abstraction, critical writing, large format

on abstraction

February 3, 2023

In its broadest meaning abstract means partialincomplete, or fragmentary, the trait of what is less than it’s including whole. This is different to the Platonic understanding of abstract as in abstract entities (Forms) whose feature is that of being universal or general and timeless. If we accept the former, then the broad meaning of abstraction is more in accord with the word’s Latin construction than the Platonic understanding of the word.

Abstraction’s Latin construction is the conjunction of ab (away) and trahere (to draw). This Latin root means ‘To draw away; take away; withdraw or remove, whether to hold or to get rid of the object withdrawn: as, to abstract one’s attention; to abstract a watch from a person’s pocket, or money from a bank. ‘Abstraction’ as a noun means: the act of taking away or separating; the act of withdrawing, or the state of being withdrawn; withdrawal, as of a part from a whole, or of one thing from another’.

The rock below is incomplete as it is a drawing away from the complex of rocks along the coast between Deps Beach and Kings Beach Lookout in the southern Fleurieu Peninsula near to the coastal township of Victor Harbor:

rock abstraction #2

If abstraction involves “withdrawing,” “separation,” or “removal”,   then 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.” 

So to abstract this rock means to single it out by separating it from the rest of the rock formation in which is situated. The entity we single out is not abstract because it is abstracted. It is abstract because it fails to exhaust the content of the region that it occupies or is merely part of the content of that region. But because this rock is abstract we need the act of abstraction to single it out.

 We then need to 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 it must be thought of in terms of what it is working against. Since it is abstraction from something  any definition of abstraction will necessarily be a binary one for we must address what it is being moved away from. 

The answer the modernist medium of painting in The Field Exhibtion, gave was that in moving toward abstraction, painting must move away from and work against its perceived adversary. This adversary, for them, is figuration,  literature, narrative, discourse, photographic representation.  

rock abstraction #3

Thus Rosalind Krauss, in her “Grids” essay in The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modern Myths ( 1985) formulated her model of the “grid” to divide the visual art and literature, thereby effectively  walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defending them against the intrusion of speech and writing. Hence modernist abstraction and modernist art’s hostility to literature, figurative representation and narrative. Art that is representational too easily suggests narrative and thus panders to literature. 

Ironically despite the hostility of its advocates to the notion of art having literary content, modernism did in fact have its very own literature, a vast body of theoretical writing. A classic example is the American artist Ad Reinhardt who for the last decade of his career made nothing but square, black paintings, commenting that, ‘I’m merely making the last painting which anyone can make.’ Despite the apparent lack of content of his paintings, Reinhardt’s writings, which describe in great detail all the ways in which they do not represent anything, run to hundreds of pages.

We now realise that modernism represented just one approach to abstraction. The etymology of abstraction as the act of taking away or separating; or the act of withdrawal, as of a part from a whole, or of one thing from another’ indicates that there are other kinds of abstraction, such as the spaces between abstraction and figuration; the negative space or interstice between objects; the real abstractions of capital; the relation between two opposed tendencies; and so on. Contrary to empiricism where the particular (rock) is that particular object that is empirical and can be  perceived as such, a particular rock or rocks aren’t two particulars that come into a relation; rather the particular rock is an after-effect of a historical network of relations and any particular rock is open to new modes of relationality and those relations have a virtual presence within the actuality of particularity. 

In summary, we can say that abstract photography historically is a very active and involved field, but no extensive theory, terminology and history apart from Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision has been written, and so the subject remains to be properly explored. This is especially so in Australia with its culture of forgetting. The movement here introduces departure and hence the possibility of the new. This is not in the sense of novelty, but as a form of abstraction that can no longer be understood in terms of the categories and concepts handed down by the historical tradition of art history’s canons premised on the duality of representational and non-representational that is sedimented in the art institution.

It opens up a contemporary space in the present that is beyond the repetition and stasis handed down by tradition; a space where photographic abstraction is not just a general subversion of mimesis own representation, nor simply non-representational. Once this contested space its opened up there is the possibility for renewal in the form of a pluralism of different forms of abstraction than the sameness of the tradition of modernist art history. This movement beyond the mere negation of tradition to a pluralism that is difference is one in which we need to rescue the whole question of formalism from Greenberg’s modernist picture and the role of abstraction and of realism in it by placing it within a more complex story and posing its questions in another way. Its not useful to re-cast this modernist moment in retrospective nostalgia as the glorydays of the great critical vocation we’ve now lost; on the contrary, one needs to adapt photographic abstraction to the new situation today and the problems we now face. 

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  • Reply David Hume February 15, 2023 at 3:28 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article thanks Gary. I struggle with the idea of this photo as abstract, because I see the notion of dividing things into whole or part as rather arbitrary: a whole flower is a very small part of a garden for example, and yet a photo of a flower would not be considered an abstract photo. A garden in turn is only a fragment of a city, and so on. And yet if what we generally agree to be an an abstract painting – an abstract Gerhard Richter, for example, (because with Richter it’s easy to classify his abstracts as such because lots of his work is figurative) that work can be seen to be abstract because of its lack of figuration. So I don’t think we need to introduce a special case of the idea of abstraction just for photography. To my way of thinking it’s easy to make an abstract photo – by exposing light-sensitive materials but without there being a recognisable physical object in the photo – but a photo of a part of a rock is not abstract in that way unless it’s not obvious as a rock. So I think we can use the same definition of abstraction for painting and photography (and sculpture) without any problem; but we just end up with different sets of what photos are abstract and what are not. To me it seems more complicated than it need be to have different meanings for abstraction for photos when you could have the same meaning for photos, paintings and sculptures if you wanted to. It sort of ties it all in and makes it easier to follow, and easier to see what each medium has to offer. Anyway, it’s always fun to read and think about your blog posts – so thanks, and keep ’em coming! Cheers.

    • Reply Gary Sauer-Thompson February 15, 2023 at 4:11 pm

      David, The post was an attempt to start moving beyond the modernist art historical conception of abstraction as an absence of figuration or the depiction of physical objects. Hence the emphasis on the etymology or the root meaning of abstract and abstraction –the latter being “the act or process of separating in thought, of considering a thing independently of its associations.” This perspective allows us to start to see abstraction from a different perspective which opens up the idea of different levels of abstraction.

      I would accept that this conceptual approach to abstraction would apply to both painting and photography.

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