What people call abstraction is not really abstraction. People think that it’s a genre in art and its opposite is “representation” (a term that had to be invented once abstraction became a trend). Abstraction is merely a giving over to perception. A pure visual data that comes into our eyes via the optic nerve exists for us only as an notion of possibility. No one really knows what uncoded vision might be. By the time we are able to speak, we have already also learned to see, and things are things. Once you can give a thing a name, you’ve made it possible to ignore much of what it looks like. Artists, however, are people who make the trip back into perception. Yet even an artist cannot see things deprived of their thingness. Our brains shape the world prior to our awareness in ways we can barely imagine.
Children imitate speech before learning their language. They get the rhythm and sound out with something that almost passes for English, or French, or Chinese, or whatever — only it lacks a clear vocabulary! I think to some extent children express bits of pre-vision also even as they are learning to see — or learning to see while defining more and more of the world in words. I gave my daughter a paint brush at a very early age, and she did more than “just scribble.”
I found a logic and rigor in her first paintings. And they are not devoid of “representation.” When she could talk she used to tell me what was inside her pictures, and there were always things. A child’s “abstraction” is only apparent to outsiders. A world of things lies hidden inside the marks.
A true abstraction has nothing to do with whether objects are recognizable in a realistic way. Ingres’s paintings and drawings are full of the most beautiful abstractions. Before they are things, his lines are pure lines. Their lyricism and sinuousity stands apart from a mere rendering. All the greatest works of art have a visual logic that resides deep inside the image, really at its core. Thus to endow a picture of something with a vivid abstraction is merely to bring back into it the immediacy of living perception.
[Top of the post: A picture of something by the author’s kid at age three]