Abstraction as Child of History

Any working definition of abstraction that I am likely to come up with will be a description of my own paintings—that can hardly be avoided. Recent intense looking at Frank Stella has provoked some ideas, but his work is not definitive, just very good. It’s clear that the old masters thought hard about technique, took pains with all aspects of their art, and that their involvement in the possibilities of painting was pretty certainly greater than that of their collectors and aficionados. However, I doubt that they saw in their own work the kind of abstract patterns and linkages between forms that we can see there. Their attention was on the individual figures and on grouping them in legible and meaningful ways. Later viewers saw other expressive possibilities emerge, which certainly weren’t foreseen or even predictable. Like it or not, not everything in a picture can be reduced to the artist’s intention. “Abstraction” is an emergent property, something that painting itself makes possible, and that exists once we recognize it—and recognition depends on our predilection for emergent properties, which means that we see art in general, and individual works, as a world vaster than ourselves. We discover, and discovery can only occur in nature. We can’t discover what we make, because those things are known to us already, so art must be a kind of nature to us, full of things we didn’t ourselves make. In our times the expectation of discovery has a become an active principle of art. I like it that way myself. The method of my own work is emergence entirely. Stella, like many other artists, builds an environment around himself in which something can happen, and that’s the best way to understand his use of pre-made forms and above all his technique of collage, which uses all the cast-offs and wastage from his painting. I also have the impression when I work that I am moving through a world much larger than myself, and find I don’t need a lot of equipment or a lot of material to have that. In Stella’s case the crux is how he re-uses the same forms in the same piece, and I intend to analyze an example, but just to start, notice how the smoke rings, which here look like mushrooms, send out tendrils that wrap and tie parts together. This is a stringy, fibrous, tentacular piece—and that’s an emergent quality, particular to this work. The same shapes in other works have a different function and a different feel.

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail left side)

Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O_ 1998 (detail left side)

There’s a million ways to work, but the results have to be unknown and unknowable to make truly abstract art.

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