Beyond Landscapes: Natural Forms and Abstract Expressionist Painting

February 3, 2019

Abstract art in the 20th Century, especially Abstract Expressionism as it emerged from Surrealism in the 1940s in New York, has enabled us to appreciate much more than landscapes—scenic views from a distance—in the biophysical world. Much of my work in geological photography derives from these insights, so that I actively look for formal compositions in the mineral and botanical world, not worrying about conveying a sense of place or even a sense of what an object happens to be. It turns out these were the same considerations that abstract expressionist painters were making in the early 1940s, as they separated themselves from figurative representation.

Knowing this, I attended a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art February 2, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, featuring over 50 works, mostly large scale, from the 1940s to the present. After reading about many of these paintings, I had forgotten how big so many of them were. Standing before them they envelope your field of vision. Since I’ve known and loved them for a long time, they’ve certainly affected what I look for in both geological and botanical photography (as well as my photography of scrap metal, see

Have a look at the drip painting by Jackson Pollock that was part of this exhibition, the famous Autumn Rhythm from 1950:


And here’s a closeup of part of it:


Notice the sense of layering of turbulent lines and colors from the very controlled pallet he uses. Notice the depth, with the various sizes of drip-dots that seem to go far into the background; and notice how the overall chaos of swirls and splotches coalesces into an exciting whole that expresses a vibratory power, hardly captured by the simple word “rhythm,” yet unmistakably a very complex rhythm. Pollock maintained that he felt the force of Nature coming through him as he painted, which he did from his gut, completely intuitively.

Some years ago, I came across a patch of fungal growth near the seaside on Martha’s Vineyard. I immediately recognized it as the most interesting thing I had seen on the Island and created a number of photographs of it. In post-production, I replaced the black background with an undulating copper gradient, so that the bone-white fungus stood out, along with some spider-like green plants. I recognized that there was a strong analogy between its chaotic profusion of form and that of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. My informal title for it, therefore, was “Jackson Pollock Was a Realist.”

Branching Fungus


But if Pollock was the most radically original of the Abstract Expressionists, he had colleagues that went in different directions, some of them using irregular and raggedy geometric forms. Here is an example by Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971).  The Met’s commentary speaks of Snyder’s rebellion against the regularity of a grid, leading to a feminist paean to promiscuity and the exuberance of pleasure. 


But when similar dynamic tensions are found between order and irregularity in nature, we realize that we can project any human aspiration onto these abstract forms. Even though my example below is quite different in shape, density, and of course, color from Snyder’s painting, the same principle of tension between regularity and irregularity applies. This is a 100-million-year-old mud mosaic pattern from Clayton Lake State Park in Eastern New Mexico:


Perhaps an excerpt from the Snyder painting will make the analogy clearer:


Now according to Martica Sawin in her book Surrealists in Exile (1995), both the Surrealists who came to this country to escape World War II, and our home-grown Abstract Expressionists, were inspired by rock formations. Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning were famously impressed by the red rocks around Sedona, Arizona, and Ernst found inspiration for his painting in them.

In the Metropolitan’s show, one Abstract Expressionist painting comes quite close to a literal convoluted rock surface, except that this isn’t exactly a painting. Hungarian artist Judit Reidl (b. 1923) salvaged and cleaned up the layers of rejected canvases that she had used to cover the floor of her studio, then presented them as  “found” painting, dated 1959–1964, and which she named Guano (Menhir). The process brought her ironically close to a geological composition:  its “orogeny” was not via artistic intention, but rather through the accumulation of discarded material. The artistic act was her declaration that her familiar functional object was a “found” painting. This is very close to what we do in geological photography. She humorously called it Guano, since it amounts to her artist “droppings” while working, but then put (Menhir) in parentheses because, once erected as an art work, it resembled a vertically standing rough rock from (prehistoric) megalithic times.


Here’s a detail that reveals its geomorphic patterning:


Any number of my “miniscapes” offer close analogies to this found sculptural “painting.” Here’s one example, though in a sparser rhythm, from the rock beach at Roche’s Point, County Cork, Ireland:15.MetropolisAfterHours.Roche'sPoint.Ire.MR.

And here’s another, an example of the “boxwork” in Wind Cave, South Dakota:


Joel Simpson

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  1. Ina Harris

    Mesmerizing and breath taking
    In my opinion its nature at its best

  2. Pam Timmins

    Behold, these photographs document what we usually overlook while hiking through nature,
    our primordial visual experience has mysterious abstract images for our imaginations to discover.

  3. Cat a McGuire

    What a novel analogy, to take your nature photography and compare it to works of abstract expressionism. It would make for an interesting diptych!

    • Joel Simpson

      It turns out that both the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists admitted being inspired by rock formations. I’m just bringing that around. Those artists helped us see the world in new ways, so we now find beautiful or poignant things we might not have noticed before.

  4. Marilyn Brus

    Really interesting to see the rock formation patterns in this art by Pollock and others. I had never even thought of it, but,
    now that I’ve read this, and compared the formations to the art, it all makes sense. (I’m sure that I will look at rock formations more closely, next time I’m hiking!)


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