Realism in the Abstract Age

The Spirit and the Flesh: Contemporary American Realists (ISBN: 0-9642900-3-1), catalogue accompanying an exhibition of that name held at Oglethorpe University Museum, Atlanta, Georgia, October 15 – December 28, 1995.

This essay appeared in the 1995 catalogue The Spirit and the Flesh: Contemporary American Realists (ISBN: 0-9642900-3-1) that accompanied an exhibition of that name held at Oglethorpe University Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.

Realism in the Abstract Age

by Jason Edward Kaufman

The twentieth century may one day be referred to as “The Age of Abstraction. ” But has the ascendancy of abstract art made realism obsolescent? To evaluate the current status and future of realism, it is necessary to understand the origins and theory of abstraction, for it is in relation to its usurper that realism comes into sharpest focus.

Realism was the dominant approach for at least two millennia, until modernism cast it into disrepute. The beginning of the end for realism was the advent and refinement of photography, after which painters staked out their territory by representing not what the eye (or camera) sees, but what the mind’s eye sees. More than a century later, the opinion lingers that to be modern, artistic subject matter must correspond to the reality behind the painters’ eyes, not to what is in front of them.

Abstract art intentionally departs from natural appearances. The term encompasses a vast range of styles, from Expressionism and Fauvism to Cubism and Futurism, from Suprematism and DeStijl to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In between lie endless gradations, each an attempt to express something that by realist means might be incommunicable.

Picasso, Klee, Giacometti, Bacon, and other modernists have used abstract elements to expand the pictorial range by which ideas are conveyed. However, abstract artists sometimes create images that lack all trace of tangible reality. Instead of delineating a person, place, or thing, they seek to communicate with colors and shapes alone. Such artwork that represents no recognizable subject is “nonrepresentational ” or “non-objective” abstraction. This antipodal form offers instructive contrasts with realism.

Like listening to music, the interpretation of abstract art is highly subjective. Each viewer must arrive at her or his own explanation, even though the artists may have had a very specific, and often very different, meaning in mind. Occasionally, several viewers may understand an abstraction in the same way. However, with non-objective works in particular, there may well be as many explanations as there are spectators.

For many, it can prove an insurmountable challenge to make sense of a Mondrian, a Barnett Newman, a Clyfford Still, or other non-objective abstract paintings, if indeed any meaning can be found in them at all. Nevertheless, abstract art has flourished for a hundred years, and has been so ingrained in the history of art that the process of its birth now seems inevitable.

The late Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset provides a remarkable framework for understanding abstraction’s place within stylistic evolution.[1] Since the Middle Ages, he observes, the subject of art has traveled inward, along the line of human sight. The Medieval artist depicted his surroundings as if from a multitude of separate vantage points, rendering near and far with equal clarity, yielding a fragmented and incoherent image. The Renaissance artist unified depicted space by means of linear and aerial perspective, and the Baroque artist intensified the sense of immediacy engendered by spatial illusion, heightening the emotional impact by means of lighting and composition. The trajectory toward a coherent inner world continued with the Impressionist, whose subject was less the external object itself, than the image of that object which light inscribes on the retina. And the inward progression culminated with the modern artist, whose subject was no longer the world outside, but the artist’s inner landscape – his ideas, sensations, and emotions.

Ortega y Gasset’s ingenious model serves as a metaphor for humankind’s drive to further know his or her own workings. But it offers no critique of the efficacy of abstraction. It adds historical context to the abandonment of realism in what has been the century of abstraction, but it does not evaluate the impact that abandonment has wrought.

Now, it must be said that it is tremendously important for the development of human thinking to have our ideas shaken up once in a while. It is too easy to rely on conventional ways of doing things, and conventional ways of perceiving the world. When our behavior and thoughts become rote, we’re as good as dead. We certainly cannot solve any of the fundamental mysteries of existence with closed minds.

But in retrospect, the experiment in abstraction has not been an unqualified success. We may like an abstract design, and may even assign a meaning to the impression we take away. But does it really say something to us? Does it touch the emotions? Does it really convey the inner life of the artist? Or does it merely symbolize, by definition, such lofty aspirations?

It’s hard to say. To communicate with abstraction is an iffy proposition at best. The content of abstract art is largely subjective. It is more a reflective than a communicative experience. Its impact relies on the ability of the viewer to make something significant and intelligent of the event. Which is not to say that abstract works do not often reward contemplation, or that brushwork, gesture, composition, color, perspective, and other formal elements may not convey ideas and emotions. But at its current stage of exploration, abstraction is a language whose words are yet to be invented.

Somewhere between perception and conception the mind generates abstract imagery, but the mechanics of this phenomenon have yet to be systematically analyzed. Accordingly, abstract art tends to have the flavor of conjecture rather than of authority. Its practitioners sanctimoniously claim that their work holds a privileged status between the external world and inner vision. But the inability to explicate the boundaries and interdependencies of objectivity and subjectivity undermines the validity of their position. What are we to do? Conduct scientific research in the emotive propensities of formal and chromatic elements in visual art? Such a psycho-perceptual study would give greater definition to the “content” of abstract composition. However, the notion of carrying out artistic research in a laboratory seems antithetical.

Nonetheless, perhaps defining abstraction is not so much an impossibility as an unachieved ideal. Perhaps culturally specific meanings can accrue to abstract visual motifs as they have to the arbitrary sounds that comprise spoken language, or the non-representational tones that comprise music. It may even be argued that abstract images can carry meanings that realist art cannot. For example, critics contend that a Pollock drip painting is an expression of absolute freedom from convention, a conduit for the raw forces of nature. How could an artist express such an idea through realism?

In any case, if non-objective abstraction is a language, it is one with very few speakers. For the majority of persons it is meaningless. Despite its potential, at this point, abstract art is largely subjective fantasy masquerading as public reality. An abstraction may elicit similar emotional interpretations in two viewers, and their interpretation may be just what the artist intended. But the incidence of such correspondence is likely extremely rare.

No wonder many people admit that they have trouble appreciating even what is held to be the best abstraction. Kenneth Clark, the British connoisseur, sometimes referred to Abstract Expressionism as having been composed of “intuitive blots. ” A former professor of mine was once asked by another student if he was going to see the Morris Louis retrospective, then at The Museum of Modern Art. He reflected momentarily, apparently trying to envision what the experience would be like. “Imagine all those shower curtains in one place,” he replied.

The question of quality in abstract art is extraordinarily difficult to argue convincingly one way or another. Yet nothing, it seems, can diminish the widely held and entrenched belief – one might call it “the Modernist Credo” – that abstraction, rather than realism, is the legitimate mode of painting in the twentieth century. Rallying under the banner of artistic freedom, adherents to the frequently exploited doctrine of abstract art’s incontestable significance have effectively revoked all traditional measurements of aesthetic quality (except formal criteria, which are hopelessly cryptic).

An alternative is to seek refuge in the return to realism that has been steadily accelerating since the 1970s. Unlike the work of many of their modernist contemporaries, realists remain true to the testimony of their eyes, seeking to capture the information which their senses supply them. Their images are not graphic codes for solipsistic daydreams, but inventories of the verifiable, tangible facts that constitute a common reality.

The fact that their art has been practiced for millennia in no way limits its originality, quality, or authenticity today. Have we really changed so much? I don’t think so. If we still savor an Old Master picture, why not a contemporary one of comparable beauty? Indeed, a beautifully composed and executed still life, landscape, or figure, whether it dates from 1490 or 1990, will always please the discriminating eye. In many ways, aesthetic excellence is unchanging. Are we merely trying to keep up with the latest intellectual or commercial trend? Or are we seeking out the art that genuinely appeals to us?

Of course, mundane representation is not much better than mundane abstraction. But realism can afford an aesthetic experience categorically different from abstraction. It provides an alternative to the indeterminate vagaries of abstract composition, imagery which may seem like a child could do it. One may appreciate a realist work of art as an embodiment of excellence in a complex craft, an example of how well something difficult can be done, a model towards which one can strive.

Though a pure abstraction may offer intellectual engagement, as an object it rarely provides the kind of exhilaration that a technically accomplished realist work can provide. A Rothko may evoke certain somber sentiments, but it lacks both the exquisite skill of facture that one appreciates in, for example, a Holbein, as well as the virtuosity evident in, say, Degas’s absolute grasp of the way the human body fits together. Pollock was certainly the master of his technique, and some of his drip canvases are beautiful, and may even inspire metaphorical notions of considerable interest. But they simply do not equal the facility with paint that a Velasquez exudes. Which is not to ignore abstraction’s potential beauty.

Abstract artists claim that their work distills some essence from nature. But for most people, that connection with the world is tenuous at best. With realism, the connection is overt. Part of the enjoyment of a realist work derives from allowing oneself to be swept into the intended illusion. The crisp lucidity of the objects, the attention to the most intricate details, and the precise physiognomy of the figures all test the viewer’s willingness to suspend his knowledge that the scene with which he is presented is a manufactured one.

In the increasingly secular and artificial twentieth century, realism paradoxically can offer a mode of transcendence. Not all realism is spiritually uplifting, but in some instances, the spectator’s connection to the materiality of a scene can be transformed into a meditation on, and communion with, the world and the ineffable.

The realist canvas does not merely transport the viewer to a depicted locale; the best can elicit the sense that one is looking at the subject as if through the painter’s eyes. Our experience can be both deepened and intensified; time expands ecstatically, as if the analytical scrutiny of the artist were compressed into our own brief examination. Art has always strived to move the spectator, to allow the viewer to experience the world as another has or does. Superb realism can engender this intersubjective experience. To challenge the fundamental isolation of the individual – what grander goal for art?


  1. José Ortega y Gasset, “On Point of View in the Arts,”The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature,(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948) 106-130.

About the author:

Jason Edward Kaufman is an arts writer and critic. According to his website “Mr. Kaufman’s area of expertise is the history of art, from ancient to contemporary, with particular strength in Renaissance to Modern, American, art of the twentieth century, and the study of museums.” and “He has published more than 1,000 articles in prominent publications in the US, Europe, and Japan.”





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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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