The Rules of Abstraction

The Rules of Abstraction, a BBC4 documentary by the artist and writer Matthew Collings shown last week and still available on the iPlayer at the time of writing, was an accessible introduction to the enigmatic world of abstract art, a field with open-ended possibilities of particular interest to this blog.

It seems the most subjective of art forms, an uninhibited, free-flowing exploration of the qualities of colour, shape and line. But Collings showed that abstract artists have always believed themselves to be working within parameters, a complex of rules sometimes carefully defined, sometimes intuited and only dimly perceived. Their work follows an internal logic, as if answerable to something. Abstract art does not attempt to escape the world, to retire to an interior landscape that has meaning only for the artist. Rather, it attempts to respond to and express the world as it is, but through an abstract visual language rather than figurative imagery. As Collings says of the artists featured in his film:

All of them are trying to find some kind of visual metaphor which would be rich enough for what one might call reality.

That of course depends on what is understood by ‘reality’, something about which abstract artists have never agreed. The form’s pioneers tended to have definite ideas about precisely what their art sought to communicate. More recent abstract artists have been much less sure. But Collings finds that all of them, from the early years of the movement to the present day, have thought of themselves as working according to some kind of rules.

Early abstract art was suffused with the thought world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an exotic blend of empirical science and mystical philosophy. The scientific consensus of the day regarding the constitution of the real world was undergoing a paradigm shift. The stable, rule-bound universe of Newtonian physics was being displaced by the mind-bending theories of quantum mechanics and relativity: reality was less solid than had been thought, in a state of perpetual flux that depended on the human observer for its stability. The new science emerged alongside new spiritualities that were challenging belief in mainstream religions, in particular the set of speculative philosophies grouped under the label of theosophy, a kind of modern Gnosticism that claimed the metaphysical realm, the ‘really real’, was open to direct apprehension by the sympathetic seeker. For the theosophists the spirit world was a fact, accessible to examination, waiting to be revealed.

Early 20th century artistic theory responded to these paradigm shifts. The Impressionist and Cubist movements broke down art’s traditional concern with the representation of surface appearance and sought to emphasise that the world only appears as it does because of the order imposed upon it by human perception. The Cubists cut up the world into three dimensions, paving the way for the abstract artists to simplify it further into just two, a flatland of non-dimensional shapes, lines, colours and spaces.

Collings charts the profound influence of theosophy on the earliest abstract artists. One of them, Hilma Af Klint, didn’t really regard herself as an artist at all, but rather a cartographer of the spiritual realm. Her paintings are austere geometrical arrangements that resemble the work of other abstract artists, but for her they were diagrams mapping the soul’s ascension to higher worlds, schematics for enlightenment transmitted to Earth direct from the ‘High Masters’ of the astral planes.

Wassily Kandinsky, author of the seminal abstract text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911, was also influenced by theosophy, but was more conscious of the role of artistic tradition in his work than Klint. For Kandinsky the artist serves as a mediator for the spiritual: the artist must fashion his own visual language for communicating the divine rather than awaiting direct inspiration from on high.

He sought to keep the constituent elements of his compositions as simple as possible to allow the spiritual to shine through. This simplicity, he believed, was the source of the power of the traditional Russian art he admired, from the primitive folk art of Siberia to the iconography of Russian Orthodoxy, such as the work of Andrei Rublev.

Collings dwells on the classic comparison Kandinsky drew between abstract art and music. Like music, abstract art uses non-figurative elements to communicate emotion:

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, and the soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key and then another key, in order to make the soul vibrate.

Abstract painting should be understood in musical terms. Like musical compositions they are made up of related elements arranged according to an internal logic: adjacent colours and shapes can flow like a sequence of musical chords; visual elements can interweave like musical lines in counterpoint; and shapes and colours can be arranged according to principles of repetition, surprise and rhythm.

Kandinsky’s contemporary Sonia Delauney shared his belief in the emotional power of abstraction, but adopted a more austere methodology. During the 19th century science had codified laws governing the human perception of light, laws that Delauney sought to communicate through her work. She applied colour in minute gradations, calibrating its arrangement so as to evoke particular emotional responses from the viewer. To adopt Kandinsky’s musical analogy, colours can be in or out of key, and should be presented within a single harmonious visual register.

For these pioneers, then, the rules of abstraction were set by the intellectual thought world of the day, a rich blend of the scientific and the spiritual that guided their understanding of the reality that lay behind appearance, and which their work sought to approach.

Collings charts how the movement took a turn from mysticism to the political with the work of Paul Klee and Kazimir Malevich. Klee’s art was grounded in the close observation of nature, seeking to capture its essence through painstaking tonal gradations. He created subtly shifting colour grids designed to capture nature’s mutability: when the world is observed carefully it can be seen to be in permanent movement, an ever changing web of light. The relationship between colour and reality is unstable, the world appearing appearing differently from moment to moment. We project whatever order we see in the physical world.

An acute appreciation of the shifting grounds of perception led Klee to speculate that our social worlds are as they are because we choose to perceive them in a certain way, just as we do with the physical world. Our social environments are provisional human constructions, which we can choose to view differently, and reconfigure according to new principles. As Collings puts it:

Everything is perception. The light on some glass or concrete. The organisation of shapes in the city. The look of the earth, the shapes of clouds and their relationship to the horizon. We organise this sensual input, just as we organise our minds about who we are, and where we fit in the world, and how society is made up.

Klee became a political radical, participating in the 1919 Bavarian uprising. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had been supported by other avant-garde artists, including Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, a new movement that believed in the power of abstract art to open the way to a new world, not just in the realm of art but also that of social relationships. For Malevich radical new developments in art, science and political theory signalled the end of the old order, and the advent of a new age: the world was a blank slate, on which the new Russian state was the write the first lines. Malevich’s Suprematist compositions, abstract geometries emerging from pure fields of white, symbolised the new order that was to replace the old.

Malevich’s utopian dreaming was took a new form under the Constructivists who followed him. They took the social dimension of Malevich and Klee’s work to its logical extreme, valuing abstract form not for its symbolic value but for its usefulness. Abstraction had functional applications, offering a new visual grammar from which a post-revolutionary society was to be constructed. Abstract form was to provide the building blocks for the new world, equally well suited for application to graphic design, architecture, clothing and industrial production.

Those revolutionary hopes were shattered by the Russian descent into totalitarianism in the 1930s. The high idealism that characterised the early decades of the abstract movement had faded by the end of the Second World War. New abstract art movements emerged, but its centre of gravity had shifted from Europe to the United States, and more modest claims were made on its behalf. There was a turn towards subjectivity, artists exploring abstract form as a channel for personal self-expression rather than as a possible agent of social transformation. But it never became an undisciplined, indulgent medium. For all of the post-war artists featured by Collings the process of creating an abstract artwork had an instransigent, conditioned quality.

Jackson Pollock’s swirling canvasses, for example, seem the products of unfettered expression, but the completed works have an internal structure, a carefully calibrated rhythmic consistency. And Mark Rothko’s work is built up through disciplined gradations of surface texture, applied with precision to produce enticing worlds of light charged with energy.

Throughout the documentary Collings visits the studios of several contemporary abstract artists, all of whom felt that their work proceeded within the framework of rules they sometimes only half-understood, but whose definite presence guided them through the process of creation. Paul Tonkin sought harmony in the combination of wild splashes of colour, while Dan Perfect spoke of his work as being ‘an introvert’s experience of an extrovert world’, an attempt to create an reimagined version of the world of appearance, an image of the natural world that avoided use of any of its forms. Speaking of her work, Fiona Rae said:

I think the marks all exist as themselves, in themselves and by themselves, as well as going together to make some kind of image that you might read in one way or another … I’m also trying to make a picture of something that doesn’t exist, which is an impossibility of course, but I’ll just keep trying.

That final comment seems to me to encapsulate the abstract artist’s quest rather well, and, indeed, that of any effort to bring something new – and better – into the world.