Significant Form.

In 1913 Clive Bell published a little treatise called ‘Art’ in which he argued that all works of art must have a common denominator – what he goes on to define as ‘significant form’. This idea has meant a lot to me, in the main because it offers a way of looking at art that sees form and its relationships as a kind of ‘language’ that we offer, as artists to the world. As a result of this there is a kind of ‘logic’ to the art work (the logic that any language must have) that should be intelligible and open to understanding and even analysis, by all.

For me, however, significant form had a universal dimension that Clive Bell did not seem to recognise. He argued that significant form only existed in an art context, and that it did not apply to Nature (to say, beautiful butterfly wings, or to any other aesthetically pleasing set of forms thrown up by Nature). He also seemed to dislike the idea that the significant forms could be analysed (proposing that this was outside aesthetics and therefore not the concern of the artist). My own position has been that the term ‘significant form’ is still meaningful and important for us today because all form that we ‘appreciate’, for whatever reason, has a foundation that is both psychological and evolutionary. For instance: the human form in nature and art. In nature we all ‘appreciate’ the human form. Our evolution seems to dictate this, as part of desire and procreation. So, when we propose that the human form is beautiful, and use it in our art objects, we are finding the form (and the complex of forms that make up the human body) ‘significant’ because there are profound evolutionary, and hence psychological, reasons for doing so. My proposal would be that our psyches are made up of our evolutionary development and function to that end. So, when I work in the abstract I would also propose that the forms I exploit are made meaningful, at least in substantial part, by the inherent demands of my biology.

When I design an abstract piece of work it interests me how I get to some of the forms I then make, and I would propose that, insofar as the forms are meaningful, they are so because of the ‘demands’ of that part of the brain that art ‘digs’ down to. In a short story called ‘A Simple Melody’, Virginia Woolf (a friend of Clive Bell’s) refers to how “all the time ideas were rising from this pool (beneath) and bubbling up into one’s brain”. The melody of the title of the story takes its power from its roots deep inside our beings. This is a kind of ‘depth psychology’ that can help explain the power of art, in all its forms.

Attached: two pieces. Both emerged from doodling and were made to see what might be there.


Part of my interest in Modernist art comes from growing up in that context. However, a specific commitment to abstract art has followed me around, pursuing me and often annoying me!

Picasso and David Hockney were prominent artists of the twentieth century who pushed towards abstraction but who could never, in the end, abandon art’s connection with specific, ‘witnessed’ visual images and the actual world. But it has also interested me that it was Picasso who, along with Cezanne, pushed art out from a commitment to the actual, and of course Hockney himself got very close to abstraction at times – see the Very New Paintings of the early 1990s.

I have found that abstraction takes many forms, from the religious leanings of early non-objective work, to Constructivist, later Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist work. And one of the things that has interested me has been the emphasis on structure and structuring. We see this initially in Cezanne, then in Picasso’s cubist period, then in artists like Mondrian, the Constructivists and Minimalists such as Donald Judd. I have felt this in my own work too – a desire to create forms that are highly defined structures, although for me, without the regularity of more geometrical abstraction. So, with ‘South Bank 2010’ (attached) I was seeking to work with an architectural theme – my interest in Brutalist architecture – as well as being intrigued by Constructivist artists.

Brutalism always interested me because of the sculptural form of the buildings – they always seemed to speak of architects who sought an element of sculptural plasticity. So, in making some work that referred to Brutalism it was like returning the sculptural element in the buildings back to their art origins.

This is not a successful piece, though, it bothers me. But I am hoping to continue to develop this theme, in part because it takes something from the real world that is out there, and for me transcends the specific object that Picasso and Hockney could not abandon. I’m trying here to see what is actually there without the visual tropes that make up ‘realistic’ or figurative art. At a material level, what are we dealing with? This reflects, in some ways, a fear that this ‘materialism’ has an inner meaning too, for me as a person. What IS the attraction of the material devoid of image? What is attractive about concrete, as its used in Brutalist work? Why have so many modern movement foregrounded the material at the expense of the image? Even Cezanne did this – paint takes on a tactile quality, an unsentimental materiality, which Picasso took further, and later artists such as Richard Serra moved on with, offering a look into what lies behind the image. What, then, is this kind of work SEEING?


Tapies is dead.

It was with a profound loss I heard today of the death of Antoni Tapies. I still remember that ‘shock of recognition’ when I first saw Tapies’ work back in the 60s. Very few artists have ever offered MATTER in their work as well as Tapies. Nor, I feel, has anyone succeeded in giving matter such completely embodied resonance.

There have been few modern artists who have made a commitment to the actual material like Tapies did throughout his career, and at the same time succeeded in establishing a subtle and complex set of values through the work. Tapies was, in the main, an abstract artist, and his work struggled into life on the boundary of becoming inarticulate. There was no formal language through which to convey what he sought to evoke, and art’s various historic strategies failed him too. For me he was one of the few artists to have ever gone directly to matter to find meaning, like those early abstract artists who saw the religious possibilities that lay in abstraction. Unlike them, however, he made the spiritual available to us through his manipulation of material, not through ‘design’ or composition. Arguably he refused structure and form, and their artificiality as meer arbitrary choices on the part of the individual. Formlessness was never so wonderful!

Hints of meanings were also often strewn across canvasses – abandoned letters, symbols such as crosses, etc. It seemed that the ‘meanings’ here were too evanescent to quite take form, and perhaps like Cy Twombly, he seemed to do more on the edge of this formlessness than could be achieved by any kind of definitive shaping. My love of his work depends, though, on the meanings he seemed to have etched out of inarticulate matter, refusing as an artist to offer meaning as separate from matter – no dualism here.


Cold and impersonal.

I’ll put a couple of my own pieces on the record in order to raise some issues that may remain prominent.

One of my main interests in Modernism arose, I think, when as a youth, studying art and literature, and with an interest in philosophy, I developed a sense that impersonality and a certain detachment counted for a lot in these fields of activity. It seemed to me that the great artists and writers of the time (the first half of the twentieth century) were fundamentally trying to achieve a kind of objectivity in their work. The work itself could be personal, in that it came from an individual, but it also rose above the limitations of the individual self. In fact, the art I seemed to come to admire may even have aspired to greater things, or to be associated with greater things, such as Giotto’s or Michelangelo’s works were once associated with religion or, in the nineteenth century, Cezanne’s work was seen to be foregrounding new ways of seeing and of working. These artists did’nt depend on the personal for the value of the work, even though, as individuals, they all contributed to the development of art in a highly individual way This was art that saw itself as, shall we say, ‘profound’ and no mere ‘expression’ of an individual consciousness.

So, I see some of this in the early history of abstract art, with the strenuous emphasis that was put on religious feeling, with art as a vehicle for this. We might name Mondrian, but then we could name almost any of the early abstract modernists.

The two pieces represented here are both carved in this spirit. I like the impersonality and detachment – the work is not directly about me, and the forms, if they work, are almost entirely non-objective. The pieces are, in that sense, cold, even pristine. If anything, it is a stepping beyond the self that drives the pieces, not expression of it.


Modernism and Meaning

From a Forum topic named ‘Should the ‘meaning’ of a work of art be obvious’ I am including this post I made as it relates to the whole modernist issue.

A couple of issues interest me here. There was a time, let’s say medieval Europe, when the ‘meaning’ of a work of art was clear. Art’s function, in mainly religious, decorative or illustrative terms, meant that the audience, from that social context, would have no problem of understanding. Patrons saw to that cohesion through their wealth and power. These broad social, cultural and religious contexts have gone, and so has the ‘authorisation’ of the work by a central social body or hierarchy that speaks for the community and hence keeps art generally intelligible to all.
With the loss of these old ‘authorities’ and the development of ‘modern’ rationalism, science and new political ideas about individual freedom from oppression and authority, the audience of modern art finds itself in a very different relation to the artwork. If there are as many artistic responses to the same thing as there are individual artists to represent it, then it could be difficult for many people to quite understand what any one artist is advancing, particularly given that stylistic innovation, whereby the individual artist asserts his/her individuality, has become as important as ‘content’. So, we move from the medieval icon maker to Picasso to Damien Hirst (all different in content and style), and if we are to understand any of these new guys then we may have to recognise that art may no longer be so easy. It just might be in a foreign language!
Added to this is the crisis all modern artists face: what do modern artists think they have that is so worth communicating? If it’s just ‘feelings’, then OK. If it’s just someone’s point of view, then OK again. But when it comes to ‘MEANING’ we develop a whole new problem. In the 13th century meaning was not a problem, in a sense. There was a social, sociological and religious superstructure that established all that. Society had a certain cohesiveness (brutal as it may have been for many). And art served that. Nowadays, unless one is involved in the decorative arts, the ‘serious’ artist may turn out to be too difficult to understand because his actual audience could be much, much narrower than his potential audience. Cezanne was appreciated by only a few for much of his lifetime; his radical perception of how paint made him ‘difficult’ for some. Why? What he was doing was advancing something new, not just in terms of how to paint, but also offering a new theory of vision almost. Now you might ‘get’ all this when you look at a Cezanne, but maybe not. Again, why? Because you may not see art in the same terms or you don’t understand the terms of the debate.
Having said all that, I see no reason why anyone cannot understand any work within their own cultural milieu, with a little effort and aesthetic sensitivity. The problem today is that almost every artist attempts to create a milieu that is complete unto themselves – it seems to be a point of principle that we are original unto ourselves, and given that, also be ‘DIFFICULT’. At the same time, in the modern world, ‘meaning’ itself has become difficult. Science has seen to that, as has the loss of faith and a billion voices all saying very different things. Who’s to know? The artist? And if he does, how can we tell if the ‘stylistic’ language he uses isn’t one we quite grasp?
All the arts are difficult now. That’s the way it is. I know of no good modern poetry that hasn’t got the same dilemma……