Abstract to Zeitgeist

Some contemporary art terms explained


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In the visual arts we've been throwing the words around for at least 100 years. The twentieth century has been a struggle between artists, critics, theoreticians and historians who have tried to clarify the basic ideas and concepts behind art making. When Renaissance artists developed perspective they opened the floodgates of illusionistic painting ending with nineteenth century fin-de-siècle (effete sophistication).

Early abstract art reacted against overwrought portraiture and history painting. Slavish imitations of reality gave way to elementary concerns. Native American abstract geometric designs were sought by collectors everywhere and artists like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi were copying Iberian masks or African sculpture.

Albuquerque architect and artist Robert Walters was an internationally recognized abstract expressionist during the 1950s. Abstract expressionism grew out of the surrealist, constructivist and German expressionist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. It filled a need for self expression and spiritual healing following the devastation of World War II. Walters discussed abstraction in his North Valley studio.

Robert Walters

"Estrano Viaje"
(Strange Journey A Castillian Landscape)
An oil by Robert Walters is an example
of classical modernist abstraction.

"Abstract" is one of those limitless terms that we often use with abandon. To me it has always meant that there must be an intellectual exchange that separates abstraction from stylization or even just expressionism. Abstraction takes on a real distance from its origins. Sometimes there might be fragments or remnants of the genesis of where it came from but that doesn't happen often in pure abstraction," Walters said.

Walters' definition is the modern definition of abstraction. Artists who abstract things, people, landscapes, buildings etc. start with something real and through visual analysis search for the essence of form.

In the open arena created by post-modernism the term appropriation means to directly copy images from art history or any living artist. Appropriation used to be called plagiarism. To be fair, appropriation has been going on throughout the history of art. Michelangelo studied early Christian and ancient Greek and Roman art when he designed the Sistine Chapel murals.

The term "Art Concrete" was the title of Theo van Doesberg's 1930 manifesto on non-objective art which stated that art was opposed to nature and was based on pure plastic elements. Concrete art may include mathematical forms. Swiss artist Max Bill is a follower of Doesberg's principles.

Albuquerque artist Florence Miller Pierce is a concrete artist. Her technique of pouring pigmented polyester resin onto acrylic mirrors results in a beautiful relationship between reflected light and color. Her work has an inner glow like moonlight on ice but her work does not refer to icy moon-glow. Pierce is not trying to create illusions. Instead her work stands alone and it does not contain or illustrate any object.

“Contemporary” is an abused catch-all term that has lost its meaning. If you are a cowboy artist, contemporary means that you might paint a gooseneck trailer pulled by a new pickup truck instead of painting a horse-drawn chuck wagon. Contemporary for many artists under the age of thirty-five means the generous use of black, brown and gray with a huge dollop of hand wringing angst about the desperate plight of our fragile world.

Florence Miller Pierce

This untitled Polyester resin
on acrylic contruction by
Florence Miller Pierce
is an example of
concrete non-representational art.

Contemporary also means art at the "cutting edge" implying that it is so avant garde that only the artist and a handful of insider critics have any clue to its meaning. Cutting edge is also art that doesn't sell.

A relatively unexplored realm is intuitive art. Mixed media artist Larry Bell, sculptor John Chamberlain and painter Larry Poons stepped forward during the 1960s to follow their intuitive responses to art and reality. Bell of Taos continues to evolve at a staggering rate and still trusts his intuition to make every creative decision.

Albuquerque painter Emily Trovillion defined intuitive art in an artist's statement: "...the understanding of the structure of things through non-logical or non-empirical means. An intuitive artist must have a metaphoric mind," she said.

Charlotte Jackson deals with art that uses simplicity to achieve complex objectives. She is concerned about the wide use of the term minimalism.

"People have forgotten that minimalism was an art movement that became prominent during the 1960s. It was a reaction against gestural painting. The term minimalism is a dated and inappropriate term applied to contemporary art that has nothing to do with minimalism's original intentions," Jackson said.

Monochrome painting began in 1919 with White on White by Kasimir Malevich. A year later Alexander Rodchenko created primary color paintings. Artists like Ellsworth Kelly continued to develop monochromatic painting. Painters using one color toyed with the idea that painting was dead. But art writers like Carter Ratcliff postulate that monochromatic painting may have led to an elemental rebirth of the medium.

Of course contemporary realist painters think all of these ideas are silly since realism along with its nineteenth century effete sophistication has survived all insults and is alive and well.

Post-modernism is a catch-all term like contemporary art. Modernism gave birth to constructivism, suprematism, cubism, futurism, rayonism, orphism, productivism, surrealism, fauvism, dadaism, expressionism, neo-plasticism, concrete art and more before succumbing to assaults from abstract expressionism, color field painting, monochromism, pop-art, opt art, minimalism, conceptual art, neo-classicism, structuralism as put forth by French philosopher Michel Foucault and the German Zero Group.

Depending on which historian you believe, modernism ended somewhere between 1950 and 1980. Whatever the date all of the modern "isms" have fallen, domino style, into the post-modernist melting pot where literally anything goes. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s a radical was a political protester. But, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art in Santa Fe specializes in radical art which has nothing to do with politics.

Radical art is related to the roots or origins of art. It can be abstract, atonal, monochromatic, concrete, non-referential and fundamental. Radical art can form the foundation or basis for extreme change from accepted traditional forms.

Zeitgeist for German philosopher Hegel meant the spirit of the age that was supposed to ensure a homogenous quality in art, science, literature and music during a particular period. His view was that synthesis was the highest order of truth. As we exit the twentieth century our zeitgeist is lost somewhere in a sea of words, ideas, opinions, cyberspace travel and bollixed Mars missions.

The next time someone catches you in front of something indescribable in a gallery, just pause and slowly take a half step back. With hand on chin in serious contemplation and in a voice barely over a whisper say, "It makes its own silent statement". They'll never know how confused you are.

Thanks to Wesley Pulkka who reports on and reviews the arts regularly in the
Albuquerque Journal.

Robert Walters photo courtesy of the Klaudia Marr Gallery pic in Santa Fe.
Florence Miller Pierce photo courtesy of Charlotte Jackson Fine Art in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 14

Related Pages

Glossary of Ceramic & Clay Terms article
Glossary of Glass Terms article
Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article
Glossary of Indian Art Terms article
Art Over the Edge article

Glossary of Painting & Drawing Terms article
Glossary of Photography Terms article
Glossary of Prints & Original Graphics Terms article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article

Collector’s Resources

Elsewhere in New Mexico

Roswell Museum & Art Center | 575.624.6744

Santa Fe

EVOKE contemporary | 505-995-9902
McLarry Modern | 505-983-8589
The Karen Wray Gallery rem 2101 Trinity Drive Suite B-2 | 505.660.6382
GVG Contemporary | 505-982-1494
Dominique Samyn-Werbrouck | 505-424-1742
Pippin Contemporary | 505.795.7476
Cardona-Hine Gallery | 505-689-2253
Gaugy Gallery | 505-984-2800
GF Contemporary | 505.983.3707
Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art | 505.986.1156
Hunter Kirkland Contemporary | 505-984-2111
Charlotte Jackson Fine Art | 505-989-8688
James Kelly Contemporary | 505-989-1601
Carol Kucera Gallery | 505-989-7523
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Peyton Wright Gallery | 505-989-9888
Rabby Studio & Gallery | 505.988.2217
Tom Ross Gallery | 505-984-8434
SITE Santa Fe | 505-989-1199
Turner Carroll Gallery | 505-986-9800
Wiford Gallery 403 Canyon Road | 505-982-2403
Winterowd Fine Art | 505-992-8878
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art 435 S Guadalupe St | 505-982-8111


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