The Influence of Art History on Contemporary Practice.
The so-called modern art revolution has often been seen as a break with tradition. This is certainly not a view I share. In fact modern artists establish a new and different view of the past. The historical self-perception of artists like Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky or Picasso is not defined by any attempt to place themselves outside of history. [To me that view seems preposterous]. Rather, their intention was to develop concealed, buried or forgotten aspects of this history – be it the rigidity of Byzantine Orthodox pictorial thought, Russian Folk Art, or the development of perspective and humanism of the Italian Renaissance. These examples are all useable as a springboard to attain modern artistic awareness.
For me, the aforementioned artists approach to history, particularly art history, was to understand it as a tradition, in which the binding orientations of the past were capable of being renewed over and over again. Important to them was not the timid preservation of bygones [which could be characterised as traditionalism] but rather the ability to tap, under completely different historical circumstances, the power of this legacy – this huge historical resource.
I think that the insights and pictorial ideas of classical modern art [Cezanne, Seurat and Monet, etc up to Corot] also belong to this understanding of tradition.
Artists like Carlo Carra and Georgio Morandi came to reappraise and almost rediscover the work of Piero dells Francesca [although not immediately obvious in their work]. In fact Italian Art of the Early Renaissance e.g. by Giotto, Masaccio and Uccello came to be seen with new eyes in the 1920s.
I feel we can all benefit from this way of understanding today and indeed reference the past continually in my work.
Moving much closer to us in time I would like now to talk about an artist close to my heart, who died recently, Sol Lewitt.
Sol Lewitt’s art was originally considered to be of a rigorous intellectual nature, and I still find it so, but the sensuality and beauty to be found in his work was not acclaimed until the critic Robert Rosenblum helped us to understand LeWitt in relation to Western Art History. Rosenblum wrote: ” The venerable duality in Western Art between universal reason and private aesthetic fantasy seems freshly re-invented within a contemporary context.”
In an essay by Martin Friedman the influence of architecture on Lewitt’s work is highlighted. Friedman states that Lewitt’s “far ranging tastes have long been for elemental shapes that range from Old Kingdom Egyptian mastabas, Indian stupas, and the temples of Angkor Wat, to early Romanesque churches and Brunelleschi’s great dome for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Illustrations of these wonders and other grand primal structures are pinned to the wall of his studio.”