Abstract art is this world of endless possibilities. There are at least a thousand different ways to construct any image on canvas, from clay, or even in a collage made from litter. It all starts with a blueprint that artists call design. Worthy artists will certainly plan most of the design of their abstract art works before the execution of the piece. They must wade through the infinite combinations. Will the triangle be yellow? Will it be dull? Will it be textured? Will the shape be enclosed? What is more overwhelming both as artists and observers is that there may be a hundred million reasons for approaching such design challenges in such a variety of ways. An artist may paint a blue horse because he is color blind or perhaps just sad the Steelers lost a game. (More often, though, the artist has a style he is displaying.) It may seem impossible to narrow the artist’s reasons down to one or even ten possibilities. It may seem even more difficult to uncover a style. But, a patron has eyes and any interested museum-goer can process information with their brain! So a good starting point to investigating and understanding is to simply look at and analyze the forms.
By no means is the analysis of forms the key to mind reading but it can reveal much information. People may never understand what any artist was trying to say with his splatters of paint or still lifes of dying flowers, however the secrets are waiting to be unlocked. A useful tool on this road to discovery and intellect inside Abstract Art museums and galleries is formal analysis. Forms can be as simple as squares, the color red, or the stroke of a pen. Line, shape, texture, space, color, and value could be added to the list when talking about a more well known group of forms called the elements of design. The elements of design can also be the foundations for principles like emphasis, scale, balance, and rhythm. Breaking the design of a work apart and comprehending each element separately is called formal analysis. This formal analysis is an advantageous start at understanding why artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Charles Sheeler construct Abstract Art the way they do. For instance, by looking for these simple elements in a work it is possible to start to understand why an artist may make something that looks flat or three-dimensional. Similarly when analyzing multiple works, each artist’s style becomes clear. The elements of design are what construct an architectonic style in both works by Diebenkorn and Sheeler at the deYoung in San Francisco.
Visitors to the deYoung probably feel like a lost piece that has fallen out of the puzzle that is Diebenkorn’s large abstract art piece Ocean Park 116 measuring approximately 81 x 72 inches. It’s probably the worst puzzle ever built as the pieces don’t seem to lock together. The composition is mainly of large rectangles. Most of them are longer than they are tall and the thinner shapes appear more towards the top of the canvas. They are all of roughly the same color without much distinction in line separating them. In fact, the only real variety is a few corners dissected with rounded corners. Some corners are also trimmed in a more linear way as if snipped with scissors. The whole image of this puzzle looks hasty with its simple shapes and patchy paint fill.
It’s tempting to say, “Upstairs in a far corner of the museum opposite Diebenkorn’s work is a less abstract art.” However Charles Sheeler’s Still Life measuring 24 by 20 inches doesn’t seem too realistic either. Viewers are certainly looking at a small glass in the lower left and a much larger glass in the upper right behind what appears to be three red apples on a white bowl or plate in the middle. But moving towards the background there is ambiguity in the appearance of a bluish cloth that the dish rests on and a lightly colored table that seems to support the rest of the still life. Both look completely turned on their sides with their tops facing the picture plane. All this strangeness is flattened and composed in front of yellow-brown. So really it’s just a big patchwork of shapes that is in many ways very Abstract as well.
Abstract Art Forms
There’s no doubt that Ocean Park 116 is Abstract Art because of the way that Diebenkorn has pieced elements together. Even the lines in this piece are ghosts of abstraction. Line might be intended to define some sort of space, however they are hastily applied and fading. Sometimes there aren’t even lines between the shapes to define any boundary. The shapes lie victim to these indecisive lines. They are left open and their insides are exposed. None of the rectangles have four defining walls, therefore they all blend together at some point. These shapes are also left looking like the edges of broken clay pots. This makes the texture of the shapes faceted. This is from the applied painterly brushstrokes. This faceted texture seems to be the only thing that the viewer can get lost in. If there was indeed a world beyond the picture plane, Diebenkorn has completely removed the third dimension and brought both the near and the distant to the foreground. The faceted texture described is also similar to atmospheric perspective, but is the only clue that there might be space here. Diebenkorn is not by any means giving people reason to believe that there is [an illusion of] space with such perspective. Color and value can sometimes be clever agents in the illusion of depth as well. However Diebenkorn has clearly left his composition flat. The value of the deep yellows in the background are really stronger than those of the misty blues of the foreground which would never happen on its own. There are no such common illusions here. This world has no background or foreground. Diebenkorn has not painted a sense of perspective or depth to accomplish such a depiction. All this makes this world of simple shapes and colors a mere abstraction that is completely sideways and forced into the viewers’ faces.
Similarly in Still Life by Sheeler, a more objective piece, there’s no bird’s eye view but things also seem very slanted and sloping. Perhaps this is because everything seems chopped in half. There is only the difference in colors that define the shapes instead of distinct line. The imagery seems more like a cross-section of food and dishware than a distinct line drawing. The glasses in this still life would hold less water than a frisbee with a hole. There’s no third dimension for fluid to fill as there is no volume. Instead of the back of a glass appearing through the front, it simply looks stacked on top of the rest of the glass pressing all the volume out. The whole painting looks more like a rocky cliff-side than a laid out spread. The glasses are faceted, the plate seems pointed, and even the fruit seem dangerous in shape. The texture of this faceted appearance seems to show more layers than depth. This lack in depth makes the fruit look poised to roll off the table. There are no tactics used to create an illusion of space. Therefore the table looks vertical with no horizontal surface to hold anything safely. The lack of depth however keeps the viewer’s stomach full! As there is no perspective, the meal doesn’t seem to recede to a vanishing point. Common tricks of perspective such as two-point or three-point perspective are missing, flattening the table, the dish, the glasses, as well as the fruit flush between the background and the foreground. This painting probably gives people a confused sense of vertigo because while everything looks as if it should be viewed from the side it’s missing all the usual elements of depth and space.
These achievements in form of Still Life are not unlike those of Ocean Park 116. Now that each have been described, the power of formulating basic elements together in a collaborative union is clear. It’s now possible to recall the lack of line in both pieces. In the first abstract art piece, Ocean Park 116, the lines were fleeting and hardly present, and in the latter, Still Life, there is not a single line in the entire composition. Neither piece uses line to create distinction or separation. The lack of line in both pieces created the exact same result. In the first abstract art work all the rectangles were fractured and in the latter there were not even any closures to leave open. All the shapes so far discussed have been open and bleed together. Also it was mentioned that each artist created faceted shapes. Each of them used an expressive, painterly, and seemingly careless brushstoke to create patches instead of fill. This gave the appearance of tracts of color or even secondary shapes within the more apparent shapes. By utilizing only three elements of form, such as line, shape, and texture, each artist has created a stable, structured, and impenetrable wall of paint.
Both painters did more than simply paint rocklike shapes. They built an unwelcoming wall of paint to halt viewers from entering an illusion of space. Both artists use simple principles of design to break a very old and infrequently challenged depiction of form and space. Diebenkorn used color to undo the illusion of space by painting stronger values towards the top which would be the background and lighter values in the foreground. This is opposite of what artists would normally do which is to paint the faint mountains in the back and vibrant figures in the front. There are other ways, of course, in which these masters have broken up the idea of depth. Sheeler, undoubtedly knows about linear perspective, but doesn’t apply it to his painting. Normally all the lines in a composition would point to a common part of the composition, however lines in his painting, as well as in Diebenkorn’s, go merrily and horizontally across the picture plane. It’s one thing to draw or not draw lines and shapes, but to use such simple principles to reject an ancient practice is pretty exciting.
What’s more interesting is that there is a collaborative unity and a reason why these paintings are so similar. As described, they both seem flat as the walls that they hang on, but this unity is a painting that is architectonic. They are architectonic like a mountain that has been sawed in half revealing layers of jagged minerals. Diebenkorn has created a tower of abstract rectangles while Sheeler has done the same with his lunch. In the first there are rectangles that appear stacked up one on top of the other, and in the second people see pieces of glass that are flat and stacked in just the same way. This creates a sort of geologic or architectonic feeling and appearance. While each painting may be unique in many ways they both share this clever stacked appearance of being architectonic and may well be the reason why these forms were used in the way they were.
Surely it is interesting that two different artists creating their own works can, in different methods, create the same architectonic style with form. This of course takes education, patience, and skill to use only the foundational building blocks of Abstract Art and craft in such a way. Seen here, only the elements of design are used to achieve something as profound as a style and maybe even an idea. And if interested onlookers are willing, they can use the analysis of these elements of form to further address and investigate whatever idea a particular artists has demonstrated.