Sunday, June 5, 2011

Structures · the search for an inner cosmos

In the early 60s I participated in a painting workshop run by printmaker and painter Robert Freimark ( While he was critiquing the participants' work--we were doing still life paintings--he remarked that some still life paintings could be seen as their creators' vision of the cosmos, their personal microcosmos. 

My abstract paintings come occasionally, as a false respite, a deceptive rest without rest, from representatational work that demands intense concentration on drawing. I find that the process of making an abstract painting is an intuitive search whose destination is unknown. Much more than in my representational work, I proceed by trial and error, asking the painting to tell me what to do next, which path to take. One mass or stroke of color will suggest what color and shape to put down next to it, or opposite it on the other side of the canvas. When I reach the destination--that is, when the painting tells me clearly, "Stop working, I'm done!"--I begin to understand what I was striving to accomplish.  But what I "understand" need not coincide with what you see.

My first intuitive search took me to this:

What does the image above suggest to you? I find heat and energy, movement, the thrusting and twisting of inexorable biological processes: mitosis, digestion, exchanges of gases, fertilization (note the intense red sperm cell on the upper left): the pulsing but ordered structure of the inner cosmos of the human body. None of this occurred to me on a conscious level while I was painting. I was focused on making long, sensuous brush strokes with a brush about 15 centimeters wide, which I made sure was richly loaded with paint. Intensely pigmented paint. Are the colors too intense?

Months later I chose a larger canvas (100 x 81 cm) and resolved to continue to feature a few long, sensuous brush strokes on a harmonious background. I'd read that Peter Paul Rubens, in one of his paintings, had made a twisty brush stroke over one meter long. I wanted to try that. Here's the result of my effort, with at least four long strokes in green:

Title: "Green and Gold Abstract". Again, I devoted no conscious thought to depicting, or even vaguely suggesting, anything recognizable. And when I was finished I saw a natural cosmos, an emblematic landscape where, again, movement and energy, liquids, gases and solids were operating within an orderly structure. The solidity of the green, mountainous earth at the bottom of the composition, a more distant mountain range marking the bottom third of the painting, and perhaps the contour of a third, even more distant range marking off the top third. The rest: light, condensation, That was in 1997, a year that produced this small painting done in gouache on paper, whose title is "Rainbow Bird":

Long monochromatic strokes. A solid, tight structure.

My next abstract painting didn't happen until 2002. This is "Pink X":

Nature is still present, and decisive brush stroking. The structure built by the strokes is reminiscent of...a bridge? a building going up? Could be: as a kid I'd enjoyed watching buildings being constructed.
A year later (2003), my chief concern was to work with my favorite colors: Venetian red and golden yellow:

As in the previous paintings, there are long, sinuous strokes. In this painting and in "Pink X", pronounced diagonal forms come aggressively to the fore. Here, my intuitive search somehow led me to produce a textured shape reminiscent of skeletal muscles; I'd gone back inside the body.

A commission I received in 2007 produced "Structures", an 81 x 100 cm painting whose forms and composition were based on Chinese scrolls:

The person who gave me the commission wanted a painting based on the earlier "Green and Gold Abstract", which she'd seen and liked, but with a horizonal format and using her preferred colors.
2008 brought further structures ("Structures II" · 100 x 65 cm):

And "Blue Delta" · 100 x 65 cm: 

 Three years passed before I spontaneously decided to do another abstract, with no conscious intention whatsoever but to use the colors I had on my palette at that moment:   

"Structures III"

During the process of painting "Structures III", the only aspect that came to concern me was ensuring a balanced composition and a harmonious equilibrium between the blue areas and the areas in the complementary color (orange). 
What's going on in this series of paintings? Am I simply being redundant, or am I unwittingly hammering out an inner perception of order?


  1. Abstract art is really so much of what we see is what we bring to it. The first things I saw in the first painting were the hands reaching across what appears to be a chasm- and touching.... but I also saw what you described. I really do enjoy your abstract pieces- and find myself wishing for a behemoth palace to put them all in! Of course a nearby gallery would be nice too. One of these days we'll get back to Madrid and come visit your studio.
    On a side note- my young cousin was just visiting Madrid and posted pictures of all the landmarks- which I managed to accurately name! Except for Catedral San Francisco- right by where I stayed with Milagros! Funny to think my visit was before she was born, and now she's experiencing all that beauty herself.
    As always your work inspires me and I wish I had some on my wall :)

  2. Adventuresome: Thanks for your intelligent gaze and interpretation. And thanks for your good wishes.

  3. Comments by Martin F. Wanserski, sculptor, draftsman and retired professor of art practice:

    In dealing with drawing classes for so many years I had to deal constantly with the abstract / representational nature of art.

    By living in Spain you’re surrounded constantly by abstract art. As you know it is against the Muslim religion to be so brazen as to try to create a representational image of God. The Catholics bathed in realistic images of saints and God so much that most Protestants were convinced they were creating idols.

    Picasso always created OBJECTIVE abstractions. His abstractions variations of the object just as Muslim abstractions are variations of the object, GOD. Most abstraction throughout the world is a version of objective abstraction. Chinese letter forms began as a form of objective abstraction. As the symbolism was lost many became NON-OBJECTIVE. The were appreciated not as objective symbols but for the visual flow within the shape themselves.

    The nature of painting, sculpture, drawing, cinematography, clothing design etc. etc. etc. all works with the same tools.

    Different aspects and functions of the brain is used in the creation of these images and forms. A different criterion may be used in judging the value of the use of these forms but the difference isn't that great. When I judge a Goya print or a mosque I have to be concerned with the rhythm of the lines, the shapes and the forms. After I have the structure worked out then I can be concerned about the nature of this representation and what it expresses.

    Your abstract paintings, Phil, are intuitively non-objective. When we do things from the inside they are like dreams. The often seem odd and non-objective at first but later on we read something into the image or even give it a meaning.

    Your art work has you on a path of discovery now, a discovery about yourself. That's a great thing about it. Keep the journey alive!

  4. Marty, thanks for a thoughtful analysis of abstraction and representation in art. This is the first time anyone has devoted so much thought or prose to what I do, and it honors me. I like the realization that I'm doing non-objective abstraction, starting the search from within.

    While staring at the ceiling of the mosque in Córdoba, I concluded that the endlessly repeated and subtly varied pattern I saw there was a Muslim reflection on the nature of the universe, or, as you say, on the nature of God: an infinite, intricately networked phenomenon in which all things are related to all things, and all is finally one.