There is a very curious parallel between Tennis and Contemporary Abstract Painting.
As an Abstract Painter who plays tennis nearly daily, I have noticed certain correspondences that neither Tennis Players nor Abstract Painters put into position, but nevertheless are present in both.
A tennis court is a specified rectangle of a certain size with clearly remarked end points. Most abstract paintings are done on rectangular formats and not dizzy edged canvases or flobby pillow like surfaces.
A Tennis Player is very aware of the edges of the court, just as an Abstract Painter is aware of the edges of the canvas.
A Tennis Player is aware of the space between things: the space between ball and net, the ball and player, ball and Self and, particularly, if a ball is rocketing toward their head at 150 mph.
An Abstract Painter is very aware of the space between things: aware of the center of the canvas, the edges of the canvas and the two and three-dimensional aspects of forms moving through space.
Tennis players are forms who move through space; they know not where they may next move, though sometimes there is a several second awareness of where they should move if they can get there.
An Abstract Painter has a similar built-in system of awareness of where they should move, or rather: where a form painted in free space should move and where the space around a form should move and shift in some fashion.
Tennis is, in many ways, a very abstract set of agreements and circumstances. Players agree to abide by a set of rules. The court has a set series of boundaries, including inner boundaries and outer boundaries and a ball hit on the chalky line of the court counts as a point.
The ball moving through a tennis court is not unlike a paintbrush moving thru the surface of a painting. The path of the ball and the path of the Brush are not fully anticipated. A ball may land exactly where a player intended, just as a form in a painting may land on the canvas just where it is needed. Or it may not.
An Abstract Painter is very keenly aware of when forms touch and are tangent on the surface of the canvas. There are fewer rules in Abstract Painting, except for a commitment (that the artist makes with himself) to make the best painting possible and to engage the viewer with the aliveness of the Painting.
In Tennis, the best-laid plans often go awry.
In Painting the best-laid plans often go awry.
The basic difference between tennis and painting is that Painters have no ‘on site’ audience while they are Painting. They do have an audience, and that audience can grow quite large over time. Tennis, at the higher levels, frequently has an audience and that audience also grows widely over time.
The Painter retreats from the studio quietly. He or she may be panting or sweating, but no one notices. No one cares. The Tennis Player sweats and strains and the camera comes in close.
The Tennis Player bows to the crowd and leaves the stadium.
Painter meets Tennis Player in the Arena of LIFE. Both navigate the rectangular court, moving forward, and sideways, up and down, back and forth.
The Drama of the Tennis Game remains in the memory of The Spectator and The Player. The Drama of The Painting remains on the surface for all time.
And, in a curious coming together of art and tennis, in 1996 I was invited to show my paintings with Jean Michel Basquiat, Philip Guston and Bill Traylor at a New York Gallery on 41 Greene Street that was owned by – of all people – one of the most famous tennis players in the world: John McEnroe. The Art Historically Resonant Exhibition, with a catalog essay by David Rubin, the Director of the Phoenix Art Museum, was well received internationally.
Art meets Tennis and Tennis meets Art in a most unexpected way.