see more beautiful ones on the way to the exhibit." Such a proposition suggests a naive attitude toward representational painting, however. It can be readily contrasted with the view once expressed (by someone whose name escapes me): "One would rather look at Rembrandt’s rendering of a string of pearls than at the string of pearls itself."

Contrary to Kupka’s implication, the experience of a painting of a tree is essentially different from that of an actual tree. Precisely because the painted image is an abstraction from reality, mediated by the mind and temperament of another human being, it offers a distinctive mode of experience, which possesses its own unique value. As Delacroix observed, painting is "a bridge linking the painter’s mind with that of the viewer." In wholly abstract work - in which line, color, and shape bear no clear reference to concrete objects, whether animate or inaminate, real or imagined - the bridge is broken.

Finally, to Jennifer Reeves, another abstract painter who recently entered this debate and repeats some of the same arguments previously offered by Mr. Hughey, I will not repeat my own responses to him. I will only note the vacuity of her closing speculation that I "can’t see a Rembrandt as surely as [I] can’t see a Mondrian."

Michelle Kamhi

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