Abstract Critical

David Sweet on Abstraction’s Organising Principles

David Sweet wrote this in the comments under David Ryan’s Ha Ha What Does This Represent?:

“The guy in the Reinhardt cartoon, who, as David Ryan points out, ‘represents’ the common man and not the modernist subject, is a victim of the success of Western painting. By providing an organising principle governing pictorial construction that complies with our everyday experience of the perceived world, the invention of perspective made the content of pictorial art available to the ordinary viewer. To access literary art you not only have to be educated enough to read, but amass a vocabulary encompassing a wide range of cultural references, have the time to spend with books, and so on. Reinhardt’s viewer, obviously on his lunch break, resented his exclusion from the painting, hanging from a nail on the wall, not because of the issue of representation – after all, a sauce bottle can represent Napoleon (see Nelson Goodman) – but because he could not find an alternative point of access to the pictorial material in a work which had abandoned the familiarity of perspective. He didn’t know where to start looking.

The pictorial economy of a painting cannot be identified with its materiality. Its function is to offer an intelligible argument to support that materiality, as the organising principle of perspective orientates the brush marks in a Titian. But neither can this principle be identified with painting’s aura, although it does mitigate the literalness of material components. It’s neutral [...] but, like a computer’s operating system, essential.

There are two distinct organising spatial principles to be found in abstract painting, one, which is based on the sign or symbol, harks back to the pictorial anatomy of Byzantine and Siennese paintings, and the other, which is based on the plane, evolved from the processes of schematisation started by Manet. Sometimes they combine, sometimes they are combined with the default perspective system. This latter conjunction produces ‘figstraction’. There’s a lot of that about.

Symbol-based pictorial organisation follows the same principle as this text. The letters do not overlap and each word is separated from the next, to foster an essential legibility. Symbols can’t function if they are obscured by other symbols. Miro’s paintings exemplify this legibility principle.

The planar pictorial economy emerges from the gradual compression of the spatial field of perspective, inaugurated by Manet. Because he over-illuminated his sitters, his pictures did not need to accommodate roundness. Their forms, and the pictorial depth they would have displaced, were condensed, not dispersed. Although his paintings are supposed to be ‘shallow’, both volume and space remain central to the experience of the work. That’s simply because all the pictorial content, which formerly stretched from the picture plane, through the middle-distance and towards the vanishing point, was still present, crammed into the foreground.

The evolutionary trajectory of this paradoxically non-reductive flatness invests the plane, in ‘geometric’ abstract painting, with a specific density, borrowed from the repressed memory of perspective. But that history disqualifies the plane from legitimately participating in traditional pictorial illusion. Painters have used different methods to open up the pictorial field without invoking the third dimension; Hofmann had ‘push-pull’, Newman uneven, thick/less thick pigment, and Reinhardt, warm black/cool black.

Reinhardt’s cartoon viewer would have needed some experience of French painting of the 1860’s, and perhaps have spent an afternoon at a Mondrian exhibition, to understand the organising principle of the work in front of him. But, given that the operating system is neutral, he could still have had a strongly negative critical reaction to what he saw.”


  1. Peter Stott said…

    Whatever the represented form content of an image, it is inaccessible for being an anamorphic projection, one just sees the form in its compressed, basically squashed flat state, a state that artists strive in vain to prise open, using a variety of strategies of facilitation and denial or a mixture of both. The organizing principles that David Sweet points out,form a fascinating interplay between signification and illusion, inviting the viewer to both read the painting as if it were a newspaper page, yet see it as an exact representation of architectonic form, an invitation unfortunately that the viewer hasn’t the cognition to accept, though perception can be aided/extended with psychoactive substances. The fact that nobody has yet found the ideal solution, means the field of abstract painting is still valid as an exploratory medium.