Lisa Taliano — 10 X Relay

The painters in 10 X Relay represent a cross section of artists in New York City that are keeping vital the tradition of abstract painting in America. The exhibition grew out of the connections between people and paintings in a direct and personal way.  It started out as a conversation over dinner among friends and turned into a collaborative experiment and a stress test of the ties that bind us together as a community created through a shared language and the obsession to paint.

Why Abstract Painting?

How can we say anything new in painting? The canvas never starts off empty. It is always covered in clichés. Clichés are everywhere – images that circulate through the external world and penetrate our internal world. Our perceptions and our canvases are full of clichés by which we think and feel.  Abstract painting, when successful, is a way to rid ourselves of the clichés that regulate our lives. Abstraction can serve to undo the synthesis of our perceptions, the optical organization of the cliché, through the free interplay of non-representational and non-signifying lines and colors.

To paint today one must come to see the surface as Gilles Deleuze described in his Logic of Sensation, not as empty or flat, but as intense: filled with the unseen forces of other strange possibilities, mixed and assembled in transformable and deformable ways. [1]  Abstraction in this sense is not about the flattening of illusionistic space, or the elimination of figure and narrative; it is not a retreat into pure painterly self-reference; it is an invention of other spaces with original sorts of mixtures, taking elements from all over, past and present, and making odd connections and re-assemblages.

Clement Greenberg argued that abstraction in each art form should appeal only to the sense which perceived its effect, excluding whatever is related to any other sense, and by virtue of its medium attain an exclusive domain. Abstract painting then would only concern itself with what is purely optical.  He pointed to Pollock as an artist whose work attained pure “opticality”.  Deleuze, on the other hand, argues that Pollocks pictorial space departs from the purely optical to discover more haptic forms of spacialization. He claims that Pollock discovers a pictorial space that comes before the optical field of contoured delimited figures in illusionistic space, and therefore cannot simply be derived from them by means of purification or the flattening of perspective. Through his abstract line with its “variable direction, tracing no contour and delimiting no form, ceaselessly diverging and bifurcating” [2], Pollock achieves an uncentered, unbounded, and formless condition, by which he discovers a force or potential inherent in pictorial space itself.  “Abstraction can no longer be understood as the emptying of illusionistic space of figures and stories; it is a “sensation” of this larger abstract space that precedes and exceeds them”[3]. Greenberg’s account of the modernist project and the development of abstract painting as a move towards self-referential flatness and the rejection of illusionistic space is not sufficient. “Far from resulting from stripping illusionistic space bare, abstraction is something prior to it – something that comes first.”[4] Painting is abstract from the outset.  It is so in Prehistoric times. Classical European illusionism is merely a late development in an essentially abstract art. Through Pollock, we come to see that the motivation of abstraction is not to strip painting from all concrete context to attain pure formal opticality; it is to offer sensations of things that can be seen only through the experience of the collapse of the visual, the undoing of the cliché.

Cezanne talks about this very experience when he says that painters must look beyond the landscape to its chaos, where one no longer sees forms or matter but only forces, densities, intensities.[5]   This is what he called the world before humanity – a complete collapse of visual coordinates. Afterwards, he said, you can let the world back in with its “stubborn geometry”,  but only with the risk that it may once again disappear.

Sensations are pre-rational, empirical events measured through the human body. They are the world of “lived experience” coextensive but distinct from the world of perception and representation. Abstraction reveals the forces or intensities that lie behind the sensations, the underlying relationships and processes between things. Sensation is given, but the condition of sensation is shaped by the underlying abstract force. This abstract space or force that proceeds optical organized perception is the common ground of all the arts and understanding. An unexpected twist in the abstract story, instead of closing painting off from other art forms and disciplines, abstraction serves to re-connect it to them in an unforeseen way.

What does it mean to think abstractly?

In the philosophical tradition one abstracts as one moves up higher levels of generality, to arrive at universal Forms, or Ideas. Deleuze breaks with tradition and rethinks philosophical abstraction.  According to him, the traditional view relies on the basic assumption that the world is logically consistent with possibilities given by abstractions. “Once one allows for a world that is disunified, incongruous, and composed of multiple divergent paths, one starts to see the force or potential of things for which there exists no abstract concept, since their effectuation would go off in too many directions or “senses” at once.”[6] Instead, we can think of abstraction in terms of immanent force rather than transcendental form. The passage of one kind of abstraction to the other involves a change in seeing: rather than seeing Forms or Ideas illuminated from within Reason, one must learn to see a prior immanent condition that illuminates multiple paths and connections outward.

In both philosophical and artistic abstraction, we leave behind the idea of abstraction as a process of extracting pure Forms, in favor of an abstraction that consists in an impure mixing, prior to Forms. Abstraction is not to discover truths in some ideal Form, but to discover connections in the multiplicity, to see how things have within them the potential for other things and the possibility to create new things.

In the process of organizing this show together, we resisted the temptation to turn inward, pushed ourselves to look outward to see connections between ourselves, other artists, and other disciplines, to find the how and where we intersect, passing back and forth ideas, finding different patterns, adding new knots to the mix.  The patterns that we pass back and forth are nothing but the sensual manifestations of the connecting forces of an unlimited groundless abstract space; temporary structures that house our thoughts and feelings which depart from the fixed coordinates that enfold our lives, sensation constructs that are in turn open to mixing and change.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

[2] John Rajchman, Constructions (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 69.

[3] Ibid, p. 70.

[4] Ibid, p. 71.

[5] Daniel W. Smith, “Deleuze on Bacon: Three Conceptual Trajectories in The Logic of Sensation”,  Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) p. xxi.

[6] Rajchman, p. 64.

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