Abstraction and Aesthetics Part One – Matter as Virtual



Yves Klein’s approach to painting evident both in the work itself and in his writings on painting and sensibility from the 1950’s and early 1960’s is a helpful staring point from which to configure components of DeLanda’s aesthetics, such as matter energy flow and the intensive, virtual and extensive. Klein’s main concerns with painting worked against painting as historically representational, which he perceived as a prison of concretized mortality, emotion, reason and spirituality. He also set himself in opposition to abstract expressionism, which he saw as the ‘hypertrophy of the Me, of the personality’. Instead Klein claimed a painting that prioritised colour as ‘sensibility become matter – matter in its first, primal state’, however, for Klein this primal state of matter was immaterial or intangible ‘like humidity in the air’. This sensibility of matter in immaterial form was manifest initially in his blue monochromes, which consisted of natural pigment suspended in a synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood. The combination of a natural ultramarine pigment with the new science of synthetic resins enabled Klein to produce a blue that was, for him, vibrant and unique amongst all colour, as it had the capacity to transform its materiality into pure sensibility. Klein also displayed the raw pigment on horizontal trays, without the synthetic resin to fix it. Pigment in its powder form spread out as material colour further defines Klein’s approach to aesthetics as a preoccupation with matter in base form, lingering on the edge between material and immaterial sensibility, an attempt to tap into the connection between the physics of matter and the spirituality of the void.

The connection here between the material world and the immaterial void, between matter as intangible colour, sensibility and the spiritual affords a tentative step towards DeLanda’s materialism, specifically with regard to realm of the virtual. The virtual is arranged and populated by the structure of possibility through intensive processes of differentiation from which the spatial metric world emerges. For Klein, as for DeLanda, the real fluctuates between, actual material entities existing in consecutive nested present moments, and the real as a virtual, the unactualized multiplicity awaiting activation. According to Klein, the practice of producing the monochrome works was both a preparatory step towards and a leftover trace of, the real artwork, which was aimed at accessing the immaterial or virtual through the sensation of the experience of ‘pure energy’ extracted from the materiality of colour. Klein positions painting, not as the reflexive anthropomorphic activity of representation or expression, but instead Klein is concerned with what painting and it’s chemical materiality can do, and how painting can be activated by a rupture or emergence of intensive stimulus. Klein claims,

‘A painting is merely a witness, the sensory surface that records what occurs. Colour, in its chemical state, is the medium most capable of being impressed by the ‘event’. Paintings are poetic events, immobile witnesses, silent static witnesses of the movement and of free life’.

Klein believed in the ability of painting to connect with a kind of non-human sensibility or stimulus that instead of emerging from the familiar or habitual mechanisms of imagination and memory, emerged from something beyond and apart from us yet immanent to all matter energy. Klein referred to this stimulus as ‘psychism’, ‘the continuous experience of a beginning, of newness’. Painting and its chemical, inorganic materiality is, for Klein, connected to structures and dynamics of the virtual multiplicity. Klein’s monochromes and pigment installations test the boundaries of the presentation and activation of sensation. On one side we are presented with the extensive metric world of inorganic matter and on the other side of the boundary lurks the invisible and immaterial, which Klein attempts to import through transformation. This transformation occurs in both directions, the material pigment is transformed into the immaterial sensible event or experience which can in turn become manifest as matter.


The aesthetic implications of ‘immaterial pictorial sensibility’ or the ‘virtual multiplicity’ of Yves Klein’s monochromes and installations can be further accentuated if we consider the notion of the immaterial as ‘unpresentable’. Jean Francois Lyotard’s writing on art and the sublime can offer a guide towards thinking the immaterial / material nexus in aesthetics but it can also offer important insights for configuring painting as a philosophy of immanence.

For Lyotard, the industrial techno-science behind the mediums of photography and cinematography suffers from the ‘infallibility of what is perfectly programmed’, the rules of formation are somewhat pre-determined. The medium of paint on the other hand overturns these pre-determined givens of the visible and reveals that the visual field hides and requires invisibilities, placing the aesthetic of the sublime somewhere between the eye and the mind, the sensible and the intelligible. The invisibilities within the visual field, the attempt at the presentation of the unpresentable, the flows between matter and its immateriality, the opening up of a void within matter itself, are all configured around what DeLanda sees as the difference driven dynamic process rather than the final state of a system, becoming not being. Within this regime of becoming, and Lyotard’s ‘immanent sublime’, Klein’s patented blue monochromes and colour more generally, becomes the site from which matter is both immaterial and invisible, is pure abstraction yet fully real and that which is always producing new affective assemblages. 

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