Abstraction beyond formal constructions: concepts and intentions of New Abstraction

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

(Translated from Norwegian by Shari Nilsen)

“It is customary to apologize for the word ‘abstract’…”[1]

This comes from the introduction to the catalogue of one of the first major exhibitions of abstract art, Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1936.

“… but words to describe art movements or works of art are often inexact.” [2]

As Albert H. Barr pointed out in this exhibition catalogue, the concept of “abstract” is an ambivalent expression as it can be used as both a verb and an adjective. Ultimately, any type of visual representation could be termed an “abstraction” in the sense that even in a figurative painting, a pictorial rendering of a motif on a canvas implies an abstraction from reality.[3] Apart from an all-inclusive adjectivisation of the expression such as an abstractive act, the concept is still applied to visually abstract art in the non-figurative and non-representational sense, a familiar development in Western art history for the past 100 years, which we relate to as, precisely, abstraction or abstract art. The presence of abstraction in contemporary art in recent years has been a noticeable trend with increasing prevalence and, not least, a high market share. In the encounter with what has been described as neo-modernism, the question arises as to how abstraction is viewed and discussed today, when the vocabulary of modernism’s abstract art no longer seems relevant. Seen in the context of a century’s history of abstract art, a feeling of recognition of the final visual result can overshadow both the intentions and the content of abstraction in contemporary art – art that is, of necessity, created with other intentions than historically abstract art, and where what may often appear to be an anachronistic aesthetic is imbued with new meaning or informed by contemporary conditions. Within the scope of what could superficially be perceived as formal abstraction today, a multitude of different intentions and approaches can be found after more thorough examination that, to a certain extent, evade a categorisation that links the various expressions together in any other way than under the all-too-narrow descriptive designation of abstraction – despite the frequently observed impression that abstraction is ubiquitous.

Within the various abstract expressions in contemporary art, however, one can nevertheless observe some overriding trends and categories.[4] The new interest in things and objects has been widely noted within contemporary art, in relation to both ontology and the art market. A clear trend within today’s contemporary abstraction is, undoubtedly, a shift towards the material and formal, which has been interpreted as a reaction against the principles of idea-based art and a contemporary sensibility. But in addition to what has been described as “neo-formalism”,[5] with its renewed focus on materiality and process, it can also be emphasised that much of the newer abstraction seems to be based on various intentions and conceptual approaches that range beyond the formal gestures. This is expressed in works that also use, refer to or appropriate formal motifs from the historical vocabulary of abstraction, but appears to originate in intentions and meanings that are based on conceptual frameworks rather than in primarily the formal or material problems at hand. A largely conceptual point of departure does not imply that the formal and material manifestations of the work are insignificant.[6] However, in works where articulated conceptual intentions seem to be the decisive initial premise for the creation of the work, the formal and material appear to take shape as a direct consequence of the conceptual point of departure rather than as the result of a formal exploration of the material itself or the medium that has been utilised.

An abstract art that is filled with referential content conflicts with the ideals of early modernism identifying abstract art as an art that is ostensibly “pure form without content”.[7] It is precisely in their idea-based intentions and meanings that some aspects of contemporary abstraction are separated from the non-representational “contentlessness” and fundamentally anti-narrative attitude that are prevalent in modernistic abstraction.

Apart from art that works consistently with abstraction using the materiality and new formal possibilities inherent in media such as paintings, sculptures, drawing or textiles, it can be pointed out that today abstraction is also used as merely one of several components in post-disciplinary artistic practices in which abstraction is not necessarily a goal in and of itself, but one of a variety of styles that can be used to explore overarching conceptual artistic issues. Such practices thus reject both modernism’s anti-narrative approach and its demand for medium-specificity, as described by Clement Greenberg,[8] precisely by highlighting interdisciplinarity, narrative content and a conceptual point of departure.

From the specificity of modernism to a contemporary interdisciplinarity

Many artists view abstraction as only one of a variety of different idioms that can be used. Thus the significance acquired by contemporary abstraction is the reverse of that of modernism’s abstract art, which did not support the interdisciplinarity that is embraced by today’s post-disciplinary practices, where abstraction is only one of several components. At the same time, abstraction is undoubtedly experienced as post-medium, liberated from historical restrictions and conventions governing the media, and operates more in the transcategorical sphere of contemporary art, as described by Peter Osborne.[9]

For this reason it is interesting to observe how abstraction is incorporated into the work of artists who transcend the idea of a consistently “abstract artist”. An example of this is the presence of abstract paintings in the work of Ivan Galuzin, vis à vis non-uniform idioms such as figurative paintings, videos, ready-made sculptures and installations – and, not least, how the abstract paintings do not in any respect conform with a neo-modernist abstraction programme but are, rather, subject to the artist’s conceptual starting point. As a result, Galuzin’s abstract paintings constitute one of many material manifestations of the artist’s interest in the chemical and physical problems of the natural sciences and the physical processes and deterioration of the body. This can just as easily be demonstrated through an analytical installation where the elements of the human body are displayed as 60 individual chemical components lined up on a shelf, as though produced by experimentation in painted form which has resulted in chemically-induced abstract paintings. Galuzin’s “monochromes”, Sick Skin, Anthracite Skin and Hubba Bubba Skin (2014), combine an interest in organic decomposition processes with painterly chemical experimentation in works that employ a destructive process to break away from the monochrome surface, and peel off of the canvas like a painterly equivalent of deteriorating skin and bodies. The artist cast a layer of two-component paint on the canvas, which for a long period emitted a nearly unbearable chemical stench. The material treatment of the works is also the consequence of the artist’s overarching sphere of interest. The works were first shown as a part of Galuzin’s solo exhibition “Idiosyncrasy Means Allergy” at Unge Kunstneres Samfund (the Young Artists’ Society) in 2014. Even when exhibited outside of their initial conceptual context and their other manifestations, as part of the exhibition NN-A NN-A NN-A, these “paintings” express their underlying premise in the way that they appear almost as corporeal subjects that take over their own lives in a self-destructive decomposition process that is beyond the artist’s control. References to the history of painting and modernist paintings such as Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1921 monochromes are naturally clear associations when encountering these three works, but they break brutally away from essential modernist categories such as “purity” and “autonomy”, and react against these with “impurity”[10] in the form of subversion of what were once the restrictive categories for abstract painting.

Marte Johnslien has also emerged as an artist whose use of abstraction serves as a means of exploring the artist’s overarching conceptual sphere of interest. The general theme that Johnslien examines in her work is the spiritual dimension in art and the relationship between spirituality, abstraction and social action. These issues are investigated through a variety of media such as paintings, sculptures, installations, photos and videos, and are rendered visual as monochrome painterly reliefs such as Relevo (2013), the video If you search for the object all you’ll find is the name (2013), spatial installations of abstract sculptural forms such as in the works Forente Nyanser (2011) and The Paris Abstractions (2015), or in combinations of geometrical forms with photography as exemplified in the work Former av protest (2014). In projects such as the last-mentioned, Johnslien examines the links between abstract art, spirituality, and social and political action, and emphasises how the subjects of peace, universalism and meditation are connected with both art and politics. In works such as Forente Nyanser and The Paris Abstractions, Johnslien addresses how organisations such as the UN and UNESCO, which work with political and social strategies, create opportunities for reflection and meditation as visualised through abstract art. Johnslien shows that an interest in what we perceive as introspective practices such as meditation can also be viewed as an essential prerequisite for action and change in society. She thus proposes that the constantly increasing interest in both meditation and mindfulness in society and abstraction in art must be viewed not only as a way of withdrawing from the world, but also as a fundamental precondition for fostering further critical and social engagement.  As an artist using abstract idioms as a component of a multidisciplinary practice, and imbuing it with discursive content, Johnslien emerges as an artist who exemplifies a complex interdisciplinary use of abstraction that is filled with active, narrative and meaningful content.

Conceptual intentions: abstraction beyond formal and material issues

While a renewed interest in formalism and materialism in contemporary art is often interpreted as a reaction to the predominance and premise of idea-based art, a great deal of contemporary abstraction seems to be informed as much by the principles of conceptual post-studio practices as by the abstraction of modernism. In addition to their presence in neo-formalistic practices, conceptual approaches to abstraction also appear where there are idea-based intentions that are decisive for the creation of the works and the consequences of their material manifestation. Powerful conceptual intentions and narrative or discursive content can be found in what might be described as formally reductive and non-narrative objects. As has been mentioned, it thus seems to be a noteworthy feature of many of today’s abstract artworks that despite their visual similarity to the formal vocabulary of modernism, the qualities they demonstrate are nearly the reverse of those displayed by modernism’s fundamentally anti-narrative and reductive content. The fact that the final results appear as aestheticised, object-based abstract works that bear witness to the content to varying degrees appears, on the other hand, to be informed by a number of different approaches.

An interest in architecture and literature runs like a conceptual thread through Olve Sande’s art, and functions as a fundamental premise for his works, which are often inspired by the interaction between a predefined concept, specific production situations, and certain materials. He places the encounter between the architectural and literary spheres in the theatre, which forms the point of departure for his involvement with scenography as a basis for art. His interest in architecture is reflected in his use of standardised construction elements as artistic materials, materials in which he finds the potential not only for the construction of spaces, but also for marking potentially spatial situations and the narratives that can play out there, like markings on a stage. Sande’s art is not tied irrevocably to production in a studio; often the works are both conceptualised and realised with strongly site-specific connections to the exhibition venue. Sande sets a number of limitations as part of his conceptual framework, for instance using only construction materials such as plasterboard, putty, absorbent felt and floor panels left over from the renovation of a room in a gallery, or by letting the format of the work be dictated by measuring spatial elements in his own everyday life or that of others. A work such as “Correspondence” (2014) may at first glance appear to be a drip painting in the style of abstract expressionism, but on closer scrutiny proves to be a ready-made, a piece of absorbent felt stretched on a canvas frame. The format of the work is dictated by a space in Sande’s own everyday life, as an extension of his interest in the narrative potential of spatial situations. Sande’s minimalist monochromes also consist of plasterboard hung on a wall, and abstract striped paintings are created out of parquet boards and putty. Works such as these initially hold references to the historical motifs of abstract art, but emerge as a symbiosis of a conceptual point of departure and a manifested object, thus exemplifying a contemporary approach to abstraction in which the material form is the result of an overarching conceptual sphere of interest. The fact that what is generally considered abstract art today does not arise as a compulsory negation of reality can be clearly seen in the way in which many artists, including Sande, operate actively on the borderline between abstraction and representation. Apart from their initial association with modernist painting, Fredrik Værslev’s “terrazzo” and “”canopy paintings” also seem to have an unstable relationship with the elements of reality (terrazzo flooring as abstract expressionism à la Pollock, or canopies as colour field and striped paintings à la Newman or Buren). Because these paintings are, in addition, exposed to the imprint of the genuine elements (such as earth, weather, wind or other people and animals) or other random effects and aberrations, former ideals concerning the artist’s personal signature for formal gestures become problematic. Introducing both “reality” and “impurity” into what are presented as neo-modernist paintings means that they, too, depart from the ideals of the modernist models that formed the first impression generated by the works.

Petter Buhagen also uses conceptual frameworks as the point of departure for his exploration of abstraction as a filtering tool for dealing with the overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to in today’s digital and media-saturated world. Buhagen’s abstract pictures are based on observations and investigations of various aspects of this contemporary condition, and on the explicit intention to use abstraction to distil the enormous volume of information and images that we are confronted with in our everyday digital lives. Often it is only through signals such as titles, form and format that the works indicate their underlying conceptual framework. The starting point for Buhagen’s work may be an abstractive destruction of digital images that are saturated with meaning, such as in the series Collapse 1-5 (2015), where the original motifs of the photographs are dissolved and reconfigured through an irreversible encryption process that the artist carries out manually through the deliberately incorrect use of a copy machine’s reproductive potential. In other works he takes his point of departure in channels for digital information such as social media. These are abstracted down to pure form and colour in works such as Moments (2014) or Loop (2014), where what appear to be thoroughly abstract paintings with expressionist features have, in fact, had their form, colour, materials and brushwork dictated by the basic elements of digital information channels: the colour palette from the logos of various social media; the format from the familiar iPhone proportions; materials that represent the method of rendering immaterial information and digital images material – in other words, printer toner; and brushstrokes spread out on the paper with spontaneous hand movements evoking the concept of how digital fingerprints, too, are stored for the unforeseeable future regardless of how planned or spontaneous they were. In Buhagen’s work, too, the conceptual point of departure in a world of digital images thus has direct consequences in the material manifestation of the works.

Titles and intentionality

In the encounter with a work where an inherent conceptual content or starting point has attained a material and object-based result as visual abstract art, the underlying meaning is accessible to varying degrees in the completed work. Although the process is often described as conceptual, with intentions that are primarily idea-based rather than material, the aestheticised visual form of these works departs from the “de-aestheticising” ambition of conceptual art and its focus on language.[11] In works where the conceptual is articulated through a visual, abstract result, it is the clarification of the relationship between the underlying conceptual intention and the final visual result that is at stake. Conceptual aids and a linguistic explanation are often necessary if the meaning of the content is to be grasped. Bob Nickas proposes that every “reading” of an abstract painting must therefore include its title.[12] It seems to be necessary to provide signals and clues in titles in order to break through the reductive surface. This contravenes a tendency of minimalism to resist using titles, and precisely in order to differentiate it from a primarily formal focus a new dimension is added with the title, generating an opportunity to elicit a meaning beyond the formal.

The artist Olve Sande points out himself that the possibility of breaking through the layers of the abstract surface includes a reading of the title, as in the work Stiller on Amerika (2013), in which the title makes it possible to read Sande’s use of a painted stage floor from a production of Kafka’s Amerika as a surface on which to paint a new floor from Frisch’s play Stiller.[13] Another example is the sculpture titled Steps (2013), which enables the viewer to recognize the original step function in the ostensibly minimalist sculpture and, with an awareness of Sande’s artistic project, to perhaps connect this with his interest in architecture and theatrical scenography. In the work Plasterboard Flats (2015), the title is associated with the use of plasterboard as a point of departure – a recurrent theme in Sande’s artistic production. The combination with the word “flats” brings to mind “apartments”, and in this context also the potential of plasterboard as a fundamental element in building flats and constructing rooms. Flats can also allude to how the artist has rendered his work flatter through the use of photographs and abstraction, while at the same time the concept is also used in the theatre, referring to the standardised stage elements that are used to build spatial structures on a theatre stage – which is precisely the technical approach Sande has used to create these works. Several components of Sande’s work (plasterboard as a raw material for the construction of rooms, theatres as meeting places for architecture and literature) are thus manifested through the title of the work.

Magnhild Øen Nordahl also seeks to share the point of departure she uses with the viewer by imbuing her artworks with a visual form. Nordahl’s interest in systematising practical and theoretical knowledge, combined with the presentation of formal problems, is apparent in works such as the Riegelbau series, in which she explores the architectural technique of half-timbering and rephrases these structures into neo-minimalist reliefs. In Occupational Knots practical knotting systems are converted into sculptural forms, and in the work Seksagesimal she visualises the sexagesimal numeral system as a geometrical-abstract hybrid of painting and sculpture. The titles provide insight into both the artist’s point of departure in various structures and systems, and her interest in transforming knowledge and theory into an artistic form that can be sensed and experienced. The origins of the shapes in Marie Buskov’s sculptures are also suggested by titles such as Wall, Folded or Window, Woven – titles that open the door to an acknowledgement that the shapes of the sculptures are based on architectural structures such as the window or the wall, and that function as an entryway to the artist’s underlying process of exploring her environment through the camera and the subsequent construction of new forms. The titles of Ivan Galuzin’s Skin paintings also convey something about the artist’s involvement with chemical decomposition processes and physical deterioration, and introduce the concept of the painting’s flaking as the equivalent of dead skin, intensifying the perception of the paintings as nearly corporeal subjects. The titles in such works function as a frame for the viewer, a glimpse into the artist’s intentions, although no conclusive explanation is imposed which would interfere with the viewers’ subjective experiences or interpretations of the works beyond the artist’s intentionality. In works where abstraction appears to be the result of initial conceptual frameworks, language thus evolves into a factor in the ability of the work to expand towards a meaning beyond that of the formal surface. The works emerge as a symbiosis of conceptual starting point and aestheticised, materialised object, where the conceptual content is not necessarily directly accessible in the final work.

The non-referential, the pure, the medium-specific and the anti-narrative seem to be bygone categories from the abstraction of the past. What can at some level be called abstraction today displays, on the other hand, the reverse: varying degrees of referentiality, interdisciplinarity, conceptual intentions and narrative meaning that extend beyond abstract, formal surfaces, where abstraction is used as a component in contemporary practices that are characterised by both the formal and the material, as well as by conceptual intentions.

[1] Albert H. Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The inadequacy of maintaining an antithesis between “representation” and “abstraction” has, accordingly, been pointed out by several people. See, for example, Briony Fer, On abstract art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 162.

[4] An international exhibition project, Maria Lind’s Abstract Possible, investigated newer abstraction under the three banners of formal, economic and social/withdrawal strategies. See http://abstractpossible.org. Texts addressing abstraction in the same three categories are collected in a book from the series Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art, Abstraction. See Lind (ed.), Abstraction (London: MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, 2013).

[5] David Geers: “Neo-Modern” in October 139 (Winter, 2012), pp. 9-14.

[6] It must be noted here that there will always be a visual and material dimension in every materialistic work.

[7] Meyer Schapiro: “Nature of Abstract Art”, in Lind (ed.), Abstraction (London: MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, 2013), p. 35.

[8] Clement Greenberg: “Modernistisk maleri” (1960), in Greenberg: Den modernistiske kunsten, trans. Agnete Øye (Oslo: Pax, 2004), pp. 141-159.

[9] Peter Osborne: Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London, New York: Verso, 2013), p. 28.

[10] The transition from “purity” and “autonomy” to “impurity” and “anti-autonomy” is the main theme of Mark Cheetham’s discussion of abstraction after modernism, as described in Mark Cheetham: Abstract art against autonomy: infection, resistance, and cure since the 60s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[11] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh describes conceptual art as: “The most rigorous elimination of visuality and traditional definitions of representation”. Buchloh: “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: from aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions”, in Alberro and Stimson (eds.), Conceptual art: a critical anthology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p. 515.

[12] Bob Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2009), p. 5.

[13] “Olve Sande – Laminate Works. Interview with Irene Grillo at Herrmann Germann Contemporary, Zurich”: http://www.herrmanngermann.com/cms/files/media/HGC_OS_Interview_130511short.pdf. Accessed on 17 November 2014.

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