Turning Away From Abstraction

Left, Sabra, by Franz Kline, 1962. Right, The Journalist, by Andrea Camagna, 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)





A headline in 3quarksdaily.com caught my eye: “Turning Away From Abstraction.” I scanned eagerly. Alas, Emmanuel Iduma was not announcing a trend. His piece was deeply personal, and he was using a Fauve painting to reflect on writing—which can, indeed, be a wild and beastly practice.

Even so, representational art, so long slumped in the corner with its eyes cast down, does seem to be regaining stature.

“The increasing prominence of new figurative work—or at least pieces that contain strong figurative elements—has been a notable feature in exhibitions at top galleries and institutions,” arts journalist Richard Unwin writes. “The effect has been such that many industry players have talked about a ‘resurgence’ in figurative art.” The Collector even offers a guide.

My fondness for figurative art—often the hyperdetailed, hyperrealistic sort—has long embarrassed me. I understand the joy of playing with color and shape, of expressing raw emotion, of refining conceptual theory. Many abstract paintings and sculptures delight or intrigue me. But my heart stays with the pieces that capture the essence of living, breathing subjects—or objects, or settings—so well, I forget to breathe.

Transfer this confession to my usual arena, and it starts to make sense. What I read for pleasure is fiction, but what I pour my heart into is nonfiction, as true and detailed as possible. A quirk of temperament—and perhaps a sign of limited imagination? The insight that can come from careful structure, created characters, and deliberately inserted, highly charged details and references is often purer and stronger than anything pulled straight from messy reality. I am intensely grateful to novelists for doing all that hard work. Yet I am still, at sixty-two, running around with a notebook in my hand, trying to understand what already exists. And there is such a rich abundance of material, no end is in sight.

What is “representational art,” anyway? It need not be a meticulous, slavishly literal copy. The Google algorithm’s favorite definition is “art that is clearly identifiable as something which already exists in life.” In other words, we can all agree on at least the foundation of what we are seeing. And right now, it feels especially urgent to find foundations we can all agree on. How the subject is idealized, what impressions the artist had, what emotions the work carries, what message was intended—all of that can be quibbled to bits. But we at least have a common starting point that is richer with information, history, texture, and nuance than a dot or a field of color.

My cheeks flush hot as I type this, and I am tempted to delete the file before anyone sees it. I have joined the philistines, the “I may not know art but I know what I like” crowd, the ones who prefer paint-by-number depictions to artistic license and who, confronted by Motherwell, Rothko, or Pollock, grumble that their kid coulda done that.

I back off fast. We needed abstract expressionism, and minimalism, and all the variations that followed. They jolted us out of stale convention; they made us think about art; they explored how shapes and colors and textures affect us; they took the sort of inner experience that defies words and splashed it on canvas for us.

We will need, just as badly, whatever new forms of abstraction are about to unfold. But now that our brains have been loosened from their concrete moorings and we have learned to enjoy an explosion of ideas, colors, and shapes that makes us see and feel differently without leaning on recognizable props, maybe we can spend a little more time in the world we see and comprehend together. See it from new angles, its elements rearranged, its colors altered, yet its subject still knowable. Fall in love with the world all over again, or let it enrage us by documenting injustice or tragedy. Let the art pull us together.

The second half of the twentieth century should have been a time of fresh, imaginative discovery, freedom from idiotic and stultified customs, intellectual openness. But when the rules lifted, what we became involved with was ourselves. The individual was all-important, and our biggest project was our self. We spent our time making exhaustive inquiries into our own identity, emotions, past traumas, style, personality type, sun sign, and attachment style. Art and literature took gleeful pleasure in solipsism, using a subjective, idiosyncratic set of symbols and codes and significances to make work that took considerable effort for someone else to penetrate.

The effort often paid off. This kind of codebreaking, unprecedented in art history, was almost as exciting as QAnon. Like that lively conspiracy theory, it pulled you into an exclusive in-group. Names could be dropped, movements and trends referenced nonchalantly. Openings and shows served as social currency, and everybody had a little metafiction on their nightstand. Pranksters mounted exhibits of kindergarten art and wrote solemn reviews. People indifferent to the art world rolled their eyes and stopped bothering to look. In retrospect, the art was more gnostic than expressive, and it is easy to understand those snarled accusations of elitism.

The word “elitist” now has even wider currency, discrediting in a single swoop journalists, oldschool liberals, Democrats in Congress, tech gurus, and university professors. Art is personal and political, and we desperately need art that does not shut out three-fourths of the country. Art that contains its own backstory and makes a lot of people want to think, talk, and learn about it. That will sound to some like a request for dumbing down, but that is because we have been conditioned to assume that what is truly good has to be difficult.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is finer, in my opinion, than the most prestigious metafiction. Yet it is, on the surface, a simple ghost story, the emotion palpable, the plot grounded in painful historical reality, the characters recognizably and deeply human. The truest test of art is not to strip itself down to pure concepts that must then be explained to those who are not artists. The truest test is to reach as many people as possible with a work so richly layered, people can study it for a lifetime, appreciation steadily deepening.

The word “abstract” means to remove something; to condense; to lack a concrete, physical existence. Abstraction is supremely useful—but it should not wind up more highly valued than the world from which it abstracts. If we have stopped sneering at representational art and prizing style and concept only when they are yanked away from the recognizable world, I am glad of it. So much of life is already flattened into virtual experience that we need to tie ourselves to a shared physical reality as often as we can. Otherwise, we will continue to float away, each drifting to a different island. And when civilization eventually dissolves and other life forms descend, they will try to fathom our art, and they will be stymied.

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.