On a trip to the Museum of Modern Art for my Contemporary Art class, I was met (and fell so in love) with the found object sculptures of the late Cy Twombly. A collection of about twelve freestanding and pedestal sculptures, all painted in white house paint, took hold of my attention and didn’t let go for almost fifteen minutes. As my mother stood back, perpetually confused, and, probably rolling her eyes in said perpetual confusion, I grabbed my camera and began taking an infinite amount of photographs. To me, Cy Twombly’s genius had transcended into a medium I never knew he dabbled in. As for my mother, she couldn’t quite understand the big deal about a pile of trash coated in white paint and called ‘art.’ But, it isn’t just Cy Twombly that seems to confuse people; both seasoned art vets and newcomers, alike. Its the Jackson Pollocks, the Joan Mitchells, the de Koonings, the Rothkos, the Klines, the Motherwells, the Krasners, that convince every grandmother that her dearest grandchild Cindy, who’s experienced an easel and acrylic paint for the first time in her kindergarden art class, is somehow ‘making abstract paintings’, too. In defense of the scribble, I’d like to say ‘No, grandma, Cindy is not making art.’
The common misconception is that art is wholly subjective and that makes any mark somehow meaningful and valid, even if its made by a four year old.
The truth is, that your child can’t do that and here’s why: they aren’t of the intellectual caliber (yet). In defense of the scribble, the cognitive development of an artist is grounded in an astute philosophy; a level of thinking that many people never get to experience if they aren’t forthright about their artistic education or go to school and take a fancy class called something like ‘the conceptualization of the artistic process’. A mark is driven by a cognitive force, one that’s backed by an artist’s purpose. In other words, an artist knows why they scribble, why they chose a particular color, why they distort, why they are vague, why they are candid. Art school teaches you how to defend your scrawl. Twombly’s paintings were heavily influenced by his interest in Greek mythology and romantic symbolism. The calligraphic nature of his works are his medium: he uses script and language to defend his scribbles. Joan Mitchell was a master of color and light. Her influences came from nature, van Gogh, Matisse. Instead of taking on the plein air approach, she chose to let life be the driving force behind her scribbles. Pollock’s ‘drip paintings’ were influenced by Indian sand painting techniques, the immediacy of Surrealism (automatic drawing & painting) and Mexican muralists. The intimacy of his paintings lie in their ability to record his bodily movements. His scribbles were simply not ‘an accident’, for they held true intention and control in their presence. As a culture, we’re taught to take an oath, a pledge if you will, in favor of the art made by the masters like da Vinci, Giotto, Rembrandt and Botticelli.
Not only does this undermine the equally as intelligent strokes made by abstract expressionists, but it persuades our culture to appreciate art made in a more ‘true to life’ fashion and to dismiss or be skeptical of the authenticity of a more abstract artist’s talent. Who is to say that a painting by Caravaggio is more ‘true to life’ than that of Philip Guston? Or that de Goya’s reality is ‘more real’ than the one depicted by Gorky? In defense of the scribble, I encourage everyone to get up close and personal (or as close as MOMA or the MET will allow) to as many Clyfford Stills, Hans Hofmanns, Barnet Newmans, Helen Frankenthalers and James Brooks paintings as you can. You just might realize that there are, indeed, realms of untapped mental landscapes made tangible through abstraction.
Check out MOMA's abstract expressionism online collection here.
To browse the MET's online collection, click here.