It may seem only natural to consider an exhibition consisting of abstract or semi-abstract paintings to be Modernist. Consequently, I am a Modernist painter, although not in the sense of being particularly modern. Oftentimes when speaking about art, words are used that seem to have a different meaning than the original one. An example of this is the word Modernism, which in the modern world of art means something distinctly out of style and un-modern. Modern art (for many people Picasso is still considered a modern artist) in its many forms is, for many audiences, for the most part confusing. When looking at an abstract painting, what is it that you are expected to feel and experience? I am fairly certain that there have been many gallery goers who have asked themselves this question over the years. The viewers may feel that there must be some sort of understanding or method for looking, but since it eludes them, he or she becomes uncertain and insecure.
To a large extent, abstract painting is something that is felt and experienced on an intuitive level, 'through feelings' as it is often said. Still, it is often difficult to separate an intuitive feeling and a conscious thought of the mind, and to determine which of these two sensations should be favored (when feelings are described in words, they are given a shape and form, which transforms them from something non-descript into a defined feeling). When human beings are faced with something, anything at all, we start searching for something in it that is familiar, such as structures, repetitions, or something that will help us relate what we see to what we already know. For example, for those who are less well acquainted with the Modernist tradition of painting, the brushstrokes in an abstract painting may emerge into the appearance of a landscape. Those, however, who are familiar with this type of art, may instead find themselves searching for similarities and reference points to other works of art, as if performing an automatic validity check on the authenticity of the work. If the painting is found to lack the requisite authenticity, it is rejected and the continued effort not considered worthwhile to the viewer. However, that the artist has an individual standpoint is a minimum requirement, and is also perhaps all we can ask for: a distinctly personal outlook and point of view.
At this moment, it is possible that somebody who has been observing my large paintings becomes aware of how they have been influenced by the famous and highly regarded Danish painter Per Kirkeby, who is one of the best Modernist painters still living today. Before this certain somebody moves forward to survey the rest of the work, he or she must first decide if the work on view is merely amateurish plagiarism, or if I, the artist, have actually understood the true nature of Kirkeby and incorporated it into my own work. Strangely perhaps, such a verdict is possible even if the before-mentioned somebody is not at all a connoisseur of the work by Kirkeby. This quality review may seem slow and meticulous when described like this on paper, but in reality it is an instant and automatic process which leaves little room for reflection. So, to be sure, abstract art is something that we experience intuitively, but intuition is also all that we have learned through our previous experiences and knowledge, and that is something we bring into our understanding as well. This may be obvious, but it is often still not well understood, especially among the contemporary Modernists and their audience.
Abstract painting is a useless medium for anyone who wants to tell a story, or for anyone who want to say anything at all for that matter. In blessed moments, however, it does have the capacity to strike a cord in the heart of the onlooker, comparable to the feelings that may be aroused by poetry. A vibration is formed – but from where is it coming? Is it possible to explain verbally why one painting is good, while another that seems equally technically proficient is not? Yes, it is possible to consider and take apart all of a painting’s characteristics, until quality (that which makes us feel that something is good) is singled out, and forms its own subject. Quality, or at least the outlines of it, is something that we can see, but not touch. We can understand quality intellectually, but it is something that we perceive intuitively, if such a distinction at all can be made. Personally, I believe that quality is the same thing as truth. Which truth it is, or whose, is of less importance. I think that we keep finding ourselves attracted to the same things, present in each and every one of our favorite pieces of art, regardless of their subjects. And I believe that this thing is an encounter with the truth.
When I look at a painting with a narrative nature by Edward Munch, or at the abstract color fields by Mark Rothko, I indeed find myself interested in the story told by Munch, and I am admiring Rothko’s color harmonies. But the predominant feeling that I have is the absolute presence in these works, and the artists’ genuine commitment to art. You have to admit that it is restful to stand before something that has no ulterior motives. Something that is altogether true – even if the nature of truth is not altogether obvious.
But, let’s now once again return to the question of many of gallery goers throughout the years. Why did the artists start to paint such ugly and incomprehensible paintings instead of pretty and understandable ditto? What good was Modernism anyway?
You may say that Modernism was the result of modernity as such, a natural reaction to the development in the 20th century society in the industrialized world. If we had to describe the 20th century in just one word, which one would that be? Deconstruction perhaps. During this century, the world was separated and split up. It was physically divided through the two World Wars, and mentally and emotionally as a result of the age of Enlightenment. The church lost its grip of the people during this time period, and they became more or less free to rebuild the world according to their own preferences. The Modernist art was both a part of, and a reaction to, this development. The visual arts as we know them today were invented, and with them came also the notion of the artist as an archetypical figure. When sketched out like this, the art of the 20th may appear rather serious, and it probably was too. Perhaps it is comparable the seriousness of this century as a whole, but then it must be understood that being serious in this case is not the equivalent of miserable and grave. A society that takes its responsibilities seriously may even be considered comforting and positive.
Modernism was by no means a comprehensive and unified style, but rather a movement that included all kinds of temperaments. Notable for all movements however, was a belief and faith in the possibilities that art presented, or rather, the capacity of man. Art was considered to have an inspirational effect on the society. The human kind was thought of as a collective, and it was considered possible to speak on behalf of all of our collective experiences, as if such a thing existed. In short, art was important during those days, although not quite as important as the artists themselves imagined. Although the pretentions of early Modernism may seem silly or naïve today, we can not disregard the fact that the best artists from this time period were actually able to shake our view on reality and change the way we understand one another and the way we see the world today. And still, today it is oftentimes just the opposite of understanding that many of us associate with Modernism – instead it is found incomprehensible. I think that abstract painting is the source of this view, or more precisely, the way we have come to understand and value Modernist art.