(This for all those who located Artinsight by entering the search terms "lyrical abstraction"
in Google and other search engines. Because of that, I felt compelled to provide more information.)
Lyrical Abstraction as an Artform:
a visual essay by Michael Cook

It doesn't get more lyrical than this: contemporary abstraction by Marilyn Kirsch, To Be Found Wanting
The term "lyrical abstraction" has already been discussed by others more educated than I, including those who should have a solid grasp of what it means and how its particular style and orientation is similar to—or contrasts—other forms of abstraction. But from what I've read, many of the critics cannot agree, or don't see things consistently in this area. (Chalk one up for Art; I'm always pleased and amused that visual forms defy explanations, words, or even consistent perceptions. That's an important aspect of art!)

There is a great deal of confusion associated with this style that's prevented people from understanding what exactly constitutes lyrical abstraction. Some of that may just be due to 'Art Criticism Obfuscation.' I don't know if it's intentional—if there's a motive for such things—or if it's merely a matter of debate or misunderstanding, but in any case it doesn't need to be this way.

I'd like to insert my two cents into this discussion, to define what lyrical abstraction means to me personally, as an artist. In doing so, I'll sketch out some of the stylistic parameters I think are significant and try to circumvent a lot of the jargon and academic erudition (and resulting confusion) that surrounds this term, hoping to make it comprehensible for those who choose not to wade through extensive dogma, philosophy, art criticism—and nonsense. I'd like to make this straightforward and easily understood by the common man or woman who wishes to gain some insight into this term, relative to 20th-century art history—and why I feel this style is unique.

This is my sense of lyrical abstraction and a few of the artists associated with it. It is not meant by any means to be all-inclusive, nor will it be the last word on this subject. No doubt some will find this short essay lacking in "academic underpinnings," or perhaps overly simplistic—while others may find it somewhat confusing still. But it's time that someone—an artist involved with the creation of it—spoke about it lucidly and from the heart. In a sense, that's what it's all about.

The various forms of abstraction are numerous: formalism, abstract expressionism, neo-expressionism, naturalism, minimalism, color field painting, and many others. Fortunately for the reader, I will discuss only lyrical abstraction here, as the others are outside the province of my expertise (and interest, to some degree).

Elements of Lyrical Abstraction

One of the most significant distinctions from other forms of abstract art is contained in its premise of being "lyrical." What is lyrical? In the Oxford dictionary, "lyrical" is defined as "expressing the writer's emotions" (or the artist's emotions, in this case) —and it really is that simple. Although a lot of abstract art focuses on emotional content, lyrical abstraction primarily conveys a sense of the larger spiritual outlook an artist chooses to infuse in his/her paintings. It relates to that mystical sensibility more than an "action painting" approach (which can present visual intrigue, but often fails to elucidate aspects of the human condition). For a simple, stark example of that contrast, Adolph Gottlieb's paintings convey a sense of encountering and confronting the elemental beingness both within and beyond our everyday reality; Kenneth Noland's hard-edge stripe paintings do not. In my mind, those are merely decorative.

Adolph Gottlieb,

Arshile Gorky,
One Year the Milkwood

But Noland's visual statements (and those artists like him) are not concerned with such things. That's fine, as long as we understand the intent, and relate to it accordingly. Some paintings simply exhibit formal art elements that are not intended to communicate ideas.

Lyrical Abstraction As Emotional Experience

The abstract art of Arshile Gorky penetrated and explored deeper layers of experience and emotions, as did the "abstract" art of Max Ernst. One could argue that lyrical abstraction is more about a certain mindset, a desire to communicate concepts, thoughts, ideas, and emotions abstractly, beyond merely exploring art principles of composition, tone, value, line, hue, texture, etc. The best lyrical abstraction, of course, incorporates all those elements, but its overall effect is more concerned with one's approach to art.

There is a tremendous power associated with addressing primal, spiritual, or metaphysical concepts, and incorporating them into artforms. Some artists choose to focus on this, others don't. Ellsworth Kelly's monotonous gray canvases, for example, leave me (and many others) bored, despite their critical acclaim. Perhaps they're intended as metaphors for the "grayness" of contemporary life, the bland alienation inherent in our society or era; perhaps they reflect the blandness of their creator. . . .

Max Ernst's work is the antithesis of that.

Max Ernst, Colorado of the Medusa / Color-Raft of the Medusa (and detail, right)
Max Ernst understood the subtle interactions and balance between whimsy, ecstatic joy, and the ominous specters of doubt—sometimes combining all three in the same painting.

Variations on Simplicity and Essence

Perhaps there's a Zen aspect intended in paintings such as Kelly's, but they strike me as detached, uninvolved—and don't seem to make much of a connection, except perhaps intellectually. The paintings feel to me as if there's almost nothing really being communicated in them (as in consistent for most minimalist art, but of course that's not its intent). On the other hand, a Zen quality was presented in much greater focus in certain paintings by Mark Rothko—in his brooding, ethereal, and understated works that stretched dimensions almost to infinity, only revealing subtle undercurrents of tone and coloration poised as monolithic questions and reveries. They project (in the best examples) a meditative profundity, a resonance of the divine in human consciousness.

A stylistic evolution of works by Mark Rothko

Beyond Emotions, Approaching Mysticism

Lyrical abstraction is not a formal, specific school of art. It is a term art critics have invented to differentiate abstract works which present ideation and imagery (or imagery potentials, depending on the viewers' ability to discern them), versus those with no relation to the natural world or pictorial allusion. There is a balanced, aesthetic elegance one can immediately sense in lyrical abstraction. Such works present viewpoints and convictions, but are rarely sentimental; they may be lively and animated or subtle and soothing, but above all, are charged with content.

Lyrical art in general tends to be intelligently and coherently composed according to artistic and aesthetic principles—not the variety of abstraction that thrusts the artist's angst at us in ugly, badly painted daubs of gaudy, hostile colors, which is the antithesis of lyrical abstraction (sometimes seen in contemporary neo-expressionism). Those attitudes have their place and message to convey of course, but done well, there's no reason that cathartic works of art cannot also be aesthetically pleasing while providing a sense of meaningful energy and visual or metaphysical insight. The harsh, dissonant environments created in art outside lyrical abstraction are more often intended to provoke confrontational feelings, an "in-your-face" attitude; true lyrical abstraction has much more sophistication. It's the difference of patterns produced by the brainwaves of an ascended master, as opposed to an angry art student making rude "remarks" on canvas.

The works of Helen Frankenthaler, for example, exude the qualities of lyrical abstraction. Her works provide the viewer with a revitalizing sense of peace, stability, energy, or playfulness—an invigorating range of the evocative possibilities available through paint and canvas, even without objective imagery. They have a poetic humanness to them borne of profound grace and insight. Her works convey dramatic, yet balanced visual expressions, simultaneously "engineered" and yet spontaneously flowing and dynamic. They represent an emotional reprieve from a world that overwhelms us with its intensity, and provide a refreshing escape into pure color, movement, and design.

In a entirely different way, Mark Tobey's paintings represent an aspect of lyrical abstraction that provides a vital link to the basic identity and endeavor of human nature: mark-making, the rudiments of language—but in an abstract form. Tobey's painted "calligraphy" has reinvented—and allowed us to re-evaluate and explore—the tools we use every day, abstracting that from any other context, creating its own visual language, which forms the basis of his mesmerizing art. If Mark Tobey hadn't explored that aspect of human nature, there would have been no Jackson Pollock. One main difference between these two artists is that Tobey's works are almost obsessively designed and orchestrated; Pollock was more concerned with the random, accidental application of paint and what that could create on its own.

Mark Tobey, Affirmation (and detail, right)

Helen Frankenthaler, Viewpoint

The art of lyrical abstraction allows us to ponder meanings and emotions in ways that mere stripes of color, for instance, don't. Lyrical abstraction has something to say, and it often takes on the dynamics of psychological exploration. It may or may not include suggestions or representations of imagery from the natural world. The paintings may vary widely in visual effect, but all share a similar intent: evoking feelings of essence—and that all-important connection to higher, more esoteric worlds.

The Evolution of Lyrical Abstraction

Lyrical abstraction today is alive and well. Several younger contemporary artists have recognized its potential and are utilizing what they've absorbed from the visual experiences that abstract artists have produced for over half a century. Today, among the best examples are the powerful canvases of Marilyn Kirsch. Her visionary works in lyrical abstraction present a moodiness and solemn introversion reflecting the human condition of the late 20th century—as well as a forecast of what the new century portends, artistically and culturally. But Kirsch's paintings also maintain an intimate connection with the ancient world as well, spanning centuries; floating in an ethereal, dream-like timelessness. There's a distinctive monumentality to them all, even those in a diminutive format. She's infused her art with a poetic investigation of the world, and like all great lyrical abstractionists, never strays too far from the fields of Surrealism—having plowed, tended, nurtured, and harvested those metaphysical gardens with a sensibility that creates a spiritual connection to the earth, human experience—and higher consciousness.

Marilyn Kirsch: a portfolio of miracles on canvas

Perhaps it would be appropriate to conclude with some elements I feel are characteristic of lyrical abstraction.

Is It Lyrical? A Checklist of Lyrical Abstraction Qualities:

• It contains an emotional content.
• It has something important to communicate.
• It has an undercurrent of spiritual orientation.
• It represents aesthetic elements of design, color, and composition.
• It is concerned with the exploration of ideas and states of mind—not hollow, vacuous "art dogma."

That's my feeling about lyrical abstraction. Take a look at some of my paintings in this realm and see if you feel I've connected to these ideals. Above all else, this is a style of abstract painting that should make us think, feel, and enjoy these artworks visually—not be repulsed or bored by them.

© 2008, Michael Cook / feverdream productions

The Threat of Troy
Restless Earth
A Season Beyond Us

Important notes on the artwork illustrated in this article:

All paintings are copyrighted respectively by the artists, collections, museums, or their assigns.

Many of these works are substantial in scale, and that, combined with the limitations of this format, may render them extremely inadequate as reproductions here. My apologies to the artists. . . .
Please seek out more extensive material on these artists by entering search terms for them. (More of Marilyn Kirsch's work—and much better reproductions of her paintings—can be viewed on her website, at http://www.marilynkirsch.com)
In addition, other artists whose work I recommend as being worthy and appropriate to look up and explore in this category include: Arthur Dove, Roberto Matta, Richard Diebenkorn, Larry Rivers, Dorthea Tanning, and Robert Rauschenberg (to begin with).

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