Drawing on personal and family experience, painter ANNE SHERWOOD PUNDYK dives into the neuroscience of figuration and abstraction
Books considered in this essay: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (2006) and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel (2016)
Nearly two years ago, my sister, at a relatively young age, suffered a rare form of stroke. I learned about the progress of her physical condition from the many medical professionals treating her. It was an artist, however, who suggested I read, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, to help understand my sister’s own experience of her injury and healing. Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, was at the forefront of advances in the new science of mind at the time of her own stroke in 1996. She conducted her research into the micro-circuitry of the brain on actual human brain tissue through post-mortem investigations.
The cat scans taken periodically of my sister’s brain provide still snapshots of the impact of her injury and subsequent treatments. Taylor’s writing explains how the brain works in real time. The road map of the brain’s functions starts at the molecular level within a single living cell. The first form of information processing happened through instructions housed in the atoms and molecules of DNA and RNA. They are stored there for use by future generations. As Taylor observes, “[m]oments in time no longer came and went without a record and by interweaving a continuum of sequential moments into a common thread, the life of a cell evolved as a bridge across time.” These shared biological instructions are also a link between creatures alive in the same moment.
Taylor’s knowledge of brain functions is based on a fairly recent convergence of several scientific disciplines. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Eric R. Kandel, who is also a cultural historian, has written important books on the new science of mind, a field born of a merger of behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology and molecular biology. Addressing its multi-disciplinary origins in his most recent book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, he recounts how the collaborations in physics and chemistry in the 1930s led to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, which paved the way for today’s molecular neurobiology. His goal for this book is to humanize his investigations of brain function by looking for commonality between this pursuit and the arts. My sister and I are both artists.
Just as it sounds, “reductionism” in scientific research reduces the scope of investigation to measurable, and thus knowable terms. For Kandel, reductionism as an investigatory method, “…doesn’t oversimplify a problem, [rather] it allows for a deep understanding of key components that can be extrapolated more broadly.” This book presents current scientific findings about the functions of the brain arrayed around the components of visual experience such as face recognition, color, texture and depth perception. More profoundly, He describes how what is now known about these functions is integrated with “abstract” processing involving emotion, memory and association.
Kandel credits Vienna in the 1850s with supporting the establishment of art history as a scientific discipline grounded in psychological principles. Its famous salons brought together scientists, such as Carl von Rokitansky and Sigmund Freud, and artists such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Alois Riegl, doyen of the Vienna School of Art History, emphasized a profound and pivotal concept in the relationship between the artist and the audience. According to Riegl: “Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.” His term for this phenomenon was the “beholder’s involvement.” His successors, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, developed this idea further, settling on the term, “the beholder’s share.” Everything we see is an illusion enacted in the brain according to studies in the new science of mind. What an artist does in creating a work of art models her own physical and psychic reality and parallels what our brains do everyday. An artwork thus becomes a form of Rosetta stone between the brain of the artist and that of the viewer.
Thanks to our shared genetic structure, the intricate wiring of our cerebral cortices is nearly identical. “We are generally capable of thinking and feeling in comparable ways,” as Taylor puts it. In describing her stroke experience, she emphasizes the difference between the two sides of the outer brain. The right hemisphere is master of the present moment processing all incoming sensations and giving us our awareness of where we are in space. The left hemisphere strings these moments together, giving them a “voice over” of internal monologue. It also presents us with a sense of self and our relation to others including the dimensions of our body.
During Taylor’s stroke, as with my sister’s, internal bleeding interrupted the normal flow of neurons in her brain. Taylor temporarily lost her ability to move, speak, to decipher the spoken language of others, and make sense of visual images. She tells her story of that morning in a dual voice, as both scientist and subject. As she hemorrhaged she knew that is was the left side of her brain that was affected based on her gradual incapacitation.
Kandel’s scientific investigations are based on studies of the neurons in a lower life form, a large invertebrate sea snail called Aplysia. Although the neuron system in the snail’s brain is so much smaller than ours, it functions in the same way: Kandel has been able to draw conclusions about how short- and long-term memory are formed by studying specific responses in the snail. He has shown that repeated stimulation of physical reflexes initially increases the flow of serotonin between sensory and motor neurons. Further repetition eventually causes the actual growth of additional synapses between the neurons. Memory and learning thus have a concrete physical impact on the brain’s structure.
Over a lifetime our brains are literally shaped by its response to all of our experiences. “Since all of us are brought up in somewhat different environments, are exposed to different combinations of stimuli, learn different things, and are likely to exercise our motor and perceptual skills in different ways, the architecture of our brains will be modified in unique ways”, Kandel concludes. Changes to the brain are constant and ongoing throughout life. Having made a full recovery after eight years, Taylor also believes in the plasticity of her brain, in “its ability to repair, replace and retrain its neural circuitry.” This phenomenon also contributes to the nature of a “beholder’s share” in that, according to Kandel, it “accounts for the differences in how we respond to art.”
Kandel relates his and other brain experiments using reductionism specifically focused on visual perception to the advent of abstraction in modern art. As if modeling their choices on Kandel’s methods artists responding to the modern zeitgeist reduced or isolated the components of their expression to color, form, line and texture. Neurologists now believe that there are two fundamental modes of cognition . Bottom up processing, linked to survival, is hardwired from birth. It encompasses the sensory processing of faces and other identifiable objects. This mode allows us to recognize contours and intersections: it is the one that would be employed, for instance, when we look at figurative works of art. Alternatively, top-down processing which we use when looking at abstract art draws upon higher order thinking such as attention, expectations and learned visual associations. Compared to figurative art, abstract art makes more creative demands on the beholder’s share. Rather than rely on the visual processes universally inherent in the brain’s circuitry, abstract art—with its reductive focus on form, color, line and light—draws on a more active response involving the unique personal psychological context of each individual viewer.
As precursors to the abstract artists centered in New York City from the 1930s to the ‘60s, Kandel establishes an art historical narrative linking Turner, Monet, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Their work shares a common trajectory transitioning from figuration to abstraction. The earlier artists collectively worked to “escape the dreary task of mimesis” (Turner) and express the “sublime aspects of the human spirit and soul through abstraction” (Kandinsky.) Similarly, the later group of Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters could be represented by Barnett Newman’s claim, that “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of …[the] devices of Western Painting.” Kandel highlights the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and Newman as artists who used reductionism in the form of self-imposed formal and technical restrictions in their work. Kandel, a scientist coming from outside the arts, relies heavily on the received canon of modern art for his examples. There are many other artists – I would want to add Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay (Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, and Joan Mitchell, among others – whose work fits his bill.
Kandel selects the work of Alex Katz, Andy Warhol and Chuck Close to discuss how the lessons of abstraction and top-down thinking have, more recently, informed ways that figurative artists use representation in their work. Last year, the exhibition “Tight Rope Walk,” curated by Barry Schwabsky at London’s White Cube gallery presented modern and contemporary figurative work impacted by abstraction. In Schwabsky’s catalogue essay he concludes that “[t]he problem [of representation] …needs to be solved all over again every time…This is the great and difficult gift of abstraction to painting: that we can no longer assume that the how and they why of it are already given.” Again, casting a wider net than Kandel, Schwabsky presented work by over forty artists including Tracy Emin, Barkley L. Hendricks, Alice Neel, Chris Ofili, and Henry Taylor.
Reductionism as an analytical tool can be a useful way to parse the impact on the creativity of both the artist and her viewer of evolving expressions in traditional and new media. Kandel leaves us with suggestions of what is to come in the study of brain science including further explorations of preconscious thinking in our brain’s default network which we call into play when looking at figurative art and ideas about the role of physiological distance in creating conditions that encourage less concrete, abstract cognitive processing in the Construal Level Theory. As a scientist Kandel has seen proof of the benefits of cross-disciplinary investigations. He hopes that “[a]rtists today can enhance traditional introspection with the knowledge of how some aspects of our mind works”. By challenging each other’s methods and claims, scientists and artists can move forward together.
When Taylor’s left cortex was incapacitated during her stroke, she experienced the freedom of living in the present moment available through her right cortex. She felt she was able to let go of negative judgments and long held feelings of anger and resentment. As she gradually rebuilt her abilities during her recovery, she has worked to stay in touch with this state of spiritual release, which she believes is available to all of us. Kandel’s premise that abstract art can also give us access to the spiritual realm resonates with me. Shortly before my sister’s stroke my painting transitioned to complete abstraction. In a short video of my sister taken before she went home from the hospital she is shown making an artwork as part of her physical therapy. While working, she observed, “Your attention is so devoted to what you’re doing and what you are constructing that everything else just fades away.”print