Tag Archives: abstract art


1 Mar


I was recently reminded by this post at Open Culture that Abstract Expressionist painting and exponents of it such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock got a big (though covert) push from the CIA, who secretly organised a number of influential exhibitions including MoMA’s New American Painting. It was all an attempt to depict America internationally as a country with a sophisticated culture borne of a fully functioning democracy.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha… oh… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Wait, wait… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Sorry about that. Most Americans hated Abstract Expressionism, and they still do. Not to mention the fact that US foreign and domestic policies in the 1960s moved on to brainwashing, drugging, sabotaging and sometimes just straight up murdering (or having murdered) anyone who stood in the way of their global agenda. But it’s interesting to think about this CIA plot to splatterwash the USA’s international reputation as a project halfway between the naked colonialism of international World Fairs or the Giardini in Venice and the modern era of so-called “soft power” that makes governments like the UK’s or Japan’s trumpet their national cultural industries even while they perversely take an ideological wrecking ball to the very institutions, employment and educational systems that make art and being an artist viable. What, you thought it was because they recognised the value of art and artists?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha, etc.

It’s all about the soft power.

You may also like to speculate as to other examples of otherwise inexplicably successful artists or artistic movements that seem with hindsight more likely to be psy ops or vehicles for international spookery.



12 Aug

An acerbic response by the American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) to the (still) widely held idea that a work of art should necessarily have any fidelity to observed reality or that it should meet the expectations of the viewer in general.


From ‘How to Look at Art, Arts & Architecture’ by Ad Reinhardt, 1947. The visitor appears to have been struck dead by Reinhardt’s revelation.

Here’s an example of Reinhardt’s work, in case you’d like to discover what you represent and whether you are alive or not.

Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting, Blue (1952).

Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting, Blue (1952).


9 Feb

Pinot Gallizio cutting and selling a scroll of industrial paintings by the meter. Inauguration of ‘Industrille Malerei’ show at Van de Loo Gallery, Munich, April 1959.

Giuseppe (Pinot) Gallizio (1904-1964) worked for most of his life as a pharmacist in Turin. Like many people (including me) who come late or by an otherwise circuitous route to the art world, many of its practices and assumptions struck him as utterly absurd; even more so as he began to participate in them. Gallizio was a founding member of the International Situationists (society of the spectacle masking the degrading effects of capitalism, Guy Debord, the 1968 French uprisings, détournement, dérives, etc: it’s far too large a subject to cover in a single blog post…) and in his art works he tried to cultivate a sense of play and creativity in the face of the capitalist imperative to recuperate, neutralise, and monetise even something as indefinable as art.

One of his projects was industrial paintings, abstract works on scrolls that were designed to be sold and cut on the spot like any other commodity, such as the original blank canvas it was painted on.  The paintings themselves aren’t actually very good or interesting, but that isn’t the point of them. He was making fun of the idea of art as a unique object or a finite resource; judging by the photos on the left, he was having a lot of fun doing it too. What a suave gent. I have to admit that on a few occasions I’ve rocked this bushy moustache and bow tie look at art openings. There’s a post on Yves Klein coming up soon; he favoured similar outfits as well and he also always looks like he’s having a great time in all the photos of him I’ve seen. I’m definitely going to apply myself to perfecting the late 50s/early 60s Continental look now. Like Klein, Gallizio was ahead of his time with his thinking on capitalism, commodification and intellectual property in the art world and in Western society in general.

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14 Nov

I’ve been reading neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s interesting (and occasionally, slyly funny) book The Tell-Tale Brain. There are some unexpected and cogent explorations of art in it, including a great anecdote about the Nobel Prize-winning Dutch ornithologist/ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and his experiments in the 1950s with seagulls. Some of Tinbergen’s most groundbreaking work was on what he called supernormal stimuli. In short, living creatures have inherent, instinctive preferences for certain things that play an important part in their lives, especially their reproductive lives. Birds like eggs in their nests and birds like sitting on eggs because if they didn’t then there wouldn’t any more birds. But these instincts can also be thwarted because a bird also usually prefers a giant, artificial, gaudy egg with exaggerated markings to anything nature can create. Male butterflies want to mate with female butterflies, but they will often choose an unreal, perfect model of a female butterfly instead of its– by comparison, anyway– boring and imperfect real-life counterpart.

Tinbergen also found that female herring gulls have a red spot underneath their beaks, which is a target for gull chicks to peck at when they want to be fed. The chick pecks the red circle, opens its mouth, the mother regurgitates some food, and they repeat as necessary or until the supply of seagull vomit is exhausted. It turns out, though, that chicks are not terribly bothered if it’s their actual mother who feeds them. A head on a pole, or a disembodied beak, or a red dot on a stick will all provoke a chick to peck for food. Evolution and daily life both tend to favour quick reactions and ad hoc solutions; as Ramachandran mischievously puts it, in nature a chick is unlikely to ever encounter “a malicious ethologist waving around a fake beak” so it makes sense for the hardwired seagull rule to take a relative short cut like “if I’m a baby, then red dot=mother=food”.

My diagram of the herring gull experiment is better than Ramachandran’s. OBJECTIVE SCIENTIFIC FACT.

What’s really fascinating is Tinbergen’s discovery that if you put three red stripes on the end of a stick, the chick goes into a frenzy of pecking; this abstract supermother promises far more than any real biological mother can. It seems there’s an addendum to “red dot=mother=food”, some as yet inexpressible rule that’s being exploited by this amplification of what nature offers. Ramachandran:

“Imagine that seagulls had an art gallery. They would hang this long thin stick with three stripes on the wall. They would call it a Picasso, worship it, fetishize it, and pay millions of dollars for it, while all the time wondering why they are turned on by it so much, even though (and this is the key point) it doesn’t resemble anything in their world. I suggest this is exactly what human art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art; they are behaving exactly like gull chicks. By trial and error, intuition or genius, human artists like Picasso or Henry Moore have discovered the equivalent of the seagull brain’s stick with three stripes.”

It should be noted that Ramachandran is just throwing this idea out as a plausible hypothesis, and he isn’t dissing or dismissing abstract art here. Neither am I. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a theory of abstract art’s appeal that makes some kind of objective sense and isn’t smothered in academic artspeak claptrap to mask all the things we don’t know, and in many cases can’t know.

PS: Abstract Supermother is the name of my new band.

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