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Sobel, E.F. (1982). A Psychoanalytic Approach to Understanding Form in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist Painting. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 9:167-177.

(1982). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 9:167-177

A Psychoanalytic Approach to Understanding Form in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist Painting

Emilie F. Sobel


While traditional psychoanalytic interpretation of art has applied itself to understanding the referential content and symbolic meanings of the art work, this paper outlines the approach necessary for the analysis of a contentless modern art. Connexions are made between the space, size and imagery utilized in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist paintings (where content is sparse or absent) and prelinguistic, phenomenological modes of experiencing early self states, body image and object relations. The huge size of these canvases, the lack of depth cues and two dimensionality, creates a medium in which transitional phenomena and archaic experience can be evoked. Boundaryless 'colour fields' for example can be likened to dream screen phenomena. The use of the unadorned vertical stripe down the centre of many contemporary paintings (Barnett Newman in particular), is an instance of the latent referential aspect of this allegedly non-referential art. It evokes the earliest organizing image of the body, i.e. the one piece unity of the upright position. Symmetry and containment are examples of other formal qualities of this type of painting, which are analysed as having to do with early self and object representations.

Finally, the paper examines absence of content or 'emptiness', a concept which appears in much current psychoanalytic literature (Kumin, 1978). Its presence in Minimal art can be seen as an attempt to crystallize a unified self-object. Purification through 'hard-edge' form is analagous to the schizoid personality's over-structuralization of the periphery of the ego with deficient elaboration of the core.

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