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Humanizing the abstract

Juan Gris maintained that the aim of painting was to "respect," and he never made abstract pictures. On the other had, the objects in his pictures -- newspapers, tables, carafes and so forth -- are not prodominant. If his own descriptions of his procedures are to be taken on trust, the objects did not in fact make their appearance in the overall scheme until the picture was almost complete. He wrote, for example: "I make a composition with a white and a black and make a adjustments when the white has become a paper and the black a shadow: what I mean is that I adjust the white so that it becomes a paper and the black so that it becomes a shadow."

Looking at "Carafe and Newspaper" it is easy to see how the composition of light and dark shapes which interlock and overlap are the elements out of which the picture's balance and "rightness" are crafted, while the suggestion that some of those shapes are water in a vessel, a folded newspaper and a wooden table, is subsidiary. Yet this picture would not have been at all the same if Gris had left it "abstract."

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I believe that Gris way by inclination a purely abstract painter. There is no doubt that he fought what he felt was the coldness and too precise nature of his art, wanting to breathe warmth and heart into it, and similarly he seems also to have struggled to bring the mathematical interplay of flat forms (which has its own intrinsic interest) back into the "real" world. He aimed to humanize the abstract. He approached objects in his pictures only in the terms he was certain were specifically appropriate to picture-making. In other words, he didn't make his carafe out of glass as a glass-blower would. Paradoxically, though, he acknowledged in drawings that a newspaper and a drawing are both made of the same material -- paper -- and, in this picture, that a table may be made out of the same material as the picture. He recognizes and utilizes here the possibility of identifying wooden picture-panel and wooden tabletop.

Gris was aware of the natural tendency of a spectator's imagination and associative memory to make abstract shapes "suggest" objects: so he was preemptive. An Artist, he said, must "foresee, anticipate and ratify" the suggestion of a subject that the spectator is likely to see. "The painter must be his own spectator." This is a lucid, intelligent and essentially unromantic approach to painting. The imaginativeness was to be his, not the spectator's: his job was to state plainly, to clarify and to control.

He found a way (which many artists, either because they don't care or because they are deceiving themselves, do not) of exploring a highly subjective and personal vision without losing objectivity. Much abstract painting has unintentionally turned the picture itself into an object, losing its pictorial nature, or has produced imagery as tenuous as an inkblot.

Gris also was quite clear that he wasn't a sculptor. It wasn't his business to think of forms in terms of space. As a painter, he was to think of them as flat, colored shapes. This has by now become a visual common-place -- is dated, even. But the calm art of Gris remains one of the few profoundly ordered and assured explorations of the three-dimensional visible world reinterpreted in a strictly flat play of shapes. In "Carafe and Newspaper" it can be seen how he uses the two-dimensional organization of shapes to overwhelm any contrary hint of space or roundness.

The flat, dark shadow of the carafe is stronger and more dominant than the lightly pencilled carafe itself. The tabletop is clearly the picture-ground itself, not painted onto it. Remains on the same plane as the whole picture surface. The result is an intriguing illusion. If it had been drawn in perspective, the two ends of the table would have angled towards a vanishing point away from the viewer. Instead they appear to converge towardsm the viewer. The fact, however, (and it can easily be seen by turning the photograph of the picture upside-down) is that Gris has drawn the two lines strictly parallel.


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