“What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella once said of his paintings, meaning they referred to nothing outside of themselves and represented nothing beyond pigment and canvas. Yet many of Stella’s paintings were named after places, local and far afield—Firuzabad and Delaware Crossing (NJ), Gran Cairo and Telluride. This seeming contradiction is not unique to Stella—many artists of the post-war period who worked in an exclusively abstract mode, allude to locations, places, or geographies in the titles of their works. These range from geographically-specific sites (Mahoning, Villa Borghese), to more generic typologies of place (Basque Beach) and topographical features (Mountains and Sea). These works are non-figural, and as such, they do not accord with the art historical genre “landscape,” at least not in the traditional sense.
Are these evocations of place, in fact, equivocations—a reluctance to commit to absolute abstraction, or do titles like Basque Beach amount to a personal association imposed on an painted surface that has no necessary relationship to an actual or conceptual place? To put it more crudely, is there a where there?
While they are clearly not engaged in empirical description or mapping, certain abstract paintings seem to follow the contours of places alluded to in titles or be guided in their formal choices by qualities observed at those places. For example, the high-key palette, overall bright tonality, and wave-like forms of Helen Frankenthaler’s Basque Beach would seem to permit of a quasi-figurative reading of the work. Speaking about her breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea (1952) Frankenthaler parsed the picture’s representational and abstract qualities:
I painted Mountains and Sea after seeing the cliffs of Nova Scotia. It’s a hilly landscape with wild surf rolling against the rocks. Though it was painted in a windowless loft, the memory of the landscape is in the painting, but it has also equal amounts of Cubism, Pollock, Kandinsky, Gorky.
Elsewhere she referred to her paintings as “abstract climates.”
DeKooning described the large paintings he made in the late 1950s bearing place names like Merritt Parkway and Parc Rosenberg as “emotions:”
The pictures (I have) done since the ‘Women’, they’re emotions, most of them. Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city – with the feeling of going to the city or coming from it.
For both Frankenthaler and DeKooning, abstraction may mean non-representational, but it doesn’t mean evacuated of memory. The registration of memory, like the gestural brushstroke, is a relic of the artist’s interaction with the canvas, and not a form of “meaning” imposed from without.
In 1965, both Helen Lundeberg and Roy Lichtenstein painted pictures that they referred to as landscapes, but which bordered on abstraction. By calling her radically-simplified , yet figurative picture Landscape, Lundeberg uses the term to suggest an elemental distillation or essence of place. Lichtenstein’s picture is predictably trickier; an image of the horizon executed in benday dots and cropped in such a way that it verges on Rothko-like abstraction, it clearly invokes “landscape” as a meta-category, (like his contemporary images of ruins and brushstrokes) from an ironic distance.
If traditional landscape painting was in some meaningful sense involved with a descriptive or empirical mapping of place, then to what extent can pictures of maps be considered abstract landscapes? Jasper Johns’ recreation of a map retains the form of the visual artefact on which it is based and the stenciled labels are correctly applied, but a cloud of abstract-expressionist brushwork undermines the purpose of the original by reducing it to a merely optical experience. Ed Ruscha proposes a similar conundrum with less Wittgenstein und Drang when he offers us two street names and no other points of reference as either a “view” of L.A. or a detail of a map.