Concrete Abstraction

Understanding the Abstract Experience
image:    cover photo
artist:   Miguel Harbers
size:     97x66 cm.
material: oil on canvas



Mark Rothko wrote in his philosophies on art:

# “To think that any art can exist without a subject matter would be to substantiate a hocus pocus spiritualism that is inadmissible to our experience. We could never know art or speak of it if that were so. To say, therefore, that abstract painting does not posses a subject matter, which, (…) is some kind of reference to our experience, would be a statement of an impossibility”. 

# “In stead of appealing to our sense of the familiar, it simply functions in another category. (…)  It appeals to our abstract experience pertaining to the familiar relationships between space and shapes”.

The text that you are about to read is made between 2013 and 2015 while I was working on a series of paintings with the title: Concrete Abstraction (Click here for images)
It is a formulation of the subject matter of abstract painting in general and achieves a framework in which we can understand the so-called “abstract experience” that Rothko refers to in the second quote.
The examination of any painting, in particular, may lead to different conclusions or experiences than those drawn in this text. I wrote this text to find a vocabulary to talk about the experiences I had myself while I was working on my paintings.
A fact is that painting and writing are two different mediums that operate in their own specific field. I believe that they very connected.
The way of seeing I ultimately aim for in my painting practice is one that is free from concepts and thoughts. But, I realize that this is the most difficult part of being a painter – in my case – and even for a trained person, these moments of seeing are rare. Therefore formulating a way of seeing that can guide me and others to an optimal experience of a painting can be a good tool to sharpen my awareness about how I see. Therefore I believe that writing about the “abstract experience” can enrich the experience of painting.

# M. Rothko, “The artist’s reality” Philosophies of art, C. Rothko (eds), Yale university press, 2004, p. 80
# M. Rothko, The artist’s reality, p. 80

image:    # 1
artist:   Miguel Harbers
title:    no title
size:     92x92 cm.
material: oil on canvas

Abstraction and its subject matter


Abstraction is the artistic language that depicts only form and space it is widely accepted as the opposite of the figurative. Although figurative painting always carries abstract qualities, the narrative and representational aspects are always present and prevent us to from having an “abstract experience”.
An abstract painting carries no fixed narrative and has no element of time in the linear understanding of the word. Thanks to the lack of recognisable elements and the connected fixated concepts and images in abstract painting, it allows us a pure awareness of space and form that is experienced in a singular moment in time. Space and form are not just the only elements with which we can make a statements within the medium painting; the elements are also pointing towards our fundamental physical relation with the world.
In the history of abstract painting we find many different philosophies and believes on how to deal with space and form. Piet Mondriaan for example thought it to be essential to respect the two-dimensional character of canvas and only make “pure composition” in which meaning is conveyed in line and colours alone. – # image 3-
A contradictory example is the painter Toma Abts,  –# image 2 – she uses illusionistic rules to build up her compositions, hints of shading and depths to create the illusion of space that achieves the reality of her paintings. – # Image 4 – is the painting of the series Concrete Abstraction that reflects most clearly my conviction of that moment about how to deal with space.
How painters deal with space and form is a crucial part in understanding their works.
Their convictions reflect on their most fundamental assumptions about reality; their notion of space and form . Understanding these convictions might helps us to understand the meaning of their paintings.
In this text I do not want to reflect on one specific painting or convictions of a specific painters.

I want to describe my understanding of the “abstract experience” that operates always within the boundaries of our familiar relation with space and offer an understanding of the subject matter of abstract painting in general.

We should not search for the subject matter in the painting itself, neither in the convictions of the painter. The only way to learn something about the subject matter of abstract painting is in its relation with reality (in the here and now), in other words we will find it by analysing profoundly our own experience of the painting.

The subject matter of the painting is in our physical relation with the depicted space and form. It is an existential awareness of our relationship with reality that is created and perceived with our body. 

image:    # 2
artist:   Toma Abts
size:     48x38 cm.
material: oil and acrylics on canvas

image:    # 3
artist:   Piet Mondriaan
title:    Composition nr:1 with grey and red
size:     105x102 cm.
material: oil on canvas

A system of meaning


Our body is an organism that is adjusted to life on this planet; were the sun is high above us and the ground pulls us down. The form and the possibilities of the human body are shaped under these conditions and this has dominantly defined the architecture of our experience. The idea of embodiment is quite straightforward; things make sense grounded in experiences of the body. Meaning is born in physical interactions. Examining our language we find clear examples of this. We say for example: “Slowly we move towards the end of our conversation.” Or “He was completely in the gutter, but he managed to clime out of it”. The references to space, objects and interactions used in these sentences are not just language-based expressions; they are references towards our physical situ-ations (situ = place) that we need in order to make sense of the world.
Even complex rational thoughts have references to concrete physical experience, hence meaning arises from this specific point of view.
This same principle of embodiment we find if we examine our visual apparatus.
Things only appear to us in the aspect of our physical relation to them. Perception is not a passive intake of information; perception is an active creation of “inner” experience.
Objects cause activation of our motor neurones; these motor neurones expose to us – potential – movements relating to the object. From these movements we can construct a meaningful scene. So, an object appears in us as far it refers or hints to possible interactions.
For example, the seemingly stationary image of a glass of water is actually an active display of all possible interactions with it.
The understanding of the image is a experience of our arm and hand reaching for it, our hand unfolding around the glass and disappearing in the water, our arms bringing it to our mouth, and the water finding its way down our throat.

Meaning is not in the objects; objects become meaningful in our and thanks to our interactions. 

The difference between the experiences, called perception and the actual execution of movement, is possible because our brain can interpret the pulses of the motor neurons in one case as cause for movement and in the other case as an interpretation of space and form. Physical interactions form our understanding of space. This means that our relation to space – which is determined by our physicality – defines our notion of reality. Weather it is conscious or not, the abstract painter understands this and uses it to create a meaningful reality. In a painting he brings all aspects of the world back to space and form; he creates a unity that correlates with his definition of the ultimate reality. He has the ability to see the fundaments of our frame of meaning and interprets things on that basic level.
This relationship that the painter has with his reality, is a quality essential to make a good abstract painting, and also a quality that the spectator needs to have a meaningful experience with the painting. This quality essentially is a specific awareness of our specific physical relation with the world. It is this quality that eventually can evolve to “the abstract experience”.

The “abstract experience” is a consciousness in which we experience the fundament of our system of meaning. We lose the notion of time and are free from concepts; the whole experience is expressed in space and form sensed internally and externally. 

This understanding of abstract is different from the common used dictionary understanding which is basically the opposite: “Meaning withdrawn or separated from material objects or practical matters” a new formulation that fits in the context of abstract painting is: “The experience of meaning found in our concrete physical or material relation with the world.”

image:    # 4
artist:   Miguel Harbers
title:    no title
size:     151x151 cm.
material: oil on canvas

image:    # 5
artist:   Miguel Harbers
title:    no title
size:     130x121 cm.
material: oil on canvas

Plasticity and subject matter


All painters, no matter how they choose to deal with space, are interested in the sense of existence that a painting achieves. Mark Rothko says:

# “The notion of plasticity therefore means that the artist has convincingly imparted the feeling of existence to the picture”

We enter the canvas and move with forms depicted by the artist. Horizontally and diagonally we travel over the surface, we curve around spheres and pass through tunnels. We fly from point to point following the rhythm of the colours; we glide down hills and wander around in spaces. We clamp on to elements from where we find new perspectives on the whole.
It is the way our visual apparatus functions, that allows us to literally enter into the realm of the painting and interact with its elements. The plastic elements are the spatial elements that draw us in the painting and make us move and interact with its forms. Plastic elements are the things that activate our motor neurons and display a set of possible interactions. They define the reality of the painting by activating our body. Our strictly physical relation to space, defines our notion of reality. There for a sense of being that seems to me equal to a sense of realness or reality, always relates to space and form, something that is inseparable from the medium painting. The plasticity of the painting depends on the success with which this notion of reality is implemented and to what extend it triggers our body to interact.

In an excellent plastic painting, plastic elements form a coherent scenery in which we can make a journey.

Only completely indulged in the painting experiencing its plasticity, we become aware of its subject matter. When the painting activates the body, the canvas achieves a feeling of being. Because abstract painting lacks elements that come with pre existing meaning it allows us the focus on our physical relation with it. The witnessed things are meaningful in their fundamental relationship to the body there is no conceptual understanding needed, it refers to the universal inter actions of living organism and their surroundings.

Seeing without interference of concepts, is a way of seeing, that most of us only experience as just born babies.

Starting from this fundamental experience of form and space we can develop fresh meaning and create new realities. Our understanding of the painting can grow to complex rational thoughts and experiences, but is has a strong fundament in our physical sensation of that reality.

# M. Rothko, The artist’s reality, p. 43

image:    # 6
artist:   Miguel Harbers
title:    study of space
size:     60x60 cm.
material: oil on mdf plate

The creator


The true spectator and the artist have the same believes about reality, they live as creators. They are occupied with the search for truth, and understand they have to create it themselves. Those who believe in objective reality; reality existing apart from our mind, are insensitive for the relation between them and the appearance of the world.
What is abetting the “creator” to create is his ability to make a reality that correlates to his meaningful believes and sense of truth. The meaning and sense of truth that he owns, is the well rewarding result of coherency found in a history of experiences and interactions.
The philosopher builds his reality in his argumentations, the scientist sees his theory (teoria: a way of looking) confirmed through the lens of his microscope and the painter creates it in his painting; in which he has successfully reduces all meaningful aspects of his reality into form and space.
The creator understands that his conviction of truth must be materialised and placed in interaction, in order for it to be experienced and become real. Physicality is the ultimate justification of reality; something is real if we can sense it. Every abstract painting is an attempt to create a coherent reality in the realm of the canvas. The depicted plastic elements provoke interactions that enable us to create fresh meaning from our point of view, so meaning certainly is equal to being.
The process I described in this text is an interruption of our mainstream culture.
In which things must be categorised in a fast paste, easily convertible to information that can be processed in the speed an email is sent. Our pre eminently efficient culture that is builds on the basic assumption that information can simply be transferred from the one thing to another. The fact that we process meaning doesn’t make us different from a computer.
Information is not out there in the objects ready to be transferred. Information about a thing or the meaning of the things is something that is found in our relationship with the things. Meaning gets value only in our experience.
In the “abstract experience” we are completely present in our experience, the awareness of the world is a physical sensation.  In this awareness we experience the fundaments of our system of meaning, our physical situation in the world; we create meaning.

The “abstract experience” is a momentum in which we see the capacity of the human kind to create, in its most pure form.

image:    # 7
artist:   Miguel Harbers
title:    no title
size:     112x112 cm.
material: oil on canvas