To find inspiration for this month’s blog, I began reading a book Chris recommended, Abstract Painting: Concepts and Techniques by Vicky Perry. It was on the first page of the preface that I found just what I was looking for. She included a quote by Clement Greenberg that I immediately thought was brilliant and was totally jealous that I had not thought of. He said “…the onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right”, but “Newman would have to be there to tell the child exactly what to do”. He was referring to Barnett Newman who, according to his Wikipedia page, was a major figure in abstract expressionism. The quote hit home so well because the criticism “My five year old could have done that” is perhaps the most common one Chris hears. It’s one of those things that’s definitely not true, yet difficult to put into words exactly why. The crux of the comment is that the skill and expertise in a figurative painting is obvious whereas in an abstract painting, it’s equally obvious that there is neither mastery nor technique. It’s just a bunch of paint on a canvas that is moderately pleasing at best and void of talent at worst. What this idea gets so wrong is that there IS technique to abstract work (as the book excellently demonstrates), but it may not be obvious. To prove my point, let’s look at two works, one by an actual five year old, and another, one of Chris’ latest. Here is what a five year old is capable of.
It’s not the best photo,but you can see my son and me and our house. Cute, right? By contrast, below is one of Chris’ latest.
Both artists completed their works using an easel, acrylic paint, a paint brush, and an idea of what they wanted to express. The similarity ends there, however. I don’t mean to demean my son’s creation in this exercise (it was a birthday present to me, after all), but rather to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the my-kid-could-do-that criticism. No. No they could not. It may not be readily apparent, but the technique, skill, mastery, and training that all come together in an abstract painting are absolutely there.
If there are any five year olds who can get into an art school, this may not apply to them.