Modernism, the historical art era encompassing the late 19th Century through the first half of the 20th, is characterized by an emphasis on materials, media and form rather than metaphorical content. They also wanted to remind people that art, even that of the great masters, was just paint on surfaces.
Artists were exploring the tactile quality of paint itself or the properties of stone or metal – essentially examining the Elements of Design (Shape, Line, Color, Texture, and so on) in their pure forms without seeking to tell stories or express meaning. One might say that the Modernists were fighting a losing battle against human nature, since we are biologically programmed to seek meaning and notice relationships – create stories – and will do so even when none exist. Humans seek to make sense from information, while one big part of Modernism wants to depict nonsense for its own sake. (Eg Dada and Theater of the Absurd).
Writing included the stream-of-consciousness novel and poetry that was more about the sound of words than their meanings. In music atonal or 12 tone music rose, with all its unresolved glory along with the famous John Cage conceptual composition 4’33” – one of several silent pieces. The Wikipedia entry on Modernism has a positive cornucopia of links to the theoretical thinkers, writers and artists of the era. They wanted to explore the stylistic conventions of various kinds of art work, but from a distance, without getting drawn in to the stories.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was a Modernist painter whose large scale mono or duo chrome works are the epitome of Modernist non-subjective art. The Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX is a non-denominational meditation chapel, and is open and free to the public. Inside the Rotunda, lit entirely by natural light, are fourteen large scale monochrome oil paintings by Rothko. The light constantly changes so the texture of each painting also changes.
When I visited there in the mid-1980’s I felt like there were figures buried inside the darkness. I persisted in trying to see what was hidden. The paintings seem to have a lot of depth. It was very serene and relaxing, but I still wanted to find a subject in the non-subjective artworks. But then again, I also like finding shapes in the texture of popcorn ceilings.
What does this mean for a creativity practice today?
Modernist practice gives us permission to play with materials and media, to enjoy the process without worrying about the outcome or product. We can smoosh paint, or roll it, combine blocks of color or repeat simple shapes over and over. We can stack wood, metal and stone pieces in pleasing combinations.
Some of the best ideas for Modernist experiments come from ideas for children’s sensory play crafts. Throw pigments, pour, spray and embrace randomness. But also combine surfaces and textures. Use one color of different media for a shadow box or other display – paint, inks, pencils, crayons, collage, fabric, found objects
Simple Art Project Ideas.
Scumbled Duotone Canvases
When used in theater sets, scumbling is a paint technique where colors are mixed together on the surface with the painting tools. In art scumbling refers to washing the darker finish with lighter colors (often with a nearly dry applicator) to mute the colors below. The tool defines the kind of edges the paint makes – roller, brush, sponge, rags.
- Use two of your chosen tools to smoosh paint on the surface and then blend the edges together forming an ombré.
- If you like Rothko, try pairs of rectangles with soft edges. Also consider a central circle surrounded by another color.
- Arrange several of these finished canvases in a grouping to enhance your modern styled interiors.
Pinned Color Swatches
- Cut many squares from paint chip samples.
- Pin them in a geometric arrangement to a cork board with small ball pins in one color.
- Alternatively use a hole punch to make many exact shapes quickly.
Enlarged Macro Images
- Collect random items with only physical characteristics in common, such as shape, color or texture.
- Take photos of them, especially macros, and print to create another art grouping.
Resources and Places
Suzy Kitman demonstrates Impasto This is a very cool palette knife technique shown by artist Suzy Kitman. I would argue that despite there being a subject in her work, the main value is the texture and the paint itself, which to me makes it Modernist. The image is just an excuse to use particular colors.
Pete’s Original Art – Abstract painting video showing many tools and blending techniques.