Getting a handle on the abstract

Russell Smith’s latest column in The Globe and Mail describes a documentary called How To Explain It To My Parents, in which nine Dutch artists sit down with their parents and try to explain what they do. Not surprisingly, some of the parents don’t get it. While they take a benign interest in their children’s work, they don’t necessarily see the significance of, say, deliberately making a video with a lot of static in it. The artists do a great deal of explaining, but not in terms their parents can understand.

Abstraction in art continues to have a perception problem, despite having been around for most of the last hundred years. In mid-20th century art, abstractionism reached the point where some artists tried to keep a painting free of any connection to anything outside itself. As this YouTube profile of Quebec painter Claude Tousignant explains, it was a move away from the long tradition of representing the world in art, away from the painting as a picture of something. Tousignant himself has said: “What I wish to do is make painting objective, to bring it back to its source – where only painting remains, emptied of all extraneous matter – to the point at which painting is pure sensation.”

This will not be news to anyone who’s studied art, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. Once I actually saw this written down in black and white, many of the abstract paintings I’ve seen suddenly made more sense. Or rather, I was more comfortable with their not making sense. They are not about anything— or maybe you could say that what they are about is geometry and color.

I still don’t get certain types of art— a series of solid black panels, for instance, or videos purposely made with a lot of static. But one of the Dutch artists, Harm van den Dorpel, doesn’t think that’s always necessary. He tells his father that he doesn’t mind if viewers don’t get the full significance of his work. He’s happy if they are simply intrigued by an image they don’t fully understand.

(See some of Claude Tousignant’s paintings here.)

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