Representation and Abstraction: the golden thread


Spoiled we are for three exhibitions on the relationship between representation and abstraction in painting. 

One is at The Woodmere Museum:  Look Both Ways:  At the Crossroads of Abstraction and Representation.

The second is at The Museum of Modern Art, New York: a chronological review from their own collections of the work of Jackson Pollock:  A Collection Survey, 1934-54.  This is the artist moving from representation to abstraction and to his masterwork:  One: No. 31 of 1950.

The third is at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia:  Picasso, the Great War, Experimentation and Change.  As is known, Picasso began his radical shift into cubism in 1907.  Then from 1912 for a dozen years, Picasso shifted back and forth between cubism and representation.  The exhibition follows these shifts and attempts to explain them in the context  of his life during the Great War. 

Close study of abstraction and representation is very useful.

Often artists use their art to break open the world in order to understand it.  Seeing the golden thread make its way century after century  across the breakages and continuities which, of course, make up our artistic tradition gives our civilization coherence. 

Here, from the current exhibition at The Woodmere Museum about the relationship between representation and abstraction, is the golden thread made explicit in a stunning self-portrait by the young American painter, Charles Edward Harrigan, born 1981.  The artist opens his window and is bathed in the light of The Garden of Eden, 1510: a work of the Netherlandish painter, Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).


My View, 2012, oil on panel.  Charles Edward Harrigan, born 1981, American

Today, we are deep in Conceptual Art.  That is to say the work of art often no longer has an obvious relationship with the world because it is situated exclusively in the minds of artists.  It is this exclusivity, along with the distorting effects on the art market of its extreme commodification, that is making that golden thread difficult to follow.

We stepped around a man – perhaps a woman – who gyrated slowly down the main steps at MOMA recently. The golden thread has here turned into an invisible cord across the stairway which all but tripped us up.  Not fun.

 Plastic.  Performance choreographed by Maria Hassiba, 2016.  MOMA, New York.

The golden thread has been fraying to breaking point with Conceptual Art. 

In this uncertainty all the more reason to retrieve the thread in the particular instance of its passage between representation and abstraction.  That thread seemed, when the Impressionists began, also to be fraying to breaking point.  With long hindsight, we see that the thread entwined representation and abstraction in the continuity which has been our fabulous artistic inheritance.

 There is also this:  all our societies now and for ever are upheld by a political philosophy which finds its expression in our cultures.  The particular form of our economy is the foundation of this philosophy and of our cultures, of course.

 Sometimes artists are de facto members of the elites who govern us and give those elites comfort.   Often they are the avant garde of new ways of thinking and being.

At the moment that an artistic convention begins to mutate and before the change becomes the accepted norm there are fruitful ideas which emerge to increase the possibilities of a human life.

This is also a good reason to review the meeting of representation and abstraction:   abstraction stretched and twisted and teased the golden thread almost to breaking point.  In that process, that unwinding thread unraveled and snaked its way into worlds we had not seen before.  Those worlds of abstraction have hugely enlarged our view and the possibilities of our lives.

Consciousness formerly marginal began to move towards and infiltrate into and overlap normative representations of our world.

This ever-expanding consciousness is the promise of our civilization. 

The golden thread  is currently snaking around the domed circular interior of the two levels of The Woodmere.  Lovely.

LOOK  BOTH  WAYS:  Art at the Crossroads of Abstraction and Representation at  THE WOODMERE MUSEUM of THE ART OF PHILADELPHIA AND ITS REGION until May 15, 2016.

Almost all works are in the collection of The Woodmere or are promised gifts.




Inside Summer’s Garden and detail, oil on linen, 1971; John Laub, 1947-2005, American

A puzzle of color which is a garden in summer.




How soon is Now? and detail; 2008; black gesso and acrylic on canvas.  Douglas Witmer, born 1971; American

Earth and water are opposed to and equal with each other.



The Pinkh, and detail, 2002; oil on linen.  Jamie Adams, born 1961, American.

It is with the slightest effort that one can see that this melodious painting has one foot in the representational world and one in the world of abstract representation. Remove all the distinguishing marks of human bodies and you are left with shapes, flesh coloured with areas of red-amber at their apex floating in a field of pink of bubbles.

 The bodies of the Three Graces arise together out of a common flesh joined at their hips in one sensuous line. The artist is shin to shin with one of the Graces.  None of the Graces is looking directly at you because they  were never in the flesh:  they are solely in the mind of the artist.

While it may not be the artist’s intention, this wonderful painting could also be seen as a representation of the reality commonly called ‘non-dual’:  it is life and the life force connected and never breaking. 



Inheritance, and detail; 2010; mixed media. Andrea Packard, born 1963, American

  The artist is commenting on the history of rug-making.


Tete-a-Tete, 1990; mixed media, pigments, marble dust, encaustic on panel.  Frank Bramblett, 1946-2015, American

The artist has transferred to our view the scars on the body of an African-American whom he met in his Alabaman childhood and who told him about his near-lynching at the hands of white Americans.  Some of the scars bear finger prints. These make this canvas almost unbearable.



Alluvial, 2003, sand, mica and acrylic on vinyl-backed cotton on canvas. Elaine Kurtz, 1923-2003; American

The beauty of what water leaves on the earth, of the earth, when it has passed over it and is gone.


Fruitful Darkness, 1997;  oil on canvas mounted on wood panel; Bruce Pollock, born 1951;  American

The poet T.S. Eliot (1868-1965) commented on this work in ‘East Coker’: So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing.


DSC00154 Umbrian Nights, and detail, 2004, oil on canvas.  Barbara Mimnaugh, born 1937, American

The artist has imagined this scene of the multiple interactions of people, animals and landscape in Umbria.  Life itself even though this scene cannot exist in life.



Osborn Cabin Through Post and Beam, and detail, 2013; oil on gator board.  David Brewster, born 1960, American.

The director of The Woodmere explains that this painting exemplifies a French tradition called ‘premier coup:  all at once’.  Strong brushwork, a somewhat imploded perspective, a feeling that we have rushed into the frame. It is empty right now; but humans have lived and worked here and the vibrant colours say that they still do. 


Abstract Interior, (Winter 1948); oil on canvas.  Seymour Remenick, 1923-1999, American


Mirror, 2010, oil on panel.  Joshua Marsh, born 1973.  American 

At one and the same time sensuous, recognizable, strange and desirable.



Winter Prunings, and detail, 1955 oil on canvas. Morris Berd, 1914-2007, American


Detail of Voices; 1984; water colour and graphite on paper.  Tom Judd, born 1952, American.

Our world of noise as soft-edged colors which envelope us.  A portrait of synesthesia.


Neither Can I, 2014, oil on canvas.  Madeleine Peckenpaugh, born 1991, American

In this skillful and deeply felt composition, the artist captures the effort of the brain-eye to make the scene in front of us, the world, coherent.


Self-Portrait (Reflection), 1991, oil on canvas.  Paul Metrinko, born 1986, American


Fireworks at the Canal, 2002, color woodcut.  Katie Baldwin, born 1971, American

Look up at the fireworks and down to a circular (ring) road crawling with cars, perhaps; or a  pier in the water.


Untitled, charcoal aluminum screen, 1983.  Larry Bergner, born 1952.  American

A shape inspired by the shapes in the natural world made, in artisanal manner, of materials bought in a hardware store.

DSC00040_edited-2Apartment, date not known, acrylic on canvas. Gertrude Fisher-Fisherman, 1916-2013, American


Untitled (Playing Chess), oil on canvas, date not known.  Morris Blackburn, 1902-1979, American



Headlights on West River Drive 2, 1963, offset lithograph.  Eugene Feldman, 1921-1975, American



Interior with Meat, 2006; oil on canvas.  Alex Kanevsky, born 1963,  American, born Russia


Detail I-95 (Mom Were OK),2001-2005, color photocopier print.  Zoe Strauss, born 1970, American


Spilling, oil on linen, 2014.  Drew Kohler, born 1991, American

A man on the left of the frame is wiping his mouth.  He is being watched by someone on the center right.


Reflections 2, 1994, Indian ink and white tempera on Fabriano cold press paper.  Michael Kowbuz, born 1966, Canadian working in Philadelphia

The author of this blog was not able to remove her own reflection and is happy, actually, to be absorbed in it.