Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

5. Intellectual and expressive values in abstract art

Writers such as Arthur Danto (1981) have demonstrated how much of a world view may be teased out of seemingly inarticulate art. Thus the brush-stroke paintings of de Kooning or their effigies in Lichtenstein are shown to have, in context, a wondrous depth of implication. Arguably the effect results from otherwise inexpressive elements acquiring magnified significance given an initial limitation to minimal means, a long tradition of thought and feeling conveyed by figurative means, and the conviction that authenticity demands zero excess, in the ‘less is more’ tradition. Where these conditions are met the sparest of patterns can express Zen simplicity, as in the late works of Ad Reinhardt, to say nothing of the all white canvases of Robert Ryman; and Eva Hesse’s crumpled cylinders, ragged sheets of plastic and wires wrapped in lumps can balance finely between a buoyant absurdity and pathos. Construed in this way, the game of coping with abstraction becomes one of sensitizing oneself to the merest or most idiosyncratic of signifiers. Commentary by the keenest of the connoisseurs of abstraction (e.g. Varnedoe 2006) drives home this lesson, which is also implied on a grosser level by the widespread puzzlement of less expert viewers, even when they like abstraction that puzzles them. It seems to be a reliable generalization that abstract art demands more of the viewer than do the various modes of nonabstract mimetic art, especially so far as understanding is concerned – even when the work in question seems simplistic.

From its inception the literature of abstraction has made much of abstract works of art conveying, reflecting, exploring, questioning or commenting upon scientific, semantical, aesthetic or metaphysical concepts and theories. Abstract compositions are said to be creative responses to atomic or other physical theories, mathematical relationships, musical forms, laws of perception and other cognitive processes, unconscious psychological structures, conceptual or categorial truths, or to ideas and issues relating to art itself. Artists are said to engage in research in these domains. Difficulties arise, however, whenever works are presumed to do more than allude in an unspecific way to such referents and projects. To date, the specific content supposedly conveyed or the specific question posed has rarely been divulged. Mondrian, for example, repeatedly declares that art reveals and expresses ‘laws of pure plastics’, but he never tells us what these laws are or how we are to derive them from works of art. Nor do propounders of such interpretations ever raise the crucial question of whether a work misconceives or misrepresents its referent. Such reticence obviously casts a shadow over the credibility of these claims. Also, when explicit reference to intellectual content is implied by title, as it is in Georges Vantongerloo’s paintings of the 1920s and 1930s (for example, Composition 15 Derived from the Equation Y=ax 2 + bx + 18, 1930), doubts arise as to what aesthetic sustenance the viewer can derive from the connection between design and content. Similarly, Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series is tied to his research into colour-interaction phenomena, but the paintings themselves would be ill-served by viewers ascribing artistic merit to them because they exemplify the principles governing such phenomena.

The formal, intellectual and emotional resources of sculptural abstraction have also been extensively explored through the century far beyond specifically cubist or futurist modes. Constructivism in, initially a narrow speciality, was taken up in diverse forms following the Second World War generally without retaining its ideology. The work of David Smith is standardly linked to abstract expressionism, though it is not easy to discern any connection with specific traits of the classic works of that variety of painterly abstraction. Environmental and installation pieces such as James Turrell’s luministic ambiences and vast Roden Crater project are examples in a radically different register.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Intellectual and expressive values in abstract art. Art, abstract, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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