Art, abstract

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

4. Nonfigurative or nonobjective abstraction

Preliminary steps towards nonfigurative abstraction in painting are discernible in forms of schematizing abstraction, notably in the early 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 if that implies superiority as compared to 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.

Notable early icons of nonfigurative abstraction are the suprematist monochromes by Malevich, The Black Square (1915) and White on White (1918) which seem more emblems of ideas rather than carriers of vestigial pictorial or expressive significance. Other suprematist paintings by Malevich feature rectangular or circular coloured shapes upon a uniformly white background, and these open up more spatial possibilities. On one interpretation (Walton 1990: §1.8) these represent not three-dimensional forms but parts of the surface design itself which are seen as fictionally standing in three-dimensional relations to each other. An account closer to Malevich’s own mystical manifestos (Golding 2000) finds in the works an ethereal space in which float three-dimensional forms in various orientations. The artist’s titles, such as ‘Aeroplane in Flight’ and ‘Mystic Waves from Outer Space’, encourage the latter reading.

Whatever the proper analysis of this or that work, 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 subliminally 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 ‘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 paintings derives largely from the profusion of such subliminal underground connections, which trigger responses even when viewers are discouraged from making a literally representational reading. Unquestionably Jackson Pollock’s classic drip paintings are replete with resonances of figural motifs in his earlier works, and they succeed only when there is optical breathing space between layers of depth (Golding 2000). 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 brush strokes 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 after-images or visual squirm in the viewer’s perceptual field, even when one attempts to see the surface merely as surface or the design as a design. 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, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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