Consciousness, Literature and the Arts




Volume 9 Number 1, April 2008


Strayer, Jeffrey. Subjects and Objects: Art, Essentialism, and Abstraction. Leiden: Brill, 2007. ISBN: 978-90-04-15714-9. EUR 99 / US $129 (hc).    


Reviewed by


Julian Jason Haladyn

University of Western Ontario


        Part of the Philosophy of History and Culture series at Brill, Subjects and Objects: Art, Essentialism, and Abstraction by Jeffrey Strayer investigates the topic of essentialism and art by drawing upon the fields of art history and philosophy or theory; the purpose of the text, as he states in the introductory sentence, is to seek “the limits of Abstraction in art” (1). His theoretical approach to this topic, which combines elements of philosophical research and methodology with the practices of art history and theory, is delineated and executed in a thoroughly organized manner, categorized and sub-categorized to form a logical argument. And Strayer does not take this on as a polemic project, but instead as an exercise in essentialist investigations into the realm of abstract art – abstraction also being the chosen area of his own practice as an artist. Given the intense and, at times, extreme mode of categorization that Strayer employs within this text, it is appropriate that this review reflect a similar structure as a means of communicating or engaging with the specific modality of Strayer’s investigation.


1. Essential elements of Strayer’s book


1.1. Organization. As the twelve page table of contents makes clear ­– through its parts, divisions, sections, sub-sections, and sub-sub-sections – there is an explicit order and organization to this text that is, arguably, integral to Strayer’s argumentation. In fact, in section five of the introduction, titled “The format of the book,” he outlines the four parts of the book and describes the manner in which each part serves to develop aspects, both prefatory and central, to the task of defining or discovering the limits of abstraction. This overtly systematized presentation of information, therefore, reflects and even accentuates the essentialist methodology that Strayer uses to build or construct his argument.


1.2. Philosophy and art history. From the outset of his text, Strayer makes clear his interest in employing a philosophical or theoretical framework, in addition to the art historical processes in the construction of his argument; in the conclusion of his introduction, he even states that this book is written for “readers in the world of art in addition to the world of philosophy” (10). This cross-disciplinary approach allows Strayer to supplement the art historical discourse on abstraction with a philosophical modality that follows a more critically abstracted method of investigation, which he requires in order to posit an Essentialist Abstraction – as he terms it. This employment of both art historical and philosophical methodologies is therefore necessary for Strayer’s notion of abstraction, specifically in relation to his desire to identify and examine elements that are essential to artworks, to be articulated and defined.


       The application of this dual methodology is most clearly visible in Strayer’s attempts to define the parameters of these essential elements, a substantive amount of the book representing the efforts of this task. For example, virtually the entire first and second part of the text involve extensive delineations of terminology, subject positions, usage of philosophical positionalities, and contextualizations of object relations. These attempts at generally defining essential elements of artworks, as objects and subjective experiences of objects, prove insightful in articulating obvious aspects of these relations that are typically overlooked within conventional art historical analyses; however, in many instances these acts of definition are overbearing and become an end in themselves, overshadowing the arguments that they are supposed to be supporting. Through this intensive categorization and application of terminological definitions – as illustrated by the titles of sections and sub-sections throughout the book – Strayer attempts to break down subjective encounters with art objects into essential categories of experience and relation that can be universally applied. This mode of investigation, again, is integral to Strayer’s stated purpose in writing this book, which is to “consider what is indispensable to identifying the limits of Abstraction” (114).


1.3. Artworks and artists used as examples. The most rewarding aspect of Strayer’s study relates to his use of art historical examples, which are employed primarily as proof or support for his philosophical deductions and systemizations. In fact, it is through these examples that many of the concepts concerning abstraction in its many formulations and derivations become most clear and defined. A number of artists and artworks are used repeatedly and serve as markers connecting the various parts of Strayer’s argument, one of the most prominent being the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.


I will admit to having a profound appreciation for Duchamp’s work, which may have biased my opinion. However, Strayer’s use of the readymades as an example for numerous aspects of his argument for an Essentialist Abstraction serves as an important continuity relating various parts of the book in a concise manner; the recurring use of the readymades, in essence, serves as a point of comparison that ties together the various components and/or elements of Strayer’s discussion. An examination and comparison of three quotes discussing Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, presented in the following three subsections, will illustrate the manner in which Strayer’s use of the readymade serves as a key example in developing the various nuances of abstraction that are the basis of his argument.


1.3.1. Part two, division one, section one, sub-section one, sub-sub-section two. Discussing the process of section as a means of producing art, Strayer states: “This intention is typically made comprehensible by placing the selected object in a museum or gallery with the title of the work and the artist’s name, and so in accordance with standard practices of exhibiting more traditional works, as is the case with Duchamp’s unassisted readymades, such as Bottle Rack, that were selected by him with the intention that they be exhibited as works of art” (40).


1.3.2. Part three, division one, section four, sub-section one. Discussing relevant objects with which an artwork is meant to be identified, he states: “Selected objects are also embodied works, and as a selected object – such as Duchamp’s Bottle Rack – is attended to, the selected object forms part of an artistic complex of which the subject attending to it is also part” (166).


1.3.3. Part three, division four, section one, sub-section five, sub-sub-section three. In discussing the concept of media and the process of effecting an embodied artwork that is selected, he states: “A selected object, such as a bottle rack, that is a selected artwork, such as Bottle Rack, is meant to be a medium in the sense of being a means of effecting the identification of the artwork with the object since no object could be understood to be that artwork apart from the object” (241).


2. The limits of Strayer’s conclusions


2.1. The limits of abstraction. The final part of Strayer’s book brings together the essential categories, terminologies, and subjective positionalities defined within the first three parts of the text as a means of confronting the originary question of this study: what are the limits of abstraction in art? Short of answering this question, he does indicate directions of investigation that could aid in discovering or defining this limit; in essence he outlines a means of determining the limits of abstractions, including the establishment of essential elements or qualities that Essentialist Abstraction must posses, but he does not state a definitive or essential limit.


The closest Strayer comes to such a declaration, in my opinion, is his statement: “The limits of Abstraction must be determined in ideational objects” (309). This is precisely why his use of Duchamp as an example manages to connect and illustrate the material discussed, because the readymade is the quintessential ideational object, being as it is simultaneously the object referenced by the artwork and the object of the artwork itself; the specified object of the readymade, to put it into Strayer’s terminology, is only ideational “in virtue of comprehension of a specification that refers to it to which comprehension the object referred to is indexed,” which in this case is the readymade. For this reason, I felt that Strayer missed an opportunity to examine the manner in which the Duchampian readymade functions as a limit of abstraction – although not necessarily an essentialist one – directly in line with the process that Strayer has initiated.


2.2. Additional clonclusions. In the final sections of part four, Strayer concludes by systematically articulating the elements of artist complexes and additional considerations that an “Essentialist investigation of the limits of Abstraction would include” (314). Following this summary, he has added a number of appendices that function to clarify his position, specifically in terms of the object, and supply readers with additional information for future essentialist engagements with art and abstraction alike. Using an essentialist methodology, this study interrogates the connections that can be made among art, art history and philosophy as parallel practices or methodological approaches to examining the relationship between subjects and objects; this polemical process, which Strayer initiates us into – and leaves us – possesses the potential to converge and enrich and inform these interrelated discourses.