Currently 'creativity' is a word rarely uttered in art word circles. The importance of the concept, the contradiction and the hones paradox is king, clothed or not, and the idea of an individual impulse to seek form and shape for an interior impulse is smiled at as being hopelessly romantic. In that post-modern art school context one might shy away from a portmanteau show about the phenomenon of abstraction, expecting it to be full of dogma and theory. Happily that's not the case. 'Paths To Abstraction' at Sydney's AGNSW feels a little like exhibition as lecture, but that shouldn't sound like faint praise. Throughout the rooms there hangs such an intricate gossamer web of influence and impulse that rather than an harangue this lecture feels like the best sort, a gentle and persuasive nudge toward connection and insight.
A modest selection of Whistler begins the show. Straightaway it's an interesting hang (curatorially that is, the staging is pretty modest given the sensory possibilities and later a single red room feels like it's been left over from something else) the two Whistler pieces show his astonishing dive into a musical palette of smudged impressions. 'Nocturne: Black and Gold' from 1875 is striking for its gentle introspective depiction of an explosive shower of fireworks and for the way that a black wash, the fingerprints of vertical drips and a sneeze of gold can capture something so perfectly. The smear of a Victorian night gives away little but captures all. The paint is less redolent of smoke and meteorological effects than it is the blur between perception and memory. Like so much in this exhibition a small canvass feels like the epicenter of something seismic. That's reinforced when he's hung next to impersonators, one of whom appears to be a young Picasso.
What strikes one as impressive throughout is not so much the paths taken as the impulses that have driven artists toward the abstract. The number of groups and movements represented through Impressioninsts, Fauvists, Constructivists, Cubists, Expressionists, Nabis and Futurists begin to demonstrate that abstraction is less a formal style than a communicative necessity. It's certainly possible to see tracks that link artists and images, intentional or not Cezanne to Analytical Cubism looks the groove of a well trodden short cut, but these aren't as interesting as seeing (or sometimes just feeling) the shared impulse between visually dissimilar works. The breadth of colour and shape and construction serve a question to the modernist notion of abstraction as being a purely painterly approach that separated paint from subject or object. Braque's analysis of shape is a response to an accelerating and mechanizing world just as the Futurists try to mould a new kind of speed and change in pigment. Again and again artists appear to be wrestling at the edge of their practice, forcing something more onto the canvass than they've seen before. It's like watching the transition between thought and expression again and again, each time with fewer boundaries.
The sheer eroticism of so much of the work here shouldn't be understated. Before the Ab-Ex model of artist as priapic savant had been established the sheer lubricity of form and colour that writhes from these pictures can only have been shocking. As figurative subjects begin to melt then artists are left with form, shape and materials, the physicality of a lot of the paintings is sensuous and sexy but the visual interplay, the rhymes and responses takes you to the most intimate relationships. Where sex is most literally apparent, the nudes of Bonnard and Delaunay, they take on a delirious character. It's almost as though El Greco's holy spirit has become the vibration filled air of desire (Maurice Denis' more devout Calvary might remind us of that master of Spain too). There are three versions of Robert Delaunay's 'Nude Woman Reading' and as the voyeuristic scene becomes less representative, the connections looser, the shapes more fetishized and symbolic of a thigh or a buttock it becomes more lubricous and affecting. The book and table retain their physical image and the woman fades, making Delaunay's subject nothing less than sex itself.
This is the great discovery of abstraction. That one can capture essence. Matisse's 'Nude in the Woods' is both essential and conceptual. You're immediately struck by the pinks and just enough hint of a posture to make the title redundant. The fuschia seems to expand and populate the painting, echoed by lilac blocks of sky. Pink is the brilliant tonal analog of flesh, the image is overtaken by it fleshiness, its nudeness, just as dropping a nude into a landscape possesses the rest of the image. Matisse goes further, the nude itself is not the pinkest area of the picture, it's the scratchiest lumpiest. Even as he pushed himself into the abstract Matisse uses colour to show something perfectly flawed and human. It's a small painting but it contains so much it's dizzying.
One of the brilliant and refreshing elements here is the equal weight given to lithographs. woodcuts and other print-making techniques. The relatively easy dissemination of editioned works on paper is another thread that winds around and across this path to abstraction. So too does the demand of media where limitations of means inspire the most direct and economical expression. Kandinsky's 'Blue Rider' might be as influential as any work here, and it shares a lineage with Gaugin's tribal woodcuts and Munch's interior projections. The woodcut might have been as important in the spread of a more abstract essentialist art as the printing press had been the ideas and techniques of linear perspective in that earlier seismic shift. Some of the works on paper are sublimely beautiful and they highlight masters of different media, like Gaugin and especially Bonnard. It's good not to see them relegated to the margins.
The show is not perfect, the final room entitled 'the limits of abstraction' feels like a stumble on the path. It is neither a resolution or the posing of a question to take out into the world. And, to be honest, Marcel Duchamp's bicycle wheel has probably spun round enough shows about enough things for it not to shed much light on where this particular path leads to. The best themed shows reveal something about ourselves far more than they shine a light on particular artists. As an exercise in topography 'Paths to Abstraction' is interesting, however as a demonstration of the human mind and its desperate and essential need to communicate the unspeakable and ineffable it throws up echoes, shadows and harmonies that will stay with viewers every time they encounter the boring formalist and theoretical explanations for the modern and conceptual. That ability to make us look at fare more recent work differently an better makes this show a success.