Abstraction between East and West
In the earliest systems of writing, images and words were inseparable. Signs referred directly to objects in the real world. With the emergence of the Greek alphabet, however, words lost their direct connection to the object, referring instead to the human voice. In the West, from this moment on, the visual quality of writing was largely lost. Images and words became separate.
Abstraction is traditionally understood as an attempt to reduce painting to its basic elements (form, colour, line on flat support) by removing all non-essential references to language. However, this work by Joaquin Torres-Garcia tells a different story: instead of purifying painting, the artist attempts to rediscover the lost graphic quality of the first systems of writing.
In the universal story of writing, abstract artists do not break from the real world. They attempt to reconnect signs with reality. This work by A. R. Penck returns to the language of hieroglyphics by emphasising the physicality of the medium and the act of inscription. Black paint is coarsely applied to blank, white areas of canvas.
In the history of western painting, Wassily Kandinsky was the first artist to break away from external reality, opening the way for an abstract art that was an expression of inner experience. However, the direct influence of Egyptian writing systems lead Kandinsky to explore a different type of abstraction. In this work, he re-establishes the coherent, grid-like structure of hieroglyphics, transforming painting into a visual language. Like a chessboard, each sign acquires meaning based on its position in relation to other elements in the system.
In order to capture the essence of images, Kandinsky sought to reduce painting to its basic component: line on a flat surface. In doing so, he also reveals the link between images and words: how painting is, in essence, a form of writing.
Like Kandinsky, Paul Klee reduced painting to a relationship between lines, planes, shapes and colour. Following trips to Tunisia and Egypt, he began to use painting to explore the limits of writing: how letters, once removed from their original function, can be treated as pictorial motifs.
Surrealism, the liberation of the unconscious through a spontaneous approach to painting, originated as a literary movement based on the technique of automatic writing. André Masson was the first to integrate this approach into painting. By establishing the graphic component of language, he recombines words and images.
Masson was accompanied in this quest to unify painting and poetry by Joan Miró. Miró developed a technique, which achieved great intensity through minimal means of expression, creating what he called “Poem-drawing.”
Like Masson – who was directly influenced by Japanese calligraphy – Miró’s style evolved after a trip to Japan in his late career. Brushstrokes thicken into calligraphic lines, underlining the gesture, the inscription and the physical qualities of the canvas. Like a hieroglyphic system, the appearance of spontaneity is supported by a strict, underlying structure. Every element has a precise position in the composition.
In looking to the East, abstract artists discovered a language that was neither purely visual nor verbal, but a combination of both: painting as a form of writing, writing as a painterly practice. In the Zen tradition, the moment of the action – the physical application of paint on surface – contains a dimension of spiritual enlightenment (satori).
Inspired by this idea, western artists began to free their movement, giving importance to the motion of the gesture and the body’s relation to the canvas. After visiting Japan, Georges Mathieu developed a lyrical form of abstraction, producing large works in full-scale public performances. Through rapid execution, continuous line and impulsive brushstrokes, he reduces both painting and calligraphy to the “linear fluidity” of writing.
In the Zen tradition, the act of painting is a way to empty rather than express oneself. Building on Mathieu’s work, Simon Hantaï developed new techniques that added control to the explosive power of the gesture. By layering and folding the canvas, he produced a seemingly random distribution of colours that had a precise organisational structure. As in calligraphy, spontaneity and order combine.
Influenced by Surrealist automatism, the American painter Jackson Pollock devoted himself to gestural painting. In his dripping technique, expansive bodily movements allowed paint to fall directly onto canvases laid out on the ground. His interest in letters, Roman and Arabic scripts, Native American pictograms, and Japanese ideograms is evident in this work, where ”action painting” becomes a structured linear schema, an image of the letter.
In the work of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, automatism became more precise and consistent. Krasner’s engagement with oriental manuscripts and Islamic calligraphy adds a distinctive shape to the gesture. Like writing, her approach was more controlled and deliberate. Here, the physicality of the canvas is as dominant as the oil paint that embellishes it. It is therefore similar to an Egyptian stele where, alongside the hieroglyphs, the shape and material are essential to the object's overall impact.
While painters explored their practice as a form of writing, writers like Christian Dotremont push their craft in the direction of painting. In his “word paintings” (logograms), letters are freed from the need for clarity, allowing for an increased focus on rhythm and space. Painting and writing are here reduced to an essential model: inscriptions on a physical support, an organised arrangement of lines on a flat surface.
This focus on the physical support is taken to its limit in the work of Shakir Hassan Al Said. Influenced by western abstraction – and the focus on the distinction between images and words – modern Arab artists were able to free the letter from the confines of tradition. As an act marking, outlining, writing, the differences between calligraphy and painting are no longer recognizable.
Beyond formal concerns, the dialogue between abstraction and calligraphy reveals a shared spiritual context. While western artists could not decode non-western symbols, in adopting the fundamental characteristics of calligraphy, they allowed for a metamorphosis of text into image. Ghada Amer elicits her own form of decoding in this work, which celebrates the many words that express the sentiment of love in the Arabic language. Written backwards, the words must be read by looking through the sphere, thus embodying the perfect abstract union of letter and material.