Abstract Critical

Attention to Detail: Abstraction in an era of High Definition

Written by David Sweet


Tate Britain’s current exhibition, ‘The Pre-Raphaelites; Victorian Avant-Garde’ is bound to be popular.[i] Admittedly, pre-Raphaelite imagery is inordinately repulsive, its subject matter lacks contemporary relevance and the attitudes, even the hairstyles, of the depicted figures seem totally alien to current erotic taste and behaviour. But I’m sure people will absolutely love the detail.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1866-1868, Oil on canvas, Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935

I can’t stand pre-Raphaelite painting. I can’t stand the images, the stories, the poses, the hair, and above all I can’t stand the detail. I’m not against detail per se. I admire without reservation works like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait (1434) or Holbein’s Ambassadors, (1553) from the Northern Renaissance realist/illusionist tradition, which are crammed with detail. That’s because van Eyck and Holbein convincingly render detail in the context of appearance, painting what fur or skin for example, looks like. They do not make verbatim, hair-by-hair, cell-by-cell transcriptions of the actual stuff. As Chuck Close says, discussing Holbein’s treatment of velvet, he ‘paints the situation’ of velvet, not the symbols for the material. [ii]

Holbein, Hans the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533: ©The National Gallery, London.

One plausible reason for the continuing popularity of pre-Raphaelite painting, despite its archaic and Medievalist strangeness, is that it approximates photography in its grasp of reality at a certain level. Indeed the 19th century movement’s openness to the relatively new medium may well be enough to justify its avant-garde claims, despite its backwardness in other areas. There is a paradox however. The indexical fidelity of the photograph, its chemical indifference to everything but light, meant that it could reproduce unlimited surface detail effortlessly, whereas the painted imitation of that detail required an enormous amount of work, and moreover, work of an inartistic sort. Where van Eyck and Holbein presented an economic account of reality, including its surfaces, on the basis of perception, the pre-Raphaelites, prompted by the photographic, typically offered long-winded inventories of an imagined world, accessed through a different visual behaviour, namely, attention.

The characteristics of the two modalities, ‘perception’ and ‘attention’, are raised by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, and I will make use of that distinction, in an emphasised form, throughout this piece[iii]. To begin with however I want to deal with the place of detail in abstraction because a large amount of abstraction springs from an impulse to find a visual language liberated from detail.



I’m assuming the conventional idea of simplification or reduction, as a process important to the development and history of abstract art, is well understood. That being said, I want to follow what might seem an equally familiar path and offer the early sixties work of Anthony Caro as exemplifying the advantages of escaping from detail as a strategy for increasing formal opportunities, and particularly maximising freedom of movement.

Anthony Caro, Early One Morning, 1962, Painted steel and aluminium,
2896 x 6198 x 3353 mm, Copyright Barford Sculptures Ltd. Photographer John Riddy

Detail often has the effect of causing visual drag; its fussiness detains the eye without necessarily delighting it, while the viewer’s anxiety about missing something slows the pace of looking at the whole work. To promote ‘immediacy’, Caro reduced visual drag simply by applying a coat of paint to his welded metal pieces, disguising their underlying material diversities and surface accidentals. This allowed him to raise the tempo at which his sculptural syntax could operate.  His decisions, about positioning the constituent elements, became less inhibited by compositional concerns related to balance. The way the centre of gravity can be shifted across any of the six points at which Early One Morning (1962) touches the floor, permits a noticeable freedom of assembly, which goes well beyond that enjoyed by the components in the sculpture of David Smith for example. Smith, however inventive he was, still tended to rely on a one- or two-footed stance to anchor the work to the ground plane.

Henri Matisse’s L’Escargot (1953) is probably the best demonstration of the dynamic benefits of reducing detail. But rather than discuss the Matisse, I want to turn to the photographic practice of Thomas Demand to take the argument further. Demand photographs ‘models’ of rooms he has constructed out of paper and card. They relate to places that have some significance, but I’m not interested in that. The aspect of his photographs relevant here is, obviously, the absence of detail in the images, detail of the kind that requires the viewer’s attention. They depict a simplified, logo-free world, devoid of incidentals and patina. There are no snags for vision to get caught on: no small trifles to bring the eye to a stop and disrupt the rhythm. As can be seen in Archive (1995), movement within the image is enhanced. The double diagonal of the bluish ladder cuts across the grid of the angled shelving unit, the slightly misaligned boxes in the foreground stacks counterpoint the pattern of the more organised boxes behind them in what is primarily an interplay of ‘abstract’ elements. The camera seems to have captured Platonic ‘forms’, rather than things, and because of its indexical disinterest, it reproduces them without irony and without doubting their ontology.



Both Caro and Demand increase the formal impact of their work by reducing detail. Mondrian, until his visit to New York, was equally interested in developing a pictorial language devoid of fussiness, where the difference between the largest and smallest events was relatively modest. But, despite their simplicity, when the Compositions are looked at from the normal distance, the track of the brush is quite visible both where the thick white pigment meets the black lines, and in the lines themselves. What’s more, these surface features are not imperfections, but seem an important part of our experience of the work. They are details, but like the velvet in Holbein, they yield to perception rather than force attention, supporting, rather than distracting from, the formal interplay of the painting.

Technologically, Mondrian’s detail results from choices about the consistency of oil paint and hoghair brushes. He could have loaded sable brushes with thinned pigment and built up the bands and rectangles in two or three layers had he wanted a more settled surface. But had he done that he would have got rid of the gesture of painting, and it’s gesture, or touch, that has been the acceptable face of detail in abstract painting ever since.

Where forms have been simplified, touch or gesture offers another set of events supporting the main pictorial data. These events are visible, if not entirely legible, from the standard viewing distance. Barnett Newman’s work provides a ready example. In his paintings there is a set of formal exchanges between the larger and smaller areas divided by the ‘zips’, and between the zips themselves. The uneven phenomenon of touch, which is the intended consequence of applying pigment over an expanse of canvas with a smallish brush, activates the colour and generates a slightly vibrating force field in which these exchanges take place.

In Newman, what generates this field of touch, is a subdued version of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke, the staple mark of a style that was sometimes, perhaps more accurately, called Action Painting. Jackson Pollock, who certainly was an action painter, went further with gesture than Newman. His Autumn Rhythm (1950) is all gesture and therefore all detail. There is no visually overarching geometric system for detail to attach itself to, only more and more detail. Yet, despite their small scale, these fundamental pictorial constituents only make sense when viewed in the context of a field accessible to perception. When singled out, subjected to attention or forensic examination, they turn out to be no more than splatters of paint. As Close might say, Pollock ‘paints the situation’. For the viewer however, standing back and failing to pick out a governing structure, a mass of gestural detail presents a new challenge. Yet no other visual behaviour, except one based on normal eyesight, is going to yield a more satisfactory result.

Pollock’s ‘skeins’ and webs are above all dynamic and though composed of details they do not detain the eye but rather keep it in constant movement. Any visual drag is minimised by linear continuity and rhythm. Pace can be maintained because the marks are effortlessly produced. The eye is not stopped by the laboriously assembled symbols for the thing, unlike the detail in paintings imitating photography. Yet, like the photograph, gesture and touch are indexical in their relationship to the circumstances they memorialise: In photography, the pattern of light which once fell on the film or plate, in painting, the act of painting this painting.[iv]



Photographic detail however endures as something of a popular cultural benchmark for verisimilitude. In the photographic age, which started in the mid-19th century and is very much still with us, the language of painting wisely chose not to compete with the disinterested vision of the world produced by the camera, Pre-Raphaelites excepted. In Impressionism and post-Impressionism, for the most part, human perception, with its inaccuracies and guesswork was victorious. Even when, a lot later, many painters worked directly from photographic sources, they came out against detail. Photo silkscreen or frottage techniques, central to the methodology of Rauschenberg and Warhol, burnt out the information content of the original images to such an extent that only the most salient features persist to be recognised in the final work. Celebrities (at the time) like President Kennedy or Elizabeth Taylor were chosen precisely because their iconic identities could survive this process of degradation. And because detail was elided it’s possible to see both artists’ work as comparable to the abstraction of their time in terms of its broad assumptions about perception.

However, photography, in its digital phase especially, has reasserted its privileged role, reflecting reality back to us in far greater detail than we see with our own eyes in our day-to-day dealings with what surrounds us. It may be going too far to suggest that, in an era of high definition, the phenomenal world to which perception allows us access is becoming a less legitimate basis for the practice of painting, abstract or non-abstract. But there might be a shift in pictorial taste away from the lyrical and towards the graphic, which has some implications for formal criticism. To make this idea clearer I first have to digress briefly to describe how detail was managed in painting during the first Elizabethan age.

William Segar’s Portrait of a Lady of the Elizabethan Court (1595) is dominated by a meticulous account of the subject’s costume. Given the importance of patronage, status, and the Sumptuary Laws, it’s safe to guess that great significance would have been attached to the expense of the fabric, the fineness of the lace ruff, the quality of embroidery on the sleeves, the gold thread and how many pearls and gem clusters are sown into the bodice. Segar has provided the high-resolution detail assuming legislative attention could be paid to each separate item, but has thereby sacrificed an idea of the situation as a whole and its availability to perception. This results in what seems a formal awkwardness, a rigidity amounting almost to paralysis, within the picture, an attribute shared by many portraits of this period of English painting, but absent from Holbein’s Ambassadors, painted forty years earlier.

I’ve said that abstraction seeks to be free from attention to detail in order to release the potential of the formal. However, despite its autonomy and independence, much abstraction is marked by its figurative origins, therefore much of what counts as formal judgement is extrapolated from the sphere of perception. Of course, there are visual codes that are not primarily grounded in perception, like the grid or the constructivist matrix, whose underlying Pythagorean rationales can be usefully detached from the world of experience. On the other hand, the perception-based geometries of Mondrian and Newman, which despite the straight lines, appear ‘guessed at’ or ‘felt for’, rather than determined by applying a system or formula, seem products of the sensibility historically associated with mainstream abstraction. Paradoxically ‘System’ painting, though couched in highly formal terms, is not susceptible to formal criticism of a practical sort because such painting is axiomatic or closed. It can’t be other than it is. But any Mondrian or Newman looks as though it could have come out differently and formal analysis implicitly proceeds on the basis that these alternative, imagined outcomes may have been less or more successful than the actual example under consideration.

Nevertheless, system painting is almost always criticised in the perception-orientated terms of mainstream abstraction.  The application of similar terms allows us to regard William Segar’s portrait as inert and stilted, even though his attention-based rendering of detail should disqualify the work from being viewed under the perceptual regime appropriate to the Ambassadors. These examples may represent the limits of formal criticism, but such criticism is always prepared to operate just beyond its boundaries. With this in mind, I want to return to the issue of detail and abstraction, and consider, again very briefly, three cases which may just fall within formalism’s jurisdiction.



Robert Holyhead, Untitled 2012 Oil on canvas 48.3cm x 33cm. Courtesy of the artist and PEER

The paintings of Robert Holyhead and Mali Morris situate the detail bound up in gesture within a framework of larger formal activity. In Holyhead’s paintings the positive and negative shapes slice up the rectangle into dynamic shards, incorporating a slightly unsynchronised single colour field of wiped glaze. Because the canvases are small and the gesso ground slick, the angle and grain of the wiped areas are highly legible and functional within the context of the total picture. The final effect is on the borderline between the painterly and the graphic; painterly because the striations in the glaze are redolent of the gestural, ‘expressionist’ track of the brush, but ‘graphic’ in that the glaze has little body and the fineness of the grain produced by the wipe is characteristic of hatching, or printing.

Mali Morris, Lying Lightly, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 21 x 26cm, photograph Alex Cox

The bearer of detail in Morris’s Lying Lightly (2012) is the coiled, serpentine form which folds back on itself to cancel out any sense of it having volume or occupying depth. It is made up of parallel threads of thin pigment of contrasting hues, again the classic structure of the expressionist gesture. But though it imitates painterly rhetoric, the form has even less body than Holyhead’s glaze. It acts like a negative presence, contrasted with flat solid planets of colour that seem anxious to keep out of its way.

In Holyhead and Morris, detail emerges from paint that was obviously once fluid, therefore able to be an indexical witness to the actions performed in its disposition. To function effectively however, these phenomena must retain definition as the liquid dries, but in the work of Juan Uslé this moist physics is supplemented by an arid chemistry, where fine, powdery pigment is deposited on the canvas like a layer of dust, to create a parched surface reminiscent of that left by the toner in photocopy machines. This surface is much more sensitive to the construction of close grain details, and also preserves them in higher resolution than is customary with the standard liquid technology. The detail is brilliant and vivid and, no matter how it is actually produced, it does not look gestural or tactile[v]. More importantly, it does not position itself comfortably as part of a formal architecture whose primary appeal is to visual perception, as I think is the case with the works of Holyhead and Morris.

JUAN USLÉ, Zebulon Metro 2009, Mixed media paint on canvas, 61 x 46 cm. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Although they might be just on the borderline of formal criticism, Uslé’s paintings are not coded as are those based on grids or systems. They certainly could be other than they are. While not strictly decorative, they hold together as patterns, with some regularities and repetitions, but some mutations, isolated incidents, gaps, breakdowns, loose and tight riffs and sparser and denser fills. Like the Elizabethan portrait, there seems to be stilted quality at the formal level, but it does not seem to matter as much. The reason has to do with the overlays and doubling that Uslé employs, often superimposing one set of details over another, (like Pollock) without building up the thickness of the surface film, as if two slide images had been projected over each other. There’s a similar double exposure effect in Segar’s portrait, where the ruff, because it consists of two overlapping layers of reticulated material rendered in perspective, appears more complex and sophisticated than the rest of the painting. By comparison the way the jewellery on the bodice is spaced and separated looks folksy and naïve.

There’s something about the style of embroidery work in Segar’s depiction that may also be oddly relevant to a discussion of Uslé. The flow of the tracery of flowers and leaves on the sleeves is somewhat ‘unnatural’, with foliage twisted outwards, and buds and flower heads pressed flat into the spaces left by the stems and branches. Movement through the design may also be hampered by the stutter of the embroidery stitch itself, which doesn’t tend to be conducive to the construction of smooth curves. In Uslé, some of the larger pieces of graphic engineering have a similarly hampered quality, as the squared-off elements from which they are often built judder as they negotiate bends and corners.

JUAN USLÉ Vidas Ajenas 2005 Mixed media on canvas and board 61 x 46 cm. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

While it may be that Uslé’s paintings use the organising principle of pattern and not spatial perception to give detail coherence, the work seems open to formal analysis because it is so obviously compound. An ingredient in that compound, which connects pattern to perception, is the experience of ‘time’ rather than ‘space’, and time, and its division become inscribed within the painting process [vi]One can sense that formal criticism can meet the challenge posed by a temporal dimension compatible with abstraction where detail is a ‘moment’, and hence part of something to whose rule it is subject, as the detail of Holbein’s velvet or Newman’s touch is subject to its situation.



Unlike the three painters mentioned above, there are plenty of current practitioners whose work, which is abstract by default, contains lots of superimposed, busy, ornamental passages, but who treat detail casually, as though it is a relatively trivial matter. In an era of high definition, however, the resolution which detail brings, whether handled intelligently or not, appears to be an increasingly important, even essential part of a contemporary pictorial strategy. This sharpening of visual sensibility has had another consequence that may be significant. It seems to make the type of painterly language that was common in the seventies and survives today, the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period, look slurred and woolly, but more importantly, in the current situation, it begins to look less and less capable of making a serious aesthetic statement that matters formally.


[i] ‘The Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde’, is at Tate Britain until January 13th, 2013.

[ii] Chuck Close, ‘The Great Illusionist’. Financial Times, 26 Sept 2006.

[iii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (1982 trans). P111. Barthes’ famous ‘punctum’ is of course a detail, but the distinction above comes from his consideration of the subject’s direct to camera ‘look’ in the photograph. He supports this by an anecdote about someone looking at him without actually seeing him, and asks ‘…how can we look without seeing? One might say that the photograph separates attention from perception, and yields up only the former…’ I’m taking out a lot of the nuances to make the distinction clearer.

[iv] The idea that the Abstract Expressionist gesture reveals certain unconscious states is routinely criticised. Given the description of indexical, however, it’s hard to deny the visual particularity of the material evidence provided by the brushstroke, for example, is, like the footprint of a running man, directly shaped by the process of its production.

[v] OK, I don’t find it that easy to see how Uslé actually makes his painting.

[vi] Uslé has spoken about linking his painting rhythms with his heartbeat. Had he synchronised them with a clock or metronome, then formal assessment of his work would have less to attach itself to. (Interviewed by John Yau, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2011)

  1. Chris Joe Beard said…

    Still hurting but still painting.Had lots of time with old pal Prof John Renshaw recently.You were right about me back then 1980.BUT I`m still looking, reading and doing it…..just won another medal.
    A grudging thanks Dave…..how are you?

  2. laurence Noga said…

    The borderlines between something attractive and scary,are the strange lines that people draw to ditinguish’us from them’.

    Both Mali Morris
    and Robert Holyhead ask these questions through the use of glow,like an intermediary filter,tactile colour calling up psychological feeling.
    Usle uses this feeling as well, outer limits ,forbidden zones,but with added conductors.
    Monumental and universal.

  3. Jay Zerbe said…

    very interesting analysis. gives me a lot to think about. thanks!

  4. Joanne Freeman said…

    I think the re-emergence of thin stained surfaces, with historical precedence in the 1960′s and 70′s, reflects the current influence of virtual reality. The physical presence of art has partially been replaced with the virtual aesthetic and intimacy of the computer screen. The transparencies of stain paintings mimic the the color and details of a computer screen where the light comes from behind and within rather then outside and in front. Whether conscious or not, the aesthetics of virtual reality have effected and replaced some of the physical and formal aspects of our criteria.