Culture Desk: Abstraction in Art and Music—Reviews of Various Recent Museum Exhibitions and a Concert at Carnegie Hall

by Bernie Langs

Portrait of a Peasant by Vincent Van Gogh. Credit: Wikipedia

The basic definition of abstraction, gleaned from the ubiquitous Internet encyclopedia, is “a process by which concepts are derived from the usage and classification of literal (‘real’ or ‘concrete’) concepts, first principles, or other methods. ‘An abstraction’ is the product of this process—a concept that acts as a super-categorical noun for all subordinate concepts, and connects any related concepts as a group, field, or category.” Furthermore, “Abstraction in philosophy is the process in concept-formation of recognizing some set of common features in individuals, and on that basis forming a concept of that feature.” This is by way of introducing some thoughts on recent art exhibitions featuring abstract art as compared to those of representational art, and the process of philosophical abstract musing while listening to a live classical music concert.

Abstract art is defined as “art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world.” But that is not to deny that representational art can evoke abstract thoughts in the viewer. And that’s the rub. The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” (through April 15, 2013) has its share of excellent paintings, but left me wanting more in terms of being thought-provoking or exciting. I don’t go by the creed, to bastardize Jane Austen’s idea (on dancing), that “any savage can scribble on the page and call it art.” I love abstract art because, when it’s done well, it’s a very quick conduit to a silent, near-mystic place of ideas and pure concepts. Buddhist sutras warn that “Emptiness is not empty,” but while strolling through this exhibition, I kept hoping for and craving better and more stimulating works of art. I felt that the place in my thoughts where I wished to find a peaceful mindset from the removal of “real” images was filled instead by a feeling of disappointed dullness and a longing for more intellectual substance.

For example, the necessary paintings for the show’s theme by Piet Mondrian depicting the evolution of his grid-style paintings are finely represented and were given a nice little corner in the exhibition, but they are only of historical interest. After seeing Mondrian for years, he’s now been reduced for me to just an educational tool on the history of painting, whereas Picasso, who remained representational while redefining and capturing an object’s abstract essence, continues to be vibrant and exhilarating. The Duchamp pieces I’d dreaded in the MoMA exhibition were among the best in the show. Duchamp remains chilling, stimulating, and an idea machine, often in a very dark and frightening way, yet also with a touch of black humor. The artists Arp and Malevich both have fine examples of their work represented in the exhibition. In terms of education, the show works, but the many pieces that aren’t very exciting made me realize that I don’t go to the museum for a textbook art history class, I go to see paintings that communicate something rare and precious. This wasn’t really happening for me at this show.

Uptown, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had a similar reaction to the exhibition, “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” (running through March 17, 2013). The very idea of getting to the essence of true painting, or the Platonic “form” of a painting, is an interesting, abstract one, but it wasn’t interesting here. The amusement of seeing how Matisse re-worked certain ideas and images wore thin for me quite quickly. It was a slideshow at best, another history lesson. As I was leaving the museum, I happened to go through a gallery and found myself facing a large, ancient sculpture of the torso of a fully armed Roman general; it was a dumbfounding moment. Here was a beautifully chiseled piece that summed up an entire era of history—that of Imperial Rome, and my thoughts raced on the complexities of the history of Roman warfare, on the concepts of honor and fame, on the Empire in all its bloody glory and shame, all conveyed by the hand of an anonymous craftsman. Hundreds of years of living, breathing history wrapped up magnificently in a single sculpture.

Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant at The Frick Collection (no longer on view) was equally startling. I’ll never tire of musing on and learning from Van Gogh. I delight in his revolutionary thick paint thrown onto the canvas, and my thoughts, outside of general wonder and appreciation, run the gamut: what is it that makes a Van Gogh so enlightening? What is it about his technique that is so enticing? How had he conceived of his style, which turned on like a light switch to add color and texture to the dull, nineteenth century world? Why is Van Gogh’s portrait more vibrant and alive than others of this period? How is it able to deliver the soul of the sitter? What constitutes a quantum leap in art and what is its relationship to the society of its time?

Lastly, classical music, a genre which I enjoy but of which I have limited knowledge, has its abstract schools, often related to Modernism of the early and mid-twentieth century. I noted two years ago in these pages that I attended a New York Philharmonic performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony at which I let my mind soar to abstract ideas, mostly by closing my eyes and letting my mind’s inner workings freely roam. In January 2013, I was treated to a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra and my host had garnered a ticket in such close proximity to the musicians that the concert experience changed for me. We sat in the first tier, hovering over the stage. I could see the very notes on the orchestra members’ music pages and, for the first time, continuously through the evening, could see the facial expressions of the conductor, the young and extraordinary Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Being able to see every nuance was a game-changer; I never shut my eyes. The music became something pure in itself. Music is pure abstraction to begin with. It’s the random collection of the bleating of reconstituted metals (horns) or the physics of stroking strings stretched on wooden frames and so on. The grand total of all these organized sounds during the Shostakovich was beyond anything I’ve ever heard in classical music. I didn’t experience imaginative “ideas” racing through my head nor did I reach a pseudo-Nirvanic state. It was just an incredible, overwhelming, melodic, joyful tour de force of powerful sound, which led to a plethora of emotional reactions.

At the conclusion of the piece, my friend turned to me immediately and said, “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.” The crowd gave the orchestra and Mr. Nézet-Séguin an ovation the likes of which I’ve never heard before at any musical performance. We’d all been together for a very special experience and we all wanted to show our deep appreciation and to give unbounded thanks to the orchestra.

March 2013