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Brushstroke: Top 10 Artists Who Have Made This Elemental Gesture Their Own

Roy Lichtenstein, Red and White Brushstrokes.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), Red and White Brushstrokes, 1965

By Tori Campbell

A brushstroke is one of the fundamental tenets of a painting, often used to build up the surface or an image of a work. But what of those artworks where the brushstroke is the image? Artists have long explored the expressive potential of the brushstroke using its very essence as a vehicle to explore formal concerns of painting, the power of the gesture, or as a conceptual premise. Whether pop, expressionistic, or minimal in nature, every genre of art has seen fit to investigate and question the brushstroke as applied to the flat canvas surface. See the artists below, all of whom have made a unique contribution to the dialogue about painting in its simplest form.

1. Willem de Kooning

Untitled XXIV (1982) by Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXIV, 1982

Characterised by carefree and floating ribbons of paint, Dutch-American abstract artist Willem de Kooning’s (1904-1997) work was anything but carefree. Often known for the large gaps of time within his artistic production, every one of de Kooning’s brushstrokes was placed with a great deal of thought, technique, and care. His work Untitled XXIV, from 1982, is among a series of paintings produced during the 1980s that is commonly thought of as the most celebrated and emblematic of his oeuvre. With these works he was able to divorce form and colour from representation, leaving behind a legacy of daring artistic exploration.

2. Roy Lichtenstein

Brushstroke (1965) by Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In response to the brushstroke-laden paintings predominant in Abstract Expressionism, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) poked fun at the trend of the moment with his own Brushstroke Series. Ironically Lichtenstein utilised the depiction of a brushstroke within a printed comic as his inspiration for this series, rendering larger than life “brushstrokes” (out of many, many tiny ones) in his signature pop-art style. His pieces depersonalised the motif that was so popular and meaningful for the Abstract Expressionists – commodifying and re-coding the gestural works of the artists before him.

“It [the Brushstroke] was the way of portraying this romantic and bravura symbol in its opposite style, classicism. The Brushstroke plays a big part in the history of art. Brushstroke almost means painting or art. I did isolated Brushstrokes in 1965 and used cartoon brushstrokes to depict subject matters in the 1980s. I also did Brushstroke sculptures in bronze and wood to make them more palpable. … the Brushstroke, it is just an idea to start with, and painting it makes it more concrete, but when you do it in bronze sculpture, it becomes real and has weight and is absurd, contradictory and funny”

– Roy Lichtenstein (from: Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art)

3. Giorgio Griffa

Giorgio Griffa, Quasi Dipinto, 1968
Giorgio Griffa, Quasi Dipinto, 1968

Creating what could best be described as extraordinarily earnest and humble artworks, Italian abstract painter Giorgio Griffa (1936), only paints on unstretched canvas, linen, or burlap that he nails directly to the wall. His abstract paintings focus primarily on the process of painting, its materials, and the colours he utilises though his philosophical belief that his artwork is never completed, but is a work in progress that remains constant also informs his artistic production. When not exhibited, his paintings are folded and stacked, stored in a way that texturally adds to, and alters, the works every time they are unfolded and re-exhibited. Driven by, what he has described as “the concrete act of mark making” Griffa’s simple but meticulous use of the brushstroke has captured audiences for decades.

4. Niele Toroni

Black Installation (1989) by Niele Toroni
Niele Toroni, Black Installation, 1989

Best known as the pioneer of Travail-Peinture (translated literally to work painting) Swiss artist Niele Toroni (1937) has spent a lifetime exploring the brushstroke. Travail-Peinture is the meticulous practice of marking a surface with imprints of a no. 50 paintbrush at regular intervals of 30 centimeters. This exploration of uniformity, consistency, and steadiness betrays the artist’s hand; highlighting every difference and distinction between the markings. This difference is where the artist’s and his audience’s interest lies, calling attention to the disparities between the intention and reality. Toroni has explored this technique on surfaces including canvas, cloth, floors, and gallery walls; showing how each individual brushstroke can engage the audience through the tension of variability.

5. Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell, Yves, 1991
Joan Mitchell, Yves, 1991.
Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Creating all of her paintings at night, and without any reference from real life; American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell’s (1925-1992) works were borne from the memories of things that comprised her world. Water, sky, trees, animals; all populate her paintings in the form of abstract brushstrokes of oil paint on canvas. Having grown up as an accomplished athlete, a physicality can be sensed in her work — the brushstrokes on the upper reaches of her canvas evoke the stretching motions her arms had to do to put paint there. Though the application of paint may appear to be haphazard or spontaneous; Mitchell approached painting the way she did her athletic career; with physical and mental rigor that a produced confident and disciplined oeuvre.

6. Lee Ufan

Lee Ufan, Correspondence, 1993
Lee Ufan, Correspondence, 1993

“Until the early 1980s I always composed repetitious figures as a pictorial enactment of the idea of infinity. Then, somehow I realised that the ground of a picture reveals itself and itself expressed infinity. It seems to me that each delimited brushstroke, each figure gradually became liberated from me, fully exhaling and inhaling space, and achieved more liveness [sic] than before.”

– Lee Ufan (Quoted in an unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, July 1997, Tate Artist Catalogue File)

Best known as the founder of avant-garde art group Mono-ha (translated: School of Things), Japan’s first internationally acknowledged movement in contemporary art, Lee Ufan (1936) often creates hyper-simplistic works. His Correspondence series is comprised of large canvases covered with very few, clipped, monochrome brushstrokes. Like Griffa, Ufan believes such works are never complete because he does not believe in the concepts of completeness or perfection. Both the minimalism of his Correspondence series and the beliefs of the Mono-ha group are informed by strong philosophical feelings toward nature as well as teachings on being and nothingness.

7. David Reed

#613 by David Reed
David Reed, #613,  2011

The brushstroke as a motif, source of inspiration, and pool of experimentation is central to the works of American contemporary artist David Reed (1946). Best known for his large-scale rectangular paintings filled with colour, his swirling brushstrokes overtake his canvases as both the subject and object of his works. Inspired by light and its evolutions and permutations, Reed plays with the brushstroke, creating works that interact with, and mimic, photographic techniques like superimposition and transparency. His pieces have been described as at the intersection between painting, film, and technology; an apt description for such innovative and groundbreaking work. 

8. James Nares

James Nares, Last Kind Word, 2016
James Nares, Last Kind Word,  2016

Best known for his large monochrome paintings of meandering and swirling brushstrokes, British contemporary artist James Nares’ (1953) work has often been compared to calligraphy. Directly inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke series, Nares’ pieces are paradoxical in that they are equally spontaneous and meticulous. His paintings are created in a single swipe of his paintbrush — but this carefree attitude has its limits, as he often scraps his work and begins again, and again, and again; until he believes he has created something successful. 

“A lot of it had to do with reinventing the brush, the surface, and the paint…They’re pretty simple, the ingredients to my paintings. I like to think of it as like making bread or something. A little change in the recipe and you get something completely different.”

– James Nares

9. Bernard Frize

Vatu (2018) by Bernard Frize

Bernard Frize, Vatu, 2018

Finding joy in restriction, French abstract painter Bernard Frize (1954) has a uniquely methodical and disciplined approach to his artistic production. Before putting any paint on canvas, Frize plans his whole piece from start to finish, following a strict set of formal rules that requires the employment of two assistants. He and his assistants follow his rules involving colour palette, paint application, and brush size (large!) to the extent that the pieces are nearly “manufactured” instead of “painted”. Frize’s pieces are specific and precise works; celebrating the act of creation itself as much as the aesthetic of the finished product.

10. Qin Feng

Qin Feng, Desire Scenery 010, 2014
Qin Feng, Desire Scenery 010, 2014

Best known as a pioneer of contemporary ink painting and the Chinese avant-garde movement, Qin Feng’s (1961) paintings are informed by his life and movements throughout China, Europe, and the United States. Experimenting with traditional Chinese ink painting and Western abstract expressionism, as well as backgrounds dyed with tea and coffee; he links his traditional upbringing in the East with his adopted homes in the West. The nearly calligraphic brushstroke appears in his works due to his fascination with language and the written and spoken word, borne from his extensive travels and the various cultures he calls home.