The Painters who turned to abstraction had found themselves confronted with new techniques, materials, and attitudes toward the world that made natural forms unattractive. These painters had inherited also an eagerness to experiment and a current preoccupation with functionalism in all the arts. What was painting's appropriate function? What could an artist do with color and form, and with nothing else? He could at least refuse to do what was not his special business: he would not tell stories or preach sermons; he would not even duplicate the beauties that could be seen at first hand in nature. In traditional art, what has caused the observer to look mistakenly to painting for values which belong to literature? Representation: the painter's use of objects associated with remembered facts and feelings which distract attention from what is distinctively plastic. Painting can fulfill its special function only if the artist gives up representation.
There is agreement so far. But differences begin when the new painting must be named. Abstract, the most common name, has gained ground in spite of serious difficulties. An unavoidable ambiguity discussed by an eminent critic, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., is derived from the double relation of the adjective to the verb, abstract, and to the noun, abstraction. The verb denotes a process: "to draw out of" or "away from." In this sense, abstract may be applied legitimately to the works of artists who are at various stages of withdrawal from nature, that is to say, to paintings that retain more or less clear vestiges of recognizable objects. These are the paintings which Barr classes as "near abstractions." The noun, on the other hand, denotes a fait accompli: "something already drawn out of or away from -- so much so that like a geometrical figure or an amorphous silhouette it may have no relation to concrete reality." Here belong abstractions that are as complete as can be, that is to say, "pure."
But ambiguity is not the only charge. There is another difficulty in setting a limit to "near" abstractions. Consider the point that every painting shows some degree of withdrawal from nature. Even the Dutch painter who may pride himself on the exactness of his copies does not produce every detail that would be recorded by a camera. The human eye can not perceive without simplifying, eliminating, arranging sense data in stable patterns; of this fact, new and important evidence has been furnished by Gestalt psychologists. Every painting is, in a sense, abstract. If the paintings to be called "near abstractions" are defined as those that show a "marked" distortion, how set the point at which a distortion should be called marked? A painting might seem fantastically distorted to someone accustomed to traditional art, and yet appear almost naturalistic to a devotee of Picasso. A further problem: at the other extreme, how draw a clear line between "near" abstractions and those that are "pure"? Take, for example, Picasso Standing Figure. The title makes it a near abstraction; without the title, it might still retain vestiges of recognizable objects for a sharp-eyed and sympathetic critic, but for many it would not suggest a figure in any position. Is it, then, "pure" abstraction for some and "near" for others? Does classification turn into a guessing game?
Protests with a different slant have been raised by artists themselves. Some say that abstract is colored with associations that are the very negation of art. Abstract has a grim connection with logic:there it denotes the process of analyzing members of a class in order to formulate a definition -- a process dry and dull, in no way creative. To apply the term with this connotation to a painting would be to condemn it utterly.
Again, "abstract" stands in contrast to "real." But reality of an important kind is precisely what abstract painters claim for their works, the reality of an object that exists in its own right, not as a reflection or copy of something. Naum Gabo makes this point in writing of his school of abstraction, Constructivism, and gives his defense the title, Realistic Manifesto. Piet Mondrian in the same spirit calls his essay on his art of rectangles and primary colors, "A New Realism."
Another objection: "abstract" may mean the opposite of "concrete," referring to something that lacks substance, or that exists only in the mind and not in an object present to sense. But this meaning can not possibly hold for such a thing as a painting, which is essentially a concrete, sensuous object. And among paintings, abstractions are claimed to stand out for their concreteness. Indeed, "concrete art" is precisely the title adopted at times by Kandinsky, Arp, and others, for the purest of pure painting and sculpture. Arp states a distinction between concrete and abstract that would be accepted by many of his confrères. Abstract he reserves for a Cubist painting which does not depict a complete object: "parts have been subtracted from the object which has served as a model for this picture." Arp goes on to explain what work is properly called concrete: "I find that a picture or a piece of sculpture that has had no object for a model is as concrete and as sensuous an object as a leaf or a stone."