"Now" sculpture as installed on the campus of Long Beach State University

A few thoughts about abstraction

Finger Painting

As you know, this week’s Finger Painting activity is an exercise in Abstraction.

Abstraction & Representation

On Monday I said that in art it isn’t just a black-and-white Abstraction or Representation. That a lot of art has aspects of both. Still, I know that for many of you the certainty of representational art: yes, it is a house, or a tree, or a person, is comforting. Abstraction can be confusing. Or frustrating.

The Power & Beauty of Abstraction

I hope that in this activity you can experience some of the true power and beauty of Abstraction.

"Now" sculpture as installed on the campus of Long Beach State University
NOW, 1965, Piotr Kowalski

I’m sure you’ve all seen this sculpture down by the USU. It’s right outside Robeks / Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

BTW, the tables outside Robeks / Coffee Bean are where I hold my office hours. Every M & W from 2-3 pm. Come by an say Hi! sometime.

I’ve sat at those tables and seen tours come through and look at the sculpture. I’m not sure what the tour is, but I’ve heard tour guides ask their group if they can guess what the sculpture is supposed to be. If they don’t get it with enough prodding, the tour guide eventually tells them that it’s a whale! That the 3 big elements are like a mouth siphoning krill, and the rear “reflector” is the tail flukes.

I have no idea what the sculptor, Piotr Kowalski, was going for in this sculpture. I really doubt it was a whale. But whatever he might have been going for, I can tell you that looking at that massive, glistening, reflecting, towering, protrusion of stainless steel, the least interesting thing you can say about it is, it’s a whale!

Trying to be OK with the uncertainty of Abstraction

What I’d like you to try to be OK with is that it is not a Whale, or a Mayan Astronomical Observatory, or any thing. Not a house, a tree, a person, a whale, nor an observatory. Simply a form.

When you say “Whale”. Then you can say “I got it”.


Check the box.

Move on.

detail of Piotr Kowalski's 1965 stainless stell & dynamite sculpture "NOW"
NOW, 1965, Piotr Kowalski

Abstraction can open up experience

But when you say it is not a thing. That it is an experience. A moment. A flow. That’s not so easy to be “done” with. You have to give it more. And you will get more. When we talk about Formal Qualities, that sculpture is an explosion of formal qualities! Its scale is massive. If you stand in the center it towers above you. The “tail” is a powerful reflector. On a cold and sunny day like today, it can both warm your face an blind your eyes. The surface of the vertical elements is complexly variegated. But the edges are sharp and clear.

What I’m trying to tell you is that when you say “Whale”, you shut the work down. Not giving it thingfulness is giving it experientiality. If you can be OK with it not being some specific object, then you give yourself permission to experience all the beauty and terror, all the tenderness and hacksawfulness, of this sculptural experience.

Dancing with Paint

That’s what I encourage you to go for in your finger paintings. Don’t go for a house or a tree or a person. Instead, go for joy. Or confusion. Or ecstasy. Or anger. See if the paint at your fingertips can “draw” not an object, but a sort of document of your inner life.

Think of it like dancing. You can dance slow or fast. Elegantly or aggressively. Whatever the form, your dance isn’t a picture of a house, tree, person, whale, or observatory, it is an abstract portrait of emotions. Of joy. Or sadness. Of this person I’m dancing with is so hot. Or that I’m just not that into them.

PS: have fun!


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