Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 04, 2021, from

4. Nonfigurative or nonobjective abstraction

Preliminary steps towards nonfigurative abstraction are discernible in forms of schematizing abstraction, notably in the works of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, but it seems best to define the category independently of this lineage and of the implication of a higher aspiration that may cling to it. (For the same reason ‘pure’ is best avoided, as is ‘impure’ for schematizing abstraction.) The key concept is that of a design which conveys no implication of actual (physical or ‘tactile’) space, though it is optional how strictly one applies this criterion. In no case are figure–ground distinctions excluded, any more than they are in abstract decorative designs. It is enough that depth cues be too faint, too fragmentary, too flagrantly inconsistent, or too dispersed for the image as a whole to convey the sense of any conceivable three-dimensional space. ‘Figures’ in the weak sense are woven or soaked into the ground, or fused to its surface like letters on a page; or the ground may press so closely upon the figures or switch relations with them so extensively that the continuity, uniformity and ubiquity necessary to accommodate physical contents is implicitly denied. The depth relations suggested by the parts of the design taken in isolation thereby collapse into mere appearances, though they remain vital to the aesthetic effect. This accords with the description by Greenberg and Fried of the pictorial space in nonfigurative abstractions as not tactile, but optical, indeterminate, or virtual – in a sense doubly illusionistic.

Kendall Walton (1990) proposed an alternative explanation of the figurative–nonfigurative distinction. On this view a nonfigurative Suprematist composition by Malevich represents the coloured patches that are part of the design itself fictionally standing in three-dimensional relations to each other. Were the design figurative, the patches would represent fictive three-dimensional forms, for example, ordinary physical objects, as standing in comparable relations.

Whatever the proper analysis, it seems plain that the appeal of most nonfigurative abstractions depends significantly on the viewer’s susceptibility to spatial and more specifically pictorial ways of seeing. Under normal (if not always optimal) viewing conditions Mondrian’s grids evoke lattices, windows, partitions or street patterns as if, or almost as if, ‘seen’ in the sense proper to representations. Similarly Helen Frankenthaler’s works often evoke cloud and landscape forms. Even the Arthur Danto ‘push-pull’ tensions in works by Hans Hofmann and the titanic dimensions of Franz Kline’s motifs capitalize on the involuntary exertion of the perceptual energies typically brought to bear on ordinary spatial presentations. The mystery felt to inhere in the more potent nonfigurative abstractions derives largely from the profusion of such subliminal underground connections, which trigger responses even when viewers are discouraged from making a literally representational reading. Possibly even the appeal of Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged colour-blocks and Agnes Martin’s misty stripes devolves in part from the challenge they pose to the space-obsessed visual system.

Closely related to the preceding is the dialectic of image and support stressed by formalist analysts such as Greenberg and Fried. For instance, recognizing that traditional art often seeks to make the support ‘disappear’ in favour of the illusory image (whereas in the ordinary, nonpictorial experience of a surface the percipient seeks to resolve perceptual flux and obtain a firm grasp of the objective reality) abstract artists have often sought to reverse priorities or play with tensions. Thus drips and slashing brushstrokes are intended to bring the surface to the fore, leaving only fleeting suggestions of images; and colour is poured directly on to unsized, unprimed canvas to bond image to fabric and evade the normal dichotomy of drawn edge and coloured area. Likewise solid ‘op art’ designs dissolve into fluctuating afterimages or visual squirm in the viewer’s perceptual field, even when one attempts to see the surface merely as surface. Formalists regard the exploration of such paradoxes and inversions as a prime aim of nonfigurative abstraction. Others place greater weight upon the externally referential intellectual and expressive content which supposedly becomes available through the unsettling of normal perceptual expectations.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Nonfigurative or nonobjective abstraction. Art, abstract, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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