Abstract Critical


Written by Robert Linsley

Art concepts only survive through their redefinition, and abstraction is overdue for a change.

In common language, used by both the general public and professionals, it means art without a depicted object. Fair enough but problematic, because most so called abstract art is not “abstract,” in the dictionary definition, but rather “concrete.” It may not represent, but it is something far from abstract. Colours, brushstrokes, shapes, materials are all presented as what they are; perhaps as more than they are but still concretely real. Representational art, belaboured as it is with references to an all too complex world, may perhaps be described as more “abstract” in principle.

Another definition, usually made with respect to primitive or tribal art, would characterize it as stylized, often symmetrical, very conventional and unchanging over time and geometrically regular. This kind of work is normally representation—it might depict totem animals or ancestor figures—but it is assumed to be “abstract” in comparison to a realism that renders the details of ordinary life. From this point of view an antique Kouros is more abstract than a Hellenistic carving of a water seller, for example.

I would like to propose that we move away from stylistic or descriptive markers of abstraction, and define abstraction as the negation of meaning.

Perhaps negation is too strong, too willful of a gesture. What lies in between the things that we know, in the blink, the momentary loss of attention? How many particulars does any particular thing have? Into what emptiness do we fall when we slip up? But this sounds too romantic. Either a will to negation, which sounds like an intention, or a quasi-mysticism, which stands in some special relationship to ordinary experience; both possibilities have already accumulated too much meaning in both art and life.

I would like to recall the words of Wallace Stevens, “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” The hum is all the good ideas and bad that already exist, the artworks of the past freighted with value and significance, the accusations and rebuttals, the arguments and explanations that fill the normal day, the hopes and fears of the mind between tasks, the minutiae of how that accompanies those tasks—the evasion of all that is abstraction. It is conscious and deliberate but still something found rather than made.

In this view, abstraction is the very definition of freedom, though I would not call that its meaning. It is rather a concrete and material gesture that has a place in both the mind and body. It is identifiable with the new. It is also the very morality of art.

There are excellent political reasons for this view. In a world where there are far too many institutions, and individuals, eager to define the meaning of everything, art has to find a free and undetermined space. Until recently, in western secular society, spiritual freedom could be more or less taken for granted, but today the ubiquity of religion poses a real problem. Religions give a meaning to life, to death, to sex, to work, to family, to free time, even to art; in fact it seems that the role of religion is to close off every moment of life with a systematic meaning. Even free will has a place. It goes without saying that the systematic nature of religions is politically disastrous today. Religions have to be swallowed whole; one cannot pick and choose which aspects to accept and which to reject, because all together they form a coherent system. But leaving religion aside, even the secular institutions of our society compulsively ascribe meaning. Entrepeneurship, and capitalist institutions in general, may be more interested in how to do things than in what they mean, but implicitly they teach that meaning emerges from success as they define it. Science likewise is not devoid of the impulse to ascribe meaning; at certain further reaches of science the ultimate meaning ascribed to the activity is aesthetic.

Art may be the exemplary space of freedom in our culture, but it is distressing how easily it can get caught in the flow of social meanings, even before it leaves the studio. Theories, narratives, intentions, personal memories and feelings, a kind of self indulgence that welcomes the emergence of one’s own personality in the work—these are all infringements of the artwork’s freedom, which means its capacity to become abstract in the definition I have proposed.

Abstraction then, is not easy to make. Perhaps no art is easy to make, but the difficulty of abstraction, which is also its attraction, is that difficulty itself is the point. In other words, the evasion of meaning can take the form of a very abstruse and distant thought. Yet visual art being what it is, namely visual, this thought, however reaching and difficult, usually reduces to a simple appearance. Difficulty and simplicity are the antithetical halves of great abstraction, leading to the formula that the best art looks simple but is really difficult, whereas the worst examples of conceptualism are exactly the opposite—they may look deep but really tell us nothing that we don’t already know.


  1. Jai Llewellyn said…

    If everything is abstract, as Hockney once said, then nothing is abstract. I do not think it is necessary for ‘abstract’, as a concept, to reinvent itself, only the label needs to be removed. I am not an abstract painter, I am a painter. As soon as I place a mark, it is no longer abstract, it is reality. Every choice defines us. If it is material, it is a chosen material, unless it is just a random act and art cannot be merely chance. The question is-why has the artist chosen this material and what do they want us to look at.
    I agree it is exciting to try and lose oneself, to search the unknown, though the joy is in the realisation that you were always there.

  2. Evan Thomas said…

    Abstraction is simply a genre. And as far as the sociological digressions, I’m shocked, shocked, to see that art has social contexts that can be unsympathetic artists.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    If one puts aside form representation, for one moment,then there’s the 2D data set with no depth to it,apart from the depth between eye and data and the depth of the world behind the 2D data display. What meaning is there, depends on what 2D data is being apprehended, according to what system of language.

    With respect to Alan’s call to ‘just listen’ at Bach, that depends on what the individual is doing, one may be learning how to play the music or listening to it with the intent of composing music, or writing a research paper on it. People ‘just listening’ to Bach are probably doing that already, while washing up or driving the car. If people want to just listen to music or just look at art, that’s up to them, I’m sure professional artists are all doing it. What they do aside from that is in addition to that.

    • Alan Fowler said…

      When I referred to listening to Bach I was certainly not thinking of any of the casual listening modes which Peter suggested. I meant listening as a positive and intentional activity in order to hear what Bach was “saying” in a wholly aural “language”.
      Similarly, I was not talking about “just” looking at art. I was talking from the viewpoint of an intelligent viewer (I’m not an artist)who gains enormous visual pleasure and intellectual stimulation by the intense study of art which conveys its own visual “message”.

      • Noela said…

        This is a good comment , ‘visual pleasure and intellectual stimulation’ are fine ambitions for visual artists to aspire to. I know many artists might argue that pleasure is not necessary , but personally I want art to give me a frisson of pleasure and excitement, as well as work my mind.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I’m happy to hear that this site has readers who are not artists – and that they make comments.

  4. Ian Bertram said…

    In my mind I make a distinction between ‘abstract’ – a noun and ‘abstraction’, a process. For me the abstract image is non-representational. It doesn’t directly depict a material object, although it is of course an object in itself. It an still have meaning, but that meaning is likely to be personal and internal so not accessible to others, who must find their own meanings in the work.

    Abstraction on the other hand, as a process, is about HOW, not WHAT. It is the process of selection, simplification and translation into 2D of what is before me or in my mental imagery. The outcome may be an abstract, but not necessarily.

    I came to this usage from a dislike of paintings described as ‘abstract landscape’. To me it must be one or the other. I recognise that an abstract painting may be _informed_ by landscape but that doesn’t mean it actually _is_ a landscape painting.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Your comments provoke me to clarify what I intend, with of course the proviso that my intention is not necessarily right for anyone else.

      Having said that I take extreme exception to the notion that “meanings” in abstract art are just for the individual to pull out as they wish, and different for everyone. That’s one of the positions I want to distance myself from as much as possible. If art is not objective it’s not worth the trouble.

      Secondly, the process of “abstraction” is not what abstract art is about. Abstract art is not abstract – it’s concrete, material, specific and particular. Abstract is the wrong word but we’re stuck with it.

      Thirdly, abstract works may well depict, but what they actually do depict is open at the moment. I think Peter Stott is doing better when he says that an abstract picture may depict some particular thing we can’t identify.

      Finally, I’m impressed with Pollock’s few very terse utterances – one of which is “I saw a landscape the likes of which no human being could have seen.” Inspiring for abstract art, in my view.

      • Peter Stott said…

        There’s the thing in itself, the 2D data to look at, as that. That’s actually quite problematic. Then there are the possible 3D forms and spaces that the 2D data has the capacity to represent. That too, is problematic because most of the represented forms and spaces lie outside of one’s wit to ordinarily perceive (hidden perspectives, isomorphism).

        A personal interpretation is suspect because one doesn’t know what the represented objects are, as I’ve said. In terms of signification, if one reads the word ‘love’, then it might mean different things to different people, but there is still the standard dictionary ‘objective’ meaning for all to refer to.

  5. Alan Fowler said…

    Maybe it’s too easy to get hung up with the meaning of ‘meaning’. I don’t think we ask about the meaning of, say, a Bach fugue – it speaks for itself in its own non-verbal sound language. What does it mean ? Just listen !
    I see some abstract art in a somewhat similar way; that is, as “speaking” its own intrinsic visual language which needs or implies no verbally articulated interpretation. What does it mean ? Just look !

  6. Peter Stott said…

    I think the fundamental error in art culture is thinking that abstract art means ‘art without a depicted object’ and then building a rationale around that. If it is ‘common language’ then it shows that there is indeed a need for a re-definition of abstraction because it is wrong. 2D data sets are representational because 2D represents 3D via geometric projection (virtual perspective).

    The one thing that can be said about abstract art is that it is an accurate representation of as-yet unidentified object/s. It’s a red herring to talk of evading meaning when what meaning there is, is mysterious. Nobody knows what ‘abstract’ art signifies because one doesn’t know what the represented objects are, to say that it represents anything ‘abstract’ is speculation, to ascribe any meaning to it, is purely an arbitrary agreement between people, not its essential meaning i.e. we agree to use red amber green for traffic signals.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I like what you are saying. But I think it’s hard even for the artist to avoid ascribing meaning. Theoretically I agree with you completely, but practically evasion may still be necessary.

  7. Alan Fowler said…

    Robert appears to suggest that it is possible for an artist to produce art free from all her or his “theories, narratives, personal memories and feelings”. Isn’t this psychologically impossible ? Even a basic decision (conscious or intuitive) to avoid overt representational imagery, let alone the form that imagery takes, originates in the mind, and to that extent is an unavoidable result of one aspect of the artist’s personality or personal predelictions. Robert talks of personal factors as “infringements of the artwork’s freedom” – but any artwork is surely a construct of the mind or personality of its creator, not an independent phenomenum.
    There’s no need for Jenny to feel guilty about loving her connection with the work she produces – that’s what gives it life.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      It’s interesting that such a small aspect of the argument should have stood out so strongly for many readers (I’m assuming that two comments represent many other others who feel the same way).

      Alan Fowler is logically correct, but one can aspire to make an “independent phenomenon,” and I think that’s a worthwhile aspiration. It’s also a difficult task when one comes down from theory to day to day work in the studio, but it can be done. Working out a way is my job, and I enjoy it, however imperfect the results.

      I guess Jenny Meehan is also correct that her personality will emerge whether she wills it or not, as will mine, but on the topic of love I feel that it has to be directed outward – that I can only love what is other to me. I love art, and none of the great works of the past that I love are me – that’s one reason I love them. If I aspire to make great art then I’m trying to make something lovable – that I can love. Generally I’m pretty happy with my work, so I guess I’ve succeeded more or less in getting my personality out of the way. If it was always me me me where would be the freshness, the interest, the surprise, the pleasure?

      There’s a dialectic well known to Picasso, that the harder you try to escape yourself the more strongly you become who you are. That may be true, but that’s theory, and no help in the studio. In any case, it seems like the right thing to try.

  8. Hana Horack-Elyafi said…

    As an artist who is concerned with creating work that is free to be as it is, rather than imposing ‘myself’ upon it I totally get where you are coming from. The distress of the conventions into which the work will fall, and in which I myself am intwined is an unavoidable part of the struggle to create. That is the part that I find most difficult to live with! And then the paradox: when a work succeeds it has captured a moment of freedom, which can never be captured and must therefore be sought again. And the moment moves on and up…I find the best thing is not to focus on the thoughts about it too much as for me it is a part of the “hum…”

    As an artist who is also a Sufi I have to give a different perspective on religion. The Sufis (who are Gnostics) see the fulfillment of the daily worship, which one freely takes upon oneself (“there is no compulsion in religion”), as Liberation of the Soul from the bindings of the worldly, the material, from the “hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” #jp-carousel-811

  9. jenny meehan said…

    What a great deep and reflective write!

    On negation…is it rather maybe a fragmentation of meaning? There lies then the possibilities of an ordering to take place, which surely does, (even if not clearly visible).

    “Chaos is the score upon which reality is written” (Henry Miller). Just popping that in because it fascinates me. I do like and agree with what you write about the necessary freedom, and necessary lack of definition.

    I don’t mind the attachments I forge with the work though, maybe what the problem is is when things are expressed in such a crude and clumsy way, (indeed, how would words really speak the same as a painting?)and also when so many people effectively stick their own words onto works in an attempt to engage with one medium by using another completely different one? However, not bad to try, I suppose. Love that Wallace Stevens quote.

    I love my connection with my painting, and love the emergence of my own personality within it, which I cannot do anything about, even if I wanted to. So I am not sure there if I quite relate to what you write. I will fight with a painting, if I have to!

    With that in mind, I agree about the difficulty….

    Your parting words on the conceptual is a particularly agreeable view in my opinion!