Finding meaning in abstraction

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, oil on linen, 203.2 × 203.2 cm (Art Institute of Chicago 1958.193, ©The Estate of Joan Mitchell), a Seeing America video

This painting at the Art Institute of Chicago

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, and we’re looking at a large painting. It’s brilliantly colored and it’s abstract. We wanted to spend a little time just looking.

Sarah Alvarez: [0:14] We want to think about ways in which those of us who maybe don’t encounter abstraction on a regular basis can find entry points.

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] Abstraction can seem difficult. It’s easy to dismiss quickly. It really does take a little bit of our commitment to make sense of it.

Sarah: [0:30] One of the things about abstraction is that you benefit from taking more time. So I’d like to have us just start by glancing across the canvas and finding a color that stands out to you and trace not only the color but the way the color is applied.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] I’m looking at this beautiful bright blue. You see traces of it in the top third of the canvas, but then you see more in the central area, and none of those lines are straight. They seem like signatures. They turn and reverse on themselves. While some of that blue exists on the surface, some of it seems underneath. All of a sudden, I’m aware of a kind of space. Suddenly, this canvas doesn’t feel flat to me.

Sarah: [1:13] There are places where I feel I couldn’t even begin to get in between the brushstrokes. They’re so ensnarled with one another. And then there are places which seem to open up as if they expand back into space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] The denser central passages feel activated to me. The word I would use is “energy.” There seems to be a colliding of color, and stroke, and tone.

Dr. Beth Harris: [1:34] I’m really drawn to the pink, which is largely underneath those blues that you noticed.

Sarah: [1:40] There’s a section of the pink that almost seems to reveal the linen. Then, I start to look for that same feature elsewhere. I see it in other spots as well, with aqua or blue or yellow.

Dr. Harris: [1:51] Some areas seem very intentional, where we can feel the movement of the artist’s hand, and then other areas feel rather accidental, where the paint is dripping down.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] And so all of a sudden, this painting feels archaeological, as if we’re able to reveal earlier moments in its creative process.

Sarah: [2:10] Let’s think about this title, “City Landscape.” When you look at the painting, do you start to conjure up a memory of a city landscape?

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] The title is tricky for me, because it closes down the openness of the meaning of the painting. It’s a little bit like when you read a book, you have your own ideas about what a character looks like, but then you go see the movie and a director has made that decision for you. In an interesting way, you lose something.

Sarah: [2:35] I want to challenge the idea that it can’t also invite us in to bring our own personal interpretations and let just the prompt of “city landscape” open up a new avenue for exploration of this painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] There’s such a variety in the application of paint. All of those differences make me think about the bombardment of all the different kinds of things that one experiences in a city.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] It’s a kind of cacophony.

Sarah: [3:02] There are different questions that this painting poses for us. One of them is, how do we engage with abstraction? How do we understand it in the larger context of Abstract Expressionism?

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] Joan Mitchell, although she comes from Chicago, goes to New York, eventually to Paris, and has lived through the Second World War and is spending time with Abstract Expressionists.

[3:22] She is throwing off the yoke of representation that had ruled painting for centuries. There was a tremendous assertion of freedom, of exploration, that existed at this historical moment.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] For me, it’s enormously pleasurable to stand and just look at the paint and to imagine the brushstrokes and to indulge in the oranges and the yellows and the blues and the pinks and the magentas and all the different kinds of grays and creams that we see.

[3:54] But it’s also just as interesting to think about why abstraction emerged in the United States after World War II. What did it mean at that moment? Those are questions that are really interesting to consider.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] I think it can be useful when you look at abstract painting to think about music without words. In a sense, what an abstract painting is asking us to do is to be satisfied with composition, color, brushwork, tonalities, the way that we’re satisfied with notes and rhythms and harmonies in music.

[4:31] Music doesn’t always need words, and painting doesn’t always need to represent something. It can simply sometimes just be itself.

[4:41] [music]

Cite this page as: Sarah Alvarez, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Finding meaning in abstraction," in Smarthistory, May 7, 2020, accessed June 17, 2024,