Abstract Critical

Mark Stone on ‘Shadowy Things and the Pulpit of Modernism’

Written by Sam Cornish

“We don’t see like this in our electronic age. There are very few of us that seek to understand the visual implications of physical things as van Gogh did. We don’t have the conceptual tools for it. Instead, we believe in the float of networks and the contingencies of context. We drift along with the ephemeral currents of information. We ignore the presence and meaning of things. We discount the rising subjects that appear before us. They fall away, dissolve into the vast electronic ground. Over the last 60 years we’ve organised our society and culture to do just that. We dematerialise the bits and pieces of our physical lives until they no longer actually impact us. Then we conjure up these ghosts like magicians, our fingers swiping, our eyes scanning, the thin translucent images appearing and falling away in nano-seconds. Direct visual confrontations with the physical world have lost their meaning and validity. We don’t understand presence as van Gogh did, because nothing actually is present.”

In a recent article in The Maximilian (you can read it here), Mark Stone suggests that Kandinsky’s ‘dematerialising landscape space, mutating forms and disconnected composition’ underlies most abstract painting. He also sees this dematerialised space as anticipating the screen-dominated lives which we now lead, and believes that a new approach to abstract painting is needed as part of a reconnection with the ‘physical world’, and which engages with ‘the thickness of existence’.  Stone wants to return illusionism to abstraction, to look back to the history of painting before modernist abstraction, to bring to it (quoting Frank Stella), ‘the successful depiction of volume, the creation of interior space, and the power of caricature.’ Again quoting Stella, Stone acknowledges that these qualities ‘create a relaxed situation for realism, but an anxious one for abstraction.’

Stone’s article is interesting in the context of two articles now up on abstract critical – Robin Greenwood’s essay ‘What’s Abstract about Art’, and David Sweet’s ‘Attention to Detail: Abstraction in an era of High Definition’. Greenwood, though not contextualising his ideas as Stone does, asks us to compare the achievements of abstract art with the high points of figurative art and to recognise the ‘abstractness’ in paintings by Van Eyck or Rogier Van der Weyden, with a view to getting away from the ‘lazy pictorialism’ of modernism in favour of a more ‘robust three-dimensionality’. Where Stone, as a painter, sees the return to things as an issue for painting, Greenwood addresses it as a sculptor, though suggests that painting could for once take its cue from sculpture. Of course, abstract painting and sculpture exist in very different relation to the ‘anxious’ situation that Stone refers to, as painting always needs some kind of illusion.

Sweet, like Stone, is concerned with how the context of our vision relates to painting, though Sweet specifically discusses high-definition digital images, whereas Stone is concerned with our immersion in the screen in general. Though I am simplifying his argument, for Sweet abstraction has gained much of its power – its freedom of invention, its pace and the immediacy of its availability to perception – from its ability to dispense with details, or, though the use of gesture, to prevent these details from detaining the eye as it takes in a work of art as a whole. For Sweet, I think it is fair to say, abstract painting needs to address itself primarily to vision, and so should avoid the type of illusion – based on space-displacing volumetric objects – that Stone suggests. Whereas Stone wants to use painting to explore an antagonistic relation between our lives immersed in the screen and the physical world beyond the screen, Sweet sees the high-resolution detail – and the attendant ‘sharpening of visual sensibility’ -  as offering a challenge that occurs within abstract painting’s boundaries. For Sweet abstract painting needs to meet this challenge if it is to be ‘capable of making a serious aesthetic statement that matters formally‘.

I’m sure I’ve simplified the arguments in the articles I’ve discussed above, so read them first before commenting. However I thought it was worth drawing attention to the fact they seem to circle around a related set of issues, particularly where they disagree. The main tensions that the articles create – between an abstract art that aspires to a radical lack of context, and one which is understood in relation to contemporary modes of vision; and between an abstraction released by the visual, and one grounded in the physical – seem to have a lot of potential to generate interesting discussion, and perhaps new ways of considering the current possibilities for abstract art.


  1. Filip Gudovic said…

    Great observation Sam,
    I have read the article on Maximilian few days back and it gave me an interesting insight on Van Gogh together with the idea of physicality.
    The interesting question for the realm of abstraction that exists today has a lot to do with the visual ecstasy that comes from the digital medium. The ability to digitally configure and manipulate formal elements in anything existing out there competes with what once abstraction stood for.
    In my opinion, painting running in parallel with this digital in order to create illusion would just end up shallow and predictable (which is the case with much formalism occurring today).
    What painting needs is to portray this illusion that can relate to the physical world but overcome the digital aesthetics. Together we need to loosen up painting, give it a drink or two, isolate it and then give it new identity.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      I suppose the obvious problem is how to do this and still remain abstract: how can painting evoke the physicality of the real world – of Van Gogh’s table – without directly representing it, or using spaces and structures which are too readily identified with it? Or maybe the solution will come (and guessing at what it might be in advance is perhaps a little vain and pointless) from a type of painting which confidently works between abstraction and representation?