Abstract Critical

Not Painting, Not Sculpture, Not Abstract?

Written by Robin Greenwood

The semantics of contemporary art criticism allow for so many meanings of “abstract” that one can just about choose for oneself how it is defined. Everything from a shark in a tank to a smudged landscape, from a perfect cube to a pile of oranges, from a walk across the Andes to the lights going off and on; all have been described as abstract art. I guess what is meant here (mostly) is that it is not a depiction or a representation in paint etc. of some recognisable other thing; in which case anything and everything can be abstract art because anything and everything can be art.

Is there a more useful way of defining it, or is it a redundant term? I once showed a book of the work of the quintessentially abstract (post-painterly) Kenneth Noland to a painter friend, pointing at one of those early and simple and beautiful “target” works. “It’s not abstract”, she said, “It’s a circle”.

This was a new and original point of view to me – a definition of abstract as “something unnameable”. It made me laugh at the time – Kenneth Noland, not abstract! – but it does actually bear examination. If one says that only newly invented form (for example) might be meaningfully described as “abstract”, since we cannot put a name to it, and it most certainly does not represent anything (how could it, being newly invented), then we would have to rule outside of the term “abstract “all of the art that does not invent new form. This would apply immediately to the shark in a tank, of course (which is patently figurative anyway), and would include all geometric art (since squares and circles and stripes and spots are all “known” things – I do like the extremism of this view); but it would also apply to a smudge of paint (which is “a smudge of paint”, until proved otherwise), this being no more abstract than a smudge of ketchup, until and unless it becomes part of a meaningful new form.

“Meaning” in painting and sculpture, abstract or figurative, is very much dependent upon the unnameable revelatory effects of visual form and their independence from literal (or literary) interpretation. The question is whether other kinds of art outside of those two disciplines can escape from the literal and into the fully abstract realm of visual disclosure. Open a book of good painting – any painting, abstract or figurative – and the “abstract-ness” of it is immediate. But the photograph of the painting is not an abstract thing.

In this argument (there could be many others) either all art of every persuasion could be abstract except representational painting and sculpture; or only painting and sculpture have that possibility, whether they are figurative or not.

  1. jenny meehan said…

    Abstraction, yes, a process before anything else. My own understanding of it is that it’s something which can happen when a creator of whatever variety is free to manipulate whatever material they work with in a manner which is free of any need for it to be meaningful to anyone else. It’s a joy. The products are as diverse as the inspirations which make someone create something in the first place. I tend to settle on the “All art is abstract”. As for the contributions here, they are all very interesting.

  2. seamusgreen.blogspot.com said…

    I find it strange that ‘abstraction’ is seen by many as an opposite to representation… I don’t understand why you would strive to avoid associations when, as CAP said, even flat colour will hold something recognisable. I see painting pocketed as ‘abstraction’ a lot of the time as the painter having an uncontrollable urge to make work without nailing down why or how, the process of making outweighs the content. By this I can only relate to my own practice, I do not go out to make abstract paintings nor do I go out to make representational ones, I just have a strong desire to make paintings and feel I need something to get my teeth into to make the work feel like it has some weight or purpose. I use imagery or forms that I memorise and then regurgitate into the work because it gives me coherence and something to work with, I then hope the viewer can take my output and re-imagine it for themselves. I feel the idea of ambiguity is far more interesting because it frees the whole argument up and allows the painter to cram whatever they like into the work without rhyme or reason meaning the viewer can make of it what they will without the stigma of the term ‘abstraction’. Painting will always reference its own history so I believe the argument around whether abstraction can be ‘self-referential’ is dead. I think what is more important now is to think about how painting can move into different territory and how the term abstraction can now embody new values. For me I am really interested in ‘leading the viewer up the path’ giving them snippets of information that they can then process in many different ways. So I guess abstraction for me is painting that processes ambiguity, it remains open for the viewer to make many different associations to one painting, regardless of whether it drifts on the edge of representation or plays with formal geometry….

  3. @Ct_ART said…

    Modern art is all about perception: what the viewer brings to it or takes from it. With abstract art there is greater scope to form a personal view; less so with figurative or realistic art. All abstract art, be it sculpture or that flat, rectangular stuff they put on walls, is made up of recognisable components – the medium or the subject; so I suppose what we are really talking about here is the gaps through which our perception is allowed unobscured or cluttered reign. The more recognisable the elements of image or component, the less the scope for one’s own emotional reaction.

    Or is that bollocks?

  4. thishydramadeofpaint.blogspot.com said…

    I think the problem is two fold in nature. One is the designation of the word abstract, the other, how to define certain types of work as being different from others; it seems we are in the realms of the political to some extent. What came first? The desire to make something or the desire to express an idea using something we have come to regard as- to culturally classify as residing within the cannon of art? What is the usefulness of having to give something a specific name? Who does that make things easier for? Not for the artist I’d say. I don’t think the issue relates only to painting or sculpture either.

    I find it best to relate this argument to my own practice which is using paint to make something. This is the most basic description I can give. I use paint to answer questions, solve problems, react to things I’ve previously done in paint but often I’m acting intuitively. I deal solely with what is in front of me as it issues from me. What happens in retrospect is an entirely separate issue.

    So what then would I call what I do if I’m forced to? Idiosyncratic Painting, Non Specific Painting, Specifically Non Specific Painting? It seems that most of the kind of work we are referent to here hovers between subject/object classification and relates more to Process but with the stipulation that this process is mutable; not fixed or rigid and often involves a heavy dose of the Intuitive. Work where you can’t really say what it is other than perhaps “it’s a painting” or “it’s like a painting” for example. It’s a battle between words and things.

    The designation abstract has become an unhelpful catch-all which is not applicable in cases where results are not manipulated from any preexisting source (usually external). In order to be abstract then a work must reference something which resides outside the work itself. All work will ultimately have some kind of narrative association for members of its audience, this seems unavoidable, but this is not a problem for the artist who deals only with the issues as they unfold.

    It seems then that abstract is merely a convenient catch all often used as a dismissive by people who are unsure of what they are looking at or uncomfortable with things which fall outside of the readily classifiable. In certain cases then abstract has become a term of negation and avoidance for the audience, the critic.

    So what then are we doing? We are object makers working in various media. This is not abstract. If your work relates to anything outside the work then you are abstract. Figuration has a similar problem; you can make the same argument almost in reverse. There will be a liminal space where the two meet but again this isn’t a problem.

    So where does this come from? Probably the Modern/Post Modern culture clash. The relegation of craft, the elevation of kitsch and so on but these are slightly different topics for discussion and probably not for this “Mostly Redundant Catch-All Classification Critical” platform.

  5. CAP said…

    The trouble with thinking of ‘recognisable’ as the opposite of abstraction is that anything can resemble anything else in some way – can be recognised as some sort of version. Even just a flat colour or a monochrome will carry associations, we ‘recognise’. Then again we ‘recognise’ things like a number or a colour, which are not actually things at all, but concepts or classes, that is, abstractions. So the recognisable cannot properly contrast or distinguish the abstract.

  6. failedpainter said…

    are you reading the same debate as I am?

  7. massaccio said…

    so to Ahab I say ,
    my definition of abstraction (in a painting context) is
    ” ones desire to be seen as radical.”

    • Chris said…

      If you want to be “radical” today as an artist then paint a traditional landscape. :-)

      I agree I don’t think there is anything “radical” about abstract art at all. Shock of the New?

    • ahab said…

      Well, massaccio… assuming you’re not talking about your own artistic output, that’s some seriously pejorative motive-ascription. Conversely, if you are describing your own working experience, “abstract painting” isn’t a thing to be paranoid of any more than it is a thing to get dogmatic about.

      I thought I was asking for a more careful definition so ‘abstraction’ could be wielded in a sentence about art without lopping someone’s ear off. And it’s tough to use a term that carries a thousand words of baggage — better, I think, if it refers directly to some straightforward, common understanding. I offered one upthread, as did a few other commentors; and I thought neal might have one hidden under his evident frustration.

  8. massaccio said…

    the game of naming stuff seems superfluous ….lets talk about why we want to make this stuff when there is so much of it about. Lets talk about wanting to affiliate ourselves with institutions /galleries when it is obviously that their agenda are so congruous to ours. Lets talk about not being paid, lets talk about how facilitators are the ones in control and we as artists are constantly grateful for any crumbs….as long as we pay the submission fee….that come our way. Lets talk about the massacre of art schools

    • Chris said…

      I think this website is about giving Abstract Art the platform and recognition it deserves.

      The self analysis on here is other artists curators trying to define what Abstract Art is, if you like thinking out aloud sometimes.

      We do need a good debate about your points, a-n try too but not many give the a-n forum its due. Perhaps they are scared of ruining there careers.

  9. massaccio said…

    The term abstraction is rooted in a Modernist discourse winking heavily to a once radical agenda of non figuration. Abstract as a trope retains none of its radical roots, it is now the standard launch off point for most painters. The question is, having taken this common stance of which most of us have, how do we reconcile the history of the term “abstraction” with its now non radical identity, or to put it bluntly, hanging the sign radical on ones work doesn’t necessary make it radical or to put it more bluntly, painting using an abstract language doesn’t necessary discuss “abstraction” but only ones desire to be seen as radical. So what we have is a problem of desire.

  10. ahab said…

    I appreciate that comment neal. As a sculptor, I care not for the term, ‘abstraction’. What I do care about is whether it, abstraction or whatever, is any good.

    Quality Critical would be of more specific interest to me. But if we simply need a starting point, then ‘abstract’ will do, and if ‘abstraction’ is the starting point, then to have a dialogue that’s not entirely sealed off from the real world (and painting and sculpture studios are plenty real enough) we need descriptive, definitive words to move our conversation from here to there.

    Assertions like Texex’s upthread appear to be stacked upon assumptions piled on misreading. But alas, such is the nature of blog-style interactions, and nitpicking nitpickers goes nowhere fast.

    So perhaps, neal (forgive my moderatoresque tone, but I have an interest in the topic), you have a contribution to use of the term that doesn’t drain baby and bathwater?

  11. neal said…

    was looking forward to abstract critical arriving
    but really dissappointed that as painters and sculptors ( i am a painter and photographer) this forum seems to want to possess the term abstraction is this about abstraction or a particular form or presentation of abstraction

  12. anna_MArya said…

    and I’m sorry about my typo – let’s say it was a deliberate device to jolt the reader’s attention

  13. Julia Cooper said…

    Elements or the construction of a figurative painting can be abstract. Our eyes will light on abstract features for instance light on one red mark which will send the eye to another red area so that all the reds become visible at once. Or the blue, or a shape or a texture. This is usually after one has recognized the image, or not.

    • anna_MArya said…

      replying to Julia, above, I think this highlights the context mentioned by massaccio, above above, no visual art exists outside a historical context: and viewers, too, come with a “knowing” eye or an ignorant one, both can derive pleasure, the “educated” eye will indeed step back from the subject and, perhaps stepping closer, consider the artist’s mark, abstracting pure colour from the image in its entirety, and, going right back to the beginning of massaccio’s essay: what about vanitas paintings? at first impression exquisitely accurate depictions of flowers and insects but all the time with a profoudnly abstract intention.

  14. Brian Edmonds said…

    I agree with many of the points above. To me though, depending on which definition you choose to cling to, it is all point of reference and how willing the viewer is to involve oneself personally in the picture. Do you choose to make a connection, making the picture less and less abstract to you or do you intend to stay on the outside, not finding meaning but instead leaving it “just a picture?” When does an image cease to be abstract?


  15. anna_MArya said…

    I appreciate all the above comments on the nature of abstraction.

    I would like to offer a (concrete) example of abstraction being in the eye of the beholder.

    I regularly post to a popular photography site; the nature of my photography is rigidly abstracted, i.e. without subject matter or reference points, and I do this for the very deliberate reason that photography, in my opinion, seems saturated with meaningful sociological essays that are in essence the result of cheap travel and good cameras.

    Now, by the very nature of photography, one might argue that abstraction is impossible as the photographed image is a direct projection of reality. And this is exactly what I am trying to avoid in the images I snap. However, there are always recognisable elements in the images (I don’t regard them as photographs). As is the nature of blogging sites, I trawl a number of regular visitors; most of these accept my images for what they are and comment on their individual merits. But I have a particular visitor who regularly asks “what is it?” The first time it happened I was tricked into describing the elements within the image; then I realised that I had to resist defining the contents as being concrete because this was a step in the direction of pretending a subject. (Actually I think further analysis reveals further subtlety, because my insistence on posting rigidly “abstracted” images in the midst of a plethora of kittens and spring flowers reveals an agenda that is psychologically not very abstract.)

    What I am trying to say is that medium plays a part in the delivery of the abstract. Whilst the artwork may shy away from any form of symbolism or conceptual message, the very materiality of art contradicts absolute abstraction.

    • Texex said…

      What you have just described defines the very essence of non-objective art. That is, the “thought processes” which go into the resultant product trump the product itself. By removing the usual object-oriented language of known objects from the viewers’ toolbox of interpreting what they are seeing, you then set the terms of viewing outside of decipherable imagery they are used to and can comprehend in a nanosecond. Nonetheless, an artist who does scrap the usual toolbox must be prepared to substitute some verbage explaining what they are doing for those who just have to ask “What is it?” How you do it is proprietary information unless you wish to divulge it.

      However, I’ll respectfully disagree that the medium plays a part in the delivery. The final product – regardless of the medium – is only the residual of those thought processes and must remain subservient to those processes in the end. Without examples of your work it is hard to comment on how successful your efforts are but you are certainly on the right track here; just dont get too mesmerized by your own work.

      • Ozartist said…

        I fail to see how the materiality of the medium used can be overlooked. Surely the particular medium is chosen as a vehicle for communication of some kind. It carries with it the baggage of itself -history and cultural attachments- which are challenged by the ambiguity of resultant abstract images. Photography as a device historically used for documentation challenges the viewer when abstraction is deliberate, in a different way to say the way an abstract painting does.

  16. Texex said…

    I have to agree with Boyer (above) that art – by its very definition – is “abstract”. E.g., are those ‘realistic’ figures on the ceiling of the Sistine God and Adam? Or are they merely Michaelangelo’s caucasian abstraction of God and Adam? On the other hand, some of the photos from the Hubble are so “abstract” that they defy and challenge our brains to comprehend them. Yet they absolutely do exist in nature and are therefore not abstractions.
    Regarding the semantics to unnecessarily divide art into a this or a that, Kandinsky wrote long and well about objective v. non-objective in creating works of art. It took him a lifetime (and a nervous breakdown) to finally achieve paintings that were totally non-objective conceptually and figuratively. Indeed, the Guggenheim was solely created for curating “non-objective” works of art so it seems that the term is still apropros in learned circles.
    Concerning if a chair or a dot or a circle is a work of art, Duchamp settled this with his “Fountain” in 1917 albeit it a quite repugnant way. In essence, it is the contextual environment in which a 2D or 3D object is presented which sets it apart from a utilitarian object. Of course, the “Fountain” was aptly tossed out in the trash bin but the argument still continues today.

  17. ahab said…

    Can a recognisable object in any way still be considered abstract?

    Consider a chair. An abstract written of a chair might be thus: “a place to sit,” or differently, “of legs and a seat.” It is the abstraction that is the recognisable aspect of the object.

    Note that such an abstraction is immediately and no less a representation of a chair. Note as well, though, that “a place to sit” is not exclusively indicative of a chair. Further, it is possible to abstract from “a place to sit” something like, “a restful state”. And, too, it is possible that the actual chair be appreciated as an abstraction of some other primary thing: recognizable as, say, a particular joiner’s style of chair-craft.

    So far as I can tell, it is the same with art. Regardless of the many usages of “abstract”, a colour-field painting (e.g.) is recognisable by its nameable qualities, but is never its description; and is alternately object and subject, either representative or representable.

    Maybe understanding the object/abstraction relationship is akin to carving wood. The grain of it runs in a single direction, and the chisel can carve from either end so long as it angles inwards. Where evident and when attuned, we can cut to the chase of any given thing’s recognizable, represented qualities — its abstraction.

  18. Jane Boyer said…

    All art is abstract because:
    1. even if it is a representation of something recogniable it is not the recognized thing itself.
    2. the concept behind the work was an abstraction of an experience.
    3. there is no imperical proof that what we perceive and experience is real.

    But having made those silly semantic arguments, we can agree the more unrecognizable something is the more we consider it to be abstract. And it is perhaps why sharks in tanks, lights on and off etc. are described as abstract because their removal from context removes them from meaning. I mean, I can see it is a shark in a tank but what does it mean for me to see a shark in a tank, especially when I’m not at an aquariam and the shark is not moving.

    The definition of abstraction as art which creates new form, and meaningful form at that, simply passes the buck of defining ‘abstract’ to defining ‘meaningful new form’ – and what would that be now I wonder?


    • onlooker said…

      Abstract and abstraction.

      In the popular parlance, art is ‘abstract’ if it is ‘not recognisably figurative’. This typically means ‘not portrait, landscape or still life’, which by default hoovers up geometric art, and even potentially (some) conceptual art. We see a shark in a tank, and we know it’s not art simply on the level of being a successful figurative representation of a shark – hence, in this sense, it’s ‘art-ness’ is abstract). This definition of abstract might be recast with more focus on artistic intention as ‘recognisably non-figurative in purpose or approach’. This may yield a smaller ambit of work, but the general idea is the same, we clock that the artist is not preoccupied with drawing on figurative / representational modes to create the ‘art’.

      Abstraction on the other hand is a process, rather than a labelled set of objects. Ostensibly it is a process of moving from ‘cluttered’ to ‘essential’ (i.e. abstracting important elements). On the face of it, this automatically implies a reduction in complexity. However, it says nothing about whether the average work of abstract art needs to be less complex than the average work of representational art. This is the results of choices by the artist. We could abstract a highly complex artwork from a very highly complex set of sources, or produce a very simple representation.

      Abstraction may also involve a process of ‘symbolicisation’, for example where an eye is abstracted to a Pheonecian eye-symbol. This is, if you like, a sub-species of “decluttering” but one in which the artist also adds something to the mix (e.g. a cultural attribution). This can be thought of as emphasising the deliberate nature of the loss of complexity as an artistic choice, rather than a deficiency of representation. The process can be taken as far as is desired, just a little of it in the mix to spice up the essentially formal abstraction of say a Picasso, or a complete transformation of sources from structural content into symbolic.

      So is abstraction a tool that artists can use. Arguably it is an inverse process of mimetic representation. One could make a painting more or less ‘impressionistic’, with skilful brushstrokes – moving it back and forth on a sliding scale between representational or abstract until one was happy with the balance. Imagine repainting a Cezanne as a photo-realist picture and then reverting. Indeed a given painting may be purposefully more ‘accurate’ in focal areas and abstract in others, thinking of a chiaroscuro portrait.

      So perhaps abstraction is somewhat analogous to chemical analysis, a breaking down into simpler elements for filtering and use. That’s not a barren concept in the context of art, since it makes abstraction an important creative process in a broader set of actions. But a problem might arise if abstract art were to be viewed as something creatable only by abstraction. Why? Because all types of art, when done well, probably involve some processes of abstraction (in the sense of decluttering). In either form, this may be an abstraction from figurative content to non-figurative, or it may equally be an abstraction of non-figurative content to a different, non-figurative element.

      In this sense abstraction does not favour abstract art over figurative, it is just as powerful a tool for both. Only the destination of the process is different. Both types can make use of the abstract forms that arise, so neither has inherently more places to go with abstraction as a process. Abstract art may have more freedom to handle the elements produced, but may have fewer external raw materials to process. It may be more focused on re-working its own content than figurative art.

      So what does make art abstract? Geometric art is happily non-figurative, and thus ‘abstract’ but it’s not necessarily the result of any abstraction, as the earlier comments point out. Less important than whether abstraction is used as a tool in creating a work of art (which it almost certainly will be), or whether the ‘raw material’ for the art is figurative or abstract, is the question of what sort of object the artist is interested in creating at the end. Is it an object that hangs some of its ‘art-ness’ on figurative components, or hangs all of its ‘art-ness’ on non-figurative elements?

      There is nothing wrong with either approach. But, put simply, abstract art makes different choices about the direction of travel, not necessarily about the tools or processes (e.g. abstraction) involved. Perhaps ultimately what is properly de-cluttered by abstraction is not the work itself (since all good art is in a sense somewhat decluttered, and all interesting art is somewhat cluttered). Instead, what is clarified by abstraction is the question of what in the artwork provides the sense of its ‘art-ness’. Defining ‘art-ness’ I leave to artists and their work.

  19. Alan Fowler said…

    It depends what is meant by “a recognisable object”. In one sense, even a dot or a straight line is an object, but the problem with this approach is that abstract art cannot exist because everything visual is an object in one form or another, recognisable as itself. I find it more helpful to go back to a distinction drawn in the 1950s by the French group, Abstraction/Creation. By ‘abstraction’ they meant any form of imagery which is in some way derived from (i.e. abstracted from or echoing) the natural world (as with Ben Nicholson and most of the St Ives artists) , as opposed to ‘creation’ which was the building up of an image from elementary constituent parts, generally geometric (as in the work of Anthony Hill and others in the Constructivist artist Kenneth Martin, the latter “is not a reduction to simple forms of the complex scene before us. It is the building by simple elements of an expressive whole”. On this basis, most art involving geometric structuring is not abstractas it does not echo the natural world. It is interesting that neither Van Doesburg or Max Bill – leading artists in the field of constructed art – ever used the term ‘abstract’. Their word was ‘concrete’, meaning that the subject of the work was itself as a self-contained object, making no reference to anything external. Of course, this approach can be challenged on the grounds, among others, that a vertical line relates to gravity, a horizontal to the orientation of the horizon, and a circle to the shape of the sun and moon et etc.And perhaps the simple two-type definition needs two subdivisions – intuitive/planned, gestural/rational.
    It is unlikely there will ever be a wholly agreed definition of ‘abstract’, but perhaps the abstraction/creation approach provides a starting point for a discussion.

    • CAP said…

      Apparently Germans prefer the term Non-objective to abstract. Although I’m not sure what advantage there is there.

      The usual sense of abstraction – as generalising or reasoning beyond immediate evidence or perception – seems adequate to me. The question them really becomes how far, or whether there is a full (as they used to say) or pure abstraction, that ascends to an ultimate or absolute level? For the idealistically-minded this is terribly inviting. Hegalians in particular are fatally attracted to The End of things. But the way it has played out in 20th century Painting, has been more an argument about self-reference, and what are sufficient conditions or properties for this is painting. But as I say, that line of thinking is pretty much exhausted by Minimalism in the 70s (the very term describing precisely this project) and since then abstraction in painting has actually tended to concede some degree of figuration (or concrete picturing) and now the argument seems to me more one of what level or degree of abstraction is acceptable to painting – perhaps any picturing – even where it thinks it aspires to realism? For, there just is no escape from some amount of formalism, even for the fanatically wide-angled photographer (see Gursky, Struth etc). It’s not so much a matter of eliminating content anymore in order to attain ‘pure’ abstraction – we live in an age of impurity or corruption – but rather of identifying abstraction, just where we believe we see only content.