Saturday, August 03, 2013

Impermanence of Abstract Expressionism

I came of age when Abstract Expressionist artists like Robert Motherwell were considered "modern" artists. Their work appeared fresh and new when I began looking at it in the 1970s (it was actually a generation old already). The room that holds the Abstract Expressionist collection at the Art Institute in Chicago is open and airy, and the light makes it extremely easy to really look at the details in the paintings there.

Now that "Wall Image with Stripes" (painted in 1944) is 69 years old, its surface is beginning to show signs of age. Is the way the surface of the painting looks now the way Motherwell would have imagined it to look when it reached its 70th year? He did paint "distress" into the painting, but not this particular crazed kind of distress. Would he have if he could?

[click for a closer view]

It is an oil painting on canvas, but it looks like it could have been made with barn paint on wood, at this point. I wonder, even under the ideal conditions of its home in Chicago, if its surface will continue to deteriorate. And I also wonder if, like a person who has aged, we are to consider its beauty the beauty that is present at each encounter. Would a restoration ruin the integrity of the painting? Would it be ethical to restore it?

We consider pieces of art to be permanent, but do artists consider their pieces of art to improve with age the way stringed instruments improve with age?

I wonder.

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