May 7, 2024

Notes on Abstraction

In advance of a meeting next week with friends to talk about Abstraction, I created a note file* and dumped thoughts as they occurred to me during my day to day.

Then, I arranged them thematically.

A rough classification.

Here they are.

What is Abstraction?
  • First, a look at the dictionary.
  • Facets of the definition of abstract. Synonyms: dissociation, abstruse, insufficiently factual, theoretical, impersonal, intrinsic... Noun: skeletal, essential, concentration, steal, remove, separate...
  • An extract from the summary in the Merriam Webster definition:
    "The idea of "removing" or "pulling away" connects abstract to extract, which stems from Latin through the combination of trahere with the prefix ex-, meaning "out of" or "away from." Extract forms a kind of mirror image of abstract: more common as a verb, but also used as a noun and adjective."

  • The Remove
  • Abstraction as steps removed. The remove.
  • Less is More.
  • Abstraction as refinement, a distillation.
  • A remove requires a cut, many of them. Distinctions.
  • Artifice, the emphasis of one or more aspects at the expense of others. Among the definitions of artifice: "Cleverness or ingenuity in making or doing something; art or skill." This shares the root with art, ars. Fabrication.

  • Duality

  • Abstraction and Representation as two aspects of the apprehension of reality. A toggle-able duality.
  • Abstraction is art un-cuffed from perspective. Culpa the invention of photography.
  • Abstraction and the bird's eye view. There's a story about how the first view from an airplane, a photograph I presume, prompted abstraction. The horizon, indexed to the iris of the eye, swept off the picture plane. No horizon, no vanishing points, no picture plane.
  • Two sides of the same coin. Aristophanes in The Symposium:
    "...the original human nature was not like the present, but different. ...the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast."
  • Abstraction figures an apparently un-figurable world. The common refrain, 'Can't figure it out.' It's about understanding. The human mind can't hold the world with all things and aspects with equal weight, so we create and carry a model of the world in our minds and update it incessantly. The world we see is an abstraction, the best story from a multitude.
  • Don't both abstraction and representation both tell stories? Apperception, seeing faces in the clouds.
  • Is there a link between the mechanics or architecture of visual perception (Arnheim, Gombrich) and Abstraction? Or is the link a disruption between the two? Contrariwise, what of abstraction as a scrambling or an intentional disorientation, like kids spinning until they drop or when people drop acid or eat mushrooms? Or what about an abstraction that doesn't seek to clarify or delineate but to flip the chessboard... or to otherwise to tune in to more subtle, unfamiliar frequencies?
  • Abstraction and Representation, are they cardinal polarities, between which is a spectrum? Like North and South. Like up and down? Or are these merely two aspects of a clutch of a myriad of alternatives , not an intermediately ranked set of interstitial identities?
  • [Postscript. Don't know why I didn't think of this first.]
  • Halfbreed. [I'm Amer(-Mal)Asian], mixed race, mulatto, mongrel.... Abstraction as an inability to anchor to an ordinate. A purgatory of interpolation. Neither here nor there. Ambiguity. Of two minds. Unrequited longing. "Home at Last" Odysseus' Odyssey. When you leave home, home changes without you. When you don't change with it, you can never go back. Emilio Ambasz quoted Luis Barragan as saying that he didn't want to return to his home where water was channeled overhead the city and piped to homes with water falling into courtyard pools, a signature image in his architecture, because he didn't want to disrupt the image of what he saw as a child. On the other hand, however... pining away itself could be one of two poles: its' other could be freedom. Untethered. Abstraction as a refusal to settle on a distinction. Of two minds. And then, the strength of the tension between. The sign of a sovereign and persistent intelligence. High strung. Crossbred. The compound bow. Reinforced concrete.

  • Mathematical logic, an abstraction of thought): there are givens, methods of operation, assumptions a priori... Counting apples is an abstraction. If Abstraction figures an apparently un-figurable world, then is abstraction a subtle form of representation?
  • Mathematics captures the nature of the world outside of appearances. Galileo. Newton. In the time of Pythagorus, mathematics was treated geometrically, not algebraically as it is taught today. If abstraction is akin to mathematical dynamics (a parallel world to the physical, based on axioms and architected into a rival of sensed experience), not merely dependent upon the framework of visual perception (I'm thinking of you, Arnhiem), then it is strikingly different from the commonly held idea of a framework simply unstrung (thinking of how Kandinsky is usually presented). Is this a paradox?
  • Can abstraction propose as mathematics does? An abstract proposition in visual art?
  • Abstraction and pattern. The organizations found in nature, patterns of polarity, chirality, resonance, tripartite organizations... hidden patterns (cryptography), the various scientific laws, such as the laws of thermodynamics. Is there a rival?
  • Postscript (04/13/24): check this out Abstraction [in Mathematics] is "The process by which we remove irrelevant details to expose an underlying structure" This requires 1) the mapping of identities and 2) the use of operating functions to process the various relationships of these identities into meaningful indications.

  • Mental Categories
  • Abstraction and emotion. Thoughts and feelings. Feelings present themselves not unlike an intuition or an inspiration via the muse or the moment of "aha"... they arise from within and not delivered from without.
  • Notions and ideas and concepts and theories... a chain.
  • Art and Life. Intentional or coincidental. Different because life in Art is Just-So, perfectly arranged, and life in Life, messy, it is what it is (cue Sinatra's 'That's Life")
  • Art and labor. Ars (Latin) the root of Art, means fabrication in two senses: as a skilled craft and as subterfuge. Conceptualism as non physical labor. Thinking, conceptualization requires time, untethered to the expenditure of joules (of scales larger than glucose). In physics, work is force times displacement. There's a link between conceptualization and abstraction, a link forged.

  • Modernity
  • Consider the proposition that to be modern is to reconcile the life you're living with the things you're making. What then, could be modern today -in this sense- in Abstraction? What is there that begs to be reconciled in the life we are living today, in the abstractions that we are making? Science? (The flavor and color variations in the Standard Model.) Geopolitical Politics? ( Hegemony versus the Multipolar World.) Information Age? (Narcissism & the countless silos of the kaleidoscopic multitude. A mirrored circus labyrinth. The one and the many.) What other modalities are there in this life we are living aside from these? What about the world we are about to live? AI. Artificial gestation. Quasi-immortality. The externalization of the human mind into prosthetic machines. [The best science fiction for me are not the linear extrapolations of the future, but the representations of technology that seem astonishing and quasi-magical, so I strain to push this list further.]
  • The story of Abstraction is tied up with the story of Modernity. Many in today's art world don't like the vertical axis (patriarchal, godly, rigidly ordered, hegemonic), and when we consider the rigidity of the previous epoch (characterized as a paternalistic Classical order), resistance to that ordinate makes sense. But being equally rigid or proscriptive against any hierarchical structure seems too much like PTSD. Someday, the patient just has to heal, get over it. Yet still, the technological acceleration at the end of the 19th Century whispers a siren promise of a future under its breath. A sudden change happened, it says. It says that we're in a civilizational explosion towards an eventual entropic heat death of the universe. Angeles Novus. Such was the energy locked up in the mass called tradition, classicism and the older order. M=E/c2, Mass equals energy divided by (restrained by) the square of light (causality). Now, we are all like packets of photons, masslessly blazing radially outwards towards the infinite boundary bubble of the universe. Alone.
  • Human and Anti-human narrative (that conceptual art and all that led to it by degrees is less-than-human): that representation is of the body and since we haven't bridged mind and body yet in Western Civ, the products of the mind that disregard the physical, endanger it.
  • Modernity and Thanatos, an inherent death drive. The urge towards dissolution. Exit from this vale/vale of tears. Erasing DeKooning was more than about simply killing the father.
  • Is (Isn't) abstraction coextensive with conceptualism? Permutations of the removal (abstraction) in a reductive ordinate? (Abbreviated line of transformation: Duchamp>Pop>Minimalism>Conceptualism.) < This is a story. It is simultaneously true and untrue.
  • What is abstraction outside of mere permutation-unto-reduction? Is this possible? Or is this to see a figure in the chain of human events, a fantasy, a mirage, a self deception? Is it a proliferation of variations in short bursts and within larger cycles of time, an ever clarifying logic in formation? A story? A (whopping) tale? And within that story of permutation-unto-reduction, could it risk being like a tv streaming series that expends itself a season too early. After the crescendo, it's all tap dancing and self gratification.
  • We tend to think that Abstraction is recent, that it arrived at the dawn of Modernity, but in fact, it's ancient and civilizationally distributed. Within the mindset of the West and its Enlightenment, it's as fresh as a newborn baby. In fact, in the beginning of the story of Modern Art, information from extra-Western art was used in the most direct and unapologetic (exploitive) way to fragment and reconfigure art in the service of "new" way. The special status of "New" regarding Abstraction is really a subtle form of self flattery. Some could say, Imperialism. Islamic art. Cave paintings weren't always restricted to figuration.

  • ***

    After listening to Lisa Blas give her talk about affinities and specifications in painting, she provides us with a rich vein to think about abstraction with. Adding another, probably more vital classification, using the framework presented by Blas:


  • A perception of the world beyond the five senses.
  • Approaching or confronting infinity.
  • Nature beyond nature.
  • The architecture of the a priori.
  • Esotericism: the synthesis of all religions.
  • Divination.
  • Feminine Abstraction: embodied intuition.
  • *

    *Another postscript: Thoughts on the fly. Usually, I flip out my phone while I'm commuting in the subway, the D train to Brooklyn, and catch the butterfly of a thought. This happens so often that it seems that if I want to brainstorm, I should just get to the subway station and let it rip.

    Posted by Dennis at May 7, 2024 12:40 PM

    Leave a comment