Excerpted from a talk given on the occasion of a retrospective of Darby Bannard's paintings at the Lowe Museum of Art, Aug 26, 1999.
People seem to think it is easy to just mess up a surface with paint and hang it up and call it abstract art, and that abstract painting lacks "content," for collateral reasons. Well, believe me, abstract painting is very hard. You don't just mess up a surface; you mess it up and then you have to figure out how to make art out of the mess, and that's where the trouble starts, because you have absolutely nothing to start with except your own ability to invent an organizing principle that works. You can ask my 102 students about this.
I envy realist painters because if you have something to depict you are halfway there before you pick up a brush. No one will ever accuse you of lacking content and if you depict with any skill you will be admired for that alone. Any kind of artmaking which starts with a premise or a referential system - whether it is realist painting, video art, installation or pot-making - gives the artist a head start the abstract painter does not have. So, please take my word for it: If you are serious about what you are doing, abstract painting is about as difficult to do as anything anyone can do.
"Content" is another red herring. I wish people who talk about art would decide what content means. I would prefer it to mean whatever can be clearly seen to be there in the painting, like blue paint, a scumbled surface, or a depiction of a cloud.
But content gets way more superheated than that in most art talk. It gets all sorts of value-laden overtones (usually referred to these days as what the art is "all about") and it ends up as a hodgepodge of subject matter, meaning, "humanity," cosmic revelation, and whatever the person using it wants to sell.
Meaning and value in art depend on form and content and whatever else may be there all working together, so "formal" things are just as important as anything else. In fact, as the Impressionist painter Degas wrote, the animation of the surface to give life to the canvas is the hardest and most necessary task of the true artist. Art only needs life. If you don't understand that somewhere in your soul no art will ever reach it.