Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What is the basis for color decisions in abstract art?

Abstraction seems to have evolved in terms of abstracting form. We have forms considered considered spatially (cubists), forms considered temporally (futurists), forms considered semantically (Mondrian), forms reduced to essentials (Brancusi), forms rejected (abstract expressionists). And so on. Color isn't related to form, value is.

SO... What is the role of color in the evolution of abstract art?

The expressionists use colors to convey emotions, such that Matisse could paint a face green because he simply felt like it. Gaugin made color choices based on the theory that the color one felt is more real than the local color. Yet these seem more like subjective, emotional reactions to color, and to the cultural association of color with the subject matter of art, rather than an abstraction of color.

Mondrian seems to come closest to abstracting color in his reduction of his color palette to red, yellow, and shades of grey... seeing these as essential. However, I'm not sure why they are essential. Perhaps the use of red on his palette is Mondrian's way of reducing all the hues of red down to a single hue, which then becomes the essential red. This makes sense, because the process of abstraction is one of removing particularity, of removing the variety and nuance of the "real world".

Of course, this is problematic, because the red he chooses to be the essential red is, itself, simply a particular hue of red. This reminds me of Aristotle's argument against Plato's theory of forms, whereby he points out that the form of a tree (of which all earthly trees are merely an imperfect reflection) must either be a particular tree... or no tree at all. Both alternatives break down Platos theory of forms. The perfect "form" of a tree is really what we understand to be the "abstract idea" of a tree, which is not a tree at all. Plato posited a realm of abstractions, whereby the abstractions were actual real things, which he called the forms of things. However, they can't literally exist, either here in reality, or in an alternate reality.

Applying this same logic to the abstraction of color in a painting we can see that the abstraction of color, like any abstraction, is a mental product, not a literal thing. Since art is made of literal things... and since everything on the canvas is a particular thing.... then no thing on the canvas can be literally abstract. In fact, the term "literal abstraction" is probably a contradiction in terms. So, Mondrian cannot assert that his literal red is an abstract red... it's just another hue.

However, it occurs to me that perhaps Mondrian can say that "In my paintings, the red I choose to use will always be the same, and this should be read as the reduction of all red hues to a single, essential red".  The viewer will then relax his critical eye, and accept that this red is the essential red "in the context of this painting".

You cannot paint abstractions... because they aren't literal... you can only paint your representation of them.

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