Reformulating the idea of Abstraction


WooJin Shin


            The conversation around art that deals with abstraction is fading away in different systems (market, institution, art education), because it seems almost impossible to stylize, strategize, or even theorize the idea of abstraction. The idea of abstraction is an indefinable subject matter because of its own nature. Accordingly, what becomes crucial is self-acknowledgement of artists who deals with abstract forms and ideas. They need to attempt to understand what they are dealing with, and how they are dealing with abstraction similarly and differently than others, who deals with more definable subject matters. If they succeed on doing so, we may be able to find a link between different perspectives toward the idea of abstraction, which may allow us to have better understanding of ourselves and others.  

            The current discourse about abstraction is beyond the point of formalistic analysis. Figuration is at the extension of abstraction, and abstraction is at the extension of figuration. In traditional East Asian painting, a single mark is understood as a compression of universe, which allowed the idea of image to be abstract from the beginning. This idea influenced the Western idea of abstraction as well. Also, when South Korea was dominantly influenced by the Western culture after the Korean war, there was a sense of loss on its own painting history. Surprisingly, Korean painters revived their cultural identity by embracing the idea that came from West, such as Fluxus movement, and the philosophy of Barnett Newman. It informed them to create a hybrid movement called, “Dansaekhwa”. This history proves that the ideas formulate around abstraction function as universal language.

Artists who deals with the idea of abstraction often have a strong sense of intuition. How would one form a thought just by sensing its surrounding? Sensing is more about feeling than thinking. Feeling is not something that can be delivered in definitive terms. Both sensing and feeling are primal drives. It is more of an immediate reaction or a response, rather than an accumulation of fully digested thoughts. Then the question will be, “How would artists deliver what they are sensing?”. Following is the process of old East Asian landscape painters transforming their experience of surrounding to an image.

Primal drive - Awareness of surrounding - Self-examination - Internalization - Execution.     

What does it mean that abstract way of thinking and communicating is widely spread in different cultures? Is it an act of digesting civilization? Is it an attempt to understand the whole through parts? Is it a refusal of definitive forms? Is it an outcome of existential crisis? Is it an attempt to communicate universally? What is it that we are trying to tell each other through abstract language?