The Elusive Line

I was invited to show in an exhibit featuring non-representational art. It was to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Kandinsky's first abstract painting. I asked, "How are you defining abstract?" A dumb question, one would think.

Consider an image depicting cellular structures. It would seem non-representational to the an individual from the 1st century. Or, what about collage artists (Schwitters, Rauschenberg, Picasso, and etc.). Should these artists be labeled as representational? Or, what about an seemingly abstract work whose subject matter is profoundly important (e.g., Turner’s Slave Ship). Apparently, an artwork can be non-representational when it is representational and vice versa.

Perhaps defining an artwork as either abstract or realistic, should be determined not by how representational it is, but instead by what the artist’s intent is. If the intent is primarily to exploit recognition, association, and poetic connotations of an artwork’s imagery, then maybe it should be considered to be “representational”. And on the other hand, if the concerns are about the formal and process oriented concerns like color, line, form, rhythm, dynamism, texture, material, and etc., then maybe the artwork should be considered to be “abstract”.

In these cases, the distinctions are clear enough, but there are many art examples wherein the concerns are too inextricably interwoven to separate or prioritize them. In these cases, the line between abstract art and realistic art is absent. Does this mean that works can be both, abstract and realistic? Or, does it mean that some works fall into neither category?

– 2010