Abstract Critical

Nelson Goodman Defines Abstraction

Nelson Goodman’s definition of ‘abstraction’ from the Oxford University Press. For Goodman ‘abstraction whether deprivation or purification, is a matter of what a work does not do or what features it does not have’.


  1. David Sweet said…

    Here, Goodman seems not to be defining abstraction so much as reporting on its confused use in the visual arts community. His “Languages of Art” (1968), especially his notion of ‘exemplification’ and the distinction between ‘representation’ and ‘resemblance’, is fairly useful in countering the traditional hostility to abstract art and providing a positive account of abstraction.
    Glossing ‘abstract’ as ‘non-representational’, ‘non-figurative’ or even ‘non-iconic’, is like calling a car a ‘horseless carriage’, and then talking about the horse.
    Negative reactions to abstract art show that its properties and attributes must be easy to identify. And they are. Paradoxically, in a post-Structuralist world, it seems the terms around ‘representation’ are far more elusive, and in a state of constant revision. For now, it may be better to call all that other stuff ‘non-abstract’ art, till its all sorted out.
    But behind the need for definitions undoubtedly lie anxieties about meaning and meaninglessness: That’s modernism for you, get used to it. When I started teaching in art schools in the late sixties I came across an essay written by a 2nd yr student. It began with a reference to one of the founding myths of abstraction, opening with the question ‘When Kandinski turned his painting upside down, what fell out?’ Having made abstract paintings across five decades I can tell you the answer: ‘Nothing of significance’.

    • jenny meehan said…

      Thank you very much indeed David for that contribution, it has helped me a lot. I was struggling with relating the quote cited by Nelson with other bits and bobs I have stumbled upon of his writing, but you have done an excellent job of putting it into context.

      The reference to Kandinski in the student’s essay is delightful, and something I am going to scribble down to look at every now and again, because it makes me smile.

  2. Noela Bewry said…

    Perhaps an abstract work can only truly be made by a machine. It may be impossible for human beings to be detached enough to create abstract art.
    Defining abstraction is perpetually interesting, but as Donna White says it is necessary to develop the lexicon , if not create a new addition to describe it.
    I am sure someone will manage it !

  3. BenWk said…

    By citing ‘life essence’, or ‘profound Abstraction by nature’ I’m fairly certain we move no closer to a definition, or to a critique of the ‘negative’ one offered.

    I think the dialectic between silence and communication is interesting. If still a bit wooly, it does at least seem to get to the heart of how many abstract paintings arrive at success.

    But perhaps the elusiveness of the term is not so unique. Having recently had to teach some general introductions to the History of Art I was reminded of just how difficult to pin down so many terms are – Realist, Classical, Baroque, Gothic. They all remain massively determined by the context of usage – and to some extent negatively explanatory (Dutch Realism against Renaissance idealism. Renaissance Realism against pre-Renaissance schematisation, etc). Is abstraction necessarily different in this regard?

    It seems important, however, that through their work at least, artists aim for some form of clarification, or enrichment of what abstraction is and can be. And to these ends attempt to pin it down somewhat – if not by name then by concerns. Surely Gabo’s ‘essence’ is too loose for the context of definition in the early 21st century?

  4. Sam Cornish said…

    I think to dismiss it as “negative” is a little silly. Though abstraction may have opened up many new ways of making and experiencing art it is undeniable that it started with and often still contains something of a refusal. Could we not say that there is a (dialectical!?) relation between communication and silence, projection and withdrawal in much abstract art? That when abstract art achieves really meaningful expression it does that in spite of the inexpressive elements of which it is composed? Perhaps when it lacks this relation or tension it becomes simply decorative…?

    • jenny meehan said…

      It was a pun, I guess it wasn’t such a good idea to make a pun on a thread like this!

      • jenny meehan said…

        “To describe a picture by what it does not do seems a bit redundant to me” and thinking about it, I do agree with this, wholeheartedly. I just find it more helpful to approach a painting by asking what it IS doing. Call it a general approach, it’s not dismissive, and certainly not silly.

  5. jenny meehan said…

    Yeah, that definition is certainly a very NEGATIVE one!!!

    I go for the essence approach myself!

  6. Patrick Jones said…

    To describe a picture by what it does not do seems a bit redundant to me .So does much theory which describes an abstraction of something,like mondrian drawing a bicycle as tho it had square wheels. Brigit Rileys otherwise excellent dialogues about paintings confounds this problem.The best Abstract painting is profoundly Abstract by nature,draws from its considerable history and as Naum Gabo said ,isnt the absence of life but its essence.

    • Donna White said…

      Patrick,it seems to me that a central component of understanding abstraction lies in the words used to describe it, or there would be no function in the description ‘Abstract Critical’.As an artist intensely involved with the abstract/representational, myself, I need to know that those words are the ones intended eg. do Bridget Riley’s dialogues confound or compound the problem you refer to? Also, in his description of an area in a painting,at a seminar I attended,
      Robin Greenwood could only come up with the term ‘This Thing’-
      surely, if we are going to use words to describe what we are doing with abstraction, it is necessary to develop the lexicon a bit.