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Modernism: Not Even Once

by Catherine LaRivière

Where there’s a museum with a modern art wing, there’s a person probably saying “I could have done that.”

And where that same person is, there’s probably an art history student replying “But you didn’t.”

It’s ubiquitous, really. These artists painted geometric shapes and lines and splatters and colours onto canvas – how hard could it even possibly be?

I decided to take matters into my own hands and put my money where my mouth is after years of telling off abstract art naysayers. I spent my weekend experimenting with Modernism.

Full disclosure: I am not a painter. I do body painting and makeup for fun here and there, but the acrylic paints and brushes that sit in my desk’s cabinet are leftovers from my sister’s forays into art as a kid. Skin and canvas are not the same base, nor are acrylic and water-activated paints the same medium. I took art classes in high school, but they are long forgotten, and much of what I know of applied art is an amalgam of educated guesses. To a certain extent, I went into this blind.

What I do know are the genres and artists that tend to get dismissed more than others, and from this I made my list of contenders. I kept it short; I wanted to keep this experiment contained within my weekend off. I decided to go with Hard Edge, de Stijl, Rothko, Suprematism, Richter, and the best-loved victim of abstract art mockery, Action Painting.

I set myself up some basic criteria as follows: 

  • How long did it take me to do it? 
  • How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10? 
  • Would this pass as a legitimate art piece?

One errand to Dollarama for some cheap canvasses later, I was ready to go. I laid down some garbage bags on my kitchen floor, got into some comfy clothes, and tried Modernism for the first time.

—-

First up was Hard Edge abstraction, inspired by Frank Stella and Quebec’s Plasticiens.

How long did it take?

2 Hours

How difficult was it on a scale
of 1-10?

An 8. Turning a viscous fluid into
a straight line that doesn’t overlap with your other colours is TOUGH.

Would this pass as a legitimate
art piece?

Probably not. If I were
Stella’s intern, I’d definitely be fired.

Comments:

I started with this style because it seemed like an easy enough approach; it’s some shapes in different colours on a canvas. Holy shit was I wrong. My brushes could not paint straight enough edges and my colours would not stay in their lines. It was an exercise in frustration, I tell ya.

—-

Next on the list, because apparently Hard Edge abstraction’s straight lines hadn’t frustrated me or strained my eyes enough: de Stijl/Mondrian.

How long did it take? 

1.5-2 hours 

How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10? 

A 10, especially after trying Hard Edge. My eyeballs wanted to jump out of their sockets. My hands began shaking. I almost gave myself lockjaw from clenching my teeth in concentration.

Would this pass as a legitimate art piece?

Hell no, not even close. Modrian, I have failed you.

Comments:

I knew this was going to be a serious challenge, but I stupidly went into it after driving myself mad fixing the straight edges of my Hard Edge piece. De Stijl was all about not only perfect edges but symmetry and perfection and ohmygod how did Modrian paint straight black lines with no help. The only place this sad attempt at Modernism would sell is in a thrift shop, if it even sold at all.

—-

Up next was Rothko, one of art history’s most famous Abstract Expressionists and also famously picky about the display of his works.

How long did it take?

30 minutes.

How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10? 

A 5. Putting the paint on the canvas was easy enough, but picking the colours was a tough call. The whole point of Rothko’s paintings is to experience colour and its interaction with other colours, and my red-ish canvas seems comparatively weak.

Would this pass as a legitimate art piece?

Probably not. If it does, it’s as a bad Rothko knock-off.

Comments:

Rothko’s style was a calming experience after the hell of Hard Edge and de Stijl. All I had to do was paint some hazy blocks of colour on the canvas and call it a day. As I mixed up my second and third shades, I had to actively think about how they would interact with my base colour. The result was kinda bleh: my orange was too red, and my pink was too white. Rothko’s colour theory game musta been *100 emoji*.

—-

Back into geometric abstraction I went with Suprematism, inspired by the works of Malevich.

How long did it take?

1 hour, but I was tired and notably uncommitted at this point.

How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10?

A 7. Shapes are hard. Creatively painting shapes without making it look like a kid’s first attempts at understanding basic geometry is harder.

Would this pass as a legitimate art piece?

Not even close.

Comments: 

This was my last painting for Saturday night. My eyes were tired, I hadn’t eaten dinner, and my legs were cramping from having been sat on my kitchen floor for 5 hours. I just painted some shapes on a canvas, completely non-presentational. It doesn’t look that much different from the stuff I made back when I was in kindergarten.

—-

A good night’s rest had and some creative mojo restored, I delved back into painting with the style of Richter.

How long did it take?

Just under 1 hour.

How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10?

A 6. I just had some fun with big brushes, bright colours and a palette knife. Whether or not it’s passable as a Richter though…

Would it pass as a legitimate art piece?

Probably not. It’s fun to get to know colours and paint in this way but it’s no Richter.

Comments:

This was a nice digestive after a night spent obsessing over edges and geometry and symmetry. I just spread some various colours on the canvas to experiment with colour theory. At best, it’s a first-year art school art assignment, maybe a B. 

—-

Finally, the piece de resistance of abstract art mockery: Action Painting, inspired by none other than Pollock.

How long did it take?

30 minutes.

How difficult was it on a scale of 1-10?

A 3. Some thought went into what colours I would use and how much to dilute them to best splatter them across the canvas, but otherwise: just straight up fun.

Would this pass as a legitimate art piece?

Probably not. Not enough cigarette butts trapped in the paint.

Comments:

Action Painting was more therapy than actual art for me. I got to get back into the child-like wonder of watching bright colours fly across the canvas (and also across my kitchen floor a little bit - sorry Mom). I layered black and turquoise and blue and white until I got some kind of structured, balanced chaos. This was fun and 10/10 would recommend to everyone to try at least once.

—-

My legs sore, eyes strained, and plaid shirt sufficiently ruined, I now had proof of 6 variations of Modernism that I had tried. Did I learn something from this experimental weekend project of mine? Maybe that painting is fun and that I should probably do it more often. But most importantly, I learned something that maybe some folks sneering in modern art wings worldwide should take a moment to consider: don’t say that you could have made that until you actually try to – chances are that you probably can’t.

But rather than live up to the equally ubiquitous stereotype of art majors being snooty and judgmental, I’d rather leave this issue of abstract art’s merit in its periodicity. The next time you find yourself or someone close to you trying to take a dig at a Rothko or a Borduas or a Frankenthaler or a Letendre, think about why these artists painted this way, and in reaction to what that made them do it. Don’t get caught up in the representational facets of abstraction; it’s a moot and far too subjective point. But do think about what was happening at the time when Pablo Picasso started turning faces every which way, and when Jackson Pollock started dripping and splattering paint on a canvas, or when Yayoi Kusama decided to dive into the infinite pool of psychedelic polka dots. Trust me: the answer will always be more fulfilling than you think.

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