David Abbott


Being asked about my influences sends me into a panic. I don't have good recall so I struggle on the spot to remember who they are. This isn't going to change or become easier unless I keep a list on my person at all times.

As I have been backed into a corner by the question I become defensive about being asked the question in the first place. What does it mean? It's too broad. Ask a better question. I think there are better questions but I'll talk about influences nonetheless.

When I was a student influences were important. They were a kind of currency I could use to exchange with other artists I met. My work was tentative and influences were a way of providing backup. Like having a gang.

I couldn't make my work look like my influences' work which as a student caused me some consternation. When my work veered away from recognisable influences I asked of my work: how can I make it more like such-and-such's? Perhaps I should have asked: how have you become more like yourself?

Since student days my influences have in fact had far less influence on my work. They have had more influence on how I work. That is to say I have become more interested in how artists make work, how they think and how knowing these things makes it ok for me to make work how I like and how I think. I can be influenced by people now whose work I don't particularly like but whose attitude to work is interesting.

When I look at a work of art I mostly only observe it as a way of seeing the world. My favourite gallery is the Bristol City Museum. I have seen the paintings there dozens of times. I go there for lots of reasons now: companionship, nostalgia, to peer closely at a technique here and there. The whole experience influences me in that it makes me excited about making more paintings. It reminds me of my place in a line of makers concerned with the same thing: looking, interpreting, feeling, making. It's both demystifying and mystifying to look at work but neither really matter: I don't go back to my studio and think I must paint more like the medieval Italian painters.

When I was a student I was into Basquiat, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg. Abstract expressionists. Franz Klein. I remember my high school art teacher showed me Serra's work and explained how he had been to a dockyard and seen a boat being floated for the first time and was transfixed by how something so big and solid could float. Physicality. That experience had provided him with a life's worth of work. This anecdote has become more meaningful for me as I've got older. I got into Sol Lewitt a bit later and the British pop artists who were making prints because I was making prints myself. I got into Walker Evans when I got into photography. William Christenberry. Dorothea Lang. The WPA photographers. I found Fay Godwin recently. An English photographer whose work I love and reminds me of those great mid 20th century American photographers who all had some socio-political stuff in mind. Currently I have a tremendous love for painters who get out of the way of their paintings. Winifred Nicholson is a great example of this kind of painting. The naive artists too of course. I love Agnes Martin's late work which I find incredibly moving. I love painters who choose to paint the landscape: Paul Nash, Turner, Corot, Felix Valloton, Mary Feddon, James Dickson Innes, William George Gillies, Walter Sickert. Listing them makes me think: I'm missing out such-and-such which reminds me that the question of influences is a bad one. Especially if the questionee has a bad memory. I mean I re-read this last paragaph and think the list I have is a pitiful representation of what has moved me over the last few decades.

Perhaps a better question is: why be influenced at all? To answer this I go to RP Blackmur's assessment of John Berryman's poetry, that it "added to the stock of available realities". Looking at art increases my stock of realities, makes my own more viable. Ironically, my influences make me more comfortable in my own skin.

I am most interested in my influences outside of visual art. Music is probably the thing that moves me most and is a constant companion to my studio practice. It's influence is immeasurable. The landscape itself. Old buildings. Churches. Wall paintings, carvings, tiles, flowers. I don't think painters influence me anymore than an anonymous stone mason you know.

So I think for me 'influences' and 'looking' are synonymous. I don't make plans so my work happens in the moment. As such I have to believe that what comes out is some palimpsest of what's gone in: all those influences I can't remember when someone asks. So it's important to have influences in the sense that it's important to look. I can rarely pinpoint a moment in my painting where a particular influence jumped in and took over in order to achieve a "look". That's stylisation really and I actively avoid that. I try and stay out of the way of my making and in this way believe that expression follows. If people say of my work "this reminds me of Morandi" I say "thank you" and move on. Whatever moves me becomes part of my visual language and it's much better for me if I don't think about why or how or when.

Lastly I am interested in the influence of people proximate to me. I would say I pay more attention to my friend's work, or the work of people I'm exhibiting with than anyone else. They are my peers, engaged in the same endeavour as myself at the same time and perhaps in similar circumstances and I am most interested in how they tackle the question of making art. Even as a student I was more interested in what my friends were doing than in what Rauschenberg had done. Although we were all desperately into Rauschenberg of course.

Finally – I'm aware I've already said 'lastly' - it's of tremendous help to not see the greats as all that great, certainly not as untouchable. They are anointed by many things not least time. Better to leaf through a book of Warhol's prints and move straight along. Better to read Guston's thoughts on paintings and write your own. We resonate with some things, we don't with others. What we make is the sum of all these things and I believe it's better seen as alchemy than science. An act of magic not a result of process.

June 30, 2023

Filed under