Art, abstract

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

6. The limits of abstract art

The category of abstract art is defined in part by opposition to what is here called classic representationalism. But protean as the category is, there is reason to think it should not embrace all nonrepresentational modes. A case in point is art which is ‘concrete’ in the sense of presenting material objects as such, including, for instance, Marcel Duchamp’s unassisted ready-mades. Related examples occur here and there in the multifarious category of conceptual art: Joseph Kosuth’s Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), [Water], 1966, which consists of an enlarged photocopy of a dictionary definition of ‘water’. These works undeniably ‘abstract’ in that they exclude all fictive appearances, even purely ‘optical’ ones (as a whole, that is, even in cases where a photograph of a chair is included along with a definition). But their obtrusive and calculated ordinariness seems to close off all connection to the accepted paradigms of abstract art.

This breach results in significant part from the fact that the ordinariness of the works, taken in context, rebuffs aesthetic contemplation or freely imaginative engagement. Instead of offering a feast for the visual (or somatic) system, the work purports to deliver a message concerning art, the art world or society at large, and one that typically excoriates commodity fetishism, elitism and reverence for art. The mode of signification, on which the work’s standing as art depends, resembles that of a rebus or emblem, whose decipherment is most efficaciously accomplished by limiting one’s attention to the properties that convey the meaning – convey it, that is, given a detailed context which may include statements or even lectures by the artist. The work cooperates by offering scant aesthetic distraction. Much the same syndrome is found in Robert Morris’ quasi-minimalist sculpture. For example, the erect and fallen shafts comprising Columns (1961/73) forswear almost all of the modernist sources of sculptural appeal: refined finish, defiance of gravity, balance, precise placement, and so forth.

Perhaps from this analysis a criterion may be devised for distinguishing between minimalist or conceptual works that count as abstract art and those that are best placed elsewhere. Qualifying works would be those inviting fairly comprehensive and sustained aesthetic contemplation. A work that aims mainly at blocking or deflecting such engagement in favour of other ends would fall into one or another adjacent category. Candidates are not limited to commonplace objects. They may be decidedly exotic, for example Yves Klein’s exhibition and sale in 1959 of ‘immaterial zones of pictorial sensibility’ supposedly filled with his personal artistic presence and nothing else; others are eccentrically related to abstract art, as is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, a work the artist says took a month of hard erasing to render ‘poetic.’ Naturally, delicate distinctions are required when applying the criterion. For example, Christo’s wrappings may straddle the boundary, since they do offer a modicum of contemplation-worthy fare. Also it is essential to recognize that even those works that do not support sustained contemplation may tease the mind rewardingly not for what they are but for the real or apparent process involved in creating them and enlisting the viewer in sharing the attitudes underlying that process (Walton 2008).

Another boundary question arises over premodern works that radically schematize, some of which contributed to abstraction proper: Cycladic figures, masks, and countless other ‘primitive’ images. Accepting such works into the category might seem justified inasmuch as they exemplify the ‘urge to abstraction’ (and thus deserve at least the appellation of ‘proto-abstraction’). On the other hand, the works were certainly not inspired by a conscious rejection of classic representationalism, which the modern use of the term presupposes. Further, nothing resembling the play with space fundamental to most twentieth-century abstraction can plausibly be ascribed to them. Hence including them would risk diluting the common ground on which the category was initially based. Indeed it is interesting to speculate whether the abstractions included under the conventional label could have been produced without that kind of historical development. Can we coherently imagine paintings just like Braque’s or Rothko’s being created and relished in a human culture innocent of advanced pictorial representation? This issue is sometimes posed in philosophical discussions of art but has yet to be explored at the relevant level of anthropological specificity.

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