Navigating the abstract: At the interstice of science and philosophy
In recent years abstract art has seen a worldwide resurgence. This interest is not only limited to a reassessment of its historical value, but extends to present-day abstract art practice. Is this re-evaluation an indication of newer avenues of exploration and a change in the public opinion of the genre? Or does this revival emphasize the fact that unlike the burgeoning spectacle of contemporary art, abstract art's unforthcoming aura still remains a niche practice within the art world's broader perimeter.
Despite being one of the important art movements of the world, abstract art has always managed to polarize audiences. As public opinion vacillates between 'spiritual/liberating' and 'my child could do that', abstraction continues to be misunderstood. This possibly has its roots in the lack of recognisable elements which creates difficulty in perceiving the artist's concepts, and could, at its best challenge the viewer and at its worst, be labeled meaningless or randomly produced. Nothing could be further from the truth. The nomenclature 'abstract' itself is misleading. When artists create abstract forms, they usually have specific ideas and intentions behind their creation. To quote Robert Morris 'Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.' A work of art shorn of all embellishments and pared down to basic shapes, forms or colours may be an artist's investigations into the fundamental core of reality, and yet, visually belie the complex concepts that have gone into creating it. These dilemmas may be better served by creating platforms for dialogue that strip abstraction of its enigmatic aura and analyze it for what it really is – abstract forms based on concrete concepts.
Today science may have the upper hand in answering questions about the universe, but originally this had more to do with mysticism than with empirical investigation. The ancient roots of science trace as far back as the emergence of religious cosmologies of the early hunter gatherers1 and consequently to the development of early/prehistoric paintings.
The journey from magic/mystic to science via philosophy was a gradual and subliminal process; hence in most early cultures, philosophy was the chief precursor of artistic tradition and the distinction between the religious and the secular tended to be much less sharp. If we were to trace the lineage of abstraction in art we would have to relook at human engagements with Philosophy, Science and Art, which are all ways of exploring the world we live in and our place in the universe.
If Philosophy, in the broadest sense, is the organized search for meaning and truth and the expression and distillation of that meaning in the purest form possible, and if 'purer' branches of Science too are concerned with abstraction, then art, which is an intuitive visualization of abstract ideas, is able to trace its roots back to one or the other of these epistemological routes, if not both. In their core Philosophy, Science and Arts are all essentially abstract and intuitive in nature.
The dominant stress in Eastern philosophy had been to arrive at a unifying experience, an experience which was free from a sense of duality and multiplicity, within which existed no dichotomy between the experiences of 'real' or 'intuitive'. A hymn from the Nasadiya Sukta also known as the 'Hymn of Creation' from the Rigveda begins by paradoxically stating – 'Neither existence nor nonexistence was there; neither matter nor space around. … Then not death existed, nor the immortal … Breathing without breath, of its own nature, that one … From heat was born that one.'
Desire is mentioned as the primal seed, and the first poet-seers 'found the bond of being within non-being with their heart's thought.' In just seven verses, it deals with 'no time, no space', gradually reaching the center of deep darkness, surrounded by smooth, unending plasma. And out of this shapeless nothing, matter with shape emerges.
Pragyanparamita Heart Sutra, dating back to 350 AD mentions 'form is void: void is form.' Space or void is never inert, instead has an organic characteristic. Zen philosophy also points to a non-dualistic experiential dimension that is zero time and zero space, which means there is no distinction between past, present, and future, or between 'before' and 'after'; in zero space there is no distinction between the whole and its parts. 4 This unconcern with linear time translated itself into art which was timeless. In Far eastern paintings such as Zen landscapes, the empty space is named 'designing the white'; it conveys information by means of a lack of image, so the very absence of content can itself create rhythm and consonance without being concerned with ideas of temporality.
This lack of imagery, reduction of form, apparent absence of content and the interplay of temporality and spatiality were integral to Minimalism in the 1960's which had offered the freedom from traditional material, but more importantly had brought to fore questions of spatial perspective and the critical relationship between object and space. 'Minimalist sculptures engulfed the space they were displayed in, creating webs of structural elements which trap space, so that space and mass are not separate entities. Karl Andre referred to his Zinc-Zinc Plain (1969), as a 'cut in space' referring to physicist de Broglie's reference to the three dimensional world as a cross sectional slice of four-dimensional reality'. 5
Standing on the foundation of non dualism, traditional Indian art and architecture both relied on spatial experiences derived through narratives in non-realistic forms – dynamic perception of space while in movement. Space and Time were, considered together and in relation to each other as in the space-time chemistry. Moving through space itself became the event. 6 These then were the precursors of abstract spatial strategies - a space which was governed by philosophy and intuition, which was all inclusive, could be left bare, non illusionistic and flat and yet organic and ever changing, because philosophy decreed that void or space was form. Here the viewer looking at the work of art, would have not have a 'point of view' which existed outside the work, but would be expected to be immersed in the experience itself, which was guided not just by what was there, but also by what was not.
At the height of the Modern Abstract art movement, Ad Reinhardt echoed similar views when he explained his black paintings as the perfect metaphor of 'a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting – an object that is self conscious (no unconscious) ideal, transcendent.' 7 How had Reinhardt arrived at this conclusion? After all, rational reasoning or logical analysis had been the underlying philosophy of Western Art until the 19th Century.
Early Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus had propounded the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites, which was responsible for all change in the world. A pair of opposites was 'unity'. This bears startling resemblance to the archetypal pair yin and yang which form the base of Chinese Confucianism and Taoism and symbolises the existence of opposites in relation to each other, a representation of continuous cyclical movement which reinforces each other. By the 5th century B.C. this idea of unity was split into the two separate entities – that of spirit and matter leading to the beginning of the dualism in Western philosophy. Matter was pictured as being built up of several basic building blocks or 'atoms'.
These were considered to be purely passive and intrinsically dead particles moving in void leading philosophers to turn their attention to the spiritual world rather than the material and from there to the question of human soul and ethics. The Plato-Aristotelian idea that humankind rules nature reached a crescendo of sorts from Renaissance up to the 19th century. René Descartes based his view of nature on this fundamental division of two opposing realms of mind and matter; his famous statement 'Cogito ergo sum' (I think therefore I am), equated identity with the mind, instead of with the whole organism. As a result of the influence of his philosophy, the mind was seen as separate from the body; a fragmentation which extended to all aspects of society. 8
Isaac Newton's mechanics were based on this duality and laid the foundation of classical physics. It was this model of the universe that dominated all western scientific thought till the end of the nineteenth century. Art in the 'age of reason' was predominantly rational in character, illusionistic in expression and placed within a homogenous, linear space; a space which was 'nothing' and negative and had to be filled with objects to make it 'positive'. 9 By the mid 19th to early 20th century seismic shifts in scientific discoveries fundamentally altered classical western notions about the relationship of time and space: from the possibility of a curved space to theories on relativity, all were turning Newtonian strictures on their head and transforming theoretical physics and astronomy. Twentieth century science which had originated in the Cartesian split and its mechanistic world view, overcame the dualistic fragmentation.
Many artists felt the need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. In the period of the aftermath of World War I, radical new ideologies were propounded. Einstein's equations had declared that space was geometry and the force of gravity was due to the shape of spacetime. Three artists – Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich arrived at extreme levels of abstraction around the same time, linked by certain common beliefs of 'non-material universalist utopia based on the balancing of archetypal opposites… as well as mystical notions of a transcendent fourth dimension.'10 All three were inclined towards Theosophy and Monism (the latter referred to spiritual and material unity and the evolution of consciousness). Influenced by the philosophy of Russian mystic philosopher P. D. Ouspensky, they believed painting had power to transport an individual to a higher level of consciousness. Ouspensky in his book The Fourth Dimension (1909) had introduced the concept of fourth dimension that could be perceived only with 'cosmic consciousness', of which our three dimensional world is only a shadow and believed that this new consciousness would first reveal itself in art.11 Furthermore in the fourth dimension time and motion are recognized as illusions. Consequently it required a new language of expression. The works of the three artists may be seen as a direct response to science and metaphysics and depicted geometric forms in a gravity free and directionless space. This was the moment of alternative spatiality in Western Art.
Niels Bohr, who discovered the principle of complementarity in quantum theory, was convinced that the invisible world of the electron was essentially similar to the cubist world. In Analytical Cubism objects fractured into fragments were rearranged in the painterly space so that all the sides of an object were visible simultaneously – echoing the bizarre optical effect of Einstein's relativistic viewpoint that travelling at extremely high speed one can view more than one side of the object, which flattens out as time slows when one approaches the speed of light. It is interesting to compare that around 1905 to 1915 while Einstein, Minkowski and Planck were publishing their theorem, the first cubist works were being produced (1907-1915). In fact Les Demoiselles de Avignon (1907) was made after Einstein published his paper in 1905. Marcel Duchamp was exemplary amongst the artists who have challenged the definition of art. Throughout his life Duchamp maintained an interest in science, mathematics, optics and art and more than any other artist of the twentieth century understood and researched non-Euclidean geometry and the mathematics of higher dimensionality, fourth dimensional spacetime, electromagnetism and radiation.
Among his scientific ventures, was the development of the illusionistic Rotorelief, spinning circular geometric patterns.
Other important influences of change were primitive and Far Eastern art. Primitive notions of art and space–more concerned with timelessness as compared to chronicling of events in a linear time as such were closer to relativistic modern physics. In 1936 MOMA organized an exhibition titled Cubism & Abstract Art in which the Museum's founding director Alfred Barr Jr. traced a chart which 'has two principal axes: on the vertical time, and on the horizontal, styles or movement, both leading inexorably to the creation of abstract art. Key non-western influences, such as “Japanese prints'' “Near Eastern Art” and “African Sculpture” are indicated.'
In a circuitous way, the beginning of Modern abstract art was being traced back to the idea of nothingness, void and organic space. The world of advanced Physics and Eastern metaphysics had independently arrived at similar conclusions. Scientists had given scientific logic to what was essentially abstract thought and artists had incorporated this with intuitive accuracy, opening the floodgates for non-mimetic expression – a space unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world - a distillation as it were.
The second great period of abstract art emerged in the 1940s primarily in New York, as a result of various overlapping reasons. Abstract art to these artists was a way to the universal inner source.
Rothko, Newman among others spoke of a goal to achieve the sublime rather than beautiful. In a letter to the New York Times (in 1943), Rothko, Gottlieb and Newman wrote – 'To us art is an adventure into the unknown world of the imagination which is fancy free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical.' Many of these artists looked to the primitives for inspiration, to seek a timeless and powerful subject.
Clement Greenberg, the influential art critic who provided American modernist paintings with its critical imperative, was devoted to Kantian philosophy of the sublime. Kant in his investigation of the sublime in Critique of Judgment had stated 'We call that sublime which is absolutely great', 'beauty is connected with the form of the object having boundaries,' while sublime 'is to be found in the formless object represented by a boundlessness.'
The colour field paintings of Rothko, Newman, Still, for instance tried to free the viewer from the weight and solidity of material existence and created an ambiguous space, defying an identity. Abstract painting held the promise of new type of space and tension. This way painting needed no story, no object or narrative. The sublime was in the formless.
Formless iconography is also fundamental to Hinduism; the object as a metaphor is an integral aspect of spiritual and religious tropes of representation. The Shiva Lingam and The Saligram Stone, both powerful 'aniconic' representations, shun the idea of image. Colour too is considered transcendental in nature and symbolic of different qualities – for instance red is symbolic of Shakti or power or blue, which is the colour of the two leading gods of the Hindu pantheon- Shiva and Vishnu, is symbolic of infinity. The use of pigment which is a common practice in social and religious rituals of Hinduism have been given an artistic metamorphosis in the contemporary sculptures of Anish Kapoor, who claims to be a painter working as a sculptor. Colour is an important feature of his work and Kapoor impregnates his forms with colour inviting a psychological interplay between the object and the viewer. Recesses are sculpted in stone and covered in pigment which absorbs light, so as to disappear. These voids and protrusions according to Kapoor are 'spaces of wonder, featureless... in a sense; nonexistent… It's the idea of making a sculpture that is actually not sculpture, just a hole in space that's a non-object, a non physical thing
It's also futile because it's not possible. Grappling continually with this impossible thing seems to me to be a direct parallel for any ideas about God. It's intangible. One can't illustrate it, make it, or have it be. One can only remotely refer to it.'15 S.H. Raza, a doyen of Indian modernist abstraction, too compares his colour palette of red, blue, black, orange and yellow to the pancha tattva or the five essential elements. Raza has repeatedly painted the Bindu or the primordial dot, the symbol of beginning of creation or completeness. For over four decades he has explored the same idea; Raza says, 'the Bindu has been a vast subject with its variations throughout my life.'
Repetition which is commonly associated with abstraction plays an important role in the domain of religious and philosophical thought - in oral tradition the continual repetition of a mantra or a cyclical pattern is symbolic of perpetuity and the infinite. In the arts, conceptually, repetition could be used as a tool to assert the authority of the repeated. Shirazeh Houshiary and Roman Opalka are two contemporary artists who have used this to effect in their works. Houshiary, who for the past 20 years has been covering her canvases with two miniscule words in Arabic 'I am' and 'I am not', explains that the overlapping of the words is not about meaning but about the relationship between the absence and the presence which is unknowable.
Opalka (1931-2011) on the other hand explored how we measure and perceive passing time working towards counting infinity, he began in 1955 by painting the number 1 with white paint on the top left corner of a black monochrome canvas, then went on to methodically paint rows of consecutive numbers with a fine brush, picking up on the succeeding canvas where the previous had left off. In each successive he introduced one percent more white pigment than before till he arrived at a completely white painting. All his paintings bore the same title, Opalka 1965/1- ∞. To quote him, 'All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity.' Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century made several variations of his sculpture Endless Column (1918), referencing the axis mundi or the axis of the world, a concept embodying the connection of heaven and earth. This sculpture embodies the theme of infinity and makes use of the repetition of identical rhomboid shapes..
Lao Tsu had said, 'a good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.' Einstein said, 'Invention is not the product of logical thought, even though the final product is tied to logical structure.' Both the quotes refer to a human operation which lies beyond the bounds of logic
They re-emphasize the fact that the moment of creative insight always remains indeterminate, and it is the kind of a leap when boundaries dissolve between logic and intuition, intellect and emotion as truth and new modes of articulating the truth simply arrive unbidden.
As global markets shift their traditional hierarchies, diverse historical and aesthetic genealogies create a worldwide web of reciprocity and re-contextualisation. While postabstract abstraction has significantly leaned towards globalization, technology, digital as well as scientific breakthroughs and contemporary socio-cultural material, a significant number of artists are involved in spiritual and metaphysically inclined works which operate at the interstice of art, science, philosophy and technology.
These concerns are not just limited to new media artists but painters, sculptors, performance artists, environmental artist among others. The programme directive of a multidisciplinary arts programme organized by CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research, Switzerland) is explained as a creative collision between arts and science in the form of interactions, interplay and interventions aimed to go beyond paradigms, explains itself as 'We believe that particle physics and the arts are inextricably linked: both are ways to explore our existence.
The two fields are natural creative partners for innovation in the 21st century.... Together science and the arts form culture, our expression of what it is to be human in our universe.'16 Working within this collaborative praxis, media artist Victoria Vesna works with physicists, theoreticians, engineers, and biologists to produce art within advanced scientific laboratories. She gains insight into 'regions that lie far beyond earth-bound experience of space/time and object/event.' Nano Mandala (2004) fulfilled Vesna's proposition that the unification of material and mental phenomena is optimized when the Western ideas truly merge with long-standing Eastern knowledge. Vesna explains that she was inspired by watching the nano scientist at work, purposefully arranging atoms just as Tibetan monks laboriously create sand images grain by grain. Both cultures use these bottom-up building practices to create a complex picture of the world from extremely different perspectives.17 A similar agenda distinguishes the work of contemporary German painter Gerhard Mayer who creates site-specific wall drawings of Indian ink on white walls of galleries and public buildings by means of a 1 cm wide brush.
Gerhard is fascinated by the idea that matter as solid as it may seem, consists of emptiness and particles that are connected to all elements. Inspired by science of micro- and macrocosm that goes beyond imagination; he creates visual correspondence to these insights. Not to explain, but to harmonize and to unify. He echoes the 'form is void: void is form' philosophy as well as Quantum Physics which says everything of substance is moving relative to everything else. Others like Eduardo Kac, Chris Drury, Mariko Mori and Philip Galanter operate fluidly between diverse fields such as biotechnology, geology, virtual ecology, ekpyrotic cosmology, particle physics as they redefine art and its relation to cultural space.
The few artists and works discussed in this article are simply used to illustrate the complexities of abstract art along with its multiple sources of influence, resulting in nonrepresentational dynamism and simpatico within hybridity. These are interesting times as arts explore different inquiry pathways, conceptual frameworks and cultural association pointing towards a possible future in which arts can reassume their historical role of keeping watch on the cultural frontier.18 To once again revisit the question posed in the beginning concerning the validity of abstract art - It is possible to say, when viewed in the light of its philosophical and scientific underpinnings, that the aesthetics of abstract art may be comparable to Philosophia Perennis, which proposes a core of philosophical truths that are hypothetised to exist independently of and unaffected by time or place 19 and which will continue to recur in similar form an infinite number of times. This cyclical renascence of abstract art is a response to contemporary life and calls our attention to the idea of continuous flux. Abstract art seizing the cultural moment acts as a corollary reaction to the pivotal spirit of the age, even as it constantly refigures itself like the mythical Ouroboros.
- Art and Science; Sîan Ede; page 17; Publisher I.B.Tauris, 2005.
- Dialectical Materialism- A. Spirkin, Chapter 1, Philosophy as a World-View and a Methodology.
- Origin of the Universe- Translation of Nasadiya Sukta -Rayalu Vishwanadha.
- Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy- Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy -First published Wed Jun 28, 2006; substantive revision Fri Oct 8, 2010.
- Art & Physics; Parallel visions in space, time & light: Leonard Shlain, Ch 24 Sculptural Mass/Curved Spacetime, pg 366.
- Concepts of Space in Traditional Indian Architecture by Yatin Pandya & Vastu Shilpa Foundation for Studies & Research in Environmental Design.
- Art on art -Ad Reinhardt, edited by Barbara Rose, New York, Viking, 1975.
- The Tao of Physics – An Exploration of Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism – Fritjof Capra – pg 20-23.
- Art & Physics; Parallel visions in space, time & light: Leonard Shlain, Quill, 1991.
- Art in the Fourth dimension: Giving Form to Form- The Abstract Paintings of Piet Mondrian – Spaces of Utopia- Runette Kruger an Electronic Journal 2007.
- Digital Mantras: The Languages of abstract and Virtual worlds – Steven R. Holtzman Ch 19, pg 288 The MIT Pres.s
- Enigmatic Genius – Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance: Art as Experiment by Herbert Molderings by Merridawn Duckler.
- Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art edited by Leah Dickerman.
- Kant Immanuel, Critique of Judgment, (Sec 23/25) 1790.
- Art Interview: Anish Kapoor by Ameena Meer, Bombmagazine.org.
- Creative Collisions between the Arts and the Science @CERN.
- Linda Weintraub: Victoria Vesna, From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.
- Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology; Stephen Wilson; 2002. MIT Press, Cambridge.
- The need for a sacred science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr; Taylor & Francis, 1995.
USHMITA SAHU is a practising artist, writer and independent curator. Having completed her B.F.A. in Painting from Delhi College of Art, and M.F.A. in Painting from Kala-Bhavana, Visva- Bharati University, Ushmita is now based in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India.