This pressure to stick to one avenue of expression, and the exclusion of stylistic innovation, serves to choke artists’ creativity, and contextualizes them as craftspersons making pretty baubles for the marketplace.
The imagination is a sea of the unknown, unconscious, and semi-conscious, that we fish in for novelty, solutions, and surprises. If we try to harness it too much, it can buckle down, become stubborn, and refuse to cooperate. It wants to be free. In which case the demands of the marketplace that artists create within the scope of one set of parameters is a prescription for dwindling creativity, where artistic exploration is switched out for making consumer products.
This trend has been going on for a long time, and you can clearly see its effect on the art of the American Abstract Expressionists of mid last century. Each prominent artist monopolized one approach for physically applying paint to canvas. Jackson Pollock flung stringy lines of paint on the floor. Marc Rothko made soft rectangles of color. Helen Frankenthaller stained canvases. Clyfford Still painted with patches of paint. Paul Jenkins did spills. Robert Motherwell did shapes in black and white. Willem de Kooning did vigorous brushwork.
Artists who were already limiting themselves stylistically to non-representational painting further found themselves working with just one narrow set of techniques for applying paint to canvas. They could conceivably have combined multiple approaches, or moved from one to another. Are we really to believe that one person is inherently a spiller, one a stainer, one a flinger, and so on?
If you are not familiar with Hans Hoffman, it may be because he didn’t harness his non-representational painting to one set of tools and applications. He had his own art school in New York, and is an acknowledged heavy influence on a range of the more popular Ab-Ex artists who laid claim to just one avenue of abstract art making. This is not commonly known or celebrated among those who are familiar, but Hoffman innovated styles before other artists isolated them as their own, and became known as the purveyors or even owners of those same styles.
Jackson Pollock, for example, is credited with inventing “action painting”, and it is this innovation itself, more than the paintings using this technique, that he is often most admired for.
“Pollock had created his first ‘drip’ painting in 1947, the product of a radical new approach to paint handling.”
How radical of a departure is Pollock’s signature technique from Hoffman’s painting, “The Wind” of 1942, completed roughly 5 years before Pollock’s unprecedented artistic breakthrough?
Pollock is credited with being the first significant artist to drip, spill, and fling paint. Clearly he wasn’t the first person to do those things. We can go further back in time and Hoffman made another painting with flung and spilled paint in 1940. Behold “Spring”:
Hoffman employed a full range of techniques, and had an eye for color, composition, texture, gesture and movement to rival any of the stupendously more acknowledged artists of his period.
I would probably prefer to go to a retrospective of Hofmann’s work over that of any of the other Ab-Ex painters, because he is the most consistently innovative, interesting, and aesthetically satisfying.
When I see Hofmann using flung squiggles in one painting, and hard-edged impasto rectangles of primary color in another, I see a restless mind innovating without cessation. But what the market sees is a body of work difficult to brand, and an approach to art that can’t be conveniently pigeonholed.
The failure of imagination that places Hofmann rungs lower in significance to his own students, and the likes of Pollock, Rothko, or Frankenthaller, does not belong to Hofmann, but the art establishment/market.
If you do an internet search for the best Ab-Ex painters, Hofmann doesn’t make the top 10 in frequency of inclusions. The table below shows which artists were mentioned the most in the first 9 decent lists I uncovered of prominent Ab-Ex painters.
|3||Willem de Kooning||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||9|
Why does art history, which places so much value on stylistic innovation, limit artists to a narrow range, or even just one specific innovation with which to explore? The answer may be that the market doesn’t value the innovation, but rather a distinctive gimmick which a single artist can be singularly branded with.
This inclination to the gimmick reaches the point of parody in whole careers, such as Robert Ryman’s fame for all-white paintings.
Admittedly, eliminating color and composition along with imagery from painting forced a focus on brush strokes, texture in general, and the size and physical nature of the painting as an object in space (as opposed to a window into an imaginary world]. But how many of these paintings needed to be made before redundancy took hold?
The subordination of stylistic innovation to marketplace demands for an easily identifiable commodity persists today.
More than a dozen of my own styles
A few weeks ago an artist on Twitter offered that I have not yet matured into a signature style. If I were to have responded in kind, I would have told the artist they hadn’t matured yet beyond discovering a single approach that they could pull off convincingly. Many of my favorite artists worked primarily in one style, from Van Gogh, to Francis Bacon, to Caravaggio, to El Greco. Others, including Picasso, David Hockney, Hans Hofmann, Max Ernst, and Gerhard Ricther did not.
Picasso, for example, had his early Blue & Rose period. Then there was analytical cubism, his surrealist phase, neoclassical works, and variations on his mature style epitomized by his crying women paintings.
Getting a little more personal, and moving on to my own stylistic explorations.
1] Here’s a drawing I did from the imagination when I was 17-18 years old, using only a mechanical pencil:
2] This is a more loose and painterly acrylic painting from my mid-20s:
3] This is a style where I use one brush in Photoshop and work completely from my imagination:
4] This is a collage style I do from my own travel photos using Photoshop:
5] This is a realist style I’ve done based on photos I take:
6] This is a style somewhere on the razor’s edge between figuration and abstraction:
7] This is a very illustrational style emphasizing realistic lighting, texture, and modeling:
8] This is 100% 3D modeling using Blender:
9] This is a digital impasto Expressionist painting:
10] This combines 3D modeling, digital impasto painting, collage, and movie reference images:
11] This combines AI, digital impasto, and a few other custom techniques:
12] This combines collage and digital painting to create a tableaux:
13] This is pure Photoshopping, here for purposes of parody:
I can keep going, because I frequently experiment with new techniques. My versatility allows me to sometimes “crack” other people’s styles, whether they are digital or not.
14] Here is my attempt to recreate Basquiat’s style, digitally.
15] Here’s is Koons’s painting style, which was digital collages he had his assistants painstakingly reproduce large-scale, and using oils and tiny brushes.
16] If you know who Jonathan Meese is, this is a fake in his style:
17] This was my attempt to make a Van Gogh style painting of a non-existant self-portrait with a cut and bleeding ear. You can’t really do his paint strokes digitally, but here was an approximation.
18] In the contemporary NFT space, I managed to crack XCOPY’s style in under 3 hours, as it happens wile people were bidding millions of dollars on the original.
19] Doing that one gave me the idea to do this one:
20] How about a digital watercolor and ink painting?:
I think 18 styles is probably enough. Obviously, a handful of these are not my own, but I could go on to include 24 or 30 styles and hybrids.
21] Here’s an abstract style using only vector text:
22] Here’s an unusual mix of 3D sculpting and thick digital impasto painting:
23] How about a more moody, B&W collage with political overtones?:
24] I made these realistic vintage school desks from scratch in Blender:
I’ve done cartoons, political cartoons, and in college sculpture, performance art, photography, and installation art.
What motivates me to make art is often curiosity/exploration/discovery. What will happen if I try this, or that, or combining these two things? I can work on 2 or more styles simultaneously. This just seems natural, that if you are an artist interested in exploring what can be imaged, you would want to test out different recipes.
I’ve maintained for a long time that an artist only really needs to make one great work. Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, John Everett Millais “Ophilia”, Ford Madox Brown’s “Last of England”, Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”, Georges Seurat’s “Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte”, and Piet Mondrian’s “Composition No. II” come immediately to mind.
Of course these artists have made hundreds of works, and that was necessary to hit it out of the park with one, and usually more. My point is that it only really takes one piece in a lifetime for an artist to make an impression in the history of art. That is just a possible antidote to the ethos in which artists must find a gimmick and churn out endless variations on it for marketing purposes. And I wouldn’t say that’s what someone like Monet was doing. He’s another of my favorites who is identified with one core style. But nobody is forbidding artists from being endlessly consistent in the style of output. Rather, it is the perverse prohibition against exploring with approaches, tools, and techniques that needs an overhaul.
Many artists, and perhaps most, would prefer to explore just one style. I am no more against that than pursuing one subject matter in a variety of styles, which is not at all. I’m grateful for the range of styles and approaches people practice, however varied or singular. But the demand that artists all restrict themselves to one dominant style subordinates artists to the marketplace, and reduces them functionally in some strong respects to artisans fashioning baubles for the aristocracy.
However I slice it, I’ve tried multiple times to stick to one method, and I haven’t been able to do so. I lose interest and can’t motivate myself to keep going. But if there’s something different I can try out, curiosity and wanting to see the unseen takes over. I’m sure there are a lot of other artists similar to me, who find stylistic restriction stifling, and would be doing far more rich experimentation if we could only get past believing artists only have one style in them, are defined by it, or must stick to an easily identifiable gimmick.
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