Abstraction begins with action, with lines drawn and a cleavage made. It is commonly used as a quantity that can be possessed–we can speak of abstraction in painting, in poetry, in thought, in any number of media–yet fundamentally the term necessitates a move, and one with direction. The OED includes several variations on “abstraction,” but all of them involve “withdrawing,” “separation,” or “removal.” In a specifically philosophical sense, it is defined as “the act or process of separating in thought, of considering a thing independently of its associations.” This sense of striping away the context applies to all instances of abstraction. We should then ask–what is being removed? If we take seriously the word’s etymology, which is to “draw away” or “move away,” then abstraction becomes a more oppositional term. It cannot be pinned down to a universal definition but must be thought of in terms of what it is working against. Therefore, it will not do to simply locate abstraction, to speak of abstraction in something, rather be must also consider its origin, in other words, abstraction from something. Any definition of abstraction will necessarily be a binary one for we must address what is being moved away from. Abstraction in painting and abstraction in thought will obviously be different because they work within different contexts; they are removals from different locations. Abstraction will always take a different shape according to the binary it opposes, however, regardless of media, the move will be away from a particular and toward a universal notion. [see specificity] That element of the particular which is common to all situations will be lifted out and examined in its reified form. Contained in all abstraction is the sense of removal, of paring away, of purification.
Clement Greenberg, art critic and champion of abstract painting, saw art’s natural course to be a purification of medium and the elimination of the influence of other media. [see purity] In his essay “On Abstract Art” (1944), he declares, “Let painting confine itself to the disposition pure and simple of color and line, and not intrigue us by associations with things we can experience more authentically elsewhere” (Greenberg 203). In Greenberg’s hierarchy, abstract art is the pinnacle of the medium because it has succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media. Art that is representational too easily suggests narrative and thus panders to literature. Such mixing of media Greenberg dismisses as “kitsch,” palatable for the masses but not the “pure and simple” form that he would like to see. The art that Greenberg prized was the Abstract Expressionist work being done in New York, especially that of Jackson Pollock. Looking to Pollock’s work for an idea of abstraction, we first try to name what it moves away from. His paintings react against the figurative tradition. There are no recognizable images in his work after 1948, no replication of reality, no constructions from the imagination, but only paint. For Greenberg, Pollock’s work is abstract precisely because it is so involved with its own materiality. Divorcing itself from the figure and implicit narrative, the paintings move away from literature. Pollock’s work can then be seen as abstract in two senses, moving away from representation and moving away from other media, both based on slightly different understandings of abstraction’s binary.
The nature of abstraction changes slightly when it occurs in other media. A purifying impulse still remains, but the opposition is different. In poetry, abstraction refers to thought expressed without a concrete image. Frowned upon as the language of philosophers, abstract thought has been avoided by one line of poets in favor of a language of metaphor and image (Princeton 149). The extreme of this abstraction can be found in Imagist poetry, which sought to divorce itself from sentimentality by focusing on the image. Ezra Pound’s “In Station of the Metro” is a classic example of this: “The apparitions of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.” Unlike abstraction, which moves away from the context of the image to a reified understanding of it, the concrete approach clings to mimesis and insists upon the importance of the particular rather than the general. These are not just faces which Pound represents, they are faces in a crowd and, more specifically, a crowd in the Metro. In contrast to this we find poets like Wallace Stevens, who entitled the opening section of his Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, “It Must Be Abstract.” Stevens neglects the image of the sun in favor of the idea of the sun. It seems odd that of all the abstract notions that occur in poetry, love for example, Stevens begins by abstracting an image. But just as with ideas, Stevens moves from the particular to the universal, searching for one, unifying idea of the sun. He seems motivated less by mere preference for the abstract than a distrust of the concrete. Stevens describes “How clean the sun when seen in its idea,/ Washed in the remotest cleanliness of heaven/ That has expelled us and our images.” In this hierarchy, we stand debased on earth with our equally sublunary images, while heaven lies above, pure and removed from our world of concrete reality. Stevens’ invocation of heaven is an appeal to reason, one which is completely separated from concrete image. By holding the idea of the sun in his mind, Stevens demonstrates the fundamental move of abstraction. He has stripped away its context so that this is not a particular sun, which would require a place, a time, a color, but rather a general notion of the sun. By removing it from its nature as an image, Stevens can fully express the sun in his own medium, language, without relying on others.
The need to purify is evident in many media. Each desires to cast the other out and insist upon its own validity as a pure form of expression. Painting becomes conscious of its nature qua paint and poetry likewise indulges in its linguistic quality. Within cinema there is equal discomfort with the “talkie” as corruption of pure cinema. In moving toward abstraction, the medium must move away from and work against its perceived adversary. Rosalind Krauss formulated her model of the “grid” which divides visual art and literature. She writes, “the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse. As such, the grid has done its job with striking efficiency. The barrier it has lowered between the arts of vision and those of language has been almost totally successful in walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defending them against the intrusion of speech” (Krauss 9). The cause for painting’s abstract thrust became for many purist critics the need to create this wall between the visual and linguistic. The wall that Krauss describes not only establishes an adversarial relationship but a definitional one. Art can only define itself “purely” as that which is free from speech and literature becomes that which is from the representation of image. This implies that any medium must remove itself from other media if it is to define itself. Abstraction then becomes the very act of definition. Like Stevens’ attempt to see the sun “in its idea,” all abstraction attempts to define by moving away from all that is not its subject. Painting must be removed from all that is not painting, that is figural representation and narrative, in order to arrive at an idea of what painting is. If abstraction removes itself from all contexts then other media can be viewed as a form of context that obscures our notion of the medium in and of itself. Here Krauss and Greenberg differ as to the impetus for abstraction. Although Krauss is able to make a clean break between media, Greenberg portrays abstract painting not as a pure art form but one seeking to be dominant. His elaboration of this argument in “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), presents another conflict within abstraction, that is its place in history.
If abstraction seeks to remove itself from all contexts, can it be said to remove itself from history? Stevens’ notion of the sun moves away from a location in space or in time and toward an idea of the sun, one which is universal to all time and all points in history. Abstract painting moves away from narrative, and thereby history, toward an image that is located wholly within itself, free of reference to time or location. How then can critics of abstract art resolve this ahistorical element with their impulse to write the history of abstract art? Greenberg’s “Laocoon” essay narrates several centuries of the history of art and ultimately argues for the dominance of abstract art not because of any conscious decision but because of “the imperative [of] history” (37). It is at the end of a tradition of painting, one that has exhausted the possibilities of nature, or as Greenberg writes in “On Abstract Art,” “There is nothing left in nature for plastic art to explore” (203). The sense of telos seems at odds with the notion of abstraction. The need for a medium to move away from all context is thwarted by the ultimate context of history. By placing abstract painting within a tradition, the works are then necessarily viewed in the context of their predecessors. Geometric abstractions are compared with Mondrian, non-geometric abstractions are placed within a history of color theory. Just as the artist attempts to separate the work from all that surrounds, to approach a self-contained art, the critic must locate the work in history. There is a thin line to walk in trying to argue for abstraction’s independence while explaining its history. This seems to have less to do with the critic’s shortcoming than with the nature of abstraction. As we seek to define abstraction as moving away from its binary, we run into a more complicated conception when we place history as this binary. Figurative representation can be easily stripped away. Influences of other media can, with slightly more difficulty, be removed. But history presents another challenge to abstraction’s autonomy. We can use Krauss’s grid to define many kinds of abstraction, “pure” painting, for instance, being that which is free from all references to that which is not painting, i.e. speech. In thinking about these sorts of oppositions, it is more difficult to arrive at that which is not history. The location within a tradition is a context that is harder to escape. Poetry may remove itself from nature, but it cannot completely remove itself from other poetry. This encapsulation within the medium prevents complete abstraction. The abstract impulse therefore is always moving away from its context but never quite arriving at a final, elusive purity.
Greenberg, Clement. Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. John O’Brian, ed. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1986, v 1.
Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids” in The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modern Myths. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985.
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Entry for “Concrete and Abstract.” Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.