… this utterance of the philosophers [of science] contains an unwarranted assumption, to wit, that whereas man’s capacity for intellectual abstraction is ever widening, his visual imagination is fixed and circumscribed. Here the philosophers are reckoning without the host, since our visualizing powers are determined for us not by them but by the men who paint.
… the art of the last half-century may well be schooling our eyes to live at ease with the new concepts forced upon our credulity by scientific reasoning.
This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘The Eye is a Part of the Mind’ first published in 1967:
… There are ten ways, say the Chinese academicians, of depicting a mountain: by drawing wrinkles like the slashes of a large axe, or wrinkles like the hair of a cow’s hide; by brush-strokes wrinkled like a heap of firewood, or like the veins of lotus leaves. The rest are to be wrinkled like the folds of a belt, or the twists of a rope; or like raindrops, or like convoluted clouds, etc.
With rigorous training the Ming painters could, and did, acquire a dazzling proficiency in drawing the right wrinkles so as to evoke some long-assimilated and familiar facts about natural panoramas. They had mastered the skill of applying certain academic tricks for the drawing of mountains — but this is most emphatically not the same as skill in drawing actual mountains. The mechanical, the uncreative element lies not therefore in imitating nature, but in academicism, which is the passionless employment of preformed devices. Representation in art is the fashioning of graphic symbols to act as analogues for certain areas of visual experience. There is every difference between this fashioning of symbols, this transmutation and reduction of experience to symbolic pattern, and the use of symbols ready-made. In works that seem to duplicate a visible aspect of nature we must therefore distinguish between the recitation of a known fact and the discovery thereof, between the dexterous use of tools and their invention.
… The so-called naturalism of certain nineteenth-century academicians was worthless because it was impelled by precept and by meritorious example, instead of by pure visual apprehension. These men never imitated nature; they copied earlier imitations and applied those formal principles which, they believed, had made their models so effective. That they sometimes painted from life is, of course, beside the point; for they still saw life in the aspect which their vision was conditioned to expect. Thus the malady of Victorian art (and of some lingering official art today, notably in Soviet Russia) is not naturalism, nor literal representation, but the presumption to create living art out of impulses long dead and mummified; which ailment is not confined to realistic art. For academicism will blight non-objective figurations and abstractions as readily as illustrative, anecdotal pictures.
… In realistic art, then, it is the ever-novel influx of visual experience which incites the artist’s synthesizing will, summons his energies, and so contributes to the generations of esthetic form. And this perhaps explains why periods of expanding iconography, of deepening observation and growing imitative skill so often coincide with supreme esthetic achievement. When the limits of the depictable in nature suddenly recede before the searching gaze, when earlier works come to seem inadequately representative of truth, then the artist’s power multiplies.
… It remains to speak of so-called non-objective art. Here surely all connection with the outer world is cut. The forms that here emerge mean nothing, we are told, but private states of feeling; and, for the rest, they are pure form, a music for the optic nerve. The following passage from Ortega y Gasset (“On Point of View in the Arts,” Partisan Review, August 1949) may serve as an example of the common view: “Painting,” Ortega writes, “completely reversed its function and, instead of putting us within what is outside, endeavored to pour out upon the canvas what is within: ideal invented objects. … The [artist's] eyes, instead of absorbing things, are converted into projectors of private flora and fauna. Before, the real world drained off into them; now they are reservoirs of irreality.”
This seems to me an open question still. For we are forced to ask: by what faculty of mind or eye does the artist discover and distill the forms of his private irreality?
… Wittingly, or through unconscious exposure, the non-objective artist may draw permission for his imagery from the visual data of the scientist — from magnifications of infinitesimal textures, from telescopic vistas, submarine scenery, X-ray photography. Not that he renders a particular bacterial culture or cloud chamber event. The shapes of his choice are recruited in good faith for their suggestiveness as shapes, and for their obscure correspondence to his inner state. But it is significant how often the morphology he finds analogous to his own sentient being is that which has revealed itself to scientific vision. It is apparently in these gestating images, shapes antecedent to the visible, that many abstract painters recognize a more intimate manifestation of natural truth.
… Even such divergent thinkers as A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell join hands when they declare that the abstractions of contemporary science have irrevocably passed beyond man’s visual imagination. “Our understanding of nature has now reached a stage,” says J.W.N. Sullivan, “when we cannot picture what we are talking about.”
But this utterance of the philosophers contains an unwarranted assumption, to wit, that whereas man’s capacity for intellectual abstraction is ever widening, his visual imagination is fixed and circumscribed. Here the philosophers are reckoning without the host, since our visualizing powers are determined for us not by them but by the men who paint. And this our visual imagination, thanks to those in whom it is creative, is also in perpetual growth, as unpredictable as the extension of thought.
Thus the art of the last half-century may well be schooling our eyes to live at ease with the new concepts forced upon our credulity by scientific reasoning. What we may be witnessing is the gradual condensation of abstract ideas into images that fall within the range of sensory imagination. Modern painting inures us to the aspect of a world housing not discrete forms but trajectories and vectors, lines of tension and strain. Form in the sense of solid substance melts away and resolves itself into dynamic process. Instead of bodies powered by muscle, or by gravity, we get energy propagating itself in the void. If, to the scientist, solidity and simple location are illusions born of the grossness of our senses, they are so also to the modern painter. His canvases are fields of force; his shapes the transient aggregates of energies that seem impatient to be on their way.
… So much then for the dissolution of the solid in contemporary art; the substantial object has been activated into a continuing event. As for space, it is no longer a passive receptacle, wherein solid forms may disport themselves, as once they did in Renaissance or nineteenth-century art. In modern paintings — barring those which are nostalgic throwbacks to the past — space is an organic growth interacting with matter. There is a painting by Matta Echaurren, entitled Grave Situation, in which long tensile forms stretch through a space generated by their motion — a space which at the same time inflects the curvature of their path.
Roberto Matta Echaurren, Grave Situation, 1946