ABSTRACTION NOW? BY MARTIN PRINZHORN
One of the most interesting questions, and one that cannot really be answered from todays perspective, is: How and to what extent is the history of art and past cultural experience in general reflected in our perceptual capacities both permanently and for longer time periods? Although there are a thousand good reasons for assuming that our powers of perception are subject to transformation in the course of cultural history, no one can really say how and to what extent such transformations actually occur. The reason for this incapacity presumably lies in our inability to delineate, even approximately, the boundary separating the conscious from the unconscious aspects that are implicated in perception. In regarding a monochrome painting, for instance, we conscious of having already seen many other such paintings, can differentiate a Rothko from a Newman. We react differently to a random patch of color discovered somewhere or other than to one found on a segment of stretched canvas in a museum or art gallery, and so forth. Opposing this in many cases (which makes the case of painting so interesting) is the artists intention to simulate a situation on the canvas in which the viewing of a colored patch triggers an unmediated and direct response on the part of the beholder, one that is experienced in a way divorced from context. But during the moment of beholding, our introspective knowledge makes us aware of how this immediacy is ruptured without delay, the visual stimulus counterchecked by memory. But the difficulty lies in more precisely determining the relationship between these two aspects, in localizing the point at which they converge, thereby attaining that totality that enables us to perform acts of aesthetic judgment. This also results in the difficulty of speaking about abstraction in general. The narrative of Modernism according to which abstraction consists of a progressive shedding of the figural by throwing certain component aspects of the picture (such as color, contour, figure, three-dimensionality, and texture) into a state of disequilibrium, thereby creating new forms of order can thus only be upheld nowadays under one of perceptions aspects, that of immediacy. Abstraction, moreover, must long since have come to exist as a figure in the outer world, which would mean that perceptual processes that are oriented toward knowledge and memory are thoroughly antithetical to the perception of abstraction as a process, which generates a sense of distance from the figure.