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Double Genes

In the early days of The Art Genome Project, when our inventory was still in the four-digits, we sometimes combined two separate but related characteristics into one gene, knowing that eventually the time would come when each characteristic would gather enough artworks and artists on its own.

Primary/Austere was one of the those unique “double genes” but it quickly outgrew its slash. It began as a way to capture an aspect of Primitivism, a term we were—and still are—hesitant to use on the site. (We have preferred to try and break down the multiple aspects of what one might call “Primitivist” works.) The particular aspect we were trying to capture with Primary/Austere was what one might consider “childlike,” simplified or rudimentary marks in an artwork, such as in this Paul Klee etching. We were really interested in making links across time with this idea. For example, we thought how great would it be to show users correspondences between a historical artist like Jean Dubuffet and a contemporary one like Jonathan Meese.

As the gene continued to grow we noticed that there were a lot of works given values for it that lacked figurative subject matter and often presented basic shapes in solid or primary colors, and were primary or austere in a very different way than we had conceptualized. To explain further, these works were not executed in a kind of rudimentary manner or mark but in them the abstract qualities of geometric forms stood out, as in this Otto Peine watercolor. Appearing in search results more and more, these differently “austere” works formed a powerful presence to the extent that it became clear that Primary/Austere needed to be broken up into a few different genes, at least one that would capture a rudimentary type of mark-making and another than would capture simplified shapes and compositions, marks notwithstanding.

Our first step was to do exactly this: divide Primary/Austere into Primary Mark and Primary Abstraction. Then we decided to maintain Austere as a third gene, that would better represent what austerity was, a simplification of pictorial space or construction, and in so doing, could combine aspects of childlike drawing or basic, elementary shapes, but did not necessarily require either of these elements.

We definitely struggled with what to call Primary Abstraction. It needed to speak to a tendency in art that is at once very specific—the use of simple shapes—but which does not necessarily encompass all abstract works. For example, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings—some of the best known examples of abstract art—don’t resemble concrete shapes, nor are his compositions simple. Ultimately we chose to combine the word “primary”—to highlight the cool, geometric forms—with the word abstraction, to indicate that these repetitive patterns rejected figurative subject matter. The title also nicely references “Primary Structures,” arguably the first exhibition of Minimalism. (And minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre became well-known for their use of markedly simplistic and streamlined sculptures.)

While this by no means offers a comprehensive explanation of abstract art, we see this as substantive steps towards creating a diverse vocabulary for abstraction, especially the many different types of (what historically has been referred to as) “primitive” expression.

-Holly Shen, Researcher on The Art Genome Project

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