In contemporary U.S. culture, abstract art is difficult for many to grasp because it so completely defeats the imposition of language on art that cultural meaning falls away. If abstract art asserts meaning at all, it does so elliptically, circling around, not toward, the identifiable expression of objects, events, people, experiences, emotions, or ideas that representational art depicts. In a sense, then, abstract art is always subversive, always in conflict with mainstream European cultural and historical imperatives to populate the canvas with recognizable objects, traditionally the symbols and tropes that a particular era and place associates with authority and power, history, capital, or god. This dominant way of making and perceiving persists even though U.S. culture has been from the start, and is continually, inflected with culturally multitudinous ways of expressing and seeing. Even when it deploys forms, colors, and compositions that are culturally resonant, abstract art incites the visitor to relinquish this representational predictability and safety.
In the face of unpredictability, however, I, the viewer, am pushed toward agency. I must see in personal terms rather than in the prefabricated terms of literal depiction. Abstraction is cruel in that way. Either I trust the legitimacy of the intuitions this personal journey may inspire or I doubt the work—or, worse, myself.
The museum can be a testing ground for the subversive tactics of personal agency that abstract art both requires and invites. Untethered to the anchors of representation, I can, and maybe should, release myself from the desire to correspond my experience of the artwork both to the concrete world and to the artist’s intention for the work. In this other(worldly) dimension, I interpret the abstract in the stream-of-consciousness associative way of dreams, attributing representational appearances to my psychological projections. The “real” might materialize, but it is protected from becoming too sensical, too literal, too dominating. It is, instead, bounded by the rules of dreams, which allow the fantastic to manifest without threatening the order of things. In this dreamworld, I can, and maybe must, suspend the laws of physics that define time and space, harnessing new tools and methods—for example, the superhuman powers of flight, of shapeshifting.
The way to see abstract art is to stretch the experience beyond seeing, to perceive the artwork not as the flat modernist ideal of itself, but as a four-dimensional world unchained from the “real” four-dimensional world. To see abstract art is, then, to construct an experience more akin to that of sculptural world of artists such as Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, or Maya Lin than to the flattened world of painting. Further, the way to hear the language of abstract art is to honor its inclinations to unsay as it simultaneously says, rather than to disrespect these inclinations by interrupting, by requiring the artwork to choose one thing that might be said and to say it finally.
Does Daniel Zeller’s Undefined Edge (2003), for example, depict a tattered garment, a landscape of lakes, a lacerated body, or an exploration of form and texture? I see (and hear) all of these, then I see one more than another, then another more than the last. I find myself made small, walking the gray landscape of the graphite drawing, approaching the lines that seem to represent thread—stitches to repair holes in the garment or to suture the lesions on the skin—as I might approach a bridge over a lake. I find myself first tiny, as if borne above this strange countryside by hot-air balloon, and then life-sized, as if entering the frame, wielding the needle to attend the damage. And all of this wandering, the collision of one allusion with another, resolves for a moment in the experience of exquisite attention. I focus on this environment—garment, body, lake—upon which I have come not as if I were seeing it at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, but despite the fact it hangs in the museum’s exhibition of abstract art, Approaching Infinity.
There may be a neurological basis for my behavior, the brain’s capacity to discern a recognizable object even, at times, from the evidence of only a few lines. Since the visual system is designed to perceive objects, particularly faces, relying on only the incomplete information the eye gathers, it would seem pointless to avoid such associations. But it is equally foolish to force any single association to dominate when that association might yield to another and then another, or to actively seek allusions to the “real” when the mind has the capacity to experience form as feeling alone. The beauty of abstraction, then, is not that it invites personal associations free of the strictures within which representational art operates, but that it encourages a flowering of associations to co-exist even as they contradict, conflate, compete, diverge, even as they cancel each other out, leaving only the exuberance of bodily feeling.
Stephen Antonakos’s J #12 Berlin (1980) and Mark Sheinkman’s 2.29.2005 (2005), like Zeller’s Undefined Edge, are both tributes to the depth and variety of mark and effect that can be coaxed from the deceptively one-dimensional graphite. J #12 Berlin, a labor of mark making, covered with a thousand short strokes that combine and diverge, seems to record the path of a school of minnows as they flit through the water, first as one, then divided, then recombined. Or is it a memory of fur on the body of a cat that has accepted the indignity of being rubbed in many directions? Or of rocks in a river? (And even if the six red-pencil disks Antonakos deploys to dot the water–fur–river do not recede, they do not interfere with my shifting associations.) Likewise as I inhabit Sheinkman’s 2.29.2005, an effusion of white lines on gray paper, I am borne on contrails, fleeting around a space with no time to wonder where I am—a galaxy or an atom—or where I am going.
In these abstract works, what might seem to be repeating patterns—one artist in the show, Alexander Gorlizki, defines himself as a “farmer of patterns”—become environments. Even Yayoi Kasuma’s Wave of Sea (2003) reveals itself as more than a pattern of black, blue, and white, more than the recurring flower petals or waves each figure resembles, once the painting invites me in. Floating above such landscapes, I enter and proceed through masses of shape, skip from one place to another, ascend, descend, immerse. My eyes do not stand aside to survey and document these contours (perhaps taking advantage of the magnifying glasses hanging in the gallery to inspect the detail). Instead, my body follows them, infiltrating the landscapes they describe and discovering their patterns repeated within myself.
These experiences of embodiment are more customary to the experience of abstract sculpture, which is less likely to provoke the uneasy search for representational meaning that flat abstract works do. Sculptures such as Serra’s Sequence (2006) and Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2006) might arouse representational urges—a Utah slot canyon for the former; a kidney bean for the latter—but each, enveloping from inside or outside, demands physical exploration more than mental riddle-solving.
I am not saying that is it impossible to enter, embodied, the frame of a representational piece. I am saying that abstract art—by the nature of its artifice—encourages entry, while representational art—by the nature of its artifice—discourages it. Unlike abstracts, representational works specify the content and scale of recognizable worlds, creating a discontinuity between the gallery and the scene—either a garment, a body, or a lake-strewn countryside, but never all three—and almost never close enough to life-size to be mistaken for the world of the gallery itself.
Nor am I saying embodiment is necessary to the abstract art experience. Abstract art bestows gifts in its flattened form, the flatness of the canvas being the enduring legacy of modernism; and many of the works in Approaching Infinity, for example, Susanne Schossig’s Light Blue Field (2007), invite the eye to skitter along their surfaces, to relish pattern, color, texture, composition, and form. What I am saying is this: by recognizing the willingness of abstract art to bear the weight of my experiential inquiry—my embodied experience of it—I can open up my own internal space to the artwork’s internal space. In this process, I subvert not just the boundary between me and the artwork, but also the boundaries between abstraction and representation, between even two-dimensional artwork and three- and four-dimensional sculpture.
A Confusion of Dimensions
It is not always easy to enter an image, to reconceive its flatness as topography, to resist the detail, the craft that might shimmer, even as it is distanced through a magnifying glass. But the dividing line between the visual experience of flat works and the embodied experience of sculptural ones is not a natural one. Neither flat works nor sculpture demands the boundary, even if we interpret the behaviors their media—flat paper or canvas or pixels; bent steel or resin; even water—promote as directives to limit our experience of the works. If flat, non-representational artworks do not invite me into themselves using sculptural means (or, for that matter, the methods of virtual reality), it is not out of reticence. In fact, since there is no obvious portal, no pathway in steel or gateway of stone, there is no wrong way in, no wrong way out.
“No wrong way in, no wrong way out” could be, then, a call to subversive action. But where in this call is either the frank political or social message—another form of representation—of polemical art or the more embodied interventions of social practice? What is the political action that “no wrong way” incites? I struggle to avoid an either/or binary here. There is a place for works of art that state their messages, political or otherwise, unabashedly and frankly, or which seek to move us toward specific political revelations or even actions. But to dismiss abstract art as self-indulgent or insular is to miss a different set of richly political possibilities.
“No wrong way in, no wrong way out” is a call to escape the cultural biases and psychological pressures of a representation-hungry world. It is a call to defy the regime of representation that requires art, both abstract and representational, to represent something, to have a particular message rather than an ever-changing set of associations, feelings, meanings. If, as I suggest, abstract art can foster subversive acts—embodiment, contemplation, and personal interpretation—it would seem to qualify as training in the agency and imagination necessary for modern citizenship.
All the works in this essay are on display at the Crocker Art Museum’s “Approaching Infinity: The Richard Green Collection of Meticulous Abstraction,” through May 5, 2013.
Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and its effect on self and society. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of the Arts. Marks recently won the Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research for his essay, “The Site of Imaginative Contention.”
Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight (New York, Random House, 2012), 233-234. In fact, the brain derives the world that we see as resplendent and three-dimensional from the visually crude data the retina conveys. According to Kandel, “The visual system, however, creates representations in the brain . . . that require far more information than the modest amount the brain receives from the eyes. . . . As these signals move through the brain, they are recoded and, based on Gestalt rules and prior experience, reconstructed and elaborated into the image we perceive.” Kandel goes on, “Luckily for us, although the raw data taken in by the eyes are not sufficient to form the content-rich hypothesis called vision, the brain generates a hypothesis that is remarkably accurate.”
The combination of these two factors—the literalness of the message and the specificity of the scale—may suggest one reason why enormous photographic prints are so popular. The realistic landscape of these images are still discontinuous with the landscape of the museum in which the prints hang, but as the scales of the two locations start to resemble each other, some part of the boundary between the scene of the image and the venue of the gallery starts to dissolve.