Curves & Stripes in Abstraction and The History of Art

Curves & Stripes in Abstraction and The History of Art
Above: Duke and Wigmore No. 24, 2008 by Gary Komarin


It is a most curious thing how some painters lean towards stripes and others towards curves in the development of their work.

Neither is better than the other, they sit on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Throughout the History of Art, and that of painting in particular, artists have been using both striped and curved motifs in their work. This was a natural progression as the world itself is filled with both striped and curved motifs.

The human body is, needless to say, a bundle of carefully orchestrated curves. Architecture, stone slabs, trees that shoot up to the sky in a straight shot – all have aspects of the stripe, which moves in one direction only and does not bend or twist in its ascent. Some bones in the human body are quite straight, but most curve at some point as they reach their ‘attachment’.

Painters began, sometime after the beginning of the 20th century, to choose between stripes and curves. I don’t think this was a communal decision. Rather, individual painters in the privacy of their studio and their own thoughts, selected stripes or curves as the motif for their work.

With this decision (stripes or curves) painters may have felt that they were reaching ‘higher’ ground, as for many painters there is a spiritual quest that is going on, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The world is such a complex and uncertain place that I believe it gave some artists great comfort to choose between stripes and curves rather than have this choice be made for them.

Certain painters from history used both the stripe and the curve with great success in their work. Vermeer, for example, enjoyed the sensuous curves of a maiden’s torso as she poured a pitcher of milk into a bowl; we see curve meet curve.

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

At the same time, the architecture of the Dutch chamber he was describing was filled with straight lines that described table and wall and window. These straight lines resonated with the curves of bodies in motion, creating great tension and great visual enjoyment at the same time. One could not really live without out the other.

In more recent times, another Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian who worked in the early part of the 20th century, developed a series of straight lines intersecting in minimalist fashion. Mondrian became a Purist of straight lines intersecting on white, thickly painted ‘grounds’. But, if you look at his earlier work, based on landscape, his trees bend and twist in the wind, filled with curves and curving movement.

In more recent times Sean Scully, the Irish Master, developed paintings based on the grid: all straight lines intersecting. The lines may wiggle just a bit and have irregular edges but there are no curves in a Sean Scully painting. This is also true for American painter Gene Davis, for whom a very concisely painted stripe was the epitome of his work. There are no drips or mistakes or wiggly stripes in a Gene Davis.

Wall of Light Desert Night by Sean Scully

Wall of Light Desert Night, 1999 by Sean Scully [source]

Queen's Gate by Gene Davis

Queen’s Gate by Gene Davis [source]

 Other painters embraced the stripe. They included Barnet Newman and Frank Stella (in this early work). Curiously, Frank Stella went from stripe to curve; his recent work includes curves of every sort including squiggles, drips and the like. It is as if he needed to explode from the boundaries of the stripe and find new life in the world of curves.

Finally, we take a look at de Kooning, another great Dutch Master whose work always contained curves. His early work, when he was painting the barren lofts of lower New York City with it’s straight lines of architecture, would seem to contain more straight lines that move ‘against’ the curves. However, de Kooning’s later work that was still very much based on the body and unexpectedly referencing the figurative work of Matisse, is a pure dance of curves overlapping intersecting, painted-in and painted-out, the curve wins out for de Kooning.

Garden in Delft painting by Willem de Kooning

Garden in Delft by Willem de Kooning [source]

The curve and the stripe:

Neither is better, neither is worse. Each sings its own song. Each dances its own dance.



Read more of my musings on de Kooning in my previous essay:  Art Historical Resonance and Komarin Exhibition in The Hamptons




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