30 October, 2016


It never is literally true that any form [in a painting] is meaningless and “says nothing.”
 Every form in the world says something. But its message often fails to reach us,
 and even if it does, full understanding is often withheld from us. 
Wassily Kandinsky

By Gijsbert Witkamp*
First published: 30 October 2016

Roman Jakobson, the famous linguist, asked in 1964: “Why does nonobjective, nonrepresentational, abstract painting or sculpture still meet with violent attacks, contempts, jeers, blame, bewilderment, sometimes even prohibition, whereas calls for imitations of external reality are rare exceptions in the perennial history of music?” (In Phonetica, 1964: 216). This is, according to Jakobson (ibid., p. 218) because such art in a meaningful sense cannot be resolved in “ultimate, discrete units, strictly patterned components...” and does not consistently “exhibit a hierarchical [grammatical] structure.” “It is the lack of these two properties that disturbs us when watching and inhibits our perceptive and mnestic abilities.” In other words these works appear meaningless, do not appeal to perceptive exploration by and memory engagement of the viewer.

Jakobson, an American immigrant born Russian in 1896, is one of the founders of structural linguistics. He demonstrated that the sounds of any language can be reduced to a small number of discrete phonetic elements, called distinctive features; each sound (phoneme) being composed of one or more of such features. Sounds combine into meaningful units (words and components of words) and words combine into sentences according to syntactical rules. Language hence is systematic and structured; and this structure exists irrespective of the expressions we create with it; it exists independent of the individual speaker. Language, furthermore, can only be effective as a means of communication if there is a community of speakers of that language, and such a community must not only share the language but also understand the context in which verbal statements are created or to which they apply. You can tell a four year old English speaking infant that all matter can be reduced to a small number of elements of which the atom is the smallest quantity but this profound truth shall not alter the understanding of the material world of the child as it has no way of comprehending that what it has heard. This, in a nutshell, is how the dominant human instrument of communication and thought works.
Photo 1. Willem de Kooning in his studio, one of his abstract works in the background.
I assume that Jacobson refers to that variety of abstract art labeled abstract expressionism and related work lacking figuration, e.g., paintings by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Yves Klein (1928-1962), Franz Kline (1910-1962) or Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). We may safely assume that the same disapproving response prevailed at the time as regards abstract expressionist art having primitive, rudimentary figuration; e.g., work by Willem de Kooning and members of the Cobra group. This art was the abstract art en vogue at the time Jacobson’s writing, made by mature artists of his and the next generation. The common denominator of these various abstract arts is that the works embody sensation as experienced by the artist; that such sensation is the subject matter of the art work and the art object its visible manifestation and concrete embodiment.
In the absence of a shared interpretive code between the provider of information and its recipient there is no way of predicting the response by the viewer to the visual stimuli provided by artist; and clearly in the case of abstract or “non-objective” art there is no shared code by means of which the work of art could be interpreted. The main abstract painters, however, in various ways tried to engage the viewer in “contemplative perception,” the opening up of the mind to the imagery presented to their eyes. The post WW II abstract artists tended to create very large paintings that, so to speak, could engulf the viewer with the aim of bringing about profound perceptual sensation and deep emotion. Many abstract artists, though, were/are not interested in (the lack of) communication between themselves as information providers and viewers as receivers; and certainly not if the viewers are the public at large rather than an artistic in-crowd. They prioritize their own sensations as “in the act of creation” without asking themselves how a viewer would arrive at sensations similar to that of the painter. For those the notion of communication in and by art is irrelevant; it is replaced by the notion of sensation and self-exploration as an end in itself.

We thus arrive at one of the extremes in modern art: an individualized art yet presented publicly by established art channels; an art, moreover, that took centre stage in the Western modern art world during the fifties and sixties; an art embraced as “progressive” at the time by an artistic élite of art directors, gallery owners, museum curators, art writers and collectors yet indeed bewildering or simply unappealing for those not in the limelight of artistic progress. Such folks, looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Karel Appel indeed could and did exclaim, “to make such a painting you do not have to be an artist.”

Photo 2. Jackson Pollock. Number one. 1949, enamel and metal paints on canvas, 259 x 160 cm.
These images, to them, did not demonstrate any skill appropriate to art; on the contrary some artists caused an outrage by the very techniques they employed to create their large canvases. Pollock is best known for his paint dripping and splashing techniques; Yves Klein for painting his nude mostly female models blue who would press their painted bodies against the canvas producing some sort of monochrome mono print.

Photo 3. Yves Klein at work and some of his productions.
De Kooning, Karel Appel and other members of the Cobra Group sought a manner of rudimentary figuration (“gestural abstraction”), not unlike that of a four year old equipped with big brushes and cans of paint. Most work was rejected because it, from the uninitiated viewer’s point of view, literally did not make any sense. Lacking a sign function in any conventional or natural manner, the paintings were not experienced as meaningful images (as in Pollock, Kline, Barnett or Rothko). Indeed, if one is oblivious of the exclusive fine art context in which these artists operated, a Pollock drip painting easily could be taken for a bill board advertising the very paints he used to drip with, Newman’s huge geometrical monochrome planes a suitable mural background in a post-modernistic pizzeria, Appel’s rudimentary figurations a blown up demonstration of creative activity in a progressive infant nursery and De Kooning’s female series an example of psychiatric therapy by art.

Photo 4. Willem de Kooning. Woman and bicycle (detail). 1953, Oil paint.
(I know very well that it is cheap to joke about abstract art – no matter how expensive that art might be. It just illustrates how far removed such art is from the art world of the uninitiated viewer).

Ironically the major abstract expressionist painters, the pioneers and originators, developed specific techniques serving the visual effects they were after – they knew that, in the absence of any referential imagery, the attention of the viewer had to be caught by perceptual qualities of the painted surface.

Photo 5: Mark Rothko. Black in Deep Red. 1957, 136.5 x 176 cm, oil paint.

Rothko, for example, developed a sophisticated painting technique in which colours were applied in multiple thin layers (somewhat like in conventional oil painting) so as to create a compelling visual sensation, Yves Klein invented a technique that made his monochrome blues (pure ultramarine pigment) as blue as blue can be by avoiding its envelopment by a binder and Pollock’s paint dripping and splashing work is the product of a deliberate technology that included tools for dripping, a horizontal position of the canvas and the use of alkyd household paints (because of their liquidity and perhaps their drying speed). Newman invented the so-called zip, a small band of colour as a separator (“marker”) placed between the large vertical monochrome planes of which most of his paintings are composed. All of these artists had a predilection for large or very large works; works that could and should fill the entire field of vision, leaving no space for sensation other than that evoked by the painting under observation. Many viewers, however, did not come close enough long enough for any such singular sensory/emotive impact to arise. They responded to the encounter with the work of art by a shrug of the shoulder and moved on. Incidentally the response could be violent: Newman’s work at several occasions has been attacked and damaged.

*  *  *

The upheaval and scandal that loudly announced the birth of post WW II abstract art & associated phenomena to the world at large obscures the fact that the genesis of fully abstract art occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, around 1910, almost 40 years before it resurfaced as abstract expressionism as of the late forties. Abstract expressionism and related styles or movements became the avant garde art of the Western modern art world during the fifties and sixties. The first generation of abstract art, now over hundred years old, had in it all the elements that turned post WW II abstract art into such a spectacle.

The main founding fathers of abstract art were Russian, Malevich and Kandinsky, and their abstract art came into being during dramatic circumstances: WW I (1914-1918) and the communist revolution in what was to become the Soviet Union.

Photo 6. Kazimir Malevich. Black Square. 1915, 80 x 80 cm, oil paint. 
The surface crackle is caused by poor storage, possibly in combination with usage of an oil paint having high oil content.
The year 1915, over a century ago, has been heralded by some as the year of the birth of abstract art by a painting made in that year titled “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935, a Russian of Polish descent). Malevich painted several Black Squares; the oldest apparently dates from 1913. Black Square simply is a square painted black on a white background and the title of the painting unequivocally is the name of the thing painted. Black Square, unlike all fully abstract paintings has a corresponding object in the non-imaginary material world: black squares do exist as objects (as well as in the non-material world of concepts). But surely that was not what Malevich had in mind: his suprematist paintings were conceived as revolutionary, non-objective creation. He did, remarkably, describe suprematism as the new realism in painting. Malevich said: "By 'Suprematism' I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling."

By being non-objective (i.e., not representational of real life scenes or material objects) art was now set free. Malevich was first to paint a black square and present the painting as art. He also painted the Red Square (like the Black Square in several variants) and White on White – a white square on a white ground – and other paintings in similar, most elementary fashion: so elementary that the viewer is forced to confront the issue of significant form. What, in my view, is revolutionary in this art is not the abstraction attributed to it – you may as well say that Black Square is a case of minimalist realism – but the reduction of pictorial space to its simplest modality: that of two monochrome planes.  The white background serves as delineation of the black square, emphasizing that the black square is the subject of the painting; a painting which achieved in the most elementary and radical manner its sign function. These minimalist paintings, going back to the remarks by Jakobson cited above, certainly do engage memory functions, have discrete components, can be followed or understood - but not necessarily as art at the time because art in those days was figurative or a play on figuration (as in cubism). These works, in their extreme simplicity, defy the application of conventional aesthetic criteria because there is so little to apply them to. Some sort of post-modernism avant la lettre. Indeed, translated into present artistic reality, it might be said that Malevich was the first artist to ask the question “What is Art” by purely pictorial means.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was also born in Russia. He was slightly older than Malevich and a co-pioneer of abstract art. Kandinsky started out a career in law, but in 1897, 34 years old, moved to Munich, Germany, to study art. Soon thereafter he established himself as an original and influential artist. He travelled extensively and spent one year in Paris (1906-7) where he was greatly influenced by the colourful work of les Fauves. The true artists, stated Kandinsky, “…consciously or subconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life…” (Richard Stratton, 1977: vii). This was in 1911 when Kandinsky with others formed the artists group Der Blaue Reiter – the same year in which his Über das Geistige in der Kunst was published. The English translation of this influential book occurred in 1914 under the title The Art of Spiritual Harmony; its Dover edition of 1977 has the preface by Stratton referred to above and is titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky stayed in Germany till 1914 when he returned to Russia where he participated in the artistic revolution that took place there simultaneously with the social revolution. He went back to Germany in 1922 when artistic freedom had made way for communist petty bourgeois artistic doctrine; the soviet bureaucrats under Stalin in fact were prime examples of what it meant to be narrow minded or simply ignorant when it came to art. Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus where he taught until its closure by the Nazi regime. He moved to France in 1933 where he lived and worked till his death in 1944.

Photo 7. Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VII. 1913, oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm.
Photo 8. Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VIII. 1923, oil on canvas, 140 x 201 cm.

Kandinsky, as shown above, practiced different strands of abstract art, the wild expressionist type and the cool formal variety. He, like Malevich, also painted in styles that incorporated figuration and references to the material world. Kandinsky thought art a spiritual thing, a way to get in touch with the higher, metaphysical world; the mission of the artist was to create “lofty emotions beyond the reach of words” (1977: 2). The artist should be a spiritual leader bringing light into the darkness of the human soul, he should be motivated by an inner need to make art and not by material gain or success. He thought that art in its purest form should be non-objective (i.e., have no objective referent or denotatum) – such art could convey its inner meaning without distracting associations with the material, outer world. Kandinsky compared abstract art to music which like abstract art does not express or have an object; yet is capable of capturing one’s emotions and connects the soul to the sublime. You can, if you want, imagine the work of photo 8, as a musical composition in visual form and colour: indeed the painting almost looks like a musical score now presented in a spatial rather than a temporal relationship. We see here an interesting counterpart to Jacobson’s statement, of an art “designed like music”, but it is doubtful whether the association of Composition VIII with a musical composition would be made without knowing that Kandinsky deliberately did so. The painting of photo 7 appears “as if a story,” but a story of which the signifiers, the perceptual aspect of the sign, have been blurred to make way for pure sensation and emotion. When Kandinsky, in 1911, stated that abstract art was the highest (i.e., purest) form of art by its dissociation with the outer material world, he had not yet made the step to full abstraction. Kandinsky, however, already was concerned about the ability of the viewer to experience (abstract) art as he had experienced it in painting: that is calling forth the same feelings and emotions. He was aware that art could not fulfill its social function of spiritual progress and guidance if its viewers had no affinity with it. Concerning the Spiritual in Art contains a chapter titled “The Language of Form and Colour” (1977: 27 – 45). In it he attempts “provisionally” as he himself prudently says to describe properties of form and colour in terms of sensation, feeling tone, pictorial effect and expression of the “inner need” that is so important to him. The overriding objection here is that these notions lack universality; they are time and culture bound and, in this case, inevitably, also are personal interpretations.

The formal structure of the paintings, unlike in language, arises out of its subject matter; is motivated, as the semioticians say, and its grammar to the extent that we can speak of one is individually designed rather than communally shared by a distinct community of speakers. Art writers, historians, critics and educators do, however, to some extent create a “community of viewers,” thus making these early abstract works more intelligible today as they were when first presented: history charged these works with meaning and significance that they did not have at the time of their creation save for their makers and close associates.

Malevich, and Kandinsky to some extent, initiated an intellectual formal abstract art strain that was continued in the Western art world. Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), a Dutch artist working in New York, made abstract paintings based on a few basic forms (squares, rectangles, border lines) in a few colours applied flat, as monochromes.

Photo 9. Piet Mondriaan. Red, Yellow and Blue. 1930, 46 x 46 cm, oil paint.

Remarkably, several decades later, Barnett Newman (1905-1970, an American immigrant of Jewish-Polish decent) used the same basic colours as Mondriaan (and Kandinsky and Rochenko did before Mondriaan) to make a series of Very Large Works composed of adjacent monochrome geometric planes; with the series Who is afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue being one of the most famous. Barnett, like, Malevich sought an art of the sublime. He wrote: “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his separateness, of his individuality.” 

Photo 10. Barnett Newman. Who is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.
One of a series of four large canvasses made during 1966-1970
Geometrical formal units were also later used by Ad Reinhardt (working in squares of black and near black).

There are other strains (“styles”) of abstract expressionist art, less rigid than the formalism in the Malevich vein and less amorphous as abstract expressionism in its extreme variants. Of these the work of the American Franz Kline and the originally Latvian Rothko needs to be mentioned. Both artists tried, in a sense, to restore or simulate the “sign-function” of their art by creating intriguing, evocative forms and surfaces.

Photo 11. Franz Kline. Untitled. 1955, painting.
Kline (1910-1962) painted mostly in black on white, creating forms that are reminiscent of Japanese characters, Zen style if you like, or, as in the above reproduction, forms suggestive of real life scenes. In this painting you can “read” a human figure with arms stretched out forward. Rothko’s paintings by their variegated surfaces seek to rouse the interest of the viewer by perceptual means (for example see photo 5). Again, and unlike the singularity of Malevich’s Black Square, meanings are read into it differently by different folks; or even differently by the same viewer at different times or occasions. So perhaps the merit of art such as Rothko’s simply is that of “intriguing form,” leaving it to the viewer’s mind to expand “intriguing form” to “meaningful form” in a personal interpretation; or perhaps, simply to take the sensory sensation in “as if music.”

Today, more than five decades after the publication by Jacobson, there has been extensive exposure to the abstract art he refers to; and the responses (bewilderment &c.) as they existed at the time when these nonrepresentational works were first put on show in leading galleries have ceased to exist. These works, and in particular those of the leaders and pioneers of these styles, in time did not only assume significance in an art historical sense but also acquired certain sorts of meaning; they are now, at least for those exposed to them not lost in a void but included in memory and have become irreversibly an element of the modern art discourse. 

One manner, and perhaps the only one, by means of which these apparently “meaningless” art works may acquire sense in the viewer’s mind, is by seeing them as part of a series; as a member of what in semiotics is call a syntagm. In phonic language a syntagm is an orderly sequence, e.g., as in the meaningful elements that constitute a sentence. In visual communication the significant elements of a “visual statement” (e.g., a painting) have a spatial rather than a time-sequential relation; but if you present art works in a slide show you create a sequence of events in time, each painting having a provisional sign function. It’s worth a try and easy to do. Google Rothko up – he himself had noted the importance of seeing his work not in isolation but as a series. Within a few minutes you start to grasp some of his manner of working: you become aware of his style, the similarity or redundancy in his abstract oeuvre, its patterning: the beginning of some sort of understanding. It may not do much for you in terms of arriving at the pictorial semantics or meaning as Rothko intended but you get at least a glimpse of the underlying sense of his work. Same for Pollock. His work at first glance and in isolation seems to be dominated by random blots and drops and splashes of paint. Seeing a number of these in sequence makes you realize that the apparently random application of paint actually is guided, usually by a skeleton like frame in white line or other colour; rendering perhaps some credence to Pollock saying that “his paintings are a statement.”

Statements, in order to be intelligible, must be properly structured in the medium of their construction and the statement must be about something. And that is of course the tricky part: What IS Pollock trying to say? Or is he just trying to invoke sensation and emotion, perhaps of the sublime kind (as in Kandinsky, Malevich, or Barnett), or of deep human emotions as in Rothko?

You may ask whether an informed art audience today equipped with art historical hindsight succeeds in making sense out of abstract art as individual art works (other than as momento mori of art movements far removed from the present avant garde). Today these monumental abstract works are a testimony of one of the extreme possibilities in art: that of an image-presence without any reference to objects in our external material reality; except to themselves as a class of objects. As stated above, the producers of these works assigned “meaning” to them in particular as embodiment of emotional sensation; however these remained personal experiences rather than common responses.

The abstract arts, in its formalistic (Malevich, Mondriaan, Newman, Reinhardt), organic (Rothko, Kline) and expressionistic variants (Kandinsky, Pollock, Kline, Rothko, De Kooning, Cobra Group) have continued to exist long after they were presented at the time as the frontier of artistic innovation. Notably post WW II abstract expressionism appealed to many painters often a generation following the pioneers, not only in the Western art world but all over the globe. Many of these followers simply were epigones, imitators attempting to ride on the success of the innovative masters, others strived for their own variety or style with integrity. You may ask how come an art style that received so little public appreciation continued to exist long after its innovative impact had died out and was taken over by other, equally fashionable trends or movements.

The answer I believe is twofold. First, Western modern art as of the beginning of the previous century puts a premium on innovation and originality – of any kind. Originality at times seems to be an objective by itself. That accounts for the importance given art historically to the pioneers/genuine innovators in the wider Western art world. It also accounts for the senseless extravaganza that turned post WO II art into controversy and disrepute. Kandinsky, prophetically, wrote over 100 years ago (1977: 8):
In the search for method the artist still goes further. Art becomes so specialized as to be comprehensible only to artists, and they complain bitterly of public indifference to their work.  For since the artist in such times [i.e. materialistic, lacking spirituality] has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently [is] lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him), there arise a crowd of gifted and skillful painters, so easy does the conquest of art appear. In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seek only for some new technical manner, and who produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep.
No need to say that “this wild hunt for notoriety,” as Kandinsky calls it, continues today and demonstrates an amazing lack of direction by artists and art institutions alike.

Second, the importance of original art has taken on a specific form by the economics of (modern) art. The work of the few artists that made it to the limelight of the art scene and whose work has been accepted and promoted by its major actors and institutions, the prestigious galleries, museums, writers, critics, have for decades become collector’s items of great value – we are talking about tens of millions of dollars for a single painting. The producers of these paintings have become legendary figures and their works, now enshrined in a mythology invented by gallery owners, curators and art writers, have become an investment and a substantial one at that. Indeed these paintings can be compared to company shares whose value is determined by the stock exchange. It is of great importance to those owning these works – private collectors, galleries, large companies and art museums - that the monetary value of the art they acquired is guaranteed and the merit of these works is not disputed.

*  *  *
Concluding Remarks

1. Several abstract artists emphasize the importance abstract art may have as self-exploration or discovery for the artist. Sure, naturally the creation of each work of art involves exploration be it into one’s self or in any case in the limitless world of the imagination. It is, however, presumptuous to assume that what is important for the artist (as personal sensation, as experience, as psycho-therapy, as psychological trip) is equally important to the viewer or the society at large and it simply is wrong to assume that a viewer even when part of the same art world shall have experiences in viewing similar to those of the creating artist.

2. All abstract artists insist on the primacy of emotion and feeling in the experience in making their art. And these feeling and emotions are the essence of their art. In the absence of “objective representation or association” the origin of these emotions and feeling are embedded in the very art work itself. When abstract art came into being, roughly during 1910-15, this was innovative indeed; an original contribution by the pioneering artists to  the development of art – and, again according to Kandinsky, that is the lasting element of “the inner need” that should drive the true artist. Today, having gone through this phase, the limitations of abstract art stand out more clearly and these limitations are immanent in its very non-representativeness – or, more precisely, its lack of figurative association (“mnestic appeal"). Today we simply look at abstract art as one of the many modalities in which art can be made; but I think few would hold on to its privileged “pure” position as envisaged by Malevich and Kandinsky. The freedom the artist has gained is one of choice, from hyper-realism, narrative, conceptual to abstract or any other manner of art he or she might think of. More important than style is that art is genuine, driven by the “inner need” of the artist honestly striving to make imagery that makes sense not only to the artist but to the viewers as well.

3.  The introduction of abstract art indeed liberated the visual arts from its bond of representing something outside or beyond itself; it opened up the road to pure pictorial freedom – at a price. Art, as an autonomous domain of human activity, an activity defining its functionality first and foremost in and by itself, almost inevitably is for the happy, or perhaps not so happy, few; for an in-crowd but no longer for the larger population. This in itself is nothing new, innovative art generally is appreciated at first by an informed élite after which it either dies out or broader circulated. What is new I think are the extravagant happenings and presentations in galleries and museums “in the name of art” when these events have no artistic merit and more aptly are labeled “the hunt for notoriety,” Yves Klein’s female blues falling in the category, and the same applied for a lot of pseudo abstract or conceptual art.

4. There is, in art writing, a confusing usage of the terms/concept form and content; mostly expressed as form versus content. In this usage “form” is that what we see and is objectified in the art work, “content” is that what the art work is about. Form, so to speak, equals perception and content equals ideas, meaning and “subject matter.” The question is whether this dichotomy holds in art – as it does in language (language) where form is the signifier and content or meaning the signified part of the linguistic sign; the two components being inextricably combined into one. (Visual art in this sense, is more like speech: the way words are spoken adds another layer of meaning concurrent with its verbal semantics). I don't want to go into an obscure discussion of what “content” might mean when it comes to art but I do want to say that in art “form” (meaning the manner in which an image is formed, be that image purely abstract, imaginary, symbolic of a concept or associated to material objects or scenes) always by itself constitutes an aspect of content, a component of meaning. That is what is meant by the autonomy of image formation. It is the internal visual logic that provides an element of sense to abstract art – even if other associative mechanisms that render meaning to art appear to be absent, subdued, ambiguous or dormant.

5. The idea that the artist provides a blue print of what the viewer is to feel/experience/interpret as meaning is abandoned, or at least is put between brackets, and is replaced by conceiving the art work open minded as a mental space in which the signifying (of whatever kind) is done by the viewer. The principle of “intuitive aesthetic recreation,” as Panofsky calls it (1983 : 38), can be left to the art historian whose job it is to understand the art work as the artist intended and to reconstruct how it was perceived at the time in the art world where it was made and presented.

6. All art in order to be appropriately experienced must turn on in the viewer what I call the artistic mind set. The term is broader as related concepts like “the aesthetic attitude” or the intuitive aesthetic reconstruction of Panofsky mentioned above. This is a specific mind set, different from ordinary pragmatic application of our mental and motor faculties; in many ways this kind of mental activity is similar to sitting down on top of a hill to take in with an open mind the sight of the land around it. The artistic mind set in art hinges on the visual experience, most directly visual perception itself, which by association or reflection may engage/trigger off/turn on intellectual, emotional, sensory or memory activity in the viewer; all of this in a highly complex and intricate manner; partly conscious partially along sub-conscious associative pathways of the human mind. A condition, for this to happen, is that the right button is switched on. Such switching on is facilitated by presenting the art work in a suitable environment (as an art exhibition), by the obvious presentation of the art work as art (as by framing it), or by information presented before or during the viewing session. But more fundamentally: what the viewer sees must appeal, intrigue, or entice him or her. A major concern of the artist is to “turn on the viewer” and as described above, the major abstract artists attempted the same. The development of the artistic mind set, including a sense of the aesthetic, in my understanding, is the universal mission and functionality of art.

7. All art worthy of its name, be it a simple sketch or a large elaborate composition, embodies a concept – or a combination of concepts. These concepts are manifested in formal aspects as perceived or perceptible: that is the arrangement of visual elements. These concepts can be of many different kinds – be it the “realistically representation” of a material object or event; a free rendering of such event or object to create a specific mood or feeling; the recombination of naturalistic form in fantastic, imaginary realities; giving form to feeling and emotion without associative clues to “objective reality;” by isolating, selecting and combining actual objects and presenting them as an artistic composition; by symbolizing certain forms to stand for specific emotions, concepts or states; by focusing of the perceptual intricacies of the work of art as a subject by itself; or by stressing underlying messages conveyed to the viewer; by the demonstration of exceptional technique – and so on.

8. Kandinsky rightly says that what I call here conceptualisation in art is informed by the personality of the artist, the environment (time/place) where he/she works and by the general development of the arts – what today we call the artistic discourse. In Kandinsky all three elements are an aspect of the inner need that drives the true artist; of these three he attributed most importance to the third: the original, genuine and therefore lasting contribution by an artist to the art of the world of which he/she is part.

9. Combining conceptualization in art and ways to do so (items 8 & 9 above) constitutes The Artistic Space – a virtual reality that constitutes one of the essential domains of human life, a domain that combines in it visual creation, perception and presentation with and about feeling, emotionality and symbolization; and in doing so presents us with one of the instruments to make sense about our world and ourselves. This visual domain, being non-verbal, compliments that other great domain of our mental and practical life that is dominated by language; the space of science, philosophy, thought and practices inextricably tied up with verbal communication

10. The last line of the Conclusion in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1977: 57) reads: “We have before us the age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with the spirit of thought towards an epoch of great spiritual leaders.” I’m not so sure we have had many of these great spiritual leaders in art since Kandinsky wrote this over one hundred years ago. It appears that the notion of artists being spiritual leaders had little appeal to the great artists of the 20th century – though Kandinsky himself no doubt was one. His understanding of art as “conscious creation,” especially of the complex art he called a composition, surely was not heeded by many artist working in the abstract and expressionist abstract manner – many of them thought conscious contemplation and reflection to interfere with the spontaneity of “expression” they were after. Action painters, including Jackson Pollock, had to design their concept “on-the-go,” so to speak, before the paint dried up. Much of this work suffers from conceptual poverty, including work that derived its initial merit from its fresh looks. Now many of such looks are not so fresh anymore, the work has aged, what was a bright white once now is a pale yellow, and often such material decay has been accelerated by a total abuse or ignorance of art materials. There is an eternal truth that says that the good artist must also be an artisan in his craft – without skill there is no art (Gregory Bateson, (1973:117).

* The author is an artist and cultural anthropologist working in Zambia. He is the founding director of the Choma Museum and Crafts Centre and organized several exhibitions about art in Zambia. He publishes on The Net; i.e., Art in Zambia Blog, the Z-factor Art Site, Z-texts on line and www.academia.edu.

Bateson, Gregory. Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art. In: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. 1973. Granada Publishing Ltd, Paladin book.
Jakobson, Roman. 1964. On Visual and  Auditory Signs. In: Semiotica 11, p. 216-220.
Kandinsky, Wassily. 1977 (reprint of 1914 English original). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York, Dover Publications Inc.
Panowsky, Erwin. 1983. Meaning in the Visual Arts. Peregrine book.
Stratton, Richard. Preface to the Dover Edition. In: Concerning the Spiritual in Art. 1977. New York Dover Publication.

I have consulted the Wikipedia entries on Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, Ad Reinhardt, Piet Mondriaan, Willem de Kooning, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Kline. The Museum of Modern Art at New York (MOMA) published on YouTube video’s demonstrating the painting techniques of most abstract painters mentioned in this text. Google images provided the material for all the visual illustrations – if you want to see more just do the regular searching and you’ll be presented an entire library of abstract imagery.

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