Masters Research Contextualisation
Past, Present, Future
Exploring possibilities in time from a finite position
My research for this MA focusses on movement and time. I use PVA glue, which is coloured and poured, at different rates, over a variety of surfaces. The glue continues to move until the very last moment before it dries. This movement is documented with video and these films are themselves developing into studies of time and movement, with a particular emphasis of giving the viewer an element of control and interaction.
The more I experiment with flowing the glue and documenting it with video, the more possibilities seem to emerge. The actual material, its colour mix, its viscosity as affected by temperature, gravity, lighting effects, the way I pour or drip it, how long it is poured, from what it is poured, onto what it is poured, mark making into the flow, position of the camera, time lapse film settings, all these seem to give endless variations. Although my interest is largely in the flow and movement of the glue, the way it dries and the resultant visual effects just add to this complex mix.
In an effort to contextualise my work I have been researching various artists and movements of modern art. In this essay I will look at one particular movement known as Kinetic Art and one individual artist, Jackson Pollock.
Kinetic Art is a stream of work created in the period from 1920 to the 1970s. Susan Ferleger Brades, Director of the Hayward Gallery, London, describes Kinetic Art, in her introduction to ‘Force Fields’ an exhibition of Kinetic Art, as work which explores the ‘language of movement’.
Movement through space and time
Frank Popper, writing in 1968 traces the evolving pattern of movement in visual art back to 1860. He sees the emergence of Impressionism, photography of objects in motion, stereoscopic vision, and in science the birth of the theory of evolution, with Herbert Spencer’s book ‘First Principles’, as significant events in that year. Popper argues that all these contribute to a significant shift in the understanding of movement through time and space as perceived by visual artists.
Popper then describes the importance of movement through Impressionism, Post Impressionism, and into the 20th century through Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and into the more defined art movement that is Kinetic Art.
The typology of movement
Kinetic Art seems to move art into a realm of ‘real movement’ (Popper 1968 p.223) where artists created machines, mobiles and projections that involved actual physical objects moving and changing. Prior to this, movement was of significant interest to artists but was generally captured in a still image or a series of images. So the move to ‘real movement’ required some sort of aesthetic framework within which to comprehend the ‘real movement’. Although Popper was writing at a time when a significant amount of Kinetic Art was still being created, his attempts to define a typology of movement have, to my research, been the most interesting and helpful sections of his writing.
Popper describes three ways of establishing this typology. Firstly, a general classification of all conceivable types of movement – linear, circular, whirling etc. Secondly, a semantic classification dealing with the themes involved in a given work of art. Thirdly, to classify movement according to the elements used to create it, colour, line, volume, texture etc.
However Popper is dissatisfied with all of these methods and instead describes a fourth approach which involves ‘examining the procedures used by artists to convey, represent, suggest or introduce movement into the plastic* arts.’ (Popper 1968 p.215)
Popper then defines, in some detail, a long and yet to his mind a non-exhaustive list of ‘simple procedures’. These procedures cover movement in a single image, seen through the pose taken by a model, the composition, or the movement suggested by the theme. Also the movement revealed when an artist chooses to depict a particular moment in time, or several moments giving a narrative feel to the images. Related to this procedure is the movement perceived by the viewer, either in contemplation or the eye movement around an image or series of images. Colour, form, volume, transparency, texture and the competition between these elements are all considered to be categories that give us an understanding of movement. (At this point it is worth noting that although colour theory is extremely important to my wider research, the way my own use of colour and how it relates to movement is less important, as the final dry pieces I create are a result, almost a by-product, of the ‘real movement’ of flowing glue.)
The description of procedures for the expression of movement continues through photographic and filmic categories, covering such issues as juxtaposition and decomposition and recomposition of cinematic film. Finally in his typology of movement Popper defines the category of ‘movement expressed by movement itself’.
Within this categorisation, Popper sees several important areas of movement which all seem to be inspired by movement in nature or the boundary between the natural and the mechanical. Art that uses simple mechanical movement plays with the movement of the modern machine age. Artists such as Picabia, Duchamp, Tinguely and Kramer adopted the use of mechanical movement to simultaneously explore the beauty and monstrosity of the machine in motion. By 1968 the previous introduction of electromechanical, electronic, thermal, hydraulic and magnetic forms of movement produced even more complex results.
The work of Tatlin, Rodchenko and later the more playful pieces of Calder, are all seen by Popper as exploring less predictable forms of movement. Their use of mobiles and later the combining with colour projection and reflection, produced movement that was more complex and astonishing in the variety of the effects produced.
Popper also explores movement in art that is produced by the active participation of the viewer. This is either in the form of starting the movement in a mobile or machine driven piece or by the need for the viewer to move in a certain pattern to reveal the actual images the artist has created. There is also movement as perceived by the growth or deterioration of the material used to create the piece of art.
Finally, Popper defines a further category and with it makes a remarkably visionary statement. Movement as seen through the repetition of formal elements is to Popper a very odd but interesting development. He sees the order that the eye follows in tracing a sequence of like elements as crucial and worthy of further research. He then says (1968 p.222) ‘It is quite possible to imagine that the kinetic art of the future will be composed by a premutational machine.’ A ‘premutational machine’ that represents the repetition of formal elements is surely a computer. Using the formal elements of 1s and 0s the computer is able to represent these in astonishing ways, in effect disguising the fact that all it has to work with are 1s and 0s.
In contrast to Popper, Guy Brett writes about Kinetic Art in the catalogue to a major exhibition of this work in 2000. He had previously followed, researched and written extensively about kinetic Art but the time difference and in particular the two decades since the effective end of Kinetic Art, have given his observations an objectiveness which are both helpful and enlightening.
Brett sees a need to reintroduce a contemporary audience to the ‘language of movement’. He accepts the difficulties in presenting Kinetic Art as well as the technical and conservational issues that arise and cites these as reasons for the lack of kinetic work in many of todays museums. However he is adamant that Kinetic Art is not a side show or just a form of entertainment and believes that it deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as, say, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, or indeed Pop Art.
One area of Brett’s observations that I find particularly interesting and relevant to my own work is a thread he identifies in Kinetic Art, which he describes as ‘cosmic speculation’ (Brett 2000 p.10). He sees this as both an investigation of reality and an investigation of the aesthetic. For Brett, many of the artists involved in Kinetic Art, see speculation about the structure of the universe as inseparable from the transformation of the formal structures of art, and vice versa.
Guy Brett (2000 pp. 10-12) then outlines three metaphors of the universe which he sees in use within Kinetic Art. Firstly an image of the cosmos as ‘crystalline planes’, rooted in science and carefully structured. The second vision is best expressed by Henri Michaux, an artist in the l’informel grouping, when in 1963 he described his vision of the universe as, ‘Space that is teeming, a space of gestation, of transformation, of multiplication, whose swarming, even if only an illusion, would give a better idea than our ordinary vision of what the cosmos is like’ (quoted Brett 2000 p.11). The third metaphor for the universe is the void, nothing, emptiness, the limitless and dimensionless.
All three of these metaphors appear regularly within the work and statements of many of the artists associated with Kinetic Art. Indeed the antipathy between the first two, between the vision of structural rigour and the vision of formless flux, polarised after the Second World War. The metaphor of the universe as a void, which for many artists was heavily influenced by eastern philosophy and religion, did create something of a paradox with its reference to ‘nothing’ as a means of understanding ‘everything’.
This cosmic speculation and exploration of the universe and things beyond the human sensory spectrum did lead to a remarkably non Eurocentric art. Brett (2000 p. 61) observes that ‘Kinetic work expressed the notion that there was no one centre’. He even goes as far as to say that it is absurd to claim a North American dominance of post war art.
Both the authors I have reviewed here write with obvious authority on the subject of Kinetic Art. I found Frank Popper’s typology of movement helpful if somewhat over complicated in parts. As a practising artist, and not an aesthetician or theorist, I sometimes find the attempts to classify elements of artist practise needlessly narrow and potentially restrictive. However when Popper writes about active participation by the viewer and describes some of the significant pieces that utilise this I found him highly informative. (This may be due to the fact that active participation is of specific relevance to my own work.)
Guy Brett had an advantage in his writing as the hindsight afforded by the date of writing, gave him an opportunity to write with a greater sense of overview. His writing, although not lacking any of the intellectual depth of Popper, did seem to avoid getting lost in complicated detail. My own work explores metaphors of the universe and in particular the relationship between God, time and space, so it was fascinating to discover that these were also interests, even obsessions, for many Kinetic Artists. The important international element to Kinetic Art that Brett reveals is encouraging and I have to agree with his belief that this movement within 20th century art should not be seen as a side line and needs greater exposure and understanding. As Brett (2000 p,61) himself says ‘it was a focus for the aspirations of diverse peoples to be absolutely modern, to speak in universal terms, and to evolve further the contemporary perceptions of space and time’.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was a significant member of a group of post war American painters, based around New York, who became known as the ‘Abstract Expressionists’. The context which Pollock’s work gives to my own practise appears obvious at first. The drip and pour technique using materials other than traditional oil paint, along with the utilisation of, and attempt to gain control of, the ‘accident’ are immediate similarities. Indeed at a recent exhibition of my work one viewer, while watching an installation of glue flowing over a slowly rotating disc, was overheard saying, ‘it’s like a lazy Jackson Pollock’.
Sand Painting and Mexicans
Among Pollock’s early influences were the sand paintings of native Americans, where different coloured sand was carefully poured through the fingers directly onto the ground. Pollock seemed to enjoy the immediate, tactile connection to the earth that this technique created. He also spent time with Siqueiros and his Mexican muralist workshop. Here he was encouraged to work on a vast scale, often on canvases laid on the floor and with household paints that were poured and splattered. This was all in an attempt to find new materials and methods to capture a new and changing world and the need for social transformation. Of course there were many influences on Pollock’s work, such as other artists, from Picasso and Joan Miro to his wife Lee Krasner and other Abstract Expressionists. Surrealism was also a huge influence particularly when he started long term therapy and added to the mix Jungian psychological theories of the collective unconscious. It should be noted that although Pollock was a heavy drinker, along with many of his artistic contemporaries, the influence of alcohol on his work is seen by many as more myth than reality. Indeed the 3 year period from 1948 when arguably his most significant work was produced was a period of complete abstinence, broken only at the end of three intense days of filming for Hans Namuth’s famous film of Pollock in action.
Pollock’s paintings were often described as ‘action paintings’. This is an attempt to capture the sense of energy, vigour and motion involved in their creation. He said that he liked ‘the feeling of space of a large canvas’ (1997 Phaidon. Video). Indeed it seemed he used such large canvases so that he couldn’t see the proportions to begin with and only found the edges part way through the painting. He studio space was only slightly larger than some of his paintings, ‘physically, Pollock’s big canvases just fit; experientially, they don’t even come close.’ (Varnedoe and Karmel 1998 p.16)
In a radio interview in 1951 Pollock said that his technique came from a need to express something new, he seemed to enjoy the excitement of mastering his materials, experimenting with different methods of dripping and pouring, using brushes, sticks, basters or directly from the tin or jar.
‘modern artists are expressing a inner world, expressing the energy and motion and other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.’ (Pollock 1951. Interview. 1997 Phaidon. Video)
Chance and Accident
Although Pollock’s technique can seem to be random with little control, he in fact worked hard for many years to gain control over the dripping of the paint. When asked if it was more difficult to control his paintings than the usual brush stroke technique he said:
‘I know with experience, it seems possible to control the flow of paint to a great extent. I don’t use the accident, I deny the accident.’ (Pollock 1951. Interview. 1997 Phaidon. Video)
Others have seen an incorporation of both chance and control, resulting in not just energy and grand gestures but also intimacy and calmness.
‘Pollock’s daring abstract work legitimised the convergence and mastery of chance, intuition and control. Layered skeins of paint generate beauty and order out of seemingly random gestures.’ (http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/pollockhome.html)
In getting behind the myths that surround Jackson Pollock I have found a rich context for my current practise. This is not simply in the ‘controlled accident’ nature of my work but also the more subtle and less head-line grabbing areas of his influence. His intuitive way of working relates strongly to my own deliberately intuitive use of colour. His sense of exploring material and the way it reacts, mirrors my own sense of almost endless possibilities in the way glue moves. Also the importance Pollock saw in exploring time and space and not just illustrating feelings and emotions, has been interesting to compare with the ‘cosmic speculation’ that I have recognised in my own work. For me I have another vast area of new material to work with, namely video and interaction.
Although Pollock was hyped as an ‘all American cowboy’ and often seen as one of the main reasons for America taking over as the leading influence in modern art worldwide, as well as being hailed as ‘the greatest living American artist’ in Life magazine 1950 (which was supposed to be an ironic article), Pollock himself seemed to have a keen sense of the international nature of his influences. From Native Americans and Mexican Muralists to the vast history of European art and an aside remark, in an interview, about ‘the orientals’ who also worked on the floor**, Pollock’s work was a product of both America and the world.
* ‘plastic art’ is a phrase Popper uses throughout his book, he seems to use it as a term that covers all forms of visual art that involves the manipulating, moulding , shaping or controlling of material, whether paint, photographic chemicals, wood, ink, or indeed metal. For example, he makes a clear distinction between the art form of dance as performed by a dancer and the ‘plastic art’ of depicting the movement of a dancer.
** So far I haven’t found this reference, in the radio interview of 1951, investigated anywhere, it is something I need to look at further.
Brett, G. 2000. Force Fields; phases of the kinetic. London, Hayward Gallery
Popper, F. 1968. Origins and Development of Kinetic Art. London, Studio Vista
Varnedoe, K . and Karmel, P. 1998. Jackson Pollock. New York, Museum of Modern Art
Jackson Pollock, 1997. Video. UK: Phaidon
Jackson Pollock web feature, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. USA. Available from: http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/pollockhome.html (first accessed 21 Jan 2003)
Jonathan Kearney February 2004