Could disegno and conceptualism shed a light on abstract thought?

In my research about the indexical line - the line understood as trace of a real movement and transposed to art practices - I came across a few instances of the line in art history taken in a broader sense. The importance the Renaissance attributed to disegno (mental projection and technical drawing) culminated in a mannerist theory devised by a very successful mannerist artist, Federico Zuccaro (1539 - 1609). This theory is one of the focal points of the second part of my thesis. Here are a few reasons why conflating disegno and conceptualism could be the discovery of a particularly meaningful constellation of art practices gathered around the figure of the line and the "origin" of concepts.

Sol LeWitt at Dia Beacon, Wall Drawing #411 B: Isometric figure with progressively darker gradations of gray ink wash on each plane, 1984 and #411 B: Isometric figure with progressively darker gradations of gray ink wash on each plane, 1984 Photo taken by the author in situ.

It is hard to write about disegno from any perspective, let alone a contemporary one. Like any expression denoting a whole zeitgeist, disegno is entangled in its own time, its own legacies and its own diachronic projections. Simply put, disegno was celebrated by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives (first published in 1550) as the mental images one uses to create a work of art, but also the line drawing that structures it; Moshe Barasch wonders if Vasari was aware of these “two altogether different modes of thought” (Barasch, 2008:218). It was Federico Zuccaro’s Idea (1607) that analysed disegno more profoundly in a mystical and certainly spiritual and philosophical view of the inter-relation between what he called internal and external disegno. Broadly considered, disegno is one of those notions that encompasses different philosophies and approaches to art that nonetheless turn around the same axis. In this case, the formation of abstract thought and the practice of drawing. Thus, there is an intrinsic complexity in the notion of disegno that has not carried through to the word “drawing”.

Is there a resonance with any contemporary notion? Could disegno provide a framework to understand certain drawing practices (in an enlarged sense) or the interest in the line be it by theorists (from Krauss, 1974 to Butler & de Zegher, 2011 for instance, with the anthropological seal provided by Tim Ingold, 2007) or artists themselves? In fact, it helps comparing it to the word “conceptual” for two reasons. Firstly, because like disegno or any other word that functions like a bouillon cube - a concentrated piece of everything that you should find in a given time-soup -, the expression “conceptual” has taken up a life of its own. It is common, in this year of 2018, and it has been for some time, to find that an artist’s painting is “conceptual” for instance. The word can be applied to any kind of medium – painting is here randomly picked, perhaps as the least likely to be conceptual, at least from a Greenbergian perspective. “Conceptual” has even stepped out of the art world realm and into any situation or practice. It is fair to say that from the moment we started seeing words used as interior decoration items not only in interior magazines but also in reality shows dedicated to interior design, conceptualism has hit the mainstream culture, albeit completely incognito. Similarly,

The notion that drawing [disegno] serves as a foundation for the arts of painting and sculpture had been expressed at least as early as Petrarch; in the generations after Leonardo the idea would become commonplace enough to enter polite conversation and to become an object of fun: Paolo Pino, for instance, says that a smith cannot even make a spoon for himself without disegno. (Williams, 1997:16).

In fact, disegno contributed to weave a new trans-disciplinary (or "decompartmentalised" as Erwin Panofsky put it) vision and practice of art whereby philosophical concerns and scientific advancements were either influenced by art or influenced art themselves. There were resonances between anatomy and beauty, geometry and the depiction of space, virtuosic artistry and the art of being a gentleman. Moreover, disegno pointed directly at the origin of images in the mind, which conflated with the ever-going scholastic debates regarding innate ideas (the Platonist idea of universals) and the interconnection between perception and concepts (the Aristotelian notion of the particular and the general). Jorge Luis Borges freely quotes Coleridge about this never-ending subject, thus bringing it back to, at least, the twentieth century:

Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The Platonists sense intuitively that ideas are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are generalizations; for the former, language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols; for the latter, it is the map of the universe. (Borges, 1999:338-339).

Here lies the whole duality of drawing seen merely as imitation of a somewhat unattainable model or as the dynamic and generative force behind creativity, or the genius, to put it in Renaissance vocabulary. Disegno particularly touches upon the problem of concepts and their origin because it subordinates sketches and projects to the abstract principle of what is outlined on the paper, following Plato; or it unveils the co-operative work between perception and concepts through the ambivalence of the image which can be both a portrait of someone in particular and of general ideas of wealth, power, coyness, authority and so much more. The varying theories of disegno and its adjacent themes such as beauty either compromise the particular by idealizing a universal mode of aesthetic appearance or conflate it with the imitation of nature, through its accidents and particularities – that become generalities, or symbols, once they create an image. What does the mind outline when thinking of heroic acts or platonic love? Conversely, how does the eye see and what effect does it have on disegno? Leonardo mocked those painters who went to great detail when painting objects far into the distance as he had noticed that vision blurred whatever was in the background. Imitating nature – a pervasive rule that Vasari regularly promotes – is not a straightforward practice and greatly depends on what we consider nature, or for that matter, imitation, to be. At any rate, it all comes back to the power of concepts and their relation to ideation. Hence, the literature inherited from the Renaissance and the issues it raises is not entirely devoid of common ground with conceptualism. It should be illuminating to analyse how the symbolic outline became the indexical line (from the mimetic figure to the the abstract line describing movements as their trace), and why the twentieth century was marked by the seal of an indexical turn that lasts well into the twenty-first century.

This leads us to the second and more important reason: conceptualism could be indebted to disegno itself, which I am not the first person to state (Krauss, 2007). Many descriptions of conceptual art that Sol LeWitt shared with the public in his text published in Artforum in 1967, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, share concerns with disegno: for instance, his vision that “the concept or idea is the most important aspect of the work”. The later redefinition of what exactly is an idea and a concept, in Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969, is also a familiar trait of the theoretic debates around disegno as idea, concetto, giudizzio, from the mid to late Renaissance or, how it is also known, the Mannerist period. “Design”, Vasari noted, in the tradition of his time, “ [is] the Father of our three arts, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting…”, thus implying that disegno is the principle of all visual arts and not simply an array of technical preparatory sketches. Disegno is the principle, the very element of art. Pietro da Cortona and Father Ottonelli in their writings about painting and sculpture (published in 1652) proclaimed, about the plethora of Michelangelo’s abandoned works mid-production that his “non-finito” [shows] “that a great artist could abandon work without blame, because his idea was always more important than his realization” (Schulz, 1975).

There are obvious divergent tendencies between disegno and conceptualism where, perhaps, the answer to the question of the indexical turn may lie; the particularity of Renaissance and Mannerist theory is that it can go beyond the immediate concerns of art-making, dealing with scholastic concepts and borrowing notions from rhetoric and poetry. One of the most obvious anachronisms when comparing the two is LeWitt’s highly programmed avoidance of craftsmanship and virtuosic skills, that he inherited from the first avant-gardes. It is obvious that for any artist of the Renaissance, however one can interpret the different perspectives on its efficacy, the mimetic qualities of the artist were a crucial element to their reputation. One of the radical novelties of the twentieth century is the notion that the artistic quality of the art work can provide from any other source than the artist’s skill such as participants in the work, the unconscious or even machines. For LeWitt, the “idea becomes a machine that makes the art” and therefore, there is a confusing return to the hierarchic context of the Renaissance with the master and the disciples whereby LeWitt devised the mural drawing and one or a few assistants made it. Although LeWitt is quick to state, about the mural drawings 173. Lines Not Sort, Not Straight, Crossing and Touching; 174. Lines Not Long, Not Straight, Not Touching, and 175. Vertical Lines, Not Straight, Not Touching, 1971 and 1977, that “the artist and those doing the drawing became collaborators” because none of the drawings would have produced the same result had they been done by anyone else (LeWitt, 1978).

However, if we go back to what I mentioned before about Renaissance theory reflecting beyond the immediate concerns of art-making, playing with scholastic concepts or rhetoric and poetry, it is easier to draw a parallel with conceptualism reverting to complex systems outside of art theory for instance. Douglas Huebler, in conversation with Patricia Norvell, references zen Buddhism, John Cage and phenomenology instead of Marcel Duchamp’s work which he confessed not to understand, and despite the fact that Duchamp seemed the direct influence for such a movement - if one may interpret conceptualism as one – (Norvell, 2001:143-144). Deflecting to language as a material rather than a genre such as poetry, did not avoid altogether the establishment of a relation between conceptual art and philosophy or rhetoric modalities to convey meaning. Rather, it reinforced this foray into other forms of knowledge, thus resonating with what Robert Williams calls art’s “superintendency of knowledge”: “all knowledge is equally at the disposal of art and subordinate to it” (Williams, 1997:4). One can even argue that this is one of the traits of art today, that is, its power of assimilation and subordination of other fields of knowledge to its regulating modes of expression, extended to activism and politics in general.

Sol LeWitt was very conscious of the fact that intuition and illogical mechanisms were involved in the conceptual artistic process, thus refuting the general accepted idea that conceptualism was a movement where logic and reason prevailed. Therefore, conceptual art was entangled in the same issues that disegno raised, that is, how and when concepts and intuition can work together. In a way, the Renaissance period was a very specific encounter between epistemic concerns and aesthetic regulations. It was also peculiarly prolific in writings about art by artists and thinkers alike, raising questions beyond the technical aspects of the three major arts: painting, sculpture and architecture. These literary and theoretic achievements were such that they led Robert Williams to declare that “they could be approached as literature” (Williams, 1997:1). (Incidentally, without however going too deep into this matter, art theory and art history have always produced speculative arguments that entailed thinking about issues philosophically, Hegelianism being the culmination of such tendencies.) Federico Zuccaro’s L’Idea de Pittori, scultori ed architetti (1607) can arguably be the epitome of such speculative endeavours in the Renaissance. Significantly, he considers disegno as a synonym of concept, enforcing a tradition of art’s intellectualisation and intellectualism – Giorgio Vasari did consider disegno to come from the intellect, “prodecendo dall’intelletto”, (Didi-Huberman, 2008:92). But what exactly is disegno? It comes from the intellect but is not the intellect. It can be considered a concept, which means, Zuccaro clarifies, that his Idea could have been addressed to philosophers by interchanging both words. Therefore, disegno seems to be an all-encompassing notion, a dynamic and active force articulating speculation and production.

It is my belief that the use of drawing and the line in all its guises contributes to a deeper understanding of abstract thought and its critical use in conceptualism. Abstraction, from whence minimalism but also conceptualism critically emerged (as the adoration of Ad Reinhardt and Agnes Martin by the conceptualists and post-conceptualists seems to suggest) developed a whole vocabulary and practice that took the elementary tools of disegno (line, surface and point) and developed a practice based upon highly philosophical notions of repetition, self-reflection, autonomy and phenomenology. That conceptualism, a fascination with abstract notions and logical segments of relation and realisation, made its very extreme appearance in that context is not surprising. By the same token, the turn to concepts and the hypothesis of mental and linguistic realisation of art was also a play, sometimes quite humourous, with the way ideation works: could concepts be traces of the dynamic forces at play between ideation and reality (such as LeWitt's instructions for mural drawings seem to suggest)? Could the outline of drawing be the concept of thought? Is drawing thinking? Is thinking diagrammatic?

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