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Finding Meaning in Abstraction

Finding Meaning in Abstraction

Choosing what information to leave out can be harder — and more important — than choosing what to include. Restraint directs people to meaning, while excess information only clouds the focus. This rule applies as much in data visualization as it does in art.

In Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte elegantly likens the trajectory of data visualization and art, from representational to abstract, by discussing the development of maps:

“To go from maps of existing scenery to graphs of newly measured and collated data was an enormous conceptual step. Embodied in the very first maps were all the ideas necessary for making statistical graphics – quantified measures of locations of nouns in two-dimensional space – and yet it took 5,000 years to change the name of the coordinates from west-east and north-south to empirically measured variables X and Y. The even longer history of art took a similar course: The naturalistic coordinate system of painted cave-wall and canvas was first dislocated by Cubism’s fractured images from multiple viewpoints and then eventually abandoned altogether in 20th-century abstract painting, as the two dimensions of the canvas no longer referred to worldly scenery but only to themselves.”

For example, finding a location on a map by quadrant or coordinates has obvious benefits over, say, identifying a place using only its name or a drawn landmark.

Francis Picabia. Dances à la source (Dances at the spring). 1912. Oil on canvas, 8′ 3 1/8″ x 8′ 2″ (251.8 x 248.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Collection, given by their family. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Depa

Forgoing representation frees both data visualizers and artists to find other, purer meaning. (Although as’s Visualization Architect Drew Skau pointed out recently, the abstracting qualities of percentages and large numbers can obfuscate the very human issues behind them.)

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, which wrapped up a four-month run at the Museum of Modern Art this week, traces the art world’s leap from post impressionism to cubism to non-geometric abstraction.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) Impression III (Concert)”. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

What’s most interesting about the abstract movement is just how fast its artists turned the long history of representational art on its head. In just a few decades, abstract art went from nonexistent to avant-garde, to critical acceptance, to a part of artistic thought.

Kazimir Malevich. Zhivopisnyi realizm mal’chika s rantsem-krasochnye massy v 4-m izmerenii. (Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension). 1915. Oil on canvas, 28 x 17 1/2″ (71.1 x 44.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange). Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, John Wronn.

That spread has largely been a result of the personal relationships among the early abstract artists.

You can trace the inspiration/collaboration through 350 works in a variety of media and also a network graph that maps the artists’ relationships. It’s a collaboration between the exhibition’s curatorial and design team, as well as Columbia Business School Kravis Professor of Business Paul Ingram and grad student Mitali Banerjee.

The chart decorates the exhibition’s title wall but lives on online, providing a handy way of seeing who knew whom. Vectors link artists with documented acquaintances. Artists with the most connections are highlighted in red, offering a quick way to see those most influential in disseminating the ideas and discussion of abstract art. These artists reached across continents and disciplines to collaborate on an artform that would become an indispensable part of the conversation on art.

As curator Leah Dickerman said at the exhibition’s press opening in December, the chart “shows in some sense how ideas move through the world.” It also illuminates that abstract art is “not the innovation of a solitary romantic genius sitting under a tree who’s visited by a muse.” Rather, Dickerman said, “It’s a relay of ideas that moves like wildfire through a network of artists and intellectuals working in farflung places in different media.”

These were real people having real conversations about representation—and leaving it behind to broaden their artistic horizons. A mark on paper no longer had to beanything, leaving room for people to feel it. A lack of pictorials illuminated other ideas.

Using the network graph, one can imagine the relationships between the abstract greats and how those relationships affected their work. Although it’s certainly not a definitive way of tracking inspiration—an unwieldy thing to follow— the visual aid does alert viewers to its fertile presence, even in the wordless, subjectless world of abstraction.


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