Structured Informel

Kristina and I saw Gerhard Richter’s “Abstract Paintings” at the Marion Goodman Gallery today. The paintings grasped me, and the room tilted this way or that depending on which painting held me in its gaze. Some of them — many of them — are quite colorful and beautiful. On the whole, the room had as much or more bodily impact than any other room of paintings I have entered, which is saying a lot since I have been going to galleries and museums since I was a child going with my parents, both of whom painted. My mother indeed was a fine artist herself, and both of her parents.

When I got home I turned to Richter’s own anthology of writings, The Daily Practice of Painting. I found that Richter accepted from an interviewer the appellation Informel, a term coined to denote informal process, especially in abstract painting.

Of course my own work in music depends utterly on formal languages and is as highly structured as you like. Still, there is something very important in common with Richter’s working method. Both of us spend a lot of time allowing some process to produce material, in ways not completely controllable or predictable in advance, and then we try to find whether the result is any good or not. This repeated decision making has very informal grounds, and in that sense algorithmic composition, appearances to the contrary, is as Informel as action painting.

But there may be more to it than that, and this bears thinking about. Certainly I am trying to bring into the algorithms themselves some sort of structure, some sort of guidance, something that filters according to musical perception and even tradition. But I can’t afford to lose the unexpected, the surprise, that which will demand a decision that must indeed be Informel. This is a fine dialectic. This automation is something I need to think about more — all the more necessary, to the extent that I do succeed in modeling perception or tradition.

Richter says painting is not imitating Nature, but I feel that the automatic processes both are an aspect of Nature, and to some extent an imitation of Nature, or simulation of it.

So, perhaps here is a way in which artifice and Nature are similar — when captured or simulated in algorithmic form, they both exemplify computational irreducibility. Both Nature and tradition embody generative structures.

But no matter how many or how sophisticated such generative processes may be, artist and audience alike must reduce them to the Informel — accept, or reject, on grounds that can never be completely explicated or formalized.

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