Abstract Art: a definition

Artwork to stir the imagination: abstract paintings. What defines an abstract painting?

Source: Abstract Art: a definition

Debi Reilly’s reflections on abstractions got me thinking, about abstraction, and my current passion for street sketching.

Last year, as I was setting up for a show, someone kept pointing to places in my paintings–abstractions, emphasizing accidental effects. He would see here, a face, there a sailing ship, in a corner, a sleeping cat. He saw everything that wasn’t there, and nothing that was.

I don’t believe that anything can represent anything else. At its most extreme, the recent fad of photo-realism (which isn’t even trompe l’oueil, which was at least—remembering an 18C still life in the Nelson-Aitkins Gallery in Kansas City, with the fly that appeared both on the surface of painting, and on the petal of a flower) intentionally playful. The delight was not in fooling the eye, but letting you in on the secret. Where is the art without the lie? When I look at one of those pieces, I feel behind me a black robed judge and soldier at arms—giving me orders I’m not allowed to disobey: THIS is what you will see! All the assigned signified—and nothing of the signifier. No room left for play. This doesn’t sit well with my anti-authoritarian disposition.

I’ve been making abstractions—not exclusively, but primarily. I like that they succeed or fail as material, sensual objects: inviting the eye to traverse pattern, color, tone, texture—following “movement” from place to place and back again (what we call, ‘composition,’ and how the seemingly pure objectivity leaves us in a subjective aura that is so inexpressibly private, that the subjectivity seems to merge into the universal.

Where one perceives an identifiable image, I want to feel a tension, a conflict even—where the material object of the painting never surrenders itself to the imagined reference, but draws us back in, as into a sacred pool, where the image is erased transformed renewed, never the same a second time… changing even between blinks of an eye. There is both courage, and a necessary humility—in never attempting to hide the artifice. A work of art is always about more and other, than what it is “about.”And yet, there seems to always  be that “about” … even in the purely abstract work.

I think of the class of abstractions that decorate the walls of Corporate offices, hang over the heads of receptionists of Human Resources Departments, like guillotines (you know that heads will roll, whether theirs or ours.) They seem as programmed for effect—or lack of it– as Muzak. I wonder—is there a relationship here—something the photo-realist and Corporate Abstract have in common?

The art of an abstraction, no less than ‘representational’ work, of both — lies in a tension—a conflict (have I said this before? I feels as though I have) – a conflict generated (like that in the trompe l’oueil still life), by the artifice, as artifice… and whatever else it may be working to do. A balance, like that of the dancer in motion, that is never equilibrium—but always a falling into chaos… arrested, and renewed, and falling again.

I go out on the street and draw. I see. I draw. And the drawing awakens my vision to seeing more deeply—what is there, and what is within. I don’t know yet why I’m drawn to this… drawing (I’m not very good at it… not yet, at least), but thinking now that it’s related to what I’ve been writing here. My abstractions have—or in danger of—losing the tension. Whatever it is they need—maybe I’ll find in my return to drawing. I don’t know. I will only know that when I’ve moved past this and into a new phase. Vision… is about stepping blindly into something not yet there. Once you know… it’s too late. Beyond movement. Arrival is equilibrium. Equilibrium is Death.


One thought on “Abstract Art: a definition

  1. I quite like your last 2 lines! Arrival is equilibrium. Equilibrium is death. It brings to my mind: growth, or stagnation.
    Although, I do think we can have periods of …. “Winter sleep” for rejuvenation.


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