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Tuesday, 22 December 2015


A very dear x-student of mine recently passed to me a nice exhibition catalog for an exhibition that he curated. There is his essay in it on abstract art. TQ.

A student is a reflection of his/her teacher. Somehow I sensed a bit of me in his writing. This brings me to my sifu, Ismail Zain, who used to have some issue not with abstract art as rooted in Eastern tradition, but with abstract expressionism. He expressed that sentiment several times during his drawing class, where I was one of his students back in 1988. Of course, I could not understand most of his ramblings. Even later after reading his criticism of abstract expressionism in few of his writings, I couldn't understand. His writings are hard to decipher, a trait that has ironically infected some of my writings too (as told by frustrated readers).

Now, I think I'm a bit more clear about Pak Mail's points. I share here what I feel as the core of his criticism.  

From Ismail Zain (1989)

"And there has been no other artistic convention within Modernism of the West so politically motivated in its initial stages, or which congenially availed itself so conveniently to the imposition of cultural or political adjuncts for the purpose of legitimising the ethnic and the vernacular within Modernism, as Abstract Expressionism and the post-painterly abstraction of late Modernism, being products of Cold War in the post-Second World War era. Abstract Expressionism is truly one of the most successful American exports to the world, perhaps next to McDonald and Cola-Cola...

It is ironic that a form that deploys pictorial conventions in such a way that it refers exclusively to the narrowest area of experience on which painters have ever focused - that of painting itself - has to acquire a cosmic stature worldwide even among societies that are traditionally known for their deep spiritual values. In Asian countries, as in Islamic countries and in most parts of the Third World, abstract expressionism and post-painterly abstraction remain the most pervasive albeit dilatory forms of pictorial convention. Even in Islamic countries where the idea of Nietsche's superman, of Satre's existential man, are anathema to the concept of tazkiyah in Islam, the myth of Freudian ego and the heroics of the gestural mark continue to stand as a vital means of identifying with the present."

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