On Abstraction

My work isn’t ‘abstract’ in the sense of being tied to the modernist ‘abstract experience’ acquired by rational consciousness, which abstracts from the world. Rather than bracketing-out a world in order to form a phasespace of projected transcendence, and thus impose itself as an unmoved form envisaged from above, the approach takes up what may be called the ‘abstract’ as a means of abstracting into the world.

Modernism’s heart-of-hearts when it comes to painting is precisely this approach of abstracting from the world, and in doing so it acquires an underlining thrust of separation between the painter and ‘nature’ — the painter reducing the pictorial plane to its most simplistic elements in order to set up a ‘counter movement’ to nature. This scheme took on the appearance of a kind of purge to reduce the work of art more and more to its own ‘essence.’ To get at essences one followed an ascetic program: in purging the work what came to the fore was an obsession with neatness, banning or restricting certain tonalities and exiling atmosphere in favor of a generalized will-to-order. In this regard, painting followed suit to those other tendencies, as in architecture, that sought a reconfiguring of particulars and environment in favor of a hygienic utopian space.

While I don’t have the time to go deeply into it, all of this is essentially Kantian. The philosophers out there may pick up on this and I hope they understand my allusion.

No doubt this is a bit simplified but it suffices to make a point. The point is that when modernism finally took off in works of art there was already a weakening of traditional attitudes, techniques, subjects, assumptions, and style had to reinvent itself: it did this through originating abstract ideas and idea-based movements. Whereas once it might have been regional masterpieces that took on authority or inspiration as art, with the inception of modernity in the arts that was all replaced by aesthetic programs. These programs calculated a future direction of art, taking up Valery’s point that ‘we must deal with the new,’ and in addition did away with impulses associated with nature or observations of nature. Hence a quasi-permanent state of uncertainty took hold, wherein modernism constituted a kind of state of crisis, or of expectancy, and the circumstances of art were to create values or arrive at values, rather than accommodating existing criteria.

One such way of creating new value systems in-tow with the purging program of painting previous mentioned was the Neo-Plastic position. It presented itself as a worked-out program, taking into account not only the work of art but also the artist, society, the past and the future. Theo van Doesburg sums up this attitude of modernity in the arts as being tied directly to idea-based movements nicely as follows,

“The work of art must be completely conceived and formed by the mind before its execution. It must not receive any formal impressions from nature, nor from the senses, nor from sentiment. We exclude lyricism, dramatism, symbolism and so on.”

Far from agreeing with this statement, I would however like to explore it closer. It has the air of an edict like so many other modernist statements. I have intentionally bolded the part of the quote that gets at the origin of the work’s creation, namely, that the work shall be formed by Idea prior to the work’s execution. This is the nexus of my disagreement with the ascetic programs initiated by such painters. Of course, they thought they were anticipating a great leap not only in the work of art but equally in the imagination or vision of the artist, the role of the particular in society, etc. The purging-out of everything in the Plastic Vision was to set up a new society by reconfiguring the relationship between consciousness and the work, setting up the potential formation of a New Man. This New Man would be indifferent to particulars, selfless and endowed with a sense of the abstract at the heart of being, as a universal, and once and for all doing away with the “capricious forms of nature.”

I believe it is at this point that we are approaching close to the white heat of the ideology. What was going on in such painting must be construed as a kind of ‘inner’ equivalent of the Revolution, at least as the painter’s conceived it. It was to lead to an impeccable rationality, illuminated from above by the artist that purged all of what was considered dispensable. The painter approached the painting as a thing completely controllable, harkening to that wider implication of a totally rationalist order. In the Neo-Plastic style, considered by its proponents to be the style, the intention was to have the ‘person’ disappear, and this was carried out through the work of art in its making which sets itself against subjective impulses of the artist. A new social communion was to be set up based on ‘abstract reality’ where the work of art was seen at once to be a vision of the whole, becoming absolute meaning and absolute being. While the painters were apt to admit it was theoretical and utopian, it isn’t like other theoretical or utopian programs weren’t attempted or carried out in practice, and this is by all accounts the impulse of totalitarianism in painting.

Meanwhile, the Revolution never happened only nightmares. This ought to evoke in the imagination a question of just what kind of nightmare is at the heart of such aesthetic programming, but we don’t have to imagine extensively, since history has already demonstrated its realization. – A will-to-order, purging the non-essentials, hygienic reordering, visions of rationalist totalities, exclusions: these words are used in order to make it perfectly clear what stirs the white heat of the ideology, and they aren’t my words for the aesthetic program: it is the context used by the painters themselves. In any case, the new society never arrived. There is no singular style, no singular program, and the work of art has now been replaced by the personality of the artist, which is to say that that far from having the object replace the personalization of the artist it is quite the opposite: rather than being an advancing wedge into history, paintings and sculptures – as objects – have become auxiliaries to the public persona of the artist. In a nutshell, the marketplace has absorbed everything and the particulars reign as so many stylistic choices, wherein even The Style has become merely another market choice.

I have no quarrels with a passionate self-negation or of the re-thinking and questioning of the dialectics of identity, but analyzing the movements of modernism closer that is not the only thing going on in such works of art. To be sure it is a fundamental feature of some strands of avant-garde, especially the Neo-Plastic programs. The self-negation acquired a force that would negate all other ‘non-essentials,’ just as all the nuances of nature were displaced by the pictorial quantitative harmonies. What I am interested in is how this desire to abstract from the world leads to a kind of cul-de-sac. I am hesitant to do away with ‘abstraction’ inasmuch as I think it is a valuable means to an end and I think that the means can be reconfigured: I am more interested in the context of abstraction as having to do with those very nuances of nature that the modernist programmers wanted to purge from their scheme. I think one can approach this relation by an inversion of the principle of abstraction: rather than abstracting from the world, bracketing-out everything in favor of a totally rationalist arrangement, it ought to be possible to abstract into the world in order to demonstrate a different kind of vision.

This vision is not the ‘nature’ viewed by the modernist abstraction program, and likewise it is also not the ‘nature’ of the traditionalists that the modernists displaced. In fact, it would redistribute our very notions of what is nature because it would make problematic that movement of bifurcation. In order to traverse such dualism one would have to revisit those ‘capricious forms of nature’ that the modernists thought they had destroyed, all the while bringing the Idea into new territory. Whereas modern painting assumed the Idea to reign above the picture, orienting and driving its forms, arranging and bringing into line all of the elements in order to construct a rationalist image divorced from nature, as a counter-reality to nature, this assumption is bankrupt inasmuch as the approach that begins with the Idea as forming the work prior to its execution is bankrupt. It produces the most sterile results, but of course sterilization was part of its programmatic purgation.

I am interested in an abstraction that abstracts into the world and this is achieved by having no prior idea hovering over the execution of the work: it is the process of the work itself, its unfolding processual or emergent flavor, that not only forms the work but also informs the idea of the work. In this way the Idea is not a thing separate from the unfolding of the material to form an image. It does not constitute a transcendent phasespace where the artist’s mind orders the field as if from above or outside what is going on in the emergent of the painting itself. Rather, it is a form of immanence where both the work of art in its material formation as well as the work of the Idea are both subject to a sediment process. The ‘mineralization of the imagination’ as I understand it is a means to this end. Its end is a successful traversing of the bifurcation of nature as occurring in the mind of the artist during the activity of making art.

It is possible that the word ‘abstraction’ has too much baggage and a new term must be invented in order to describe this process that goes into the world rather than bracketing it all out. I use the word for want of a better one. Maybe one could call it ‘Post-Abstraction’ to possibly line up with all that post-Kantian jive? When one thinks of abstraction most of the time what is immediately conjured up is the kind of work that I have mentioned above as being bankrupt – like for example Neo-Plastic vision, but I could’ve named other movements.  In any case, it is not only about exceeding or getting  beyond a certainly tendency in works of art, since these tendencies are tied not only to aesthetic but also social and environmental programs. It is not only bankrupt as theoretical program but equally it is kaput socially and, dare I say, in terms of Revolution. The latter will never happen until a new human space is created and while even the modernist painters knew this to be true, it has to do as much with sensation as with anything. And in terms of sensation what I think the inverse of abstraction achieves is an orientation back into the world, back into nature. But this nature is no longer the nature of our grandfathers. Their ‘nature’ was predicated on a neat opposition between subject and thing, whereas the division between the sensible and the intelligible are not so clear cut. Perhaps the abstraction into the world may achieve a motion of going-through nature, rather than the command and control vibe of high modernist practice, in order to achieve a vision where the artist is not a transcendent architect but a co-creator?












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