Faire abstraction



In the visual arts, the major event of the early 20th century has been to give up representation. From the « grapes of Zeuxis » up to the impressionists and cubists, so many revolutions had taken place in the relationship that artists felt compelled to maintain between art and reality! Suddenly, painting was free from representation itself, «free from the burden of the object» as Malevitch put it. This subtractive process left the public in a state of confusion, from which it has never quite recovered (except that photography and the soon-to-follow proliferation of pictures in the media have mounted such a disproportionate revenge that it could now inspire by itself a rejection of images). Viewers were robbed of the mental framework in which painting is above all an art of representation.


« But what will replace the object? », Kandinski asked himself in 1910, when, suddenly seeing one of his watercolours lopsided, he could perceive « shapes and colours that no longer conveyed any meaning, an ineffably beautiful painting, pervaded with an inner glow. »


Thus, any reference to the outside world had vanished, and the inner man found a new way of expressing his subjectivity, free from the tyranny of representation and left to himself. But then, all the aesthetical rules, all the mechanisms of composition, all the harmonic laws of traditional painting found a way of recycling themselves. The painters of the Paris school were typical of this trend: because they started from reality or kept referring to it, they refused, as Manessier said, to consider themselves as abstract: they preferred to call themselves “non-figurative”. The compromise of this semi-abstraction undoubtedly felt like it filled the gap created by the disappearance of the object, but at the same time, it thwarted the potential of abstract painting, preventing it from reaching a higher level. So that one can say — without getting into the maze of a rich and often incoherent history— that as early as the middle of the XXth century, after Malevitch, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Kupka, abstract painting had exhausted itself. During a long period (if we set aside some paradigmatic works, like those of post-war American painting) it just repeated itself in an endless recycling of plastic compositions, giving birth to imitators who repeated the same “breaks with the past”, used the same paradoxes in an ever increasing build-up of the same scandals, the reproduction of the same hackneyed forms, out of self-exhaustion as much as out of the need to fuel an ever-expanding market and cultural industry (this description applies to abstract painting as well as to the seventy or so art movements listed as of 1990).


In this context, post-modernism had an easy time delivering its message of regression and proclaiming its rejection of any attempt at innovation. This subterfuge, brilliantly developed by Achille Bonito Oliva and his “transavanguardia”, put figurative painting back on stage, all the while standing up to American art. But abstraction, as a specific mode of expression, had nothing to do with this strategy, since its nature was never to convey any outer signification but on the contrary, to signify that which does not exist before. It was thus in a position to avoid the trap in which the other artistic movements were caught, i.e. the ideological submission to “the chaos of the contemporary world” (Hegel). Believing that art must account for what happens in our world is probably the weakness inherent to what we call “contemporary art”, which endeavours, with its installations, to stage the most commonplace aspects of our society. The commonplace, inexhaustible and omnipresent, is well suited, once “transfigured” by an official cultural policy (as Arthur Danto puts it), to create the widest possible public consensus.


Therefore, our thinking should not be based on the old “avant-garde” movement called “abstraction”. This historical term doesn’t subsume once and for all the potential that the very concept of abstraction contains, and that we must understand as a mental operation, which can force its way to higher artistic spheres, and reach the end of its inner logic in its relation to Art.


This direction implies that we set aside, as much as possible, the subjectivity of the artist who, Heidegger told us, remains something “nondescript”, the medium that gives way to the œuvre, and is annihilated by its creation. The artist is all too often considered as the one who, through his very existence, must convey what it is to be a human being ; the one who reigns over his own work, when in fact the work originates much more in its communication with all the other works created since the beginning of time and whose irradiating energy still reaches us.


Minimalists have reduced their “specific objects” to the point of making them undistinguishable from the usual objects of industrial civilization, a mistake that submitted creation, yet again, to the tyranny of reality, paradoxically enslaving it to the physical world.


It was therefore necessary to move on and further liberate creation from subjectivity by substituting algorithmic operations for the antiquated heuristic mode.


In the heuristic mode, the artist and his work are inextricably linked; whatever the action, be it the most traditional, such as applying this colour rather than that one onto the canvas, or the most contemporary (although quite a few years old already…), such as choosing this readymade over that one in an installation, it is always the gesture of the omnipotent artist who gradually finds the solutions, step by step, and decides of the beginning and the end; By contrast, in the algorithmic mode, the work is the result of a system, that the subject has created but the details and the outcome of which he cannot predict. The subject, still the creator of the system, is not eliminated but simply shifts from one point of the process to another. In the chain of events leading to the work of art, he stands at the beginning, so that there is no risk of eliminating the human element, as some would have us fear. But this new distance between the artist and his work, freely accepted and even desired, this transcending of the artist by the system, this new relationship of the subject to his work, are conducive to creating specific results, because they originate in the objective coherence of a program (whether computerized or not) rather than in the subject’s mind.


In the past, many artists have submitted their productions to predetermined experimental processes, each one using his own techniques, manipulations, constructions or contraptions. One example among many: Hantaï folded his canvas, painted its visible surface then unfolded it, revealing unexpected shapes. Those programs were handmade.


But, at this point, how was it possible to disregard the amazing inventions of techno-sciences that already had, everywhere else, exerted such deep influence on society? Thus, a new path opened up for artists who could use computers capable of performing the creative process and exploring the virtual world with a level of efficiency previously inconceivable. Taking advantage of these new tools, an abstraction that could be genuinely called modern or, better, “neo-modern” could reach its full potential.


Having eschewed the viral kitsch of the media, this new abstraction would also leave aside its historical determinations of a hundred years; not to attain a kind of purification whereby it would transcend itself up to the vanishing point, but to abandon one production process for another, whereby new artistic forms, born from new associations, would become possible.



Christian de Cambiaire

(Translation Jean François Brunet)