a philosophical reflection on abstraction, in the work of Alf Löhr

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note: excerpts from a talk give at Tate Modern, London, for a conference entitled, Abstract Connections, 12 April, 2010, which took place on the occasion of two major exhibitions, Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World and Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective.  see –  https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/audio/abstract-connections-conference-audio-recordings

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it’s always been curious to me that so many very sensitive and intelligent people have a visceral dislike of much art that goes by the name of modernist abstraction.

and i’ve a confession or sorts, as a cultural art historian and philosopher, i must relate at the outset. i’ve had a love-hate relationship to it. so i do have some sympathy with it’s detractors, for reasons very different then theirs, for the most part.

but here i am, making abstract, geometric paintings for the first time.

at moments like this, i’m always reminded of a well known lesson from Confucius’s Analects:

[2:4] The Master said: “At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.”

Ezra Pound translated this masterwork quite differently; the last clause in his words are far more beautiful:

at seventy, I was able to follow my own heart’s desire without overstepping the T-square.

70 is still a ways off I’m happy to say. whether or my ‘ear is obedient’ or not, is not for me to judge. i suspect it sometimes is, sometimes not.

but to return from this divigation to my thesis – that a love of abstraction is innate to most people.

it’s not difficult to find a myriad of examples from everyday life – the most cliche and therefore perhaps the most representative – the love of sunsets and sunrises. it’s not a distant segue to star- and cloud-gazing. the mesmerizing effects of waves crashing against a sandy beach or rocky cliffs. patterns of drifting snow. the grey and silver tones that gloss the surface of a mountain lake surrounded by peaks. the variegated striations of geological formations. the great minimalist distances of landscapes in the southwestern US. the barrenness of the green hills of the Scottish highlands. Saharan sands drifting. the joy of a cloudless blue sky. the love of miniaturization, as when the world is seen from 30,000 feet out the window of an airplane.

But when this instinct is hung on a museum wall, the degree of general animosity is boundless. The cause of that anger? Many things of course, but many may be generalized as a defense of naturalism and realist representation that has for so long been historically and culturally dominant.

To put this in the register of philosophical language –

Every encounter with visual abstraction and its history is also, to some degree, an encounter, a direct ‘interaction,’ with the elimination of a realistically rendered world. To borrow and extend Kobena Mercer’s terms, abstraction produces an experience of discrepancy – a discrepancy between what ‘common sense’ tells us about how the world appears, and the ‘uncommon sense’ that abstract art aims to produce. Abstraction aims to disorient us from the modes of what is optically dominant, the realism found in the photographic image. It is a demonstration that all perception is learned, constructed, and teaches us to see and feel in ways that fundamentally challenge the strictly optical clichés of visual perception that conventions of realism tend to police.

In Peter Wollen’s semiotic terms: “Abstraction strips the sign of the signified, withdrawing its relationality into an essentialist self-referentiality.” Translated, that means an abstract painting, say, intends to refer only to itself, not to the world beyond it, the signified. But the signified is only half of the semiotic game in this account. If abstraction abandons only the signified, its reference to the real, must we then conclude that the signifier abandons all forms of relationality and reference? Must we conclude that abstraction is doomed to a reductive and essentialist self-referentiality as Wollen believes? I don’t think so. The sign is stripped only of its linguistic, signifyig meaning – that yellow round mark in the blue field is the sun; and only meaning dominated by linguistic knowledge, is abandoned. If abstraction is freed of Wollen’s semiotic interpretation, then its signification can and must be redefined independently of its linguistic origins. So the question then becomes: what other forms of referentiality might abstraction offer beyond linguistic meaning?

Alf Löhr, a Germany born, London-based painter, hos been addressing that question for 30 years.

His modes of abstract thought are related, but arise from quite different impulses and principles. We’ve been in dialog about his work and art making in general for well over 10 years now. He recently sent me the following email message, that I think is the best way to begin my analysis of his work:

Good Morning Mark,

After reading what the dictionary says about, “Abstract,” I am starting to think that I have the wrong word all together – ” Existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence : abstract concepts such as love or beauty.” – I can live with. But not the following –

  • dealing with ideas rather than events : the novel was too abstract and esoteric to sustain much attention.
  • not based on a particular instance; theoretical : we have been discussing the problem in a very abstract manner.
  • (of a word, esp. a noun) denoting an idea, quality, or state rather than a concrete object : abstract words like truth or equality.
  • of or relating to abstract art : abstract pictures that look like commercial color charts.

So who is right ? They or me? What is it that I do?

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It is my view that Johnson’s invention of the dictionary in 1755 has had some unfortunate consequences. It has, as it intended, imposed strict limits on lexical variation. The definition of the term, abstract, that Löhr cites, is not free of ideological and epistemological problems. Of particular relevance here is the definition’s exclusion of events from the domain of abstraction. Johnson’s legacy in this particular case has imposed Platonic idealism and Enlightenment rationalism on the term. Not to mention its quite disturbing conception of abstract art. I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that events can indeed be abstract. But more to the point is an analogy I wish to draw here. Just as the Johnsonian lexicon restricted the aural, sonic variability of Shakespeare’s 7 ways of spelling his name, to one; so has art historical canonization and discourse delimited what may be epistemologically and ontologically recognized as abstract art. The consequences for visuality cannot be underestimated. The still largely Greenbergian formalist conception of abstraction tends to frame the picture plane in terms of the “scene,” as in a theater scene. The criterion for a legitimate work of abstract painting is that it represent only one form of visuality, the passive gaze. But what about other forms of vision, other lexical registers like glance, look, see, regard, spectate, watch, peer, stare, terms which connote a sense that vision is highly active and dynamic, that it has a constructive, imaginative role to play? The oft cited criticism of formalism is that its reductiveness essentializes the medium. But there has been virtually no critique of how it even more significantly essentializes visuality itself, reducing it to the singular form of the passive gaze. The consequences for the artist’s I’ve talked about so far, but particularly for Löhr, is that their work cannot be seen, that it literally cannot be recognized, because its whole purpose is to step out of the idealizing scene of the gaze and into the event.

So Löhr raises exactly the right question: What is it that he does? To put it in a Gertrude Steinian way: what does his doing, do?

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Löhr’s painting at first glance might be historically described as action painting. However, his aesthetic principles are motivated by quite different concerns. He does not aim to produce a fetish finish surface, or compositions seemingly free of human production. He is governed by principles of action-reaction, and by a clear set of visual dynamics and vocabulary. His painterly syntax is based on an exquisite dance between chance and determination of visual and emotional differences modulated between transparency, layering, drips, splatters, splashes, opacities, luminosities, hues, and tones, given scalar force and dimensionality.

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Löhr’s work is about that directionality of the viewer’s imagination. It is about elementality, but an elementality of active forces not forms, of acts and events rather than forms. It is about producing in the viewer affective states and emotional experience, about the production of such states through the means of projection – throwing paint and catching it midair as it were. Landing somewhere along the line of their arc into being, his paintings never realize being as such, only processes or events of becoming. They are neither form nor formless, never become resolved in Euclidean space or linear Newtonian time of the everyday we have been trained to believe in, to see without really seeing. They never resolve themselves in the safety zones of integrated one-, two- and three-dimensionality, but insist on variable velocities and variable scales co-creating each other, in 2/3s of a dimension, or 1/4 dimensions, 2.66 dimensions, 3.333 dimensions. In effect, and affect, they must be understood more in terms of time than of space, closer to filmic experiments of the American and British avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s, but derive from our contemporary moment made manifest in televisual moving images of war, forest fires, floods, weather, or the melting of artic ice sheets. Löhr’s catastrophic vision are joyous, imbued with pleasure, perhaps even a desire for explosive violence. It is this dark force that he so brightly illumines.

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He directs his viewer to enter precisely that aporia. In so doing, his work must be interpreted as resisting the spectacular hegemony of filmic expression by slowing it, condensing it once again into the still frame of his watercolor works on paper, where movement in all its fragility and mesmeric intensities are caught with great precision and range. They are slow ‘zoom ins’ and ‘zoom outs’ that aim to capture the raw power of the violence that constitutes today’s affective visual atmosphere. They are simultaneously macro- and microcosmic, where the universe is simultaneously both scaled up and down to register all the more powerfully because rarity becomes density as it compresses, and the super dense becomes super rare as it expands. Löhr’s work must be understood as seeing and feeling events taking place more in time, rather than through Greenbergian reductions to the idioms of formal spatiality. In this fact lies his great achievement; his work takes painting in a radically new direction, beyond the formalist obsessions that have typically driven the medium.

Löhr work, then, revitalizes the concerns that have long been at work in the traditions of abstract painting. Yet he recasts it radically as a typology of tensions produced between a restricted set of non-plastic marks, forms, and structures, freed of the highly controlled techniques and effects that characterize the abstract work of previous decades. Unlike the 20th century traditions of abstraction, which aimed above all for the effect of harmony and unity, Löhr strives for disunity, or dissonance, abandoning any pretense to harmonious, visual singularity. Surfaces and depths simultaneously occupy a plurality of scales, just as the marks are the effects of a plurality of speeds. The vastness of the sky has given way to the vastness of the invisible exterior of which the painting desperately attempts to contain only the smallest part, for the briefest moment. Shapes rarely cohere, and are radically subordinated to collisions among forces and events of which the marks are only an index. They do not constitute photographic indexicality in any way, they do not constitute indexicality of the scenic gaze, but of the deep, invisible forces of active empathy, always so alive in us.

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In Löhr’s work, time is compressed, condensed in the performance of the “painting-act,” which because it is an event, requires the viewer to investigate it as such, and requires a continuous, reciprocal exchange between the painter, the viewer, and the world since everything is, literally, on the surface where all three meet, producing what Löhr calls, paradoxically, an objective emotion. This is an emotion that originates in the world, not in the interior of the viewer’s psyche. Löhr’s paintings then do not seek to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, but to produce one not experienced before, and therefore cannot be subjective.

Löhr’s paintings are an objective depiction of the correspondence between mankind and the fragment-world that so thoroughly determines our emotional world, today.

a philosophical reflection on abstraction, in the work of Alf Löhr

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