A Challenging Art Form
There’s a fine line between abstract art and mere decoration, and Jackson Pollock’s Number 32 (1950) skates that line. It’s neither meaningful nor meaningless, neither expressive nor expressionless. It says a great deal about western art to the person trained in art history. To the person who isn’t, it’s a banality that barely says anything at all.
The painting is a web of lines and patches of colour produced by freely pouring cheap household paint straight onto the canvas. The painting comprises only black paint against a raw, unadulterated canvas. It’s enormous — nine feet high and fifteen feet wide, and envelopes the viewer’s field of vision as they draw in close to view it.
Traditionally, even abstract paintings are composed of interrelated parts with varying emphases and depth conveyed through colour and shade. Number 32 has no parts, it’s all interrelation, all emphasis across the expanse of the rectangle of its surface.
This gives it a very shallow depth, perhaps no depth at all — just a skin of paint on a canvas. It’s a repudiation of form, and of colour. Even its name, simply a designated number – Number 32 – stubbornly resists any idea that it represents anything at all.
Other Pollock works hint at experience in their titles and the layered, symphonic use of colour and texture — “Autumn Rhythm”, “Lavender Mist”, “Blue Poles”, “Reflection of the Big Dipper”.
Not so with Number 32. It’s rawness and purity makes it less premeditated, the action of the artist is unmediated by choices about colour and layers. Pollock himself is more present here, in the stark traces of his motions.
For supporters of Pollocks work, this painting is a distillation of the artist’s aesthetic. To some, it’s vapid. Joseph Beuys, the post-war German sculptor, described American abstract art as “packaging” — all surface without content.
Some would agree that Number 32 exemplifies that emptiness of thought and feeling. The novelist and critic Robert Coates decided Pollock’s art was unorganized “explosions” of random energy. Sections of the public were scandalized, and still are. To them, Pollock’s art is perplexing and even an affront to taste or good sense. Pollock was branded “Jack the Dripper” among the sceptical media. “Anybody can do that!” is the common refrain, except that “anybody” didn’t do it. Pollock did.
But that’s part of the point of abstract art in the Western tradition, it’s a challenge. In so much that abstract art is challenging, Number 32 is its apotheosis.
The Story of Abstract Art
The story of abstraction’s path is well-worn into art historical scholarship, though the milestones have been subject to some surprising changes as art historians uncover new facts.
The basic story is as follows — artists from the nineteenth century onwards began to make use of the materiality of paint and the formal aspects of painting such as colour, tone and line.
This preoccupation with the non-representative aspects of art is known as “formalism” to art historians, because it is a preoccupation with the “form” through which content is mediated rather than the content itself.
To artists in the nineteenth century, it was labelled as “art for art’s sake” — it was the idea that the expressive conventions of art could be enjoyed without recourse to meaning or even representing anything at all.
James McNeill Whister’s Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket (1872) exemplifies this tendency that realised itself, many years later, in abstract art.
Whistler’s spatially ambiguous scene verges on the abstract as he attempts to convey the feeling or impression of a sight as opposed to faithfully reproducing it.
The leading British critic of the time, John Ruskin, accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” in 1877. When Whistler sued Ruskin, his case wasn’t helped when officials mistakenly presented the painting to the court upside down. Whistler was bankrupted by the court case, but the march toward abstract art continued.
The first truly abstract artist is a matter of debate. Traditionally, Wassily Kandinsky — a Russian who made fully abstract paintings as early as 1911 is regarded as being the first abstract artist.
Recently, however, thanks to a ground-breaking exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986 — The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, Hilma af Klint has been credited as the first abstract painter. Klint began creating abstract paintings from 1906 in a theme of “primordial chaos”. The artist was secretive about her abstract works and had not shown any of them in any public exhibitions, remaining uncredited until recently.
The debate about who was first to abstraction will likely go on. The most important fact is that several prominent European artists had reached abstraction by the time of the First World War. Each had found their own particular way of deserting figurative art — there was no international “abstractionist” movement with a shared vision or manifesto.
In this light, the truly pressing question is why, for so many centuries, did western artists not embrace abstract art? Why was abstraction unnecessary, meaningless, inappropriate or even inconceivable through centuries of western art?
Many ideas have emerged to explain this. One of the more obvious theories is that the rise of photography as an art form, in correlation with the development of modern art, simply displaced figurative painting.
There are other, immaterial avenues to explore. Perhaps as artworks became increasingly fungible as commodities, paintings and sculptures could therefore more easily be untethered from the specific experiences of their creators. Perhaps spiritually bereft modernity in the West has emptied art of figurative content, so artists may as well forgo figurative representation.
Each of these answers is complicated and warrant a lot of explanation, and can only be speculative. There’s no one, clear answer.
It’s a question probably best put to anthropologists rather than art historians as to why abstract art became acceptable in the Western art canon at a certain point. What is clear is that abstract art has always existed in other parts of the world.
What made abstract art specifically modern in the Western world was the gallery system, which validated works of art as “Art”. Without the encumbrance of validation and the contrived spectacle of salon art in eastern and southern parts of the world, abstraction has thrived for millennia.
Virtual Realities and “Virtuality”
In Abstract Art: A Global History, art historian Pepe Karmel embraces the idea that abstract art has always legitimately existed when we consider it from a global perspective, while side-stepping the requirement to offer a theory for the rise of abstract art. For Karmel, abstract art is rooted in the real world, it’s never strictly “abstract”, and it’s a global, not a localized, tradition.
His survey of abstract art divides work into five broad real-world categories: bodies, landscapes, the cosmos, architectures, and signs and patterns. Examining abstract art in this way, Karmel is seeing subject matter in abstract paintings where more orthodox critics and historians saw formal constructions of colour and form.
It’s probably right to say that abstract art is better labelled as abstracted art — that the work of abstract artists are more often distilled expressions of experiences in form and colour than constructions of form and colour.
This is because of the intrinsic nature of painting and sculpture. They are media for expression, like a screen or stage for the artist’s imagination. As in a theatre or a cinema, the audience for a painting or sculpture suspend their disbelief in order to take in a scene.
It’s useful to think of a traditional figurative painting or a sculpture as a virtual reality. Artists for centuries used illusionistic tricks, such as linear perspective, foreshortening, and shading, to mimic the way we perceive things in real space. Scenes are constructed in a virtual space — be it the plinth or the canvas — for viewers to appreciate as an optical illusion.
The viewers of great works of art enjoy the meaning of what’s depicted and appreciate the way the illusion has been executed in pleasing combinations of colour and form.
Abstract art, to some degree, remains within this framework of aesthetic experience. The movements of modern art that led to abstraction — “isms” such as Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism — sought to represent the world differently from all art before them.
They each claimed to come closer to a subjective truth by marginalizing all the traditional illusionistic tricks that attempted to faithfully reproduce reality as an objective truth.
For these movements, art became less of a virtual reality, but nevertheless retained a virtual-ness, becoming a virtuality. Abstraction takes that development — from virtual reality to virtuality — to its limit.
What does “virtuality” mean here? It means existing as essence and effect, but without recourse to reality. An abstract painting by Kandinsky, for example, is still an interrelationship of form and colour that depends upon painting as a schematic plane — a window into the singular “reality” that Kandinsky has envisioned.
Elements in Kandinsky paintings still have an interrelationship, as they would in the virtual reality space of a figurative painting. The essence of painting is intact — that virtual space is still there.
When abstract art is pure construction, doing away with the virtual space inherent to painting and sculpture, it becomes something distinct from painting and sculpture.
The minimalist Donald Judd described such artworks as “Specific Objects”. It’s a clumsy term, but appropriate enough to show that such artworks are neither painting nor sculpture, but another category altogether.
Judd used the term to describe his own works, but it could be applied as much to Kazimir Malevich’s and Frank Stella’s monochrome paintings, that wholly incorporate the canvas itself into the effect the work is hoping to achieve.
In such works, the surface of the canvass (or the plinth) are no longer a plane on which the forms and colours interact in virtual space. Instead, the forms and colours interact in real space, in our space.
The parameters of success or failure for these works are different from the traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture. Judd saw the disciplines of painting and sculpture as getting in the way of what he wanted to achieve with colour and form. His “specific objects” had, in his view, a more intense effect.
Reality and New Forms of Perception
Painting itself has three general kinds of abstraction. Firstly, there is a lyrical style in which forms are painted in unconstrained movements; then there is geometric abstraction, where forms are structured; then there is colour field abstraction, where swathes of colour are rendered in a formless manner.
Each of these “styles” were not so much incidental or based on the taste and predilection of the painter as a means of some objective of artistic investigation.
A good example of this is the artist whose work is often seen as the epitome of geometric abstraction. Piet Mondrian’s grids of black lines and primary colour segments against a white ground are intended to evoke a “higher reality”.
For Mondrian, art in essence was opposed to reality, “because reality is opposed to the spiritual.” The aspects of painting that really mattered to Mondrian, no matter what painting you examined, were not the particular aspects of subject matter — who or what is depicted in the painting, for example — but the universally graspable aspects of form, line and colour. Mondrian’s paintings, like other artists, are an attempt to distil form and colour to come closer to that universal and spiritual essence of art.
Mondrian expressed the wish to reach the “foundation” of things through intuition. Many other abstract artists in the first half of the twentieth century expressed a desire to reach unseen but known or intuited forces around us.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, unseen forces were better observed by scientists as new technologies proliferated, and it became more apparent that the world is more than what it appears to the eye. At the same time, alternative spiritual movements emerged that combined Platonist ideas with mysticism.
Klint and Mondrian were among the many artists who had dabbled in forms of spirituality outside the traditional realms of religion. Klint believed her paintings were commissioned from a spiritual realm, that her mission was to work “on the astral plane” to represent the spirit of man, rather than man’s mortal likeness.
By the 1920s, Freud’s formulation of the human unconscious had also permeated the art world. Surrealism, a tightly organised movement of artists that sought to mine the creative possibilities of the unconscious, was the prevalent cultural force in Europe between the world wars.
Surrealism wasn’t dogmatic about how the unconscious could be explored, and so a number of styles and methods emerged to attempt to bring the unconscious to the surface.
One of these methods was automatism, a process by which the artist gives up conscious control of the hand that is drawing or painting. In effect, artists like André Masson and Joan Miró embraced chance to construct their pictures by using free movements and even throwing paint at the canvas.
Arshile Gorky, an Armenian immigrant in the USA, developed a painting language that fused automatism with colour field abstraction. His paintings of the 1940s are monumental in size — owing to his earlier work as a state commissioned mural artist during the latter years of the Great Depression — yet expressive and lyrical in brushwork.
Gorky’s fusion of styles on a large scale inspired a generation of American artists in the postwar period to embrace abstraction working on a monumental scale. What we now call “Abstract Expressionism” was in fact a loose collection of artists working in all forms of abstraction.
What these artists perhaps had in common — at least in the early years — was the support of a new generation of critics led by Clement Greenberg, who believed that abstraction was the ultimate expression of western art.
Modernism and The Fate of Western Art
It was thought in some influential intellectual circles that art was progressing towards a goal. This is implicit in the label “avant-garde” given to artists seen to be breaking new aesthetic ground — the words come from the French designation of soldiers who advance into new territory.
For Greenberg, these artists were not expanding the frontiers of art’s possibilities, but rather advancing toward the true, singular purpose of each art form.
Greenberg is an important figure in the history of abstract art, both as a leading advocate for its pre-eminence over other kinds of painting and for the power he wielded. The critic sat on the state-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a group set up to advance American art in the international scene.
Greenberg’s ideas became influential while the United States was part of the war on Fascism and Nazism, and during the subsequent Cold War against Soviet Communism. The parameters for fascist and soviet art were clear — prescribed as they were by cultural authorities, what wasn’t clear was what “good” art looked and felt like in the democratic West.
Greenberg’s initial sympathies were Marxist, but his thinking was increasingly identified with American cultural hegemony. For Greenberg, abstraction like Pollock’s was exemplary art for a democratic society.
Modernism in art occurred, according to Greenberg, within the framework of the European Enlightenment — the flourishing of philosophical and scientific ideas that prioritized reason.
In his influential essay “Modernist Painting” (1961), the critic described Immanuel Kant, the German Enlightenment philosopher, as the “first real modernist.” Kant’s method of “critique” was to use reason to criticize reason with the purpose to clarify it and give it autonomy from other types of thinking.
In the same way, modernist painters — from Éduard Manet in the nineteenth century to Morris Louis, a colour field painter working in the United States at the time Greenberg wrote the essay — were working to entrench the art of painting “more firmly in its area of competence.”
For Greenberg, the clarity of abstract art, which was true to its medium, was opposed to the “kitsch” of mass-produced folk culture. Removing the contamination of kitsch was a matter of clarification — each of the arts needed to become an expression of its intrinsic aesthetic possibilities.
Paintings are flat, and the illusion of depth that could be found in most Western art was an aberration from the essence of painting. The autonomy of an art form was in all the properties uncontaminated by other art forms. Form and colour were such properties in painting, and best expressed, according to Greenberg, as flatly as possible.
And so Greenberg hailed the “flatness” of the abstract painting of American artists like Jackson Pollock as the realization of this modernist clarity. These artists were grouped together as the next stage in modernism, their distinctly American vision had superseded European avant-garde art.
Just as American abstract art became dominant, Greenberg’s critical hegemony slipped. New forms of avant-garde art, inspired directly by mass culture, superseded Abstract Expressionism in the public imagination. “Pop” artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton embraced the kind of “kitsch” that Greenberg believed to be a contamination of true art.
Abstract painting lived on, but the boldest abstract painters jettisoned the rigid idea of “modernist critique” and medium-specific clarity for other forms of expression.
These “Postmodernists” looked to irony and the process of painting itself as ways of going beyond the perceived dead-end of modernism. The German Gerhard Richter embraced both approaches — some of his abstract works in the 1960s were made with squeegees rather than brushes, so that he could draw attention to the process of making the painting itself.
Other notable “abstract paintings” by Richter were actually carefully painted photo-realistic depictions of his other abstract paintings. The avant-garde of abstract painting became more conceptual, implicitly making the case that painting was less autonomous than Modernist critics had believed.
“Neo-Geo” artists like the painter Peter Halley and the sculptor Ashley Bickerton mimicked the visual language of geometric abstraction, but meshed it with the proliferating jungle of consumer goods in lurid, sometimes fluorescent, commercial colours.
Since that postmodern generation of painters and sculptors spanning the 1960s to the 1990s, abstraction has blossomed into a myriad of styles and approaches along with figurative art. Abstraction, freed of the burden of modernist expectations, is simply an approach to expression like any other.
Some abstract artists have even used the optical tricks of figurative art — such as perspective and shading — in their paintings. Their aims are singular and usually unconcerned with theory.
This is liberating for the best among abstract painters who can commit a singular vision to the canvas. But the untethering of abstract art from a wider philosophical framework has also led to the murky proliferation of variously fungible abstract works that are “flipped” — quickly bought and sold at a profit — by speculative buyers.
This led the critic Jerry Saltz to write: “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The pejorative “Zombie Formalism” was attached to a number of very high profile abstract painters who used a process aesthetic that has now become hackneyed.
Ironically these artists looked back to formalism of the kind of modernist art that Greenberg championed, but they of course worked in a historic vacuum, long after these ideas were in any way radical or even interesting.
The project of Modernism had not taken art to its terminus, but rather criticism. Criticism — the broad philosophical framework that validates and valorizes artworks for their cultural and historical significance — has lost direction and authority.
Western art’s course since the Enlightenment has been to oscillate between the poles of critical dogmatism and creativity. The problem is that in recent decades, in the absence of any coherent critical project, art has drifted towards pleasing an expanding diversity of niche interests.
Where there were once “movements” and “schools” of art — two words that suggest direction and discipline — there are now “scenes”.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in a world where “anything goes”, there’s no room for the kind of innovation and transgression that gave rise to abstract art in the West, and that made modern art so exciting.
It’s hard to grasp in this historical moment what made Pollock’s Number 32 so polarizing, so discomforting to norms, and so highly prized to people who believed that art has a place in society beyond pleasure.