“Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I prefer to see with closed eyes.”
– Josef Albers
How can abstraction be more real than nature? At the most elemental level nature, as well as all of reality, is composed of pure energy. This energy field is about as abstract as you can get. I suspect Albers was at least alluding to this view of reality – he was an important member of the Bauhaus school in Germany around the time Heisenberg was publishing his influential work on quantum mechanics where this view of reality and energy was being promoted. It isn’t hard to believe their paths crossed, at least their idea paths. Many threads of 20th century thought have been affected by this fundamental work in theoretical physics. Numerous authors of a more metaphysical bent have made reference to this as well (Capra, Zukov, Chopra, etc.).
But this is seems more about obscure philosophical ruminations than something an artist would care about (of course, I do have a degree in philosophy, so I am wired to think about such things…).
I’m planning on talking more about abstraction vs realism in future postings (bear with me!). For now, let me just make an observation that has an interesting historical association. My initial visual art form was photography. After several years I started painting. I found the literalness of photography limiting, but I struggled initially as a painter because I felt somehow bound by my photography background to see things literally. I’m sure every artist out there has gone through the experience of wanting to go beyond their current or past art perspective but not being able to do it. It’s like the soul is willing but the body is not (why do I keep painting inside the lines when I really want to paint outside them???).
I didn’t want to just paint what I could photograph – that would just be a bad photograph, in my opinion. Historically, in the 19th century, the rise of photography presented painters in general with a dilemma. Prior to that they had largely been the keepers of the representational keys to the kingdom. Now they had to find a way to distinguish their work from a photograph, which ultimately provided a better (or at least more literal) rendition of “reality”. Ironically enough, the literalness of photography contributed to the rise of abstraction in painting. Similar to how the literalness of photography served as the impetus in my own life to seek a more abstract expression in my art.
I think many artists in widely diverse mediums tend to move from representational to less representational work. I wonder why that is so common? What does it say about us as individuals? How does it parallel the historical trend in art over the last 200 years? Lots to think about…