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.
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."
HIS paintings, then, represent not only the expression of the emotions, but also the accomplishments of the intellect. The strong influence of Cezanne can be felt here. As Wynne says of Cezanne, "Every line, every little touch is there for a reason, is working with other elements throughout the whole canvas. You can trace out verticals, diagonals, half-circle, horizontals, etc., all the way through."
He tells me, "I believe it was Braque or Matisse who said `I like the intellect, which corrects the emotion.'"
Some of his paintings take years to complete, others drop from his brush in a flash. "Japonski Bay" is one painting, dear to his heart, that took several years to complete. It strikes me instantly as an important and profound work. What might be referential images of a boat and a bird nearly disappear into abstraction. The piece has a softness and an ambiguity of shape, a host of painterly subtleties in its blue depths that insinuate layers of ideas and emotion, perception and reflection coming to the su rface of thought and expression. "Glue worms" (little squiggly lines of glue from the ground raising the paint in small arcs) were the stamp of beauty in the old days among the masters. They appear in "Japonski Bay," adding another dimension of beauty to the work.
Classically trained in realism, Wynne finds the challenges of abstraction far more interesting - the difference between simple and advanced math to a mathematician, he says. There are aesthetic ideas that can only be expressed in abstract terms, he says, and they have not been exhausted. "You have inner feelings and images of things that are real," he says. "And you have to raise the question what is real.... If you look at a table, we know it is not a solid, though all of our sensory capacities tell us that it is. There is a reality there you can get at with great knowledge. People like Kline, Motherwell, Matisse, Pollack, Frankenthaler, Gottlieb - all had that inner vision.... Forms of the real that are not evident to the senses."
When he comes to the blank canvas, there is always the trepidation of facing the unknown. Wynne likes what Igor Stravinsky said in his "The Poetics of Music." Stravinsky pointed out that before he sat down at the piano and struck a chord, anything and everything was possible. But the minute he struck a chord, all his intelligence, experience, training, emotions, and intuition were brought to bear.
So for Wynne, the first stroke of the brush may represent an attack. "That canvas represents infinity, and infinity is the unknown and undefined.... The total person is involved in that process. The minute you put one mark down you have a point of reference; the second mark, you have a relationship. The third, you have still a different relationship. How you begin to handle the spatial connotation is up to you: You control the space, and you can blot anything out. You have the ability to destroy and to c reate."
Still, he doesn't think of these things as he begins the creative process. Sometimes he starts off with an idea in mind; it may be referential or realistic. Then gradually, he abstracts the piece.
"At other times, I have no idea at all and literally attack the canvas. Nothing I can identify as emanating from nature or any other source [impels this action]. I just have an inner desire to paint."
He points out that when he has gone fly-fishing a great beauty met his eyes - the sunlight on the ripples in the water, the color of the leaves and rocks, the transparency of the water, and the rocks beneath. Those things may feed him, but he is not aware of them emerging as he paints. Still, "The sum total of a person's experiences, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, come to bear, but I don't think about that when I'm painting." @BODYTEXT =
IKEWISE, color comes from his emotions, not nature in the limited sense of trees, flowers, birds. But he is always striving for the unaffected impulse - unself-conscious expression. For him, abstraction presents a greater reality than can be pictured forth through realism. What a person senses is beneath the surface of experience. "I've taken the view that any human endeavor - art and science - are simply formats to uncover the truth. And we have discoveries of new truths all the time in association with
science." The great questions of the human condition - who are we, why are we here, what is the purpose - are the concerns of art, whether or not artists realize it. But, Wynne says, artists don't think about that when they are making art.
Does abstraction come from nature? "Yes. No artist can create out of a vacuum. We all have millions of visual experiences on a daily basis. When Jackson Pollock said `I am nature,' he was saying he was a human being with emotions and an intellect. He experienced different environments and he reacted to them. The sources are right there - nature in the broad sense, - the sum total of the human experience is nature."
* Al Wynne's work is currently on display at Rule Modern and Contemporary, Denver.