Abstract Art: A Global History by Pepe Karmel review

David Ekserdjian
·3-min read
<p>Surfing on Acid by Mary Heilmann</p> (Thames&Hudson)

Surfing on Acid by Mary Heilmann

(Thames&Hudson)

Big subjects deserve to be rewarded with big books whose authors know how to do them full justice. Abstraction is a massive theme, especially when it is explored – as this volume’s subtitle assures us it will be here – globally.

There are few things more inspiring than the immediate sense one has on exploring a book of this kind that it is going to be a real education and take one to places of whose existence one was previously entirely ignorant.

In this very special instance, there is the added bonus that it is abundantly clear that the author likewise had to become acquainted with all sorts of undiscovered countries in the course of planning and writing the text, which means we are able to share in his sense of excitement at exploring such extraordinary new worlds.

In his Preface, Pepe Karmel uncompromisingly states that ‘The history of abstract art has traditionally privileged white male artists from Europe and the United States. In this revised account, women artists, artists of colour and artists from diverse regions of the world emerge as crucial protagonists in the epic of abstraction.’

The View from Venice by Howard HodgkinThames&Hudson
The View from Venice by Howard HodgkinThames&Hudson

The other masterstroke, which allows for all sorts of thrillingly unexpected juxtapositions and confrontations, arises from the way the book is structured. Instead of opting for a straightforwardly historical chronicle of abstraction’s evolution, Karmel makes the simple but convincing claim that ‘Abstract art is always rooted in experience of the real world’, and then – after an eloquent Introduction - proceeds to organise his material into five broad sections (Bodies; Landscapes; Cosmologies; Architectures; Signs & Patterns).

These are then further broken down, so that – for instance – Landscapes is split into five sub-sections (Vortexes and Gusts; Cliffs, Waterfalls and Fogs; Waves; Open Windows; Vibrations). In their turn, each of these sub-sections opens with an introductory commentary, often illustrated by various figurative precedents, which is followed by a rich anthology of individually commented examples.

With the author’s guidance, the sunset over the lagoon in Howard Hodgkin’s View from Venice and the urban architecture behind Martin Blaszko’s The Blue Plain are readily apparent. There is naturally also room for works such as Mary Heilmann’s Surfing on Acid, where what is evoked is purely a mood as opposed to a time and a place.

The Blue Plane by Martin BlaszkoThames&Hudson
The Blue Plane by Martin BlaszkoThames&Hudson

I cannot even begin to imagine the agonies Karmel must have suffered when it came to choosing both which artists to include, and even worse which works by the happy many to select, but he carries it all off magnificently.

Better yet, and it would be an understatement to observe that the same cannot be said for everyone who engages with this kind of material, his prose is blessedly free of jargon and wilful obscurity, which means this book is not just an example of preaching to the converted, but can also be warmly recommended to anyone who loves art and possesses an open mind.

Abstract Art: A Global History Pepe Karmel (Thames and Hudson, £65)

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