With Merdeka fever all around, the time is right for a retrospective on the national independence’s somewhat overlooked twin — abstract art. One was born in 1957 and the other a few years later. Malaysian abstract art has no precise date of birth but does get its own celebration at the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.
The exhibition, The Unreal Deal: Six Decades of Malaysian Abstract Art, has a title that might make the master deal-maker of America ask the question: what sort of deal is that?
Being a president who prefers “the art of the deal” to any other sort, it will seem mysterious. The answer is, of course, that abstract art is not about realism. Nor is it about gilding and pink marble. It’s usually absent from the ‘Dictator Chic’ homes that have been covered by the interior-aware writer Peter York. Surprisingly, there has never been an exhibition of Malaysian abstract art on this scale before.
Considering that most of the nation’s most prominent artists are abstractionists, you might expect plenty of surveys of the theme.
The Unreal Deal is the biggest of its kind, with 98 paintings by 28 artists. It’s a useful reminder at a time when abstract art faces a new foe: progressives who think abstraction is so established that its relevance has passed. It has certainly been important to the creative development of Malaysia. It’s the nation’s abstract artists whose paintings hang prominently in the artistic hall of fame. Agreement on the greatness of names such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, Ibrahim Hussein, Latiff Mohiddin, Yeoh Jin Leng and Jolly Koh is as close as we’re likely to get to a consensus.
The most telling feature of abstract art is that it still exists. Unlike Pointillism, Dadaism or Cubism, abstraction remains a living movement. It’s a meeting place of young and old. This exhibition turns out to be very much about paint.
Whether it’s the gloopiest acrylic or the lightest wash of watercolour, the works on display exist in two dimensions. There are no abstract sculptures here. It’s all about what you can do with a flat surface and heightened imagination.
ESSENCE OF ABSTRACT ART
The exhibition comes 50 years after the epoch-defining ‘Grup’ show of 1967. Half a century ago these seven young artists could never have imagined the effect their work would have. They dragged a nation into the world of modern art.
There was a lot more hair and attitude in those days. It was only 10 years after Merdeka and already the proponents of abstraction seemed less about Malaysian patriotism and more about the global community of creators. Seeing things differently, and personally, has always been the essence of abstract art. Wassily Kandinsky saw music as colour. Other artists interpret different thoughts and feelings. Most of them have no more in common with one another now than the Grup members did in 1967.
Instead of being a Western interloper — as some said at the time — abstract art in Malaysia can be seen as a continuation of local traditions. Using canvas rather than wood or textiles was just another step on a well-worn path. It may have seemed as subversive as impressionism when that style emerged in the 19th century, but nowadays abstraction has been accepted to the point of becoming almost invisible. We must sometimes remind ourselves of how unfavourable the reception was initially. What seems unremarkable in 2017 was radical 50 years ago. It was not a visual reflection of the time, however, so it has the benefit of not looking dated now. This is timeless and placeless art.
Abstract art is still popular in Malaysia. In case anyone believes that interest in abstract art has been replaced by record-breaking conceptual alternatives, let me mention this year’s highest price for a work of art. US$110 million (RM469 million) was paid in May for a painting by abstract/graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat . The artist died young, at 27, which might have helped the painting’s investment potential. When Untitled 1 was last sold, it fetched only US$19,000. That was in 1982, and his girlfriend at the time — Madonna — wasn’t much in demand either.
None of the artists in this exhibition is American, so their prices are more reasonable — not that they’re for sale. As a part of the nation’s creative development, they have a far greater value than money. It might also displease the US Commander-in-Chief that Basquiat, America’s most expensive post-1980 artist, was the offspring of immigrants from Haiti and Puerto Rico.
What’s on display is work from every generation of Malaysian abstract artists. The oldest in the lineup are Yeoh Jin Leng and the late Syed Ahmad Jamal (both 1929); the youngest is Fazrin Abdul Rahman (1989). Are Malaysian collectors still prepared to take a risk on new arrivals? They definitely were six decades ago, along with large numbers of overseas visitors and temporary residents.
This foreign investment isn’t surprising when you see what came before it. Often angled expressly to cater to touristic tastes, these permutations of palm trees in different settings are now more often classified as souvenirs than ‘art’.
Abstract paintings, on the other hand, have been considered worthy of serious attention since their mystifying first appearance.
The curators of The Unreal Deal have put together the definitive exhibition in its field. There will be more abstract art in the future, but this is the situation after almost 60 years. The paintings in the exhibition show the continuity of abstraction. The artists have rejected realism in favour of something that challenges viewers — if they want to be challenged — and at the same time as pleasing those who would prefer to free themselves from too much rumination. The response is more likely to come from the senses than logical observation.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, the unreal can be as valid as anything else. The appearance of abstract art is removed from reality but it has substance. Six decades on, like Malaysia, it also has longevity.