Earlier this year I posed a question to 12 admired painters: “What is the current state of abstraction?”
When I talk about abstraction I want to give it the fluidity to elude language that could harden it with rigid boundaries. I use abstraction because it reflects aspects of my lived experience where things shift, change, and resist definition—where things are unknown yet positively real. The history of abstraction I learned in school was rooted in the 20th-century meta-narrative of abstraction being invented and then linearly evolving along one path. But we know this narrative is very closed down, that it suppressed many other histories, directions, and possibilities of abstraction. I think artists using abstraction today are coming in through many different side doors. They are conscious of and inspired by the marginal possibilities of abstraction.
The article in the February ’09 Artforum by Achim Hodchdorfer, “A Hidden Reserve: Painting from 1958 to 1965,” examines the shift of advanced critical discourse away from painting in that era. It tackles the difference between the way abstract painting was defined and the life that it actually was living. Hodchdorfer discusses how what began as a critical evaluation of the tension within the dialectic between painterly substance and aesthetic transcendence where “beholding does not take place either in literalness or its transcendence, but rather as a constantly shifting series of events—during which different modes of perception and faculties of cognition collide but also form occasional connections” was repositioned from one that acknowledged the importance of these complex relations within painting to making the declaration that it must choose between them.
I think this binary course of critical evaluation also followed certain philosophical ideas about the separation of mind and body, often privileging the former as superior and in control of our experiences. This created an uncomfortable hierarchy, with transcendent abstraction culminating into some sort of ultimate condition, pushing artists to react against abstraction as a proclamation of false limitations. Since then, feminism has been working on dislodging this hierarchy between mind/body within artmaking, and recent developments in neurobiology and neuropsychology have made breakthroughs in our understanding of how interconnected and interdependent our minds and bodies really are. Perhaps the complex and multifaceted process of cognition in making sense of the world around us through our bodies, sensations, imagination, and perception is something that can be newly explored in both making and looking at paintings that veer toward abstraction. If there is a trajectory to the current history of abstract painting, it is that it has kept pursuing its inherent tensions to explore how material and mental existence, the process of perceptual and conceptual faculties, is continually resistant to being separated.
“The force that propels the human spirit on the clear way forward and upward is the abstract spirit. It must be audible and it must be heard. The call must be possible. This is the inner condition.”
—Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Question of Form” from Der Blaue Reiter, 1912.
Yes, Der Blaue Reiter Rides Again! Re-reading the almanac this past year was something of a revelation for me and made me realize that their very fundamental concerns are here again—in a big way. And we have quite a lot to answer for, nearly 100 years later!
To me, the idea of abstraction represents an eternal starting point. It is the way back to our archaic origins, in order to identify and examine those circumstances. And it is also the way to bring forward lost themes and passages—to convey them now and to reflect upon their potency.
At this stage of our collective agglomeration of specific results in answer to this inquiry about the nature of abstract art and what we think it should actually be, we have developed, at the very least, a rich tapestry of possibilities. But the importance of abstraction as a method has to do with providing an intellectual and gestural framework wherein there is an augmented capacity for synthesis. The convergence of cultural and historical forces in an abstract work can sometimes induce what may be described as a crucible effect. In the thinking and the making, there is a vast range of considerations weighing down upon the artist who is deliberately seeking a focused way through all of this. The artist seeks freedom and the most direct manifestation of their personal desire for the work.
Jessica Dickinson is currently showing work at The Kitchen as part of Besides, With, Against, and Yet: Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture through January 16th.
Steve DiBenedetto: “Yeah, well, I like that it’s AMBIGUOUS, you know? I mean, that’s what I’m after. I don’t like it when something is too identifiable. I think its more interesting if YOU decide what it is … right? Why can’t it just be, like, whatever … I don’t know. (angrily) I let the painting tell me what to do, you know?”
Eric Wendel: Abstraction’s current status seems roughly equivalent to that of “floral” or “western” or “Thomas Kinkade.” They each have their own bin of prints at framing stores in malls, and when thought of in that grim context it is hard to even find an incentive to make a distinction.
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