As regular readers may know, I’ve been intrigued by resemblances noted between some of my photographs, particularly the recent waterfall series, and those of Clyfford Still, the eccentric Abstract Expressionist determined to go his own way, living most of his life in relative isolation from the art world. Over the last year or so, I have sensed some movement toward abstraction in my work and I would like to explore that. What is abstraction for me? How does it relate to representation? What and how does it mean? I’m not aiming for a more sophisticated Statement, I’m just trying to better understand what I do and what others have done and what I can learn from it.

This post is a traveller’s journal of meanderings in this art historical and aesthetic territory. I don’t really know my way around yet, but I’ve noticed several landmarks and seen them from different perspectives. Besides Still, I’ve come across the painter/sculptor/photographer Clifford Ross. And for aesthetic notions, besides abstraction, I’ve bumped up against the sublime. These stand out because, as I look and read, I keep finding new connections among them and with my own picture-making.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

A brief history of the sublime: The Greek Longinus, writing of rhetoric, first enunciated the idea of the sublime as that which is overpowering, in part because it cannot be grasped as a whole and rationally subsumed into one’s current understanding of the world. Later, Immanuel Kant, in “Critique of Judgment” (1790), took up the sublime and distinguished it from the beautiful: “the Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries, the Sublime is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented.” British travellers in the Europe found the concept a perfect fit to describe their experiences before the vistas of the Alps, as represented, for example, in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Another common example of the sublime in painting is J. M. W. Turner’s “Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth.”

Turner: Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth

Turner’s painting is sometimes also pointed to as a precursor of modern abstraction. In art criticism, the abstract and the sublime were truly brought together by curator and art historian Robert Rosenblum in a 1961 article (ARTnews 59, 10, 1961, pp.38-41) entitled “The Abstract Sublime.” Rosenblum coined the term to refer to painters like Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, who used broad color fields on huge canvases to induce an overwhelming sense of infinity, analogous to that created by paintings like those of Friedrich or J. M. W. Turner. One of the earlier examples of the sublime in painting, and the one first used by Rosenblum, is Gordale Scar by James Ward, where we are awed by the dark and overpowering cliffs of this feature in the Yorkshire Dales (with a waterfall issuing from it!). This was executed on a very large canvas, 131″ x 166″, a practice which Still initiated among the Abstract Expressionists. Still may well have known of Ward’s painting; in any case, the jagged Scar seems to find echos in his work. It also strikes me as having something in common with the recent photograph of mine leading off this post.

Ward: Gordale Scar

To bring things full circle, it turns out that Still studied Longinus early in his career, while teaching at Washington State University (then College). Evidently the sublime remained with him as a driving idea; he later said that his greatest influence as a teacher in the San Francisco Bay area had been philosophical: “It was not a new ‘painting,’ but “a new way of thinking about the image as idea [expressing] the important and the sublime in man’s self.”

Searching on the web for discussion of abstraction and the sublime, I turned up Clifford Ross, whose project “Wave Music” I first saw in a book a year or two ago. Ross uses these terms in writing about his project, a section of which is photographs — printed very large — of hurricane driven waves. In the Introduction to the book, art critic Arthur Danto writes that the wave photographs don’t record a reality we can experience, because the quantity of chaotic detail in a wave could never be apprehended before it changed in its onrushing movement. Perhaps not surprisingly, his observation reminded me of waterfalls…

Ross: Hurricane I

Where am I going with all this? I’d say it’s still pretty much in ferment. I do feel I’m beginning to get the lay of the land, and maybe see ways to relate these ideas to my own work. How that might influence my photography, I don’t know. With reference to Karl’s recent post, I’m trying to develop ideas out of the photographs, not create photographs based on the ideas.

Do you go through a similar process of trying to figure out where your art fits into the larger scheme of things? Would it make any difference to know the answer?