Artistic abstraction, which came into public view circa 1911, is currently undergoing a broad reassessment. At mid-century, Clement Greenberg argued that modernist painting’s exploration of line, color, and gesture — each a turn away from figurative representation and from the other plastic arts– constituted a search for artistc autonomy.
Early 20th-century artists, Greenberg believed, were compelled to make art constituted from “effects exclusive to itself”, celebrating the purity of art for art’s sake, shunning the politics of commodification and the propagandistic symbol. Over the ensuing decades, that critic’s formalist proclivities have given way to interpretations that go beyond a single artist and his materials in an effort to build abstraction’s context. And as Leah Dickerman proposes in “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” [http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/inventingabstraction/], medium-specific paring down was a conversation that artists, including Kandinsky, Léger, Delaunay, Kupka and Picabia, shared the world over, and one that bore fruit across media and across the Western world. Dickerman’s exhibition has also helped test abstraction’s reach throughout early 20th-century culture, exploring the movement’s resonance with the likes of Schoenberg twelve-town technique, Einstein’s path-breaking relativity, Paul Dirac’s will toward general axioms, and Loie Fuller’s non-narrative Serpentine Dance. [October 143] Abstraction was no hollow hermeticism. It was a hermeneutic possibility that cut across otherwise calcified boundaries between art, science and life.
In this spirit of inclusion, the Zeitschrift allows us to examine scientific abstraction’s crooked itineraries prior to 1911 — how it worked as a visual strategy bound to epistemic efficacy in the discipline of physiology, how it attempted to lend focus to the stomach of a beetle, the contours of a mollusc, over all other parts and creatures in an effort to study stimulation, degredation, life and death. More often than not for the Zeitschrift’s contributors, abstracting — or what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the “withdrawing or secluding oneself from worldly or sensual things, or of turning one’s mind away from the world towards the contemplation of the spiritual; a state of solitude or concentration on the spiritual arising from this action” — was a fraught activity. Its presumption of clarity did not always come to pass. Especially for those of us who peer back at the yellowed pages of this bygone era, without the conceptual apparatus shared by these turn-of-the-century physiologists, their efforts at visual distillation are often befuddling, mysterious, uncanny.
Built as it is on thought and meditation, abstraction can be a lonely business. It is a strange epistemological conundrum that a visual “withdrawing… from sensual things” becomes a paradigm for scientists to communicate — and, as it were commune — with one another. It is precisely this relentless cutting and trimming that can pave a very minimal way for new intellectual vistas and insights previously unobtainable. Indeed, sometimes abstraction’s refusal of the world proves to be the only way to come to know its bounty, and to recover the timbre of its mysteries.