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|Abstraction on the Ropes?
by Donald Kuspit
What will be the role of abstract art -- art "realized exclusively ... by pure pictorial means," to recall Wassily Kandinsky's definition -- in the future? I think the only way we can answer the question is by looking at its history and psychocultural significance.
The emergence of abstract art is supposedly the decisive, innovative event in 20th-century art. As many artists, critics and historians agree, the change from "confrontation with nature" to "abstract creation," demonstrating the artist's "individual attitude" as well as "visual acuity," to use the words of Olga Rozanova's 1911 statement -- one of the earliest advocating nonrepresentational art (it had great influence on Kasimir Malevich) -- inaugurated genuinely modern art. What has happened to abstract art since those revolutionary days?
One can get some idea by comparing the gestural paintings of Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter, the geometrical paintings of Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin, and the sculptural constructions of Naum Gabo and Richard Serra. In every case the movement from the earlier to the later artist involves diminution of complexity, standardization of means, loss of exaltation (Gabo's word) -- even a kind of expressive sterility or coldness -- and, perhaps most crucially, the replacement of spiritual suffering and aspiration by intellectualized boredom.
In his essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett writes, "The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering -- that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom -- with its host of top-hatted and hygienic ministers, Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.... The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations...represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being."
For its pioneers, abstract art was maladaptive and nonconformist -- a perilous zone of transition from the material to the spiritual world, where the mystery of being was revealed through creative suffering. Its epigone have turned it into a peculiarly boring -- if often grandiose -- spectacle, suggesting that it has adapted to the materialistic world it once repudiated. Art that once seemed incomprehensible has become sophisticated design.
Abstract art no doubt gained a certain refinement -- or at least lost a certain enthusiastic awkwardness -- in its postrevolutionary transformation into standard esthetic practice, as though in compensation for its appropriation and conventionalization. But the decadent gain does not entirely offset the loss of avant-garde innocence, aspiration, alienation, conviction.
Does renewal automatically follow after decadence? Only if the idea that motivated the whole enterprise remains intact, like a seed that has been encysted and waits for the right creative soil in which to grow.
Should we mourn for abstraction -- while congratulating ourselves on assimilating it into the world of conventional appearances -- and turn our attention to figuration, of which there is more than enough? Not entirely, for I think abstraction's key idea -- sublimation (Kandinsky's as well as Freud's term) -- remains a basic necessity of art, if it is art rather than entertainment that we want. So much figurative art is a scatalogical attack on sublimation these days, as George Frankl has suggested. One only has to think of Kiki Smith's ironically titled Tale (1992), an anal enactment that gets by on its obscenity rather than esthetic quality.
And that's just the point of abstraction: without sublimation, there's no possibility of quality, more precisely, esthetic experience of quality, which in a sense is the ultimate reality. Quality is the mystery of being -- ontologically fundamental -- and revealed only through that peculiar kind of suffering called sublimation -- the strange suffering implicit in becoming abstract, pure. Without the excruciating suffering involved in the renunciation of the world -- the first ascetic step in abstraction, as Kandinsky said -- there is no possibility of perceiving pure sensuous quality. The renunciation of representation was a painful cleansing of the temple of art, which prepared it for the worship of pure vision.
From its start, pure art was a space apart, where the qualities of the visual world were abstracted, purified, and enjoyed and admired for their own ecstatic sake. To say this another way, every worldly appearance is an oyster with many pearls -- perceptual qualities -- in it. Removed from their worldly shell, the pearls can be appreciated for their own pure sake. The qualities are no longer part of the world's "representation," and the perceiver realizes their precious value and autonomy. Precipitated out of "representative" appearances, qualities shine with their own unique, unadulterated radiance.
Pure art abstracts visual qualities for their own concrete sake, and articulates them in all their presentational immediacy, to use Whitehead's term, reminding us that one of the "sublime" experiences in life is the recognition of the unique qualities that "constitute" things, independently of the things themselves. Such recognition, at its most intense, is a perceptual epiphany of being as such.
Uniqueness is the mystery of being, and totally pure art -- abstract art when it is not used to add "quality" to figurative art -- is about perceiving qualities for their own unique sake. The perceived world is transcended by the process of abstraction, allowing its unique qualities to spontaneously appear. The pure artist -- the pure perceiver -- combines them to achieve unpredictable and unusual "esthetic" quality.
In short, pure abstract art involves the perceptual idealization of the unique qualities of the visual world in a practical society that has no use for them, except as decoration, confection and a touch of glamour or charm. All are grotesque misunderstandings of unique quality, distorting and degrading it into a trivial sensation.
The all but religious belief in quality for its own mysterious pure sake is avowed again and again in abstract art. One can trace the credo of quality in pure painting in particular. From its first exciting, "confessional" discovery in the pioneering European abstractionists -- I sometimes think that their idea of the spirituality of abstract art was a kind of lens they used to protect their eyes from being blinded by the dazzling reality of pure quality they managed to distill from transient appearances -- through the refinement of recognition in such postwar American abstractionists as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, one sees pure quality becoming an article of faith.
The refinement continues -- more and more subtle and contradictory qualities are integrated -- in Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella. Qualitative nuance seems lost or at least compromised in Minimalism -- it is all but boring in the Minimalist abstractions of Carl Andre and Robert Morris -- but makes a strong recovery in the paintings of Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Terry Winters, Joseph Maroni, Brice Marden and the more voluptuous New New Painting.
Serious suffering, however muted or disguised, is again at stake in abstraction, opening a new window on the reality of quality, thus making being less boring. Abstraction becomes Dadaistic -- self-canceling -- in Allan McCollum's so-called surrogate paintings, but what sustains our interest, once we get beyond the ironical point -- which we quickly do -- is the hypnotic quality of their blackness, which makes them ironically sublime.
The most genuinely sublime abstract painting I have seen in a while is Imi Knoebel's Grace Kelly (1990-98). Knoebel distills her desirability into a subtly modulated surface, conveying her inaccessibility. The frame itself, half silvery white, half pure white, conveys Kelly's mystique -- the perfume of her grace. The painting is in effect pure aura -- pure quality. Knoebel in general is one of the major living masters of pure painting.
The future is faced with a choice: the majority position of entertaining shock-schlock art -- perhaps best exemplified by Paul McCarthy and Chris Ofili, masters of shit, whose use in public space is always anti-social, whatever regressive perversity and melodramatic grossness it indicates -- or the minority position of pure art, with its sublime, subtle use of transcendentalized qualities, which are, as Mondrian said, simultaneously utterly real and absolutely abstract, and hard to attune to, and all but meaningless, especially for the very worldly.
One doesn't have to be initiated into shock-schlock art -- certainly not in a shock-schlock world -- the way one has to be initiated into pure art, which no doubt puts a certain damper on its appreciation. I think shock-schlock figurative melodrama will dominate in the 21st century, for its production is the art world's way of competing with popular culture, which will continue to be the "universal" culture. It is a competition the art world cannot win, for the popular culture has many more means at its disposal for achieving shock-schlock effects on a spectacular scale.
Nonetheless, pure abstract art will endure, in part because it keeps alive the idea of quality -- or of the possibility of quality -- in an art world that is all but indifferent to it. Quality may in fact be a dead idea. It is certainly beside the point of all the ideological/advocacy art around. Pure abstract art will also endure because there will always be a human need for a separate, seemingly sacred space -- if only in the metaphorical form of art -- in which one can find sanctuary from the swindle of the world, as Adorno called it, and recover a sense of what it means to be, in all one's uniqueness.
There is a difference between art that is a rebellion against and even destructive attack on the social contract -- which is what shock-schlock art at its most interesting seems to be -- and art that offers an experiential, qualitative alternative to it, in effect sidestepping it. When Christ said "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's," he was reminding us that there is another, more important and profounder world than the world of social power. So does pure art.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.