Thursday, February 11, 2010

Abstraction, part 1

I was getting ready to post some 'abstract' photos, when I started thinking, Are these legitimately abstract? After all, they are real things...What does that word really mean?  What makes a work abstract, or not?  Is there a line between abstract art and representational art, and, if so, where is it?  (Okay, you're probably thinking I should stop listening to the voices in my head, right?)

When I post work on my artspan website, I have to choose labels for each piece, such as medium, category, and whether it is abstract or representational (there are no other choices).  I always click 'representational' because my work does refer to actual things, though they may not be realistically depicted.  I do that because I assume that what they mean by 'abstract ' in this case would be work consisting of, say, colored stripes, for instance.

No, 3, 1949  by Mark Rothko

In art school, we were taught to call this type of work "nonobjective", meaning it was not based on any real object.  Abstract work, however, is based on something real, or at least the idea of something real.  Here's how Wikipedia defines abstraction in general:
"Abstraction is the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a  concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose." 
Wikipedia's words of wisdom on abstract verses nonobjective art:  "Strictly speaking, it refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world -it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world... Artwork that reshapes the natural world for expressive purposes is called abstract; that which derives from, but does not imitate a recognizable subject is called nonobjective abstraction."

Clear as mud, right?  So, basically, abstraction has the intended purpose of paring something down to its essential nature; artists such as Cezanne and Picasso spoke of this as a goal. 

"Art is the elimination of the unnecessary."  -Pablo Picasso

 Desmoiselles  D'Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Of course, I'm simplifying the concept (abstracting it, so to speak!) significantly so as not to get bogged down too much in semantics.  The truth is, though, that the distinction between realism, abstraction, and non-objective abstraction is artificial from a practical standpoint, because it is not possible to draw a line where one ends and the other begins. 
For instance, is this abstract or realistic?   Hmmm... there are some pretty realistic things in there, but how realistic do they have to be in order to be 'realistic'?  (Huh?)
  Moon Shadows  by Sharmon Davidson
And what d'you reckon about this one?  Still, some recognizable stuff here, but what about that thingy with all the circles?
Kalachakra Matrix by Sharmon Davidson
A little more abstract, perhaps even verging on non-objective?  But couldn't those be mountains... with a purple sun... or maybe not...?

 Transformation 28   by Sharmon Davidson
Even a photograph is not completely realistic; as we know, there is much compression and distortion (of color, form, size, etc.) involved when a 3-dimensional scene is translated onto a 2-dimensional plane.   

I believe that over time, the term "abstract art" has come include artwork that looks as if it's "unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world -it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world."  Which is why my photos, even though they are pictures of real things, could be considered abstract.   

My conclusion, then, is that these terms are meaningful only in a relative sense.  It brings up such questions as, "How abstract is it?"  It's like trying to determine how unified a piece of art is, or how well composed.   Where's the ruler for measuring that?

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I actually get to the aforementioned photographs!


  1. Sharmon, You have some pretty abstract ideas going on here. :-) I like your statement about it all being relative. Why must everything have a label?

    I love all of your examples... especially "Moon Shadows". Impressive!


  2. I agree with Don. Does everything need a label? All i know is that I love to look at your work. You are incredibly talented. Is it abstract or not? Who!
    Btw... loved all your pieces especially *moon shadows*!

  3. I am not in favor of labels either, but I have called my new work abstracts because they each are about something represented in the piece though the piece has more going on than just that one concept. I think your work is still very figurative. and beautiful!

  4. Having to fit into one catagory or another feels so 'last century' to me...and like Picasso said 'every work of art is an abstraction' just as 'every work we create is a self portrait'...

    maybe the best recipe is do what you love and love what you do...which you, Sharmon, appear to be very good at... all of the images included are top notch.


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