All Art is Abstract

“All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint.”

– Robert Bissett

I think we do sometimes lose sight of all the ways in which art does not really reflect reality. Sometimes a work of art seems so realistic, you want to reach our and touch it. But in reality, it isn’t realistic – by it’s very nature it is at least one step removed, almost always several steps removed, from reality.

Being an artist requires us to make decisions about how our work will differ from the world around us. First, we choose what piece of reality we’re going to represent. We decide what to include, what to leave out, what colors, shapes and textures to use, etc. This “editing” process is the first and perhaps the most important step we take to define the individual piece we’re creating.

As a photographer I’ve always been amused by people who believe photography literally captures and recreates the world around us. As soon as you point the camera at something, you’ve made a choice as to what to include and exclude. There are all sorts of further ways in which “reality” is altered when taking a photograph – exposure and aperture settings, what kind of film you’re using (does anyone use film anymore?) each of which makes the scene look very different, what time of day you take the shot, etc. And when making a print of the photograph, there are artistic decisions about what paper to use, how large to print it, and many changes you can make to the image in the printing process that further affect the final piece of art. Think of black and white photography – is the world black and white? Yet, we routinely accept these photographs as representing reality.

We create our art, at least in painting and photography, in two dimensions only, unlike the 3 dimensional world around us. The pigments we use, no matter how good they are, cannot recreate every color that exists in the world. Our perceptual system can distinguish tonalities, hues and qualities of light that simply cannot be reproduced using any art form.

So by definition, all art is abstract. The content of the work may be representational or not, but the act of making art is, in essence, an act of abstraction. Maybe this is why it is so seductive a practice. We are recreating the world in a new way – can you imagine a more empowering act?

5 responses to “All Art is Abstract

  1. Hello Bob,

    Thank you for your comment at my blog. And, Wow!, I love your monoprints. They inspire me to try them again. I also love the way you layer images.

    Your blog is a wonderful discovery.


  2. What serendipity. . . found your blog through your comment on Karen Jacobs’s blog. I truly enjoy your abstract art, monoprints, and collages. And then, I find your business link. I think I need your help. Would you be kind enough to stop by my blog and take a look at some of the photographs? I would like to have them reproduced, enlarged, something so that they would be saleable as abstract art, but I don’t have any idea what to do. I would appreciate your thoughts and assistance. You can email me if you would prefer. Thanks, Bob, and I have put you on my “favorite” list of blogs so I will keep up to date with your art.

  3. I would say, even I somehow understand what Bissett says, that, on the contrary no art (no painting, in any case) CAN BE ABSTRACT, exactly for the same reason Bissett says all art IS abstract! Paint is material, as it is the paper and the inks you use for your digital art (and , in a way, even the “imaterial” pixels on a screen are, somehow, material and no effing abstract. I do not talk about figurative or non-figurative and all the other bloody “isms” and abstractions… I’m not opposed to thinking and to ideas but I find all the theory from the last 100 years as mostly (95 %?) useless and boring.

    Good art is out there. show me 10 works of so called “art” (abstract or representational, figurative or non-figurative) and I can tell you (or anyone) which one I think are good painting and which are not (and why). Don’t care about how we cal them, in which “current” we do label them… I trust my intuition (and perhaps I’m conceited) to tell me which one are art and which aren’t…

    I certainly like (a lot!) your representational nudes and some of you abstract work, bob. Not the above one even if it has meritts… I confess of having a passion AGAINST geometrical compositions which I rarely can appreciate (doesn’t mean that they aren’t good)… I just do not have the taste for them… Sorry if I was a bit too vehement…

  4. I’ve re-read with more attention the finale of your post, bob, and, of course, I can understand what you say there. Creating art is a process using our capacities of analysis, synthesis etc., an (maybe) “an act of abstraction”… But it is also a mysterious process, using a bunch of other human capacities that I wouldn’t been able to exactly point at… A process I do not know how to call… And our materials are CONCRETE, MATERIAL and even if in 2 dimensions (also sculpture has 3 and not alsways representational…) the product of our art, and our art itself CANNOT and SHOULD not be called abstract however NON-representational and NON-FIGURATIVE…

    At least for my ears (kind of pricky whenever the “isms” point their hideous head…) ABSTRACT ART sound not only a pleonasm (if one refferes to the process of abstraction you and Bissett spoke of) but also awfully theoretical, aride and dry…

  5. Danu

    You bring up a point which I find interesting and have mentioned before. A piece of art is sometimes two things at once – it is a thing itself, concrete, and thus not an abstraction. On the other hand it represents something else, in some cases very obviously, in other cases with more subtlety. In the latter sense, I still contend the art piece is an abstraction of something else. It isn’t the thing it represents – if it were it would just be a copy of it, not a piece of art.

    I’m not using “abstraction” as a pejorative term, nor does it make the work of art of less value. Certain “modernist” painters intentionally wanted to do away completely with this second aspect of art. They wanted their painting to be only itself and not represent something else in any way. I’m not sure one can ever succeed at this, no matter how non-representational the work.

    I’m not placing a value judgement on any of this. I don’t believe abstract art (or non-representational work) is better or worse than any other kind of art. I think this is a very personal issue – we make the kind of art that allows us to explore and express our own mental, spiritual and emotional states in the way we want. I suspect we also appreciate the work of others because of the same thing.

    I find it interesting to contemplate these issues. For me, when I make art I do tap into the many “non-mental” resources you refer to. I find that the more “theoretical” aspect of art is also fascinating and brings an additional dimension to what I do. Again, one of the wonderful aspects of art is that there is no right or wrong approach and each of us gets to pour into our artmaking the unique set of ingredients that inspires us.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments – it’s this kind of dialogue that always makes me reflect more deeply about all of this. That’s the whole point, after all!

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