"All art is abstract."
This proclamation is heard regularly in every art school.
What is seldom stated, and needs to be articulated more, is: All art is representational.
NO ART-ATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
Copyright Frederic C. Kaplan
At the very least, a painting is representative of the concept of art, affirming its own art-ness and reminding us of others of its kind. In addition, an artwork represents the materials from which it is made and the manner in which those materials have been manipulated (or not, in some cases). An oil painting, for instance, tells us about the character of canvas and paint, as well as giving evidence of how paint can be made to perform as an art material. An artwork is also a representation of the real and physical world. This is true even for the most abstract and minimal pictures. The human mind constantly seeks out connections between the apparently random and undefined shapes, colors, and surfaces of such pictures to remembered actual objects, places, or occurrences. Finally, an artwork is a representation of that which is not itself; it has meaning beyond the immediacy of the image.
Be Like Everybody Else
An artwork represents itself and other artworks by virtue of its very existence. Through its existence, it presents itself as an object to be appreciated for its beauty or for some other visually compelling quality. In this respect, a particular artwork is like all other artworks and can be thought of as representing others of its kind. But, this is not the only manner in which an artistic image represents others. Every artwork reminds us of other artworks, at least in some respects.
Still Life With Kettle by Lennart Anderson (left, below) recalls the geometric compositional structure of Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black (second from left),which in turn echoes the design of The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer (third from left), whose picture lead us to connections with empire Egyptian art and its sectioning into registers (far right below).
The intense darkness of (from left to right below) a 20th-century painting like Odd Nerdrum's Hepatitis can carry us back to Saturn Devouring His Son, painted by Francisco Goya in the 1800s, and then to Rembrandt van Rijn's Tobias Returns Sight to His Father of the early 1600s, or to Doubting Thomas by Rembrandt's contemporary, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or even to the ill-lit environment that engulfs the 30,000-year-old pictures on the walls of caves at Lascaux.
It could easily be said that a single artwork is capable of transporting us through time as a representation of all artworks made, even those from the most distant reaches of history.
An artwork is representative of its own materiality. A chalk drawing (shown below at left is Study for the Nude Youth over the Prophet Daniel by Michelangelo Buonarroti) speaks not only of the depiction of a human figure, but also of the character of charcoal and the kinds of marks it is capable of making. It also addresses the paper upon which the drawing has been scribed, revealing its color and surface. Antoni Tapies' Cross on Grey XCVIII (second from left), and Sink and Mirror by Antonio Lopez Garcia (to the right of Cross on Grey) loudly voice the paint from which they are constructed. It is easy to see how the paint has been daubed, stroked, and forced onto the canvas, as well as the fact that the paint has also been scraped, pounded, and abraded. The plasticity of the paint is more than evident in these pictures, as are the extremes to which it can be pushed. Even the glass-like surface of a high-Renaissance painting like Raphael Sanzio's Lady with a Unicorn (right) has something to say about paint, that paint can be reduced to a perfectly smooth and sensuous plane through controlled manipulations.
Be All You Can Be
A picture presents an image that can be appreciated for the fact of its imagery. If it is a portrait, such as Nelson Shanks' Blue Kimono II (left) or Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe Hot Pink (center), then the artwork is a representation of the person portrayed. A landscape represents an identifiable place, the scene that had lain before the artist as he painted it, as with Last Plowing by William Beckmann (right).
Not all artwork represents actual objects or places, of course. An image can be a representation of an imagined setting or entity. Yves Tanguy's construction Through Birds Through Fire But Not Through Glass (left), which typifies the properties of many of his pictures, does not describe any actual articles or location. The same is true of the detail below right from Hieronymus Bosch's well known Garden of Earthly Delights.
Yet, what of a picture that is seemingly of nothing. The ruminations, emotions, and action-history of the artist inhabit such an image, as well as its representing a mood, psychology, or patterned relationship. Cy Twombly's graffiti-like scrawls in Ninis Painting (far left) may represent a passionate but confused emotion, or the frenetic personality of the subject individual. Green Silver (second from left) and other paintings by Jackson Pollock are said to represent a recordation of the artist's actions as directed by his emotions at the time of its making. Jasper John's Numbers in Color (second from right), and the minimalistic color-field paintings of Agnes Martin, like her Happy Holiday (right), represent shape, color, and pattern relationships.
Be Something Youre Not
Finally, there is the strange phenomenon that an artwork represents that which lies outside or beyond itself.
The human mind seems compelled to seek out meanings. This is no less true about artistic images than of anything else. Connections are made. Narratives are invented or invoked. Allegories are established. As the viewer ferrets out the symbolic significance of an object, shape, or color in a picture, assigning it a meaning deeper and far exceeding its immediate appearance, so too does the artist attempt to extend the significance of a picture by endowing each element of the image with symbolic gesture.
Consider a portrayal of a mundane apple. At its most elemental, it is simply a piece of fruit. Yet, that ordinary fruit seems inevitably to become not apple at all in the viewers consciousness. The Red Apple No. 2 at left by Jeffrey Hayes is a ripe, deeply red delicious. Its fullness might represent the robust achievement of life, the bountifulness of nature, a fecund woman, or the biblical fruit of knowledge as offered forth to Adam on a wooden plank that is a proxy for the hand of Eve. At center is Candy Apple by Wayne Thiebaud. It's a common enough item, consumed by the hundreds-of-thousands every year at fairs and in homes. On its face it is little more than a picture of a tasty treat. It can be apprehended just as easily, though, as an ominous deception with its dark tones and imposing shadow. The stick thrust into the heart of the apple is like a spear plunged into flesh by the murderous Phonoi of Greek myth, or perhaps the male sexual organ engaged in the commission of a hidden sexual act. Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit, including apples, is insect ridden and spoiled. Thus, it may represent societal, personal, or moral decay.
The use of artistic image as metaphor goes back to the very beginnings of man's creative endeavors.
One of the earliest known artworks is the Venus of Willendorf, a small stone figure dating from about 25,000 years ago. It appears to be a depiction of a woman. If one delves deeper to consider the character of the depiction, one can be led to the conclusion that the Venus is also a portrayal of womanhood. Its full and pregnant abdomen, the pendulous breasts laden with milk, along with the exaggerated pubis all seem to refer to the child bearing capacity of woman. So, while the Venus is unquestionably a portrayal of a woman, it is also a symbol of the abstract idea of a fertile and nurturing mother that is also an object of male sexual desire.
With the Egyptians, image and language were co-equal, with linguistic signs being simultaneously recognizable as representations of existing objects, people, or gods.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, artists had acquired a veritable dictionary of visual words and phrases. A depiction of a particular object or person or even the use of a certain color could be understood as a signifier of something outside itself. The container in the lower left corner of Titians Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene (left, below) could be a representation of an ordinary vessel, or a meaningful cipher. To the initiate, it was the vessel containing the ointment with which Mary Magdalene had washed Christ's feet and, consequently, a painted representation of Mary. In the middle of Hans Memling's Last Judgment (center) stands an armored figure holding up an odd apparatus. To modern eyes it might appear to be nothing other than a well dressed knight with his weapons. When it was painted in the 1400s, though, this was unquestionably read as being the archangel St. Michael raising aloft the scales with which he weighed the worthiness of the resurrected. Even the form of the triptych, a painting composed of three panels like the Ashwellthorpe Triptych by the Master of the Legend of the Magdalene (below, right), had a representative purpose: reference to the Christian trinity.
With the increased availability of printed texts after the 1400s, and especially since the 1700s when paper production became a widespread industry, people became more widely literate and the need to use pictures to convey a narrative or viewpoint declined. Artists, nonetheless, carried on the practice of allegory. Likewise, consumers of artwork continued to demand that pictures address things beyond the immediacy of the image. Now, however, there was a lack of a culturally widespread pictorial language. Representation became personal and individual to the specific artist.
Surrealist Salvador Dali developed an elaborate iconography with hordes of ants representing death and decay and the limp watches of his Persistence of Memory (left) being emblematic of an impotent penis. Jim Dine has turned to ordinary objects as representations, including the stylized and typical heart symbol. The heart shape might be a pictograph for an actual, beating human heart, but it has also been taken as a symbol for affection. In Dine's artwork, as with Confetti Heart (right), the heart is a very personal representation for his wife.
The propensity of individuals to search for meaning in an image can have unintended or unexpected consequences, especially with non-objective artworks. At left below is Adam, one of Barnett Newman's spare compositions that avoids reference to object imagery. Nonetheless, it is not unlikely that a viewer will interpret it as representing the edge of a dark forest at night, possibly engulfed in flames. One might even go further and claim that the picture is a comment on the destruction of rain forests or an expression of the fearsome loneliness of rural life. One critic believed that the painting in the center by Frederic C. Kaplan represented various metals: silver, bronze, iron, and copper. Its title, Four Riders, should convey some idea of the concept the painter had in mind. Hans Hofmann's picture on the right is a montage of brightly colored shapes; they might almost be torn bits of paper pasted down at random. Still, the picture could be a representation of a small town populated by blocky buildings and surrounded by outlying farms and their grain silos. Even Hofmann, who made every attempt at evading connections between his pictures and real world objects, apparently saw this picture as being representational when he gave it the title Rising Moon
Be At The End
All art is representational, although not necessarily representational of an easily recognizable reality. The artist-practitioner consequently must constantly consider just what it is that is being represented and how that representation can be easily misrepresented in the human mind.