Abstract art creates a non-objective pictorial reality, in which the relationships between the images created by the artist, and her/his audience, have no connection to the audience’s everyday relationships with the visual world. Even cubism, which is itself a representational mode – merely flattening what was a 3-dimensional object into two dimensions – is strongly connected to the visual world. Abstract art obsolesces the visual (which, as you may recall, is the dominant sense of the Gutenberg era), and introduces both the tactile and audile, both dominant sensorial modes of relationship. Abstract art, therefore, creates a space of “intellect and pure concept” in the words of Malovich.
The current AGO exhibit asks, “What is the shape of colour?” and explores the range of spatial experience created by the so-called colour field artists of the late 1950s and 1960s. Moos begins with the work of Dan Flavin, who paints with light rather than pigment. Flavin’s work changes the audience’s experience of space as the light “occupies” the space, and therefore defines it in a new way. This is characteristic of the colour field artists who set out to create a new environment through the use of large fields of colour on massive canvases or architectural structures. Colour field artists also explored the paradoxical depth of flatness, which was the logical conclusion of 100 years of art history, during which the depth of the picture plane progressively decreased.
At the time of Renaissance art, with its distant perspective vanishing point, the viewer was kept at a distance from what he was viewing. In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes, “The viewer of Renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience... The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible.” This involvement in depth – one of McLuhan’s most pervasive themes for the electric age – is clearly evident in the explorations of the colour field artists.
They directly introduce the experience of tactility in art, by eschewing the usual canvas priming with gesso. This allows the texture of the canvas to become a feature of the painting itself, creating a new tactile and depth experience in a 2-dimensional form. While Renaissance (perspective) art can be appreciated at a distance – and creating distance between the masses and the holy was the intention at the time – the subtle tactility of the unprimed canvas can only be appreciated at an intimate distance, the viewer being involved in depth with what is viewed, the eye becoming a surrogate for the finger.
The relationship among the artist, the art and the viewer that creates the paradox of depth in flatness can be seen in the work of Jules Olitski. Such a paradox is quite at home in McLuhan’s world. Indeed, the 1960s was a time when people from many disciplines were attempting to explore the paradoxes created by the explosion of electric technologies that recreated what was a linear world of objectivity. In literature, art, science, sociology and other fields, avant garde thinkers were expressing their attempts at gaining understanding in the face of the myriad challenges created by the reversals of electric communication technologies, and the secondary and tertiary effects. The art of Fred Sandback perhaps demonstrates this paradox best. Sandback creates sculptural space with lengths of acrylic yarn that both occupy and define space, at once creating, and negating, the notion of inside as distinct from outside. Sandback’s paradoxical works exemplify McLuhan’s idea of integral involvement in depth, characteristic of our electric times.
McLuhan is well-known for popularizing the notion of acoustic space, that he derived from University of Toronto behavioural psychologist, E.A. Bott’s “auditory space.” The idea is derived from the observation that sound comes from all around us. (This idea was, in turn, borrowed from the Pythagoreans, and later Pascal, who described nature as having its centre everywhere and its boundaries nowhere.) McLuhan writes,
The ear favours no particular point of view. We are enveloped by sound. It forms a seamless web around us. We say, “Music shall fill the air.” We never say, “Music shall fill a particular segment of the air.” We hear sounds from everywhere, without ever having to focus. Sounds come from “above,” from “below,” from in “front” of us, from “behind” us, from our “right,” from our “left.” We can’t shut out sound automatically. We simply are not equipped with earlids. Where a visual space is an organized continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships.For McLuhan, acoustic space is a percept that extends the 3-dimensional notion of space to include time. We are in the centre of a sphere of space-time in which, as I like to say, everywhere is here, and everywhen is now.
The visual dominance of the Gutenberg era, and of Renaissance art, that define external spaces through the creation of distance and separation, gives way to interior spaces of total involvement via tactility and audility. In an analogous fashion to the separation of the integral word of a primary-oral society into sight and meaning on the one hand, and sound on the other (as meaning is coded into otherwise meaningless symbols called the alphabet), so too is integral touch separated into tactility and tangibility. In the electric age, when we are “on the air,” we are literally no-bodies, “discarnate man” in McLuhan’s words. There is no materiality – tangibility – in the cyber world, but there certainly is tactility. We touch and are touched by those with whom we form relationship in the age of instantaneous communication, regardless of where, or when, they are. And it is only through involvement in depth that we create the sort of relationship that creates this discarnate tactility.
A medium has meaning only in relationship to its ground, or context, that may be another medium, or the environment of dynamic processes created by a multitude of interacting media. In today’s world, the environment is continually being re-created through relationships of involvement in depth [and you can read that last phrase two ways]. The colour field artists of the 1960s attempted to demonstrate the effects of involvement in the depth created on a flat picture plane, creating for us a very tangible example of the paradoxical times in which we now live.