Who’s Afraid of Abstract Art?

Standing in front of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? for twenty minutes in a row is a demanding activity. Two large squares of bright red and yellow, divided by a vertical stripe of dark blue is a perfect choice to start discussing abstract art.

The Neue Nationalgalerie, made of glass, marble and steel, was conceived by its architect Mies van der Rohe as a temple of new art. It houses its influential collection underground, far from the bright sunlight of spring. This is what students of the “Abstraction in Art” elective discovered during the first of their weekly museum visits.

They, however, didn’t aspire to see the entire collection during this visit. Instead they focused on several representative pieces, such as Mark Rothko’s ? 5, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale. Attesa and the picture by Barnett Newman, the highlight of the Neue Nationalgalerie.

So the group lead by Aya Soika stood there, trying to make sense of it and wondering at the same time whether making sense was what was expected of them. What they learnt was that modern art had to redefine beauty and to come up with a new definition of the sublime. Modern artists experimented with two- and three-dimensionality of painting, with shapes and colors, textures and materials. They cut it and they sewed it, they burnt it and put nails into it. But was it still meant to be beautiful? Or was it all just a commentary on art – the art of previous centuries, deeply embedded in Renaissance culture?

The Renaissance was naturally a frequent point of reference, after the students had spent much time studying it during the winter semester and then exploring museums, galleries and churches during their trip to Florence. One more class on art after all this training? Daria Ghiu (Academy Year, Romania) says: “I took this course, because I want to study art history and theory and to become an art critic. I realized it when I took the course on Avant-garde in the first term. It was one of the best courses I’d ever taken, together with the course on Renaissance. I want to specialize in contemporary art, and abstract art is the background I need. And Berlin is the best place to study it, because there are always some exhibitions going on. I’m trying to visit as many as possible and I will certainly come to the Neue Nationalgalerie again”.

In the end, everybody seemed to agree that pure beauty of artwork is still not enough, that it should give more than just aesthetic pleasure and that some content should be present. As the students moved on from the Newman picture to other pieces, they were trying to find references to the Holocaust in Guenter Uecker’s work with nails, and a likeness to a notebook page in the straight lines of Francois Morellet’s tilted canvas. Did Morellet say: “I have this page, but I don’t have anything to say?” or, may be: “I have this page, but I don’t have to say anything?”. Still, the question remains open.

By Natalia Ryabchikova (’07, Russia)

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