The Literary Forms of Abstraction

Which is more fundamental, visual experience or the forms of abstraction? As discussed in the previous post, form does not necessarily mean shapes in a picture, rather I’m talking about the form of the tableau, the form of the open work, the form of the series etc., structures that precede the work and are often—in fact usually—taken for granted. I want to propose that all such forms are the literature of art, the story that it tells beneath or before any specific story, because they are narrative forms. They are definitely not material, though any single example has to be.

Is the basis of abstract art perception or literature? The situation was rendered much less clear by Greenberg’s claim that the opposite of modernism was the “literary.” Modernist critics would probably not accept either of my alternatives; they liked neither Op nor storytelling. Neither perception nor literature—what could that be? A knowledge without any precedent, self created, at once material and immaterial. A difficult but attractive thought.

You see a person standing in front of you and automatically accept that they are a discrete form against the background of their environment. But through a microscope you might find that the discrete entities are the bacteria and the larger form of the person is an effect of their activity, an illusion. Or a Martian might see the same person driving their car and assume that they are observing a being composed of both flesh and metal. All the lines that we care to draw are arbitrary and all forms are matters of perspective. Abstract art has to acknowledge the utter arbitrariness at its origin—the data of sensation will not provide the missing reality.

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