The Calligraphy of Abstract Painting
IN a solemn wood a few miles outside of Colorado Springs, an artist works quietly in brazen and fervid abstractions. His formal achievements may not be fashionable just now, so his paintings must live on their own terms.Skip to next paragraph
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Balancing intuition and formal classical training, emotion and intellect, Al Wynne has painted in grand gestures and more modest dashes and splatters of paint for more than 60 years - a life in art spent outside the mainstream of the market place, but deeply involved with his own advancing aesthetics. His paintings are often rich and warm, muscular and demanding, or insistently provocative and searching. Their subtleties do not lend themselves to easy reproduction - so much is lost even in the slides I h old against the light.
I am impressed by the variety of his work, and a clear line of development eventually emerges as we walk around the studio. Each phase of his investigations has produced different forms, distinctive and arresting in their own way, but some forms recur again and again. He identifies one recurring element in the paintings as "calligraphic" movement.
I am at once drawn to his watercolors in particular, the paint saturated into the paper with a precision and grace difficult to describe, but hauntingly beautiful. Impetuous. Precise. The balance between the stir of emotion and the discipline of intelligence.
One series stops me in my tracks. The "Naissance" series began in 1974 and took Wynne into the '80s. The title of the series refers to birth because, "To me, it was like coming upon a new idea," he says. The "Naissance" series produced 150 paintings. Each painting is divided into three segments, which set up problems of form, color, and space to be resolved in a variety of ways. Certain geometric shapes - one glowing rectangle, for example, he refers to jestingly as a TV screen - recur from painting to p ainting. Drips and splatters unite some of the compositions, while the geometric forms float freely in others. Among the "Naissance" series, too, the influence of calligraphy is felt - in bold, crude, and energetic strokes of the brush.
So much of his most recent work is devoted to the calligraphic gesture - gesture and movement inspired by the ancient art of writing beautifully - that it helps us understand his older work in a different light. In these small pieces, Wynne has extracted the elegant and refined movement of calligraphy to make his abstract forms. These pieces already number around 150. He intends to complete 500 by spring, perhaps 1,000 in all before he's done. Many are strictly black and white ink on paper. Others includ e restrained color.
On a bulletin board in his studio, he has mounted a score of small black-and-white reproductions of paintings and drawings by Theodore Gericault, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, and Pablo Picasso, among others. All of these painters have in common calligraphic gesture. Kline's forms, raw and strong, are very close to Japanese calligraphic forms. And Pollock's late black and white paintings drip with movements found in the liquid calligraphic styles of the West.
"Abstract movement is calligraphic movement.... I began noticing the calligraphic character of all kinds of different artists - Gericault, Kline, Frankenthaler, Miro, Picasso, Japanese artists, Pollock, Calder, David Smith, Morris Louis, Lipchitz, and others. As I contemplate doing five or six hundred more of these black and whites, I begin to have the feeling of Pollock revisited, Rembrandt revisited.
"Calligraphy was already in my work since the very beginning. But it was in their work, too. The involvement with calligraphy has given me new insights into what they were striving for."
Introduced to calligraphy as a student at the University of Denver in the 1940s by his instructor Silvio Fracassini, Wynne was drawn strongly to the beauty of the discipline. But it would be many years before he returned to it. Needing to make a little extra money in the 1970s, Wynne took commissions in calligraphy. Making certificates and the like might have been a deadly occupation, had not Wynne taken the attitude that it was an opportunity to learn and to practice. That practice led to other expressi ons.
"I had the urge to break away from the letters and do something more creative."
The in-depth investigation of classical calligraphy has given him a strong base to function from, he says. "When I do a drawing that may be intuitive or felt - and done fairly quickly - it's done with all that behind me. I'll never forgot the high jumper who first broke seven feet. Clearing that height looked so effortless. We tend to overlook how much time he spent practicing to achieve that."