Abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities. It adds new words and phrases to the language by colonizing the lead slugs and blank spaces in the type tray. Seeming nihilism becomes productive, or, to put it another way, one tradition’s killer virus becomes another tradition’s seed. Stressing abstract art’s position within an evolving social system of knowledge directly belies the old notion that abstraction is what we call an Adamic language, a bedrock form of expression at a timeless point prior to the accretion of conventions. If anything, the development of abstraction in the last fifty years suggests something more Alexandrian than Adamic, that is, a tradition of invention and interpretation that has become exceptionally refined and intricate, encompassing a mind-boggling range of drips, stains, blobs, blocks, bricks, and blank canvases. The woven web of abstraction is now so dense that, for its adepts, it can snare and cradle vanishingly subtle, evanescent, and slender forms of life and meaning. . . . Abstraction is a remarkable system of productive reductions and destructions that expands our potential for expression and communication.This passage is taken from the initial lecture, entitled 'Why Abstract Art?', delivered by Kirk Varnedoe in 2003 as part of that year's A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts series, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The Mellon Lectures began in 1949 and their goal, as decreed by the gallery's Board of Trustees, was to "bring to the people of the United States the results of the best contemporary thought and scholarship bearing upon the subject of fine arts."(1)
Kirk Varnedoe certainly had the credentials. At the time of these lectures, he was a Professor of the History of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and the former long-time and very influential curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. "For years, he taught at Columbia University and at the Institute of Fine Arts, where his lectures routinely attracted huge audiences of students and the public. Even in one-on-one conversation, his speaking style was custom-made for the lecture hall: astonishingly fluent, easy and organized in perfectly formed, complex paragraphs that seemed to flow naturally and without hesitation." (2)
He delivered these six Mellon lectures between March and May 2003, all under the the title 'Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock'. They have been published in a book and the editors have attempted to preserve Varnedoe's eloquence and flair for engaging an audience. (Watch a video snippet of Varnedoe delivering one of these lectures at NGA, here.)
(1) Kimmelman, Michael. "Kirk Varnedoe, 57, Curator Who Changed the Modern's Collection and Thinking, Dies". New York Times. August 15, 2003.
(2) Powell, Earl A. Forward to Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock, by Kirk Varnedoe. Princeton, 2006. (Read the preface to the book, written by Adam Gopnik.)
. Mellon Lectures at the NGA
. a definition of 'Abstraction', taken from the Grove Dictionary of Art