Paths of motion: a portrait of its essence

There are some people who think anyone who is serious must lack the ability to have fun. Viewing abstract art is one experience that can turn that stereotype inside out. Pleasure and excitement increase the more the artwork is taken seriously.

Abstract art is deceptive. Sometimes a work of abstract itself and the artist who created it. Those people who pass it off with a flip remark may never realize that, without one iota of realistic subject matter, it has an almost magical capacity to make viewers see the world around them in a fresh way. Or it can make people take a second look at some detail so commonplace that it is usually taken for granted.

What could be a more common sight in the contemporary world than machinery moving at high velocity? In the picture here, Harvey Quaytman has taken velocity and made it into a symbol in its own right. This symbol is not only abstract but also intriguingly cryptic, for only the path the motion has taken -- not its origin -- has been depicted. (There are other pictures by Quaytman, however, in which the machinery capable of producing this pendulum-like movement can be seen.)

The only thing is this picture not suggestive of speed is the rectangular base. That base makes the looped configuration look like a piece of sculpture placed on a pedestal. Thus pure motion is isolated and placed in a situation utterly different from normal life. Yet the very fact that it is in such a different situation sparks curiosity and makes us want to examine it more closely.

Quaytman's picture reminds the onlooker that motion is deceptively fragile-looking, a mystery somewhat edged with danger. As a child, I remember resisting the temptation to poke something into the cage of a moving fan to find out if the blades I saw, before it was turned on, were still there. After all, how could the diaphanous circle, vibrating like thin stretched rubber, possibly contain three separate blades of solid metal? In Harvey Quaytman's picture the wispy quality, the translucency -- all these characteristics of high speed -- are suggested. Yet everything that seems so fleeting and untouchable about speeding machinery in real life has been given substance and materiality in this picture.

Glints of silvery gray show through sandy paint texture so thick it sometimes looks like sculptured relief. A series of semicircular lines, sweeping around the curves, have been scored into the paint until the layer of contrasting color underneath is revealed. White paint is sparingly sprinkled over the surface, giving the picture a shimmering appearance.

In this picture Harvey Quaytman also borrows from and makes a comment on Abstract Expressionism. The whole broad swath of paint that creates the central image in this picture is an enlarged version of a single Abstract Expressionist brushstroke.

This reference to Abstract Expressionism dovetails quite neatly with the image of speed in this picture. Writers on the subject have often implied that a rapidly applied brushstroke would indicate action even after the hand behind it had been taken away. Quaytman's picture shows why this impression occurs: the ribbed texture left by the bristles of a paintbrush look very much like the semicircular lines scored into the surface of this picture. These semicircular lines, in turn, look very much like the notations in drawings or cartoons indicating that the wheels of a car are rotating rapidly.

But the sloppiness found in the kind of brushstrokes Willem de Kooning was fond of making has here been consolidated, refined, disciplined. The wide gleaming ribbon of paint has been restrained, encased in heavy charcoal lines. There are no ragged edges. The ribbon is even cut off abruptly at the left in midswing. There is nothing spontaneous about this stroke. It looks as if no matter how many times it were made, it would always come out looking just the same. It is precisely this regularity that reinforces the sensation of mechanized motion.

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